Old Dog, New Tricks? My Journey Learning a Tonal Language Just Shy of 40.

It’s official. Our family unit is relocating to Bangkok. The idea may have been floated around for quite some time, but the journey from ephemeral scenario, to signed contract and booked shippers took no more than a fortnight.

There is much that can and will be written about this new adventure but right now I am trying to get my head around the idea of learning Thai. Having spent about 17 months in Asia for Starters -read Singapore- where everyone speaks English or some form of it, it is easy to forget that once upon a time, living in another country meant learning a language or having your country colonize it so you could speak yours. (The latter a clear favorite with us Europeans). Thanks to that fact, when traveling around South East Asia, it is generally easy enough to get by with English or French. So why is Thailand different?

Don’t let this land of a thousand smiles fool you, the Thai people are FIERCE. Thailand is the only South East Asian country that was not colonized; that should tell you something. Don’t imagine that everyone you meet will speak some English. They won’t. And for the time being, even those who do are utterly incomprehensible to me and most people I know who have traveled there. And I have a very good ear for languages and deciphering what people are trying to say.

Even if it may be possible to survive by always printing the address in Thai for a cab driver or pointing to what I want to eat to get by, that’s really not the experience I want. I may be moving into an expat enclave for starters, but I don’t want my life there to be entirely sheltered from the real life taking place in the streets around me.

My father, who once owned a travel agency, told an American couple who wanted him to book them a trip through Europe staying only at American hotels that served American food that they might as well save their money and stay at home or find another agent. I couldn’t agree more. Our choice to live in Asia was never about pretending I am at home with better weather and cheaper help.

What I know about the Thai language so far:

  • It is tonal with low tones, high tones, mid-range, rising and falling.
  • There are no conjugations. (HOURAH)
  • There is no standard romanization. Actually this isn’t entirely true. A standard guide was created primarily for Academia but no one uses it at all. What does this mean? You really need to learn how to read Thai.
  • They do not put spaces in between words. This is something I am really going to have to get my head around.

So here goes my little experiment to see whether you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks!

ps. I am back from my online hiatus!

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8 thoughts on “Old Dog, New Tricks? My Journey Learning a Tonal Language Just Shy of 40.

  1. Oh wow. That is quite an undertaking! I really admire what you are doing and the way you go about it. Why leave the US (or your home country) if you’re not going to experience the culture of the new country?! At the same time, I admit I’m completely intimidated by tonal languages! And it sounds like Thai has it’s own very special challenges. Good luck to you!! Hope you enjoy your journey!

    • Thanks! And as an incorrigible horder, the moving is definitely helping try to live this ideal paired down existence ;-). Must remember: Horde memories = good, Horde bank statements and coloring books = bad.

  2. Good luck! I’m so envious of your impending adventure. I miss life as an expat- it’s one of the reasons why I would love to get a masters in library science. what better career than to travel and work in international schools as a librarian?!

    I’m sure you’ll learn Thai quickly if not out of ability than certainly out of necessity. It sounds like you’re open and ready for the challenge. That’s half the battle won already.

    • As I was re-reading your comment, it suddenly dawned on me that your are probably writing a book a month for a year. OH MY that is like NAMOWRIMO on steroids! Go Sistah!

      I lust after information sciences but my obsessive nature, rigor-itis, and indecision means I would always suffer no matter which way I needed to file information. None of the above is a joke.

      But true, what a great idea in order to travel. Apart from the heartbreak of leaving good friends dotted around the world but not enough funds to visit them regularly (Thank you Skype and FB for providing an alternative), I am fully embracing a mobile life. LIfe so short, world so big. New experiences so much fun… well most of the time. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Best of luck with learning Thai.

    The more I think about, the more miraculous it is that some of us speak a tonal language but cannot visualize the “spelling” or ideogram at all.

    Just have fun.

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