Chiang Mai Thai

Ever wanted to learn Thai, in Chiang Mai? I did just that from November 2010, returning home in October 2011. If you don't want a headache, start HERE, it will explain the preceding posts. I'm Snap, Stray's other half. COOEE is our (other) travel blog.

Friday, February 18, 2011

So, why are you learning Thai?

So, why are you learning Thai?

Astonishingly I’ve been asked that question more than once and it’s a question that shouldn’t warrant an answer, since I am living here, albeit in the short term.

The question should be to some of those residing here, why are you NOT learning Thai (formally or informally)? I used to think how much easier it would be for those married to a Thai, not that I have any desire to trade in Stray. It’s just that one could practise and learn the language 24/7 if they lived with a walking talking dictionary/thesaurus/encyclopedia.

Why does he only hand me one packet, when every time I ask for two? Thank you happy, smiley 7-11 guy, for teaching me the correct tone. Now I don’t have to use my fingers anymore.

But then I started to notice (more often than not) old, large white men standing behind the skirts of their tiny Thai wives, giving her English instructions, so she could turn them into to Thai and relay them to shop assistants and the like. I can see that it would be a convenient trap to fall into and don’t think that there haven’t been times when I wished I’d had an interpreter by my side, because there has.

Why are they giggling? What did I say this time?

It would be easy here, in Chiang Mai, to put down my Thai books for good, and speak only English. Limiting perhaps, but easy.

Other’s learn new languages because they have a passion to do so and some even possess an uncanny talent to master them simultaneously...I can only dream the polyglot dream.

Lady, why are you screwing your nose up? My friend only wants to know ‘what are these fruit called?’

Then there are those who move to a different country, often because they are escaping war, hunger and or political persecution. Refugees. I have the utmost respect, and even more so now, for the difficulties they must face not only fitting in to a new culture, but learning, in many cases, English. Learning while also trying to deal with, or forget, losses and atrocities some may have endured before they migrated.

Oh sorry, I meant to say, can I have my wine in a glass, not a bowl, please.

In the few places I worked and in college, I was always drawn to employees/students we call New Australians. I enjoyed learning about them, their stories and their cultures and in a way, I guess I empathised with their predicament. Would it be wrong of me to say I also feel a bit sorry for them?

One day a (Australian born) colleague had a light bulb moment and said to me about our Chinese co-worker “It must be hard to move to a different country, study accounting, work and learn a new language, mustn’t it?” HHeeellloooo! I found it disappointing that many staff tended to ignore, or perhaps I should say, not make an effort to befriend or at least interact with new comers.

Is my Thai really that bad?... or is it the amount of whiskey he’s consumed?...or is it Chiang Mai Thai?...or both?..or all of the above?

It also peeves me that quite a few immigrants change their names to John, Peter, Sue or Kathy, because it’s easier for ‘us’ to pronounce than Hai Shan or Guido. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish!

For me, learning Thai is (99% of the time) a fun experience, because I don't have any added pressures, like finding employment or sitting for exams. It’s like the biggest jig saw puzzle I’ve ever attempted, but someone has hidden some (OK, a zillion) of the pieces. No matter how bewildering it can be some days, I'm still enjoying the challenge and continue to smile at my own botch ups, on a regular basis.

No wonder she was looking at me like that, I think I asked her if she has a fever, instead of eggs. Sigh!


See what else we're up to at Cooee!


  1. Snap, Like you I really enjoy learning Thai, more so from my Thai friends than in a formal setting. I want to be able to communicate in anything but pigeon English or Pigeon Thai.

    It often irks the hell out of me when I hear tourist say something about Thai's sounding childlike when they speak English....they happen to Know more of your language than you theirs I think and you would sound just as childish if you made the effort.

    I really hope in the next decade I can become fluent in Thai but even if I'm not I'll keep trying. And at the very least making Thai's everywhere laugh when I butcher their language.

  2. @Talen at present, sometimes it feels like becoming fluent in Thai, will take me a life time...well what's left of it anyway!

    I know what you mean about some of the tourists...oh, what I wouldn't give to have a poison blowdart gun in my handbag, some days ;)

  3. I must admit, I don't understand people living here on retirement who don't make some effort to learn Thai beyond ordering a beer, (usually incorrectly), but then they tend to hang out with mostly expat friends so maybe they don't feel it is necessary. I am certainly not trying to learn so I can watch their soap operas. I also am completely inept with languages; tell me a telephone number and I don't need to write it down but you have to tell the Thai word for table forty times before I remember and then give me the Thai word for chair and I forget table.

    For those working here, (and whose companies don't pay for formal lessons), I think it is more difficult; after a day's work the last thing I want to do is pick up my Thai books when a glass of wine beckons, (and no you can't do both, it spoils the wine).

    And as for having a pet Thai language teacher - that doesn't work either. Ploy is not a teacher and I know from my attempts to explain things about the English language it is not easy when you are a native speaker with no teaching experience, (well it is just is!).

    Also Ploy absorbs language like I absorb larb moo and beer Archa. She already speaks good English, (some grammar problems - this without a formal lesson in her life), fluent Mandarin, Laos and Thai, some Japanese; well you get the idea. We were in a taxi in Taiwan once and Ploy asked the taxi driver where the night market was. He answered, in Mandarin, and I said to Ploy; can you remember that for tonight. Ploy got a piece of paper and wrote it down in Chinese and showed it to the taxi driver. Yes he said, (I think). You can write Chinese I said, astonished. Oh I have forgotten a lot, she said.

    Now what does Sor So look like again. Bugger!

  4. By the way, you don't have to get rid of Stray, you just get another one, a pua noi. That is fully embracing Thai culture, at least that is what I would tell him. Or say he is your brother and he needs to stay for while, about a year or so.

  5. Spookily I found this report today:

  6. @DanPloy Like most soapies around the world, one doesn't need to speak the language to follow what's going on...or watch every episode for that matter.

    I'd probably speak Thai better, well, more at least, after a few wines. My biggest obstacle is not speaking/practicing out loud.

    Ploy certainly sounds like she has the 'gift', lucky girl! A phua naawy, I don't think so. One husband at a time is quite enough thank you very much. Anyway, after 30 years, we both agree we're too lazy to train a new spouse.

    I knew about the advantages of learning a second language...I just couldn't remember what they were ;)

  7. Snap, sorry for coming in late (again) I did see your post come through but I wasn't on the Internet very often this weekend.

    "So, why are you learning Thai?"

    Excellent question and one I've been asked many times. I don't know about Chiang mai (I imagine it's the same), but you do not need much Thai to survive in Bangkok. What you do need is a personal reason to learn the language because you have to stay motivated and dedicated for the duration and that can be a chore.

    For me... besides the fact that I'm living here... I'm learning Thai because I'm crap at French, German, Russian, Japanese and my English isn't too hot either. During each of those study episodes I received various degrees of encouragement from locals, receiving zilch from the French (my longest foreign language study time).

    The Thai people make the experience of learning their language akin to a grand party. Now honestly, who can pass up an opportunity such as that?

    Sure, the Thai language might be listed as one of the most difficult, but it's more like a celebration than an embarrassment. And when you are as cacca as I am at languages, you need all the cheers you can get.

    Yes, I am fully aware that it's only when Thais stop clapping you on the back that you've got their honest stamp of approval. But hey, sue me ;-)

  8. Catherine, I'm really appreciative of the patience some of the local vendors have, with my/our efforts to learn Thai. I had to smile to myself at one of our Thai friends when she said, I want to speak and practice my English, not talk in Thai to you and Stray. I said 'don't worry, the Thai part of our conversation won't last more than a couple of minutes, then you're off the hook...back to English."

    In the privacy of my own head, my Thai is coming along's only when I step outside my front door that reality hits ;)

  9. Your post reminds me of a friend who lived here last year. He told me that he didn't want to meet anyone or make new friends because he was only going to be here 6 months, etc. so why bother?

    I understood his point of view but at the same time I thought what a horrible way to live. So much can change in a day, in moments, in our lives and I don't want to let life pass me by because I thought I was too short on time.

    I bet you when people ask, Why are you learning Thai? and you answered, Because I have the time, they would simply nod and leave it be.

    Perception is an interesting thing, isn't it?

  10. @Lani I usually toss the ball back into their court and ask 'why wouldn't I?'. It works :)

    You're right about the perception thing. It not only can vary greatly between cultures, but from individual to individual also. That too has been a big eye opener! I tend to meet more people here, at home I have my small set of friends and am a bit of a hermit.

    I have met travellers that don't even learn to say: hello, goodbye, thank you and please, in the relevant language...I reckon that's just plain rude and/or lazy.


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