Stickman Readers' Submissions May 20th, 2010

Thailander Lingua

This recent talk about learning Thai, in particular Akulka's excellent piece "Some Thoughts on the Merits of Studying the Thai Language", have prompted me to revisit my reasoning
for my own decision to not heavily invest in learning the language.

As an American I didn't grow up learning more than English unless you count the Chicano slang bantered about in Southern California. Languages were offered from middle school onwards, but I never took advantage of schooling of any type back then. I loved reading and learning and did so with a voracious appetite on my own, but no way was I going to give up prime surfing hours to go sit in a classroom. The permissive 70's and 80's allowed me to get away with this.

He Clinic Bangkok

This changed during my first tour in Japan. By this time I already had my eye on a business degree of some type with a desire to work in Asia some time in the future. Japanese is an essential business language if you want to work in the region as is knowledge of their history and customs. I spent nearly four years learning the essentials to the tune of 2-4 hours daily in addition to several sleeping dictionaries. Language comes hard for me. I wouldn't say I was fluent after all that hard work, but I was certainly able to travel about on my own, hold basic conversations, and meet lots of people. Did I gain any valuable insight to the Japanese through learning their language? No. I'll revisit this later.

Later years saw me in Korea and married to a Korean wife. Korea was an up and coming economy in Asia and from a business standpoint there were rewards for knowing the language and customs. Another 4-5 years of formal study and I'd almost reached the proficiency I once had in Japanese. Korean IMO is much more difficult to learn than Japanese or any other language I've considered since. My Korean wife was 100% fluent in English so other than being the one to teach my son (and my parrots)
Korean there wasn't much use for it in the home either. I traveled and conducted business in Korea and the language helped. Did I gain any valuable insight into the Korean culture? No. We'll talk about this later. 🙂

Okay, if I didn't gain insight into the Japanese and Korean cultures through language where did I gain my insights? Most of my insight to any culture came through direct observation and study. This is where we must understand and accept that different people learn differently. Any good educator already knows this and they would never stand on any platform limiting them to a single way of doing any type of instruction. At least no instructor worth his/her salt. A superior educator first learns his student, and then adapts the lesson to best benefit the student. A limited educator would say something like "this is the way I learned, so it's the way I teach"
or "there is only one way…" You get the picture.

CBD bangkok

If we accept that we learn differently and if I look back through my history, I almost always used academics, or books, during my own learning. Sure, I did a lot of hands on and learning by doing, but whenever books were available I'd read all I could get my hands on and compare/contrast what I read. Anyone with experience reading to learn knows available material is more than just information. Each author as his own style of educating and story telling and their own set of experiences. So, we read, we compare/contrast, we sort and sift, and we're left with a base set of information we learned from all that we've read.

I love the Discovery and National Geographic channels. I've learned a lot about ancient cultures, the culture of wolf packs, and even about how sharks think and feel and interact with each other. However, I never learned ancient Latin, how to howl, or send vibrations other sharks could feel. In other words I learned all about these cultures, much of it "insightful",
without learning a word of the language. How is this possible if you must know the Thai language to understand the Thai culture?

It's possible because I learn differently than those who make this claim. I might even learn the same way Professor Korski learns. Let me tell you this right now. Any person who tries to tell you there is only one way to do something, or one way to understand something, or one way on just about any subject you can think of.. that person is limited. I smile, I listen, I'm polite. But I know they don't learn the same way I do. And I realize I'm limited myself if I learn differently than they do. The difference is that I understand I'm limited and the dynamics of learning and educating and that there are many ways of doing most anything. This is the biggest advantage to learning anything there is. Much more valuable than a single application of language.

Now lets get down to the real reason I haven't learned conversational Thai. Don't get me wrong, I know enough Thai to do many things such as fill my car with gas, order a meal, ask directions, give directions to a taxi driver, get a room, and many other things. But I don't know enough to have a basic conversation in Thai. Why?

wonderland clinic

Frankly it's not worth it. Akulka spoke of 'opportunity costs' as any good business student would. Knowing Akulka and that he grew up learning several languages, I'd hazard
to say he learns languages a great deal easier than do I. If he's discovering opportunity costs while learning Thai, imagine what I'd have to give up. And then there's the fact that learning Thai is not useful to my business interests
and really isn't useful in the business world outside Thailand much less Asia. Knowing Japanese or Korean is very useful outside Asia. For me to invest the time necessary for this old and rather thick brain to learn conversational Thai..
well.. frankly I'd rather learn how to build a website, use a new piece of camera equipment, a computer language.. there are many much more useful things I can spend my time learning than Thai.

You say I live in Thailand so doesn't this cramp my lifestyle? Not a bit. I routinely travel all throughout Thailand, from south to the north and the east to the west. I travel alone or with a walking dictionary. Either way, I know enough Thai to eat, ask directions, get accommodations, meet new people, and learn a great deal about my host country. I can do this because I also read in advance about places I visit, written by people who might or might not have spoken the language, I observe, I ask questions, I pay attention. I have no doubt in my mind that I take in more of the culture and gain more valuable insights into the culture, than the vast majority of people I travel with. I can do this because I'm not 'leaning'
on just language skills and because I've trained myself to learn from an academic perspective.

And maybe I can do this easier because when I pick up a camera and look through it's lens.. it becomes a universal translator. I've trained myself to see and observe through my lens. Others do it through books. Some do it through language. Some like myself an aggregate of the above.

Stick gave an excellent example in a previous submission when he referred to Christopher Moore's writings. How Mr. Moore having learned Thai was able to convey IN ENGLISH insights other Thai centric authors were unable to convey. This is an excellent example of how someone was able to teach these insights to others.. without requiring the person to speak Thai. After all, I'm fairly certain Stick doesn't think Christopher Moore wrote a book in English.. that only people who speak both Thai and English can understand. Mr. Moore is a better writer than this and he has the ability to learn a concept in one language, and explain it in another. After all, academics have been doing this for centuries.

Is Thai useful? Sure. If someone could program my brain to know conversational Thai I'd let them do it. It can only help. Is it necessary to understand the Thai language to understand Thai culture? Not for me. No more than it was necessary for me to speak ancient Mayan to understand the excellent special on the Mayan culture National Geographic put on or to howl a the moon to understand the culture of wolves. Both would have added to the experience, but not necessarily the understanding.

The theory of justification. From observation. Have you ever known anyone who bought a new house and had to tell everyone what a great deal it was and what a great house it is? Or dropped a fortune on a new camera lens and is now telling everyone what a perfect lens it is and how they need one too? We all do this to an extent. We INVEST
in something quite heavily, be it a language or real property, and we want to feel it's worth and value, mostly to reassure ourselves we did the right thing and invested wisely. Worth and value is often set in peoples minds by how much others want
what they have.. rather than how much its really useful to them or would be to us. It is any wonder those who know Thai would want us to believe in it's worth? I think not. I do the same at times but understanding the theory of justification
I work hard to curtail these tendencies and look at things objectively.

Is learning Thai going to be useful to you? It certainly will. Without a doubt. Is it necessary for you to enjoy living in Thailand? Absolutely not! Is learning Thai worth the investment? This depends on you, how much you need the language to compensate other skills you might not possess, and what you will have to give up to learn the language. Opportunity costs. It's a floating variable and different for all of us.

Until next time..

Stickman's thoughts:

You touch on a very important point when you mention learning style. As you say, it is different for all of us – and we need to both acknowledge that and figure out what works for us and pursue that. For me, I like learning in a classroom environment where you learn not just from the teacher, but from other learners. That dynamic works well for me. I don't like one on one at all. Self-study is good for the basics but beyond that, I found it hard to make progress.

nana plaza