Some Thoughts on the Merits of Studying the Thai Language
Amidst all the commotion in the wake of Jayson’s controversial opinion piece there has also been some controversy about the benefits of being able to converse in Thai. Most of the discussion seems to have focused on the question if one is able to gain significantly more insights into Thai culture and society by speaking Thai well as opposed to someone who hardly speaks any or none at all. Korski in particular, who doesn’t speak the language, has repeatedly expressed the opinion that knowing how to speak Thai doesn’t do much at all to gain a better understanding. Having followed this debate for a while now I have felt that an essential point in this discussion has been neglected.
My Thai is nowhere near fluent but I feel that learning how to read and write, as well as speak on a basic to intermediate level has already given me more fundamental insight into the culture than anything I have read or learned about the country and its people through other means.
Studying Thai may not be useful and definitely not necessary for anyone who doesn’t live in the country on a permanent basis, but I’ve found it to be an interesting hobby that’s worth pursuing for anyone with more than just a fleeting interest in the region. (Mandarin would certainly be more useful, but I can’t stand the sound of it.)
Other than my mother tongue and English, I speak intermediate Spanish and French too. It goes without saying that both languages have been very useful during my travels through Latin America and West Africa, but speaking them hasn't been near as insightful or helpful in understanding cultures in those places as knowing some Thai has been in Thailand and Laos. I have given this some thought and believe it simply has to do with the fact that culturally Thai is fundamentally much further apart from Western cultures (as diverse as those may be in themselves) than e.g. Colombian, Chilean, or Cuban culture.
I think most would agree that upon closer inspection Thailand is a very multi-faceted and opaque place (“complicated and contrarian”, as Stick put it recently). Stick keeps on mentioning that even after living in the country for more than ten years and speaking the language fluently he still sometimes struggles to appreciate the full picture, and I’ve heard similar from other long-term foreign residents in Thailand. As much incomprehension and frustration this may cause occasionally on a day-to-day basis, I think it’s fair to say that this also adds to the place’s charm and keeps it interesting for residents and frequent visitors alike.
In my mind the merits of being able to speak the local lingo are not necessarily so much about what is being said, but how. I can read Thai well with a reasonably good range of vocabulary, usually understand a fair share of the conversations that are going on around me, but my speaking is slow due to lack of practice. Therefore I certainly cannot claim to have gained many insights from meaningful conversations with Thais using Thai language. I am fortunate to have a solid circle of Thai friends from all walks of life, most of them middle class. Most speak good to excellent English so we never converse much in Thai, even though that would be good to enhance my spoken language skills. I have used spoken Thai quite much while travelling through Isaan and rural Laos which was great as it helped me a lot to connect to the people and learn a bit more about them and their personal circumstances. That was more than just worthwhile and very interesting at times, but surely not amazingly insightful from an intellectual / anthropological point of view. Thus for me the merits of speaking Thai mostly haven't been about the nature of the conversations I have had. I agree with Korski that there is generally not much to learn from chit-chat, but that argument is missing the point entirely.
The insights I (and I believe Stick) have been referring to have mostly been about learning about language structure and how it is applied. Thai language is structured and used very differently than e.g. English, German, Spanish, and I believe most if not even all other languages in the Western hemisphere. Personally I've found it extremely insightful how Thais use their language to express themselves, how that affects how they approach learning and using foreign languages such as English, how their use of language allows drawing conclusions about their approach to life in general. Especially when I first started studying Thai I very often found myself surprised as things that I had been wondering about before suddenly made so much more sense to me. Thai vocabulary in itself is another example, as e.g. the words that are used to express feelings, desires, emotions, and how they are put into context. I've found that extremely interesting. For me the merits of knowing some Thai mostly haven't been about what I talked about with people, but learning HOW they talk amongst each other and why. You really do learn at least as much about the culture as you learn about the language in the process.
As far as my admittedly limited skills have taken me I do believe I have learned much enough for being able to tell that there are many subtleties in the Thai (and other Asian) languages that don't have an equivalent in English. Even without knowing the least bit of Thai I wouldn't find that assertion very hard be believe if someone else made it.
Thai people’s way of thinking, analytical capabilities, approach to logic and other cognitive processes are often very different to the "Western mind". It's not surprising that this translates directly into their verbal and non-verbal communication, and my experience is that by tapping into the language many of these cognitive processes become more easily understandable for an outsider. The thick fog is slowly lifting so to speak. As mentioned, "Taxi Thai", "Bar Speak", or polite chit-chat on a basic level wouldn't do much to achieve that. I guess it would be fair to say that it's at least as insightful to understand the structure and foundation of the language reasonably well as knowing how to speak it fluently. Of course those two things usually go hand in hand with each other…
I’m definitely not saying that it’s impossible to say something insightful about Thailand without having lived in the country or speaking the language well. However, I do believe that language skills facilitate this greatly and, most importantly, add to the full picture.
So is it worth investing precious time, money, and energy into studying Thai, especially if you don’t live in the country? I’d say from a practical point of view probably not. Then again, already being able to communicate effectively in four Western languages, not benefitting professionally from learning yet another one, as well as having a strong interest in Asia in general and Thailand in particular I did find it to be an interesting hobby worth pursuing. I have recently stopped taking private lessons as I did feel that opportunity costs were becoming too high and I had gotten to a point where it would have been very difficult to make any good progress without investing significantly more time and money. If there is anything that spending significant time in Thailand as well as acquiring some basic language skills has taught me is that I’d rather rip my tongue out before commenting on anything relating to Thailand with authority, as so many commentators appear to often do with stubborn fervor.
Very much strikes a chord with me.
One of the changes I have noticed amongst expats in Bangkok is that when I first arrived most expats who had been in Thailand for 2 years or more spoke decent enough Thai. These days it seems many long-termers don't speak Thai and choose not to learn it.