Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thai Tonal Tribulations

As great as some locales can be, no place is ever quite perfect. There is always some little nagging drawback. So just what might that snag be in Chiang Mai? In one simple word--LANGUAGE.

Pah-sah Thai (Thai language) is one of the world's major strongly tonal languages. What that means is that the slightest change in pitch can sound like gibberish to a native speaker. Since intonation is one of the first speech features to develop in childhood, it can also be greatly impaired by adulthood. Although I am not entirely tone deaf, as an old English-speaking geezer (a stress vs. tonal language) I constantly battle nuances of sound.

Add to that my history of being very vocal and outspoken about the necessity to learn a language if you intend to live in that country. Just trying to learn doesn't cut it. You have an obligation to learn it. No excuses were good enough and I was often adamant with my uncompassionate stance. So you can well imagine my frustration at not having yet learned anything beyond a few basic phrases. "Walk in my shoes!" How true it is. I've been in Chiang Mai too long for my excuses to hold up against my previous rhetoric.

That's the bad news. The good news is, I haven't given up trying yet. Once again I have started taking class. My two previous attempts were with a private tutor, and this time I am going for a new format--two hours of conversation every afternoon in a group of five other faranges. We are an international group well matched in our language level.
Hopefully I can achieve success, but in the meantime I have my ready list of excuses.

1) It is really, really hard. Just for comparison, Chinese has four tones, Thai has five.

2) My ears are old. I don't hear the tones.

3) Brain circuits are overloaded. (See #2 above.)

4) Social constraints. Local Thais often just stare at you trying to speak Thai. Or worse, they just start to giggle. It can be very intimidating.

5) Immersion constraints. Too much English is spoken in Chiang Mai.

I guess it boils down to a longevity issue. If I hang in long enough I will learn, and genetics are on my side with this one. My family--both sides--has an impressive history of longevity. Data available upon request.
I'll keep you posted on my progress.

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