Readers' Submissions

Linguistically Challenged Dana



I'm still working on part two of my reflections on learning Thai but I would like to thank all those who have contacted me for their kind response. One interesting response was from the famous Dana, who is essentially a thoughtful person with interesting ideas though I do disagree with him on matters of language. There are some people who resent people who like to learn languages and who are actually able to do so to a lesser or greater extent. I fail to understand that. I can't run very fast or swim very far, but I still admire those who can. Anyway, since Dana's e-mail to me was largely a paste up of an article he wrote, I have felt it was appropriate to include his comments and my reactions to them here. Perhaps this might promote discussion on the site that would go beyond the racist or class-based ranting of some.

Dana: I have written extensively and knowledgably on 'learning Thai'. I have said the things that no one wants to say about learning Thai and I have publicly expressed the private thoughts of thousands of farangs. I stand by every word. You do not learn to 'speak' Thai–you learn to 'sing' Thai–it is a tonal language.

Me: Thai is nothing special in this regard. Chinese, Tibetan, Navaho, Yoruba, and a host of other languages share this attribute. For many foreigners, English-speakers also "sing" their language, especially those with a posh RP English accent.

Even in Norwegian, words which sound alike, but not spelt alike, are only differentiated by their tone when spoken.

bønder (pronounced with a high tone, meaning farmers) vs. bønner (pronounced with a rising tone, meaning beans)

or even words that are written and pronounced alike but with very different meanings

hender (pronounced with a high tone, meaning hands)vs. hender (pronounced with a rising tone, which is the present tense form of "hende" or happen)

Dana: None of the other complexities are as important.

Me: That is hard to say. In Thai, the tone can actually determine the meaning of the word

maa (common tone) come
maa (rising tone) dog
maa (high tone) horse

but word order and choice of vocabulary are equally important.

Dana: The Thais learn to 'sing' Thai from birth. How much time does a farang have?

Me: It depends on the Farang.

Dana: How about a farang who is tone deaf?

Me: The same situation as a Thai who is tone deaf for English or German or Welsh.

Dana: How about a farang with poor short term memory?

Me: Ditto

Dana: How about a farang who is not linguistically adept? The fact that one farang can learn to speak Thai does not mean that the sentence 'Farangs can learn to speak Thai.' has value.

Me: The reverse is also true. The fact that one Farang or many Farangs cannot learn to speak Thai does not imply that no Farang can learn Thai.

Dana: Exceptions don't make the rule.

Me: That implies that nearly no Farang can learn Thai, a preposterous premise without a leg to stand on.

Dana: In the twilight of your extreme later years when you have replaced ego with wisdom I challenge you to find anything more stupid and boring than the linguistically gifted bleating that anyone can learn to speak a language. Absurd and juvenile.

Me: Anybody who bleats about a gift, whether it be learning a language, running faster, or looking better, is a moronic nincompoop. What you state is a mere platitude.

Dana: I would suggest that until you manage to grasp the impossibility or impracticality of learning languages for some human beings than you will never really know or grasp all that there is to know and grasp about language learning.

Me: There are some people who do claim that, believe that, nurture that, cling to that, and cherish that idea. They tend to be people who are either from academically deprived backgrounds or who come from imperialist cultures, i.e. from cultures which have managed to subdue and impose themselves on large swathes of the earth, e.g. Anglo-Saxons, French, Russians, Chinese, Spaniards, etc. Such people are used to having people around who can and will speak their language, freeing them of having to deign to speak the language of others. What a coincidence, these from smaller countries with speakers of smaller languages do not make such claims. I have even seen severely retarded children who can speak two languages. Granted, they learnt them in their infancy, but speaking another language is no big deal and, of course, they were from small countries.

Dana: The good swimming coach knows how to teach people to swim. He also knows why some people can not learn to swim. He does not hold it against them. He does not make it a character issue to massage his ego. He knows everything about his chosen enthusiasm. And he has learned to be quiet about it. You can't shut the language adept up. Five minutes into a cocktail party they are telling people how many languages they can speak. Twenty minutes into the party they are pronouncing that anyone can learn a language.

Me: I insist that anyone can learn something of any language. Maybe not fluently, maybe not perfectly, but anyone can learn to communicate at least basic things in any language. Anyone. If you were kidnapped, put on an island where everyone only spoke Sanskrit, or Cherokee, or Samoan or even Thai, after a few years, you would be able to communicate in that language, at least enough to communicate basic concepts.

Dana: At the ten beer mark they are pontificating that poor language learners lack character–naturally, the obverse of this is that they have character. So now we have gone from language learning adeptness to measuring the worth of human beings. It is now a quick step to piling the brush up around the stakes and lighting the matches. It's party time for sure now–let's burn the poor language learners at the stake. Sorry. I reject all of this nonsense.

Me: So do I. Only an idiot would say that the linguistically challenged, or vertically challenged, or horizontally challenged, lack character.

Dana: Learning languages is a skill. Hard won and easily lost. If you have this skill I am happy for you. But it is not surgery and it is not war. It is just a skill at learning languages. Other human being have other skills. Mostly they keep quiet about it. Not the linguistically gifted. Can't shut them up. And the moronic thing is that they imagine their skill at learning languages automatically confers on them other attributes. Suddenly they are also judges of character and philosophers and pontificators of morals. Ridiculous!

Me: True. Anyone who is gifted at anything and who looks down upon someone else who does not share such a gift is a horse's rear. However, the fact of the matter remains that anyone, with enough time and motivation, can learn something of a foreign language. To what extent they might learn it varies with innate skill, age, time, environment, and motivation. Your observations or anecdotes fail to indicate otherwise.

+ + + + +

As for the personal attack wrought by the besotted Brit git who goes by the aptly named handle "Serf" (which gives away his low-life peasant status), I would be insulted if the "mind" that launched the harangue were coherent or even minimally intelligent. It is hard to be take offense at a mangy barking fly-blown soi dog with an attitude, a Guinness-induced attitude at that.

To begin with, my little submission was not written to preach to the pitiful poor. I did it from the point of view of humility. I owned up to the fact that I have never been to Thailand and that I haven't been learning Thai all that long. I know my limitations but I also know my strengths. Having said that, I still say that my dictionary is the definitive "Basque-English" dictionary. Ever since it was published in 1998, it has displaced all other such dictionaries and is now the only dictionary used in Basque schools throughout the Basque Country. It was also chosen to be the Basque-English dictionary to be featured on the Basque Government's website which can be accessed at www.euskadi.net/morris. Consult words such as "that" ,"get", "which", and you will see that it is indeed a serious effort, not a mere word list. Ask anyone in the Basque Country who teaches English in Basque schools and only my dictionary will be mentioned. I worked nineteen long years on that project and continually updating it. Google "Basque-English Dictionary" or "Euskara-Ingeles Hiztegia" and you will see that the "Morris Basque-English Dictionary" is the one with the most hits. Maybe Basque is a small, insignificant minority language, but at least I have had something to do with its revival.

The "blokes" I talked to in the Thai restaurants were short, brown men from Ayutthaya and Songkla. Maybe they were Chinese but they didn't look it and they spoke to me in Thai, not Chinese.

I don't know if my impending Thai-English dictionary will be the "definitive" Thai-English dictionary. That will depend on how it is received by users and on how it compares with other Thai-English dictionaries. Serf may rest assured that it will not be compiled by a bloke working alone in his bed-sit without ever going to Thailand. My hard work on my English-Basque dictionary has rewarded me with enough financial resources to invest in compiling the Thai dictionary. It will take tens of thousands of euros before it will be ready. I have already hired a Thai to come over to Europe to help work on it and this person will be working full-time on the premises of the offices of my company. Many translators will be taking part in translating illustrative sentences, something which seems largely absent in existing Thai-English dictionaries. I am also going to go to Thailand soon and will be going back constantly before it is done.

As for my age, I am 47 years young.

Finally, learning Thai or any other language, however small or unimportant it might be, is very satisfying and can come in very handy. For example, recently, I had problems with flight connections after a British Airways flight was cancelled on me. A stewardess on the flight went all out to help me because she was so happy that I could speak to her in Thai, however halting it might be. I once wrote a letter in Afrikaans to an Afrikaans magazine (Huis Genoot) looking for a pen pal and I got 500 responses!!!! I have been feted and wined and dined just for speaking Catalan and Finnish to people. Languages can be fun.

Stickman's thoughts:

Personally, I think learning a language and all of the cultural understanding and new experiences that go with it, is just wonderful. At school I studied German for a few years and while I have forgotten most of it – in fact when I try to talk German a mixture of Thai and German comes out – I am still fascinated by it. Going to a new country and learning the language is one of the best experiences one can have.

If people are not interested in learning a new language, be it Thai or any other, then fair enough, that is their choice, their point of view. But to knock people who make the effort and who enjoy it is questionable and smacks of someone with incredibly low self-esteem.