Readers' Submissions

Thai Thoughts and Anecdotes Part 271

  • Written by Dana
  • January 8th, 2011
  • 74 min read


MATTERS OF LANGUAGE AND LANGUAGE LEARNING

Sections:

1. Greeting
2. Preface
3. Introduction
4. Clouds of Foreboding
5. Conclusion
6. Denouement
7. Invitation

Greetings tourists and expats, newbies and dreamers: today we have a report from my life and my mind regarding matters of language, and matters of learning languages. Enjoy.

"The truth is that the vocabulary and syntax are not difficult to grasp and dedicated students can learn to speak some Thai within a few weeks."
— from Bangkok Handbook, Carl Parkes, Third Edition, p. 273.

Ok, here is my question: Is Carl Parkes on crack? No, seriously: I think we can legitimately ask ourselves sometimes if public pronouncers are drug addled. Read on:

I have a theory that a lot of Thais can't speak Thai. I know this is kind of silly but I can't help it. Ever listen to them on buses substituting generic grunts and head nods for grammatically correct words, phrases, and precise definitions? How do you know what language or what non-language they are really speaking? Are these the people you are going to communicate with after you learn to " . . . speak some Thai within a few weeks." ? Do you think they are teaching this Thai language in your Learn-to-Speak Thai classes? Do you think it is absurd to even postulate that people would not be able to speak their own language? Ok, read on:

Years ago I worked in a shipyard on the island of St. John in the U. S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Myself plus another Continental (white guy from the States) named Allen. Allen's father was a transplant from America–Allen had been brought up on the island. Anyway, it was myself and Allen at the shipyard; the rest all natives. One day it occurred to me that about every tenth or fifteenth word the natives used when talking to one another was "What?"

"What?" "What?" "What?" "What?" "What?"

Me: Allen, about every tenth or fifteenth word the natives use when talking with one another is the word 'What?'.

Allen: That's because they can't speak their own language, and they can't understand each other.

Me: How is that even possible? It's pidgin Caribbean English, a language they made up themselves starting a long time ago: language can not get simpler than that.

Allen: They are stupid.

Me: There must be something more involved.

Allen: What's your theory?

So, according to Mr. Carl Parkes of the Bangkok Handbook; a dedicated (watch for provisos and back pedaling) student can learn to speak some (what is 'some') Thai in a few (how many is a 'few') weeks. I'll bet Carl places himself in that category. Ok, here is a test Mr. Parkes. Say this in Thai:

"Honey, please go to the refrigerator and see if there is any cottage cheese. If there isn't any cottage cheese (the chive flavor that I like), then please bring me some of those ten day old seedless grapes we got at Foodland just before the Royal Ploughing Ceremony pageant in May."

Do you think this is an unfair example because it is long? Look again: I wrote it to be easy. No clever wording or uses of language such as metaphors, similes, puns, parody, cultural word play, abbreviations, slogans, satire, etc. No science, politics, philosophy, or jokes. If you can speak Thai it gets much more difficult than this. I'll bet Carl Parkes can't say this sentence intelligibly to Thais. I'll bet he could never say this. Not after a few dedicated student weeks: not after a year of homework, private tone tutoring, and bewildering classroom sessions.

What? You don't think the word 'chive' was really fair? Listen to yourself. What do you think speaking another language means? Bye-the-way: Mr. Parkes' Internet moniker is FriscoDude; presumably because he is from Frisco, and presumably because he is a dude. It's good to be hip and it's good to be different. I have to say, if I can be candid; that Carl Parkes replacing his name with an Internet moniker of FriscoDude is inspirational. I am considering replacing my name Dana with an Internet moniker of Commander Platypus Lips. Imagine the two of us at Doi Suthep being interviewed by a monk. My friend from San Francisco in the correct Buddhist yoga position. I am trying to hold in a fart. We would have to tell the monk our names were FriscoDude and Commander Platypus Lips. Makes you think, doesn't it? But I almost digress.

The Thai language is not binary code. It is tones, and exceptions, and nuances, and culture, and exposure, and straight memorization at a minimum. You are going to learn to speak some of FriscoDude's Thai language in a few weeks? If you got the teacher truth-serumed with five whiskeys and five beers what do you think he would say to this assertion? This assertion is what I call travel industry and travel promotion 'speak'. The same nonsense you hear about how everyone in Thailand speaks some English so book that vacation now.

How boneheaded can this be? Examples:

" . . . you can speak some meaningful Thai YOUR VERY FIRST DAY IN THAILAND." — p. 3 (note: the capital letters in the above quote belong to the author of the quote. I guess he thought the idea was really important and he wanted it to get attention.)

and

"You do not have to understand the tone rules in order to be able to speak . . . Thai." — p. 3

from Gordon H. Allison's book Easy Spoken Thai, copyright: Chalermnit Bookshop (no copyright year).

Ok, here is my linguistic language learning question regarding these quotes by Gordon Allison. What he be smokin' dude?

Note: ever notice that you never see this guy Gordon H. Allison and Carl Parkes in the same room at the same time? Kinda makes you wonder if they are the same guy doesn't it? I mean, what are the odds that there are two humans this dumb?

Mr. Gordon H. Allison is no longer alive but if he were still alive I would have to spend the rest of my life carrying a chair around in the Kingdom. Why the chair? Because if I ever met Mr. Allison I would tie him in the chair and slap him until all of his teeth flew out. It's a tonal language Mr. Allison. But hey, that's just me: Commander Platypus Lips.

And if I could just offer some personal experience using tones
(incorrectly) in Thailand–I once asked a retail clerk in Robinson's department store on Sukhumvit in Bangkok:

"Horng narm yoo tee nai?" (Where are the toilets?)

I must have gotten one of the tones wrong because she fled. An expat witnessed this and offered to teach me what to say and how to say it. When the next clerk offered to help I thought I asked about the bathrooms again but apparently I said:

"Maeng-ka-phroon! Ra-wang!" (Jellyfish! Be careful!)

I must have gotten a tone incorrect again.

Two days later I was in a big bar complex in Pattaya and I had to take a leak. A really friendly Aussie told me to stand up on a barstool, point at my crotch, and say:

"Ra-wang! Rot fai kam-lang ma!" which turns out to have nothing to do with bathrooms but means:

"Look out! The train is coming!"

Of course I found out what everyone was laughing about later. Some people were of the opinion that the Aussie guy was just using me as a figure of fun, but I find that hard to believe. He didn't even know me and he offered me an investment opportunity in a cement deal he was putting together. I mean, how friendly can you get? Still, I guess this example is not strictly about tones.

Anyway, tones are important in speaking Thai. I was once in an entertainment emporium called the Windmill Bar in Pattaya and I said: "Horng narm yoo tee nai?" (Where are the toilets?) perfectly except for some of those tones that Gordon H. Allison doesn't think are so necessary. It turns out that what I actually said to the mamasan while pointing at my crotch was:

"Ra-wang! Man kam-lang ja ra-buht!" (Watch out! It's going to explode!).

I'd like to be a fly on the wall when Mr. Gordon H. Allison is in a bar, needs to take a leak, points to his pants, and says to a bargirl: Where is the toilet? But he gets his tones incorrect and it comes out:

"Prot sa-daeng hai phom doo wa phom khun ja tham yang-sai." (Please show me what I should do.)

Maybe that's kinda mean, but tones are important in speaking the Thai language. Don't become another one of those tourists or new expats walking down the boardwalk in Pattaya, pointing at your pants, and saying:

"Maeng-ka-phroon! Ra-wang!" (Jellyfish! Be careful!)

Section Two: Preface

My adult life as a mixer has been one of stages. First I had to go through the running stage in which everybody lied about how many miles they had run that day. Then I had to go through the tennis stage in which I had to listen to how good they were at tennis. Then I had to listen to how much money they were making 'investing' in the stock market. And now I have to listen to fools telling me they are Thai 'fluent'. Funny thing though. They are always telling me this. I never see them talking to a Thai. You are Thai fluent? Of course you are. No really, I believe you. Thai is similar to Chinese and the completely unlearnable clicking languages in difficulty and you are Thai fluent after two years taking Thai language classes? It took an eighteen year old Thai eighteen years of 100% immersion to learn to speak Thai but you did it in two years? Sure, I believe that. No really: I believe you. And if I were you I wouldn't keep an accomplishment like that to yourself. Tell everyone.

Please do not get me wrong. I'm not one of those fools who thinks it is a sign of intelligence to be negative. I understand that some people have brains and abilities that other people do not have. Leonardo Vintini, an Epoch Times (7/2-7/15/09) writer did a nice overview of polyglotism in an article called The World's Polyglots. In the article he reports that:

1. Sebastian Heine could speak 35 languages by the time he was 22 years old.
2. Jorge Fernandez, a Peruvian, could speak 12 languages by age
18 (including Mandarin).
3. Ziad Youssef Fazah holds a basic understanding (definition please) of 60 languages.
4. Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (born: 9/17/1774) was fluent in
38 languages and 100 dialects.

Impressed? Wait, there is more . . .

5. John Bowring was fluent (definition again please) in 100 languages.
6. Kenneth Locke Hale mastered (what else) 50 distinct (what else) languages.

Wow, impressive huh? Only thing is, I mean I really hate to be Suzie Skeptic here, but maybe some definitions would help me swallow some of this self-serving polyglot hyperbole. For instance: what does 'fluent' or 'mastered' really mean? Some language thoughtful people opine that you are not fluent in a language unless you can trade political jokes with a native speaker. In Thai you would be able to make jokes with 'inverted word construction' perhaps. I think this is too high a bar, but the point is made. Jorge Fernandez can speak Mandarin? Really? Mandarin is a Chinese language. He is Peruvian. If he wasn't in China surrounded by Mandarin speaking Chinese people how exactly did he learn to speak Mandarin fluently? Now it is your turn. How?

Another example:

2. Ziad Youssef Fazah holds a basic understanding of sixty languages? This includes Icelandic, Korean, Mandarin (boy those Mandarins were everywhere), Thai, Vietnamese, and Wu Chinese. Is this like a virgin who has a 'basic understanding' of sex? Can he speak those languages on any subject to native speakers or not? If not, then why does the list get inflated? I don't think he can speak all of these languages fluently with native speakers. I think someone is lying to me. Sixty languages?

3. And my all time favorite: John Bowring. Mr. Bowring was supposedly fluent in 100 languages. Who said so? Mr. Bowring. Really? Ok, let's calculate that it takes a minimum of one year on-site for a genius to learn a language. Less than that amount of time and I am afraid I am not going to be a good listener. That is 100 years right there to learn 100 languages. And let's additionally say that it takes approximately one month to travel between each new language learning center. Elapsed time for travel equals eight years. So the total time to learn one hundred languages is 108 years. Question: how long did John Bowring live? Think I am being unfair? Ok, you do the numbers and get back to me.

So, how can this 108 years become a smaller number? Simple, it doesn't take John Bowring (or Sebastian or Jorge or Kenneth or the Cardinal) one year to become fluent in a language. William James Sidis could supposedly learn a language in a day but I am not going to dignify this with attention. Anyway, apparently our linguistic wonders only have to be landed on the shores of Bombay, or Iceland, or Fiji and by spending three days wandering around the bazaar they have magically and osmotically 'learned' the language. Do you believe this? I don't. Ok, William James Sidis was really smart but pay attention everyone: you can barely test someone's knowledge of a language in one day. Yes, that is my opinion. You can disagree if you want to, but remember; the key word is fluency. Don't these multilingual prodigies have any pride? This is just ridiculous. They mock themselves and demean their profession with this childish lying.

Is this example too exotic for you because they are faraway places? Ok, let's play with the Mediterranean basin. Starting from Spain and traveling clockwise right around to Morocco there are approximately eleven languages (forget the bragging about dialects). Am I to believe one of these guys could take a summer cruise and learn all eleven languages by getting on and off the boat eleven times? How about Cardinal Caspar Mezzofanti who was fluent in 38 languages? My friend Caspar (I call him Caspar) lived in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Travel was by foot, horse, oxcart, boat, and stagecoach. No jet planes. How did he get to 38 countries?

Section Three: Introduction

Typical email addressed to me on this subject:

"On Dana, you're such a reactive moron. You don't actually have to live in countries and converse with native speakers to become fluent in a language."

Really? Well knock me over with a feather. Really, I mean that; get a feather and knock me over. You mean the Peruvian Jorge Fernandez who speaks Mandarin for example? How was this done exactly? Did they shove a Mandarin text book up his Peruvian rectum? Was it a séance with Chinese outer space people? You tell me. How? Let me be perfectly clear about this. I don't think you can learn to speak a language fluently from a location remote from the culture and the native speakers.

What if your Thai teacher speaks with idiosyncratic "ah-ah-ahs", random pauses, arrhythmic rhythms, and staccato bursts? How are you going to know? What about musical speech components such as pitch, pulse, rhythm, tempo, volume, dynamics, and timbre being used correctly? How are you going to know if you are not on-site in the country surrounded by native speakers? How? I am willing to be convinced if I am mistaken, but right now I just do not believe it. I think it is just bragging that people never challenge. Many of these language polyglots are big mouths who nobody ever tells to shut up.

Consider what this means on a global scale if I am correct. That is: consider the proposition that you can not learn to speak a language fluently from a location remote from the country of the native speakers. What does this really mean? What is the full import of this? It means all those non-geographically native Learn-to-Speak schools are a fraud. The Learn-to-Speak Russian school in Edmonton, Canada, and the Learn-to-Speak Croatian school in Recife, Brazil, and the Learn-to-Speak French school in Paraguay, and the Learn-to-Speak Basque school in Sydney, Australia, and the Learn-to-Speak Icelandic school in Figi, and the Learn-to-Speak Cantonese school in Juneau, Alaska, and the Learn-to-Speak Sudanese school in India, and the Learn-to-Speak Bhutanese school in Bermuda, and the Learn-to-Speak Japanese school in Tasmania, and the Learn-to-Speak Thai school in Ethiopia: all frauds.

But they are not just frauds in concept. You are paying them. They are taking your money knowing in advance they can not deliver a fluent product. Premeditated crime. What is the size of this criminal activity in money on a world wide scale? And why shouldn't all these criminals be rounded up and put in jail? Why do these international liars and thieves get to sit in the sun while criminals of lesser crimes are doing heavy time? Ok, your turn. Why? If someone came into your home and stole from you and lied to you what would be your response? Well, apparently; if you are a language teacher or a language school it is ok to do this. Business as usual. And so it goes, wolves in sheep's' clothing shamming as purveyors of consumer need while their easy smarmy smiles and flinty eyes give away their predator greed. Tones, you don't need no tones—and you can learn to speak basic Thai in a couple of weeks. Pay by installments. Have no fear. Just sign the contract: here and here and here. Flashy talk about being a professional language teacher and custom business cards.

If someone opens up a school in Godthab, Greenland and the promotional literature (printed in Danish) says: Learn to speak Thai fluently; what should your first thought be? Well, it should not be that you are going to learn to speak the Thai language fluently in Godthab, Greenland. The country of Thailand and the native speakers of Thailand are a long ways away. How about if the promotional literature for a school said:

'Learn-to-Become-a-Great Lover '

but there were no women to practice with? Seems kind of silly doesn't it? I call it fraud and I call the school owners and the teachers criminals. I suggest the United Nations, and the World Bank, and Interpol, and the governments of all one hundred and eighty-eight countries work together to float bonds to build prisons to house this trash. Maybe we could put Carl Parkes in charge.

Think I am being a hardass? Ok, consider this: in America cigarette packages now have dramatic language suggesting that smoking cigarettes as a lifestyle may not be good for your health. This is not new information: in the twenties and in the thirties cigarettes were called cancer sticks. But now it is a part of the advertising for the product to satisfy full disclosure consumer protection laws. Wouldn't it be great if in the advertisements for language schools you saw consumer information statements like:

"You may acquire 10% fluency in two years."

or

"You may attain 15% fluency in three-five years."

or

"We make no guarantees of any kind regarding students attaining fluency of any percentage in any amount of time."

Do you think you will ever see statements like those in Thai language school advertisements and marketing materials? I guess I'm a hard ass because I would like to be treated like an adult regarding consumer protection statements. You want me to go to school in Boston to learn the language of the South American Tierra del Feugian Yammerschoonerites and you promise 100% fluency? I'm not paying.

Let's imagine that you and I are sailing a small boat west of Nanomea in the Pacific and we are struck and sunk by a whale. Weeks later our dingy is rolled over in the surf of a reef off one of the Solomon Islands. As we are stumbling ashore I point to a far away mountain ridge obscured by clouds and I say to you:

"Just over that mountain is a school that teaches you to speak Thai fluently."

If your response is not:

"You have got to be kidding me."

you're no friend of mine.

Raise your hand up if you've heard this story: Brenda from America spent 4 years in high school, and 4 years in college studying French. She majored in French. She wrote papers on the French language, and French language issues, and she read French books, and she belonged to a French club. She just loved it. When she finally made that anxiously awaited trip to France no one could understand her, and she could not understand them, and nobody could communicate with anybody. Why? It's a combination of speed, accent, sound, tones, local colloquialisms, and regional dialects. You never had a chance Brenda. People took your money and wasted your time. You have to be on-site to learn a language.

It's absurd and boring enough that I have to listen to non-Thais tell me they are Thai fluent when I know they are not Thai fluent. Is it only a matter of time before I run into someone at Bhumi airport who tells me he is fluent in Thai and two dialects and he Just Got Here? He is from Lapland. He was out herding reindeer one day and it suddenly just occurred to him that he was fluent in a Southeast Asian language and two northern tribe dialects. Thought he'd stop by. See the place. He'll be here six weeks. Probably also become fluent in Burmese, and Malaysian (going to spend three days in Hat Yai), and Chinese (Mandarin probably), and Cambodian, and Laotian while he is here. You know, because learning languages is easy for him which means it must be easy for everyone else. Heck, according to Carl Parkes " . . . dedicated students can learn to speak some Thai within a few weeks."

Ok, how about a show of hands? Who believes this nonsense? I don't. Still not on board because big braggers in a field you have never really given any critical thought to have more currency with you than I have currency with you? Ok, let's return to our friend Bowring who 'understood' 200 languages and was fluent in about 100. He was born in
1792. A 19th century language prodigy during his adult years. How was he coming in contact with native speakers? How did he know that the native speakers were speaking the language correctly? Was it from books? There were no books. Oops. And tones, or clicking sounds, or standard strange throat noises? From books? Oh, that's right–there were no books. Maybe he played language tapes before he went to bed and just automatically learned the languages while he was sleeping. I'll let you figure that one out–hint: he lived in the 1800's. Ok, maybe he found a special bunch of books in a remote forest guarded by elves. Only one problem–you don't learn to speak a language from books. Language is goofy that way. Sorry Bowring, I'm not buying what you are selling and nobody else should either.

Bowring is everybody's bragging favorite in the field because his numbers are so big, but my all time favorite is my good friend Giuseppe: you know, the Cardinal. Get ready. In addition to being fluent in 38 languages he was also fluent in nearly 100 (a very popular number) dialects. Question: how does anybody know this? Do you know what you never read about in the world of prodigy polyglotism? Challenging. That's right, no one ever challenges these guys. You can speak almost 100 dialects (what is the real number–can't you count)? My name is Dana and I am challenging your statement. I'll get the tape recorders and the native speakers and we'll all spend a summer in a chalet in Switzerland listening to you talk. Oh, by-the-way: when I am making love in the most basic primal copulatory way with a woman in Pattaya I can go 18 continuous pumping hours without orgasm. No need to challenge me on this: stating it makes it so. My friend Giuseppe was supposedly fluent in Chinese and Algonquin. Algonguin? Let's do that again. Algonguin? And again: Algonquin? Last time I checked Algonquin was an Indian language of North America spoken from Labrador to Carolina and westward to the Great Plains. All together now: Algonquin? These language fools don't even lie well.

More on the important concept of challenging. This should be one of the most important parts of International Polyglotism (multi-lingual speakers of the prodigy kind); yet strangely, all you get in the literature is a black hole. If I call up the Guinness Book of World Records people and inform them that I have just broken the record for eating Khao San Road banana crepes in eight minutes while chanting Wat Po novice Pali: the guaranteed first thing they are going to say is–WHO SAYS? In other words: we can't take your word for it. What sanctioned , or 'recognized-by-us' third party disinterested witnessing body or accredited individual will attest to what you are saying?

Life on a professional level can't be a liar's festival. There have to be some standards: examples–pilots, surgeons, food inspectors. Most people are pretty disinterested in this subject (hey man, I'm busy). We tend to let absurd statements slide–opting instead for social harmony. Example of absurd statement:

'I have just finished reading (or I have read) Darwin's book titled: On The Origin Of Species.'

Really? You have? You read Darwin's book On The Origin Of Species? Here is a sample from Mr. Darwin's book:

"Finally, then, I conclude that the greater variability of specific characters, or those which distinguish species from species, than of generic characters, or those which are possessed by all the species; that the frequent extreme variability of any part which is developed in a species in an extraordinary manner in comparison with the same part in it's congeners; and the slight degree of variability in a part, however extraordinarily it may be developed, if it be common to a whole group of species; that the great variability of secondary sexual characters, and their great difference in closely allied species; that the secondary sexual and ordinary specific differences are generally displayed in the same part of the organization–are all principles closely connected together."

Whew. I'm exhausted. One hundred twenty three words and fourteen punctuation marks in one sentence. And hey–I'll make a deal with you: if you don't ask me what this means I will return the favor and not ask you what this means. But we almost digress.

You read this book? Really? Look, Uncle Dana is going to help you here. No, you did not. You did not read this book. You took the book out of the library, you read the notes you took when the professor was talking, you read everything between the covers except the main text
(index, glossary, edition notes, essay introductions, etc.) but you did not read this book. Did you try to read the book? Yes you did. But you did not read the book. For 21st century readers this style of writing is unintelligible. Latin used to be a required high school level course. Latin and Greek used to be required at the college level. No more. You did not read this book because it exceeded your abilities. Next you'll be telling me you read Shakespeare on your summer vacation. Stop lying.

So, you could speak (fluently–what else) thirty five languages by the time you were twenty two years old? Who says? You? You say? Sorry, we can't just take your word for it. The world can't work that way. Anyway, it's a fair question. Convince me. Convert me. I want to play. But there have to be some rules and some verifiable adult behavior.

Note: By-the-way, referencing the previous parenthesis that highlights the word 'fluent', this essay on Matters of Language and Language Learning is expected to clock in around 18,000 words. If I dealt in detail with the word/concept of 'fluent' it would require another 5,000 words. I am not going to do that, so you can see that this essay is just a truncated version of what can happen when considering Matters of Language and Language Learning. Just spit on a dusty road. The word/concept of 'fluent' (what is fluent) is not used thoughtfully by thoughtful people or by people who are not thoughtful but have opinions about Matters of Language and Language Learning. Maybe I'll attend to the subject of fluency in Matters of Language and Language Learning next week. Stay tuned. Do you think you are 100% fluent in your own language? Are you ready to be challenged?

Sometimes in the fields of sales, or communication; a persuasive technique called 'reduce-to-the-ridiculous' is used to more dramatically spotlight the situation. In language multi-lingualism the bragging is always all about speaking to adults. How about speaking to children? You never hear about that. Should be much easier, right? Fewer words to know, easier phrasing, no sophisticated word play, etc. And yet we never hear about this as a test for fluency.

Let's take Mr. William James Sidis to a remote village on the shore of Sanglaburi reservoir in western Thailand and have him talk to an eight year old Thai child. Will she be able to talk back to him? Will she understand him? What do you think? Well, I hate to break the bad news to you Bill (I call him Bill), but if that child can not understand you: you CAN'T SPEAK THAI.

Another example: when Daniel Everett was first trying to puzzle out the language of the Piraha people of the upper upper Amazon his first goal was to be able to speak the language as well as a three year old. In years and years of on-site work with the Piraha people was he able to achieve this goal? Read his book.

Understanding these big numbers (35 languages, 12 languages, 60 languages, 38 languages, 100 languages, and 50 languages) and how they relate to time is important.

"Gee Dana, what are you going on about now?"

Just this: language fluency is not static, it is dynamic. You have to keep at it. Fluency in a language such as Tagalog, Swedish, or Thai is not like a blood type. You are not born with it, you can not buy it or steal it, and no one can give it to you. First you have to acquire it, and then you have to keep at it. Staying fluent in a foreign language requires continuous activity. You have not made love to a woman in eleven years and you are going to be just as skilled the next time as the last time? You are making a joke right? Is this how all of your friends think and talk? Staying fluent in a foreign language requires continuous productive cumulative activity. No exceptions. If at one time you were fluent in the language of the Kingdom (Central Bangkok Thai) but you do not use the language constantly, your fluency starts to degrade immediately. Always, no exceptions. After a while, it would be dishonest to say you are fluent.

But that is not how polyglots behave. If they were ever fluent in a language (for ten minutes once eighteen years ago) they now put that on their resume forever. A little intelligence and a little pride on their part would give away this transparent silliness. Who has enough time to be constantly using 11, 35, 40, or 100 languages? Answer? Nobody.

The next time someone tells you they are 100% (what else) fluent in a bunch of languages ask them how many hours are in each one of their days. If the answer they give you is twenty-four hours, same as you; they simply do not have enough time to use and reuse, and learn and relearn a big bunch of languages. Can't be done. By practising and practising, and relearning and learning and relearning; can a person attain fluency in the piano or in the violin? Yes, they can. But what if they told you they were fluent in the piano, violin, drums, piccolo, trumpet, cymbals, nose flute, fart whistle, kazoo, bow saw, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, wash board, castanets, ankle bells, gourd rattles, tuba, viola, Ranat Ek (xylophone with wood bars), Pi Nai (wind instrument), khongs (gongs), So-Sam-Sai (bow stringed instruments), Khlui (flute), Chakhe
(zither), blocks of wood (horse galloping sounds) and tambourine? They had 100% fluency expertise as musicians in all of those instruments. Would you believe them? Would you believe them for even a second? Have you ever heard such nonsense?

Well, this is what polyglots ask us to believe when they give us a big number for languages they are fluent in. The next time some language bragger tells you they are fluent in 17, or 21, or 14, or 9 languages do what I did once. Tell them you think they are lying. You can do this. If they are going to use us for their disrespectful fish stink unintellectual juvenile bragging we can fight back. I said 'I don't believe you.' and 'I think you are lying.' once to a woman on a bus who had a big language story and it was hilarious. Probably for the first time in her life she had nothing to say. Little Miss Polyglot was speechless. She could not respond to being challenged. It's a good thing there were empty seats on the bus so that she could get up and move away from me. I was no fun.

I have a Bangkok acquaintance who claims 100% Thai fluency. I do not have any problem with this. I respect him for this, and I envy him his skill. He is a ten year expat, married to a Thai, and teaches in a Thai school. The claim is believable. For him foreign language proficiency is not static, it is dynamic. He keeps at it every day. But what if he told me he was fluent in 38 languages like our friend Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti? Now we would have a problem. He'd still be my friend, but he'd be a 'lying out his ass' friend.

Find this all a little exhausting do you? Maybe I'm just a crank with a barely developed brain stem that can't learn languages? Maybe you are right.

Section Four: Clouds of Foreboding

I once spent two years in a university language program to satisfy graduation requirements. In two years of tutoring, perfect class attendance, and 100% homework completion I did not receive a sufficient number of passing grades on blackboard assignments, classroom exercises, or exams. Luckily I was in a civilized environment surrounded by civilized people. People were nice about it. Asking me to apply myself to a 'language matter' was like asking a dog to look up the meaning of a word in the dictionary while playing Scrabble:

Classmates: Look, he's turning the pages of the French dictionary with his doggy nose. Other classmates: Don't say anything.

At the end of this program my teacher suggested that I transfer to the 'other' language–the language even morons could learn: Spanish. She told me this with bright kind eyes. After a half semester of horrific humiliation and 100% incomprehension my Spanish teacher who was a very nice lady went to the university and suggested that I be given a passing language requirement grade based on effort. I admit this looks like temporary derangement on her part but she probably just did not want to witness any more suffering.

There followed for thirty years an on again, and off again, and on again interest in how the brain works, and language, and linguistics, and learning. Ever ask someone how they learned something? I have asked this question many times. They never know. This is how I think my brain works with regard to learning languages. I believe my brain works the same as a spam filtering program in a computer. It identifies all strange sounding words and phrases as not relevant to my internal language base (English) and communication needs. These strange sounding words, and sounds, and accents, and phrases, and sentence structures, are not allowed entry. My retention rate with languages is about zero. In other course work in my life it has always been A's and B's.

Don't believe me? Ok, consider this. Let us imagine that you are walking down the sidewalk and two dogs are barking at each other. The dogs are making eye contact with each other and engaged in the ping pong activity of language. First one dog barks something that he wants to communicate, and then the other dog replies. They are communicating with one another in dog language; not Spanish, or French, or Thai; dog language. Their dog language is barks, and woofs, and growls. After passing them do you think you could repeat the barks back? No you couldn't. And it is not because you are not a dog. It is because your brain identified the dog noises of communication as not relevant to your communication needs and automatically screened them out. Those barks are not even stored in your brain. You can't retrieve them for a test. Think this is silly. Wait a minute: weren't you just telling everyone how learning languages is easy for you so it should be easy for others? To me sitting in a French class, or a Spanish class or a Thai class; all the sounds my brain hears are barking dogs.

The three criticisms leveled at people who have trouble learning languages are 'hard work', 'character', and 'attitude'. People love the 'attitude' criticism. Often these people have bookshelves with books with titles that have words like 'self-actualization' and 'yoga' in them. If I could just change my attitude, than I could change my brain. Gee, I never thought of that. Not more than ten times! Just can't do it. So the next time you are in the same room as someone who says he or she (almost never) has a hard time learning languages why don't you just be quiet. My university experience taught me a few things. It taught me that there are some good caring language teachers, and it taught me that other humans can be kind when you can't keep up. Unfortunately, it didn't teach me to speak one sentence in a foreign language.

Back to 'hard work' and 'character' and 'attitude'. If a person had no arms most people would say that his chances of learning to play basketball were zero. But that is not what a person who can learn other languages would say because it is not how they think or identify their social hierarchy persona. Their knee jerk instantaneous response is always that the guy with no arms didn't work hard enough. And then they always link this ridiculous assertion to the notion that since he did not work hard enough it must be because he lacks character. Now the language proficient has crafted a world where he has permission to call the unskillful names. The gentleman we are using in this example did not lack character. He lacked arms.

If the language learning proficient would take time to learn a little about human beings they might be astounded to learn that everyone is not the same. Most humans assume that everyone is like them. There are differences between humans and they rarely have to do with character or hard work. Ever heard someone who can sing say that everyone can sing? Have you ever heard someone who can swim say that everyone can learn to swim? I guess all those non-singers and those drowners lacked character right? Ridiculous. I am bright enough to know that attempting to learn Thai is not, and can never be, a good use of my time. I don't feel great about this; but I am not going to lie about it either. Your average farang Thai literate wunderkind can't get a taxi driver to take him to Chatuchak Weekend Market after he (Mr. Thai Fluent) has had two beers and can't control his lips. The reason is because the taxi driver doesn't understand what he is saying. He is not 'singing' correctly. You sing Thai. It is tonal. Don't believe me?

Get someone to finance a prime time Thai TV show that features self-appointed Thai literate farangs speaking Thai. It will be the top comedy show in Thailand by the third week. Thais will have to be admitted to surgery for broken ribs from laughing. Thais will lose control of their bladders in public from laughing. You of course will be impressed by the farangs 'intelligence' as they display their 'character' and their 'hard work' and their 'attitude'. More Thai laughing. The jokes on you.

Learning a language makes communicating with the locals easier. It has few other qualities. It is mechanical; not moral, or philosophical. Learning a language is a difficult thing to do. If you have learned a language you get credit for having learned to do a difficult thing. And that's the end of it. You don't get credit for anything else. This simple concept eludes many language acquirers. They imagine that their skill has imparted a superiority to them and they want credit for it. In fact, you can't shut them up about their newfound and hard earned superiority. Suddenly they are philosophers, and the center pieces at parties, and international playboys, and instant experts about the 'real' culture of the culture. All nonsense. There are millions of people that are bilingual, or trilingual, or quadlingual. The notion that they are superior in some moral, or philosophical, or behavioral, or instinctive, or social way is maybe an attractive idea; but a hard to prove idea. Get over your bad selves language literates and leave those of us who have to pay prostitutes to make phone calls for us alone. We've got enough problems.

Learning a language is a skill hard one and easily lost. You get credit for what you have done. That's it. Good on you. You learned a language. Now you can speak to the locals. Tell me something. Was it worth it? No, really: forget everyone else who you think is listening and handing out little gold stars on your report card. Just ask yourself this question in the quiet part of the night: was it worth it, learning to speak to dumbasses who believe in ghosts, and lottery ticket winning systems, and xenophobia as patriotism?

Learned a language have you? Then you have done a difficult thing. But, chill baby chill: that is all you have done. And all that it is mostly good for is simple communication with the locals in a country called Thailand. Need to pick up some pink bubble bath soap for the girlfriend or wife
(ok-yourself)? Have you found in the past that standing in Boots pharmacy trying to pantomime bubble bath soap, and using bubble bath soap, just scared the retail clerks and caused them to run away? I certainly have. Especially the part where I am taking off all of my clothes, lowering myself into the mountain of pink tingly bubbles, and–ok, maybe I have said too much.

Well, then; your ten years of classroom instruction, tutoring, tones practice, and homework; not to mention stress, and money, and time will have come to something. You will be able to walk right into a pharmacy and make your wife happy.

You: One bottle of pink bubble bath soap please (in Thai). Thai Clerk: Certainly sir (in Thai).

This seems kind of silly doesn't it. Maybe it is time to be honest with yourself. One of the earliest social skills that children learn is lying. Lying to others is a useful tool. But lying to yourself is less useful. So don't lie to yourself. Why do you want to learn Thai? To be able to buy pink bath bubble soap? No, that's not it. Can't be. Not enough return for the time, and money, and trouble involved in learning to bark like a dog. I think I might know why.

You want to learn to speak the Thai language because you have a secret personal dream. You imagine that if you can learn the language you will be able to fall through a mirror of reality and go to a place where everything is better and more interesting, including you: you are better and more interesting. Boy-oh-boy do you need to rethink this. We take ourselves with us wherever we go and Thailand is not necessarily better or more interesting once you know the language. Everything is the same as it was before only in higher relief and in more detail; and understanding more of something is not always desirable. Be careful with your dreams. Your personal fog makes navigation difficult and you can make mistakes. Do you really want to know everything about your wife? Do you want to view the images on the rectum camera her proctologist used?

Learning to speak Thai for many farangs is a last dying shot at ego and immortality. Your kids don't write or even want to come and visit you, your ex-wife misspelled your name in her last letter, no one from your life's work of nine jobs remembers you, and your love life is chemically assisted. But if you could learn to speak Thai you could be credited with doing a difficult thing. Displaying maturity and focus and stamina. Man stuff. Western man stuff. You are still a winner. You are still a player. You are somebody. And you did it so that you could connect with the Thais, and be more alert to and sensitive to Thai culture. You are a good person. Your kids, and your ex-wife, and your long forgotten work associates may have forgotten that you are a good person; but not you, you have not forgotten that you are a good person. And learning to speak the Thai language proves it. Being able to order pink bubble bath soap in fluent Thai is not so trivial after all. It is a symbol of your value. Or something.

Deluded ex-pat talking to himself:

"Jeffrey from Canada is coming over tonight to watch a taped football game. He's a good guy and a good storyteller. I'll figure out some way to work the Thai word for 'obtuse' into the conversation. Just learned it — the Thai word for obtuse."

But let us get back to dumbasses. Hey, don't misunderstand me. I'm not really against interacting with Thais, I'm just cautious about how I spend my time. If you want to spend time plumbing the intellectual depths of dumbasses there is no reason to torture yourself learning to speak Thai. Just get on a plane and come to America. This stupid country is full of millions of dumbasses who believe in ghosts, and believe they have winning lottery ticket systems, and confuse xenophobia for patriotism. No need to learn Thai if you want to have meaningless conversations with stupid people: just come to America. We have some of the stupidest dumbasses in the world. Believe me when I tell you this: I'm an American. No need to spend years learning Thai so that you can interact with jerks, and fools, and criminals, and humanoids; just come to America.

The coming battles of the 21st century will be over food, water, oil, territory, and whether or not you are a skilled language acquirer. Not being a natural language learner held me back for forty years, and now in the last twenty years of my life I have to engage in an unequal battle with the computer. I pity many humans of the future who will be consigned to dead-end lives over language learning.

Me: But how did you know to punch your keyboard keys seventeen times in that sequence?

Computer Literate: I don't know–I just knew.

Me: Yes, but that seemingly random group of seventeen key punches leads to another seemingly random group of eleven keyboard strikes. How did you know that?

Computer Literate: I don't know what I know–I just know Daddy.

Welcome to the future folks. If you are not a natural language acquirer you will be consigned by society to the same place we put Amazon Indians who have no use to us and attract no interest from us
(more on them later).

I find farang chatter about learning and speaking Thai (and for the truly delusional, reading and writing Thai) to be endlessly amusing. Sort of like wandering around on the grounds of an insane asylum and listening to the nonsense from the patients. Few farangs can learn to speak, read, or write Thai. Period. All else and any other conclusion is delusion and ignorance combined with the males need to dominate by bragging at farang gatherings and embassy parties that he can speak, or read, or write the Thai language.

Checkmate to him in the Kingdom social one-upmanship game and maybe he gets to take home the wide-eyed Israeli backpacker who is impressed by this nonsense. But he is not literate in Thai. Example: If a retail clerk in Big Mike's department store in Pattaya says: "How can I help you?" it is possible he might respond in Thai with "Tham-Mai Rao Jeung Dai Thook Tam-Ruat Jap?" (Why have we been arrested?). That is not what he thought he said but that is what she heard. It's a silly example but it IS a tonal language. For most foreigners, speaking Thai is basically a crap shoot. You just open your mouth and throw the dice. For years I used to thoughtfully say goodbye to my lady love in the morning by saying: "La Kawn". Only thing is, I had a tone or pronunciation thing wrong or something; so the net result is that for years I was not saying goodbye. Just gibberish. It would be fun if some bargirl would write an anecdotal recounting of the gibberish she has heard from foreigners. I have a sense of humor. I would laugh all the way through.

Thai is not a language, it is a song. It is a tonal verbal brain bomb. You can't easily learn to speak Thai because you don't speak Thai: you sing Thai. It is tonal. It is easiest if you start singing from the day you were born. Few foreigners can do this. The Vietnamese language has six tones. Makes you wonder how many whiskeys they consumed inventing it. The Vietnamese government should just post big huge billboard signs at the border that say:

"Attention Foreigners: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. You Will Never Learn To Speak This Stupid Language. Hell, Lots of Us Can Not Speak It. And Do Not Forget Mr. Foreigner: The Fix Is In. If We Make A Mistake Speaking Our Own Language We Call It A Regional Issue, Or A Special Accent, Or A Colloquialism, Or Evidence Of A 'Developing' Language; But If You Make A Mistake Speaking Our Language We Just Call You Stupid."

Six tones? Five tones (Thailand)? Hey, I've got a Dana idea. Are these languages with a lot of rules, or are these languages that had almost no rules: you just made it up as you talked and nobody objected. You are going to learn to speak basic Thai in a couple of weeks? What kind of person would say something like this and take your money?

Is the obverse of this nonsense true? You are paying to send your Thai girlfriend to 'Learn-To-Speak-English' class. Do you expect her to speak basic English (or German, or Spanish, or Icelandic, or Japanese, or Norwegian) in a couple of weeks? No you do not expect her to learn to speak your language in a couple of weeks. The idea never entered your brain. Ok, now think of the obverse of that. Think about what Carl Parkes tells people. How reasonable is that?

Ok, let's have some fun with Stephanie, an alert reader who has been emailing me. My instincts are that Stephanie hasn't got the brains of a beagle dog but that she can crush a mango between her thighs. I always enjoy hearing from her.

Stephanie: Oh Dana, you're just making a mountain out of a mole hill with all this language stuff. All I know is that FriscoDude (aka Carl Parkes) is probably taller than you, younger than you, better looking than you, and he's for sure written more guide books than you: so if he says I can learn to speak basic Thai in a few weeks I believe him. And that Gordon Allison hunk? I'll bet he was English, and rich, and had a bitchin' kool accent. So if he says:

"You do not have to understand the tone rules in order to be able to speak . . . Thai."

I believe him. You're just jealous 'cause you are a little jackass nerd and these are real men. Not to put too fine a point on it Commander Jerkwad, but you're not a man I am going to put on make-up for, and you are not a man I am going to take off make-up for; if you get my meaning.

Me: Point taken Stephanie, and it is always nice to get feedback from a reader interested in Matters of Language and Language Learning. So, just for fun; are you familiar with the concept of visual logic in languages?

Stephanie: No, and I bet no one else is either Mr. Limp Dick.

Me: Visual logic is when the foreign word translated into English looks like and/or sounds like approximately what you would expect it to look like or to sound like. In other words, the twenty six letters of the English language have not just been chosen at random, thrown in a basket, and then shaken up.

Stephanie: Boring. Listen up Mr. Couldn't Get A Date In High School, the only thing you need to know in any language is how to order a pizza, and you can do that by shouting PIZZA.

Me: Ok Stephanie, let me give three examples of non-visual logic in languages. In Vietnamese the surname Nguyen is pronounced variously in English as 'win' or 'wen' or 'nuwen'. No English language speaker is going to be able to make that instinctive leap. In Japanese the word Tsukiji is pronounced Squeegee. No apparent connection between the native word and the English pronunciation. And in Chinese the word Xu is pronounced . . . oh, forget it. Can you see Steph how a lack of visual logic in transliteration could make learning a language more difficult?

Stephanie: Boring . . . PIZZA.

Me: For a fun Thai example of this have someone who is English-Thai
100% fluent (speaking, reading, and writing) take you around Bangkok and point out road signs.

Stephanie: Boring . . . have you ever had sex with a woman?

Me: Ok, Steph (if I can call you Steph); just one more fun thing. Do you know what the 19th century eastern non-reindeer tribe Siberians known as the Kamchatkan Koraks used for the word 'fifty-six'?

Stephanie: No, and no one else does either A-hole. And you can call me Steph but just don't call me at home or I am going to cough up a furball.

Me: The word for fifty-six was/is:

NEE-AKH–KHLEEP-KIN-MEEN-YE-GEET-KHIN-PAR-OL-IN-NIN-MIL-LI-GIN (Tent Life in Siberia, c1870, Keenan).

And I repeat:

NEE-AKH-KHLEEP-KIN-MEEN-YE-GEET-KHIN-PAR-OL–IN-NIN-MIL-LI-GIN

Stephanie: You are a liar. That's impossible. You could never discuss over the phone all the routing numbers on your airline ticket to Ibiza with a language like that.

Me: Kinda my point. So Steph can you see how with just these two examples of Matters of Language and Language Learning subjects how it might pay to be alert and critical the next time someone tells you that you can learn the basics of a language in a few weeks? Do you think you could learn basic 19th century Kamchatkan Korak in a couple of weeks or that all languages are basically the same? Steph? Stephanie? Steph? Stephanie?

Stephanie: PIZZA

Anyway, I consider the tonal languages to be little more than Babel. If some farang can truly learn these languages I respect them for it, but I do not feel diminished because their accomplishment is way outside the bounds of what any reasonable person would call normal. Classifying them as savants seems a bit over the top in most cases, and they like to correspond with me and assure me that they are not super intelligent. Both could be true because brain research in the last twenty years has shown that people can be remarkably different. Some people have a facility for learning languages and other people do not. This is irrespective of any ideas people may have formed about how easy or reasonable learning the language is. The notion that hard work will plug in the gaps for someone whose brain is simply not wired for language acquiring is simply ignorant.

Language and the subject of learning languages is an interesting field that not many people know anything about or really have an interest in. The cover page of the website www. wiley. com/bw/journal. asp? ref=0023-8333 is a good example of this. And I quote:

"Language Learning is a scientific journal dedicated to the understanding of language learning broadly defined. It publishes research articles that systematically apply methods of inquiry from disciplines including psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, educational inquiry, neuroscience, ethnography, sociolinguistics, sociology, and semiotics. It is concerned with fundamental theoretical issues in language learning such as child, second, and foreign language acquisition, language education, bilingualism, literacy, language representation in mind and brain, culture, cognition, pragmatics, and intergroup relations."

Language, matters of language, and the subject of learning languages is really all about communicating between members of our species. What could be more interesting? At any rate, as this website introduction shows: the subject does not admit of superficiality or self-promoting frauds. Bye-the-way: I am fluent in 296 languages and 96 dialects
(including Algonguin) and my dog barks in Mandarin.

With sloth-like claws these academic aficionados climb and hang and rip and tear at the linguistic material in service to the idea of fun and knowledge for knowledge's sake. But the fact that some person can learn another language does not qualify them as knowledgeable about other peoples' ability to learn languages. It does not even qualify them to be insightful about how they acquire language knowledge. I am somewhat (there is always someone smarter) lay person knowledgeable about the subject of languages and how we learn. I got interested in these ideas because in spite of evidence that I have at least average intelligence, trying to learn a language is not a good use of my time. I shouldn't be pilloried for this by the lucky (they will bleat 'hardworking') people who can learn languages.

I well remember many years ago a woman who was in my French class at the University of Michigan. She was by any brain power measure stupid. Intelligence of a dog. Maybe a terrier dog, maybe a labrador retriever dog; hard to know. She got 100% on every part and particle including accent of the French class. Easy. Simple. Didn't really have to study–didn't really have to try hard. We are not all the same. An incredible body. Sweet Jesus on a cracker what a body.

But I almost digress. Don't see a touchpoint in this discussion of languages and learning for yourself? Ok, how have you been doing in the last fifteen years learning computer languages? Can you write code? Oh, you can't write code but you can do file transfers and make your modem yodel at the same time? The twenty-first century will see an acceleration of the separating out between the people who can learn computer languages and the people who can't. It is an important issue. Whether or not you can learn the Thai language is just a pimple on a larger issue that is going to impact many people. Get ready to rumble because the world is going to go to the language learners. If you have children and you believe in God start praying that your children are easy language acquirers. Non-computer literates need not apply for life in the future.

Ok, time out. Now you are absolutely exhausted and all you really wanted to read about was where are the beers, and how much do they cost; and where are the girls, and how much do they cost? Ok, let's kick back and just have some fun with some language miscellania:

"He wore a battered white straw hat and a thin poly-cotton western shirt in the cold wind. His legs were long and bandy and there were spurs on his boots. My language school in Guanajuato had left me completely un-prepared for his accent, which was slurred and grunted and composed almost entirely of gutturals. The letters s, t, d, n, b, and v were all gone from the alphabet. Buenos dais, for example, sounded like we-oh eel-ah. This was the accent of the northern Sierra Madre, as I came to discover, and I still wonder if it stems from generations of toothlessness." — from Richard Grant's book God's Middle Finger–Into The Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre.

An incomprehensible language possibly influenced by generations of toothlessness? How much do you want to bet some western language expert would have labeled this a dialect and our friend Carl Parkes if writing a guidebook on the Sierra Madre would have pronounced this language learnable in a reasonable length of time?

The absurdity of the situation does bring up a language learning category of miscellania that is important however. Namely, what I will call; for want of a better academic term, goofy stuff. To wit:

1. ends of words chopped off
2. lazy speech patterns
3. whispering (see Haitian Creole)
4. no separation between words
5. gutturals
6. slurring
7. grunting
8. yelling
9. wheezing
10. glottal stops
11. choking sounds
12. spitting and spraying
13. a language that is not really a language
14. clicking sounds
15. tone
16. accents
17. dialects
18. differently weighted syllables
19. purposeful obfuscation when confronted by a foreigner
20. whistling
21. humming
22. sung words
23. weird nasal sounds (see Pech Indians)
24. intonation
25. male and female prefixes to words
26. different number of sounds (phonemes) for men and women (and you thought tonal was insane)
27. variation among consonants
28. slang (see Aussie)

Note: do you think there is somewhere on Earth a language that incorporates all of these things? Possible. Africa has hundreds of languages and dialects. If you find such a language please tell me where it is so that I can make sure to never go there. I don't even want to fly over this place at 30,000 feet. Please, I am begging you; tell me where this linguistic train wreck is.

Tell me something, did they teach and test for some of these Thai fluency necessities in Learn-To-Speak-Thai-In-A-Short-Period-Of-Time school? They did? No, they did not. You are lying to me again. Did they cover standard and exceptional issues of transliteration, phonetics, and pronunciation to a teaching standard of 100% class comprehension? Did they cover:

1. A Thai vowel sound may be unwritten (but it will be the same as one of the written vowel sounds).
2. Certain Thai consonants may have one sound at the beginning of a syllable but another one at the end.

Don't even answer: I'll get the booze, you get the girls.

And how about the wacky subject of languages that are missing stuff. What? Missing stuff . . . ? Read on:

"Once-noble Tahitian does not use the following consonants: b, c, d, g, j, k, l, q, s, w, x, y, z — nearby Ruruto also drops f and h, thus having the most meager alphabet known — replacing them by glottal stops between vowels, so that the language sounds like a series of grunts." — from Return to Paradise by James A. Michener

Reader: Hey, Dana: wouldn't this make the language even easier to learn? Me: What do you think?

Hey, and what do you do when there isn't enough of the language for a language: when glottal stops, dancing eyebrows, pantomime, choking sounds, and a few words aren't enough? Once again from Michener's excellent and now forgotten book Return to Paradise:

"( In Tahitian oe has four different pronunciations, depending upon the glottal stops: 'oe was once koe–you; 'o'e was once koke–sword; o'e was once onge–famine; plain oe–ball.)"

Does this remind you a little of the built in possibilities of a tonal language like Thai: rising, falling, high, low, and neutral? Five Tones. Go into a dog pound and a flea is going to land on you. Guaranteed. Make an observation or critical remark about matters of language or language learning and language apologists will pop up like meerkat sentinels in Africa and inform you that this bewildering complexity is wonderful. Really? Well, if that is correct then why not have a language that consists of only one word that can be said 90,000 different ways? So, still think you can "learn to speak some Thai within a few weeks." — (Carl Parkes)? You do? Alright, do think any Thais will understand you? How about that eight year old girl flying her kite in Lumpini Park? Think she will understand you?

Foreigner: Hello little girl. I used to fly a kite when I was your age. Does your kite have a name? Little Girl: ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Here is a language idea dribblers and shooters. Was this ancient noble-Tahitian language a language? When is a language a language, and when is a language not a language? You are never going to hear that idea asked from the politically correct. I think the definition partly fulcrums around ideas of specificity and quantity. Quantity? Yes. A language with words for only six things: yes, no, woman, man, death, and food can not be a language. It does not meet the quantity test. And please, do not say it is a language if the speakers think it is a language. That is just western 60's era political correctness that does not get us anywhere. We are all 21st century people now. We ought to be able to think and form ideas rigorously. We ought to be expectant and happy to insist on a higher intellectual bar.

The idea of specificity should also be something easy to agree on. If a language can not express specific ideas (26 birds, not a lot of birds) than it may not meet the 'language' test. Monkeys can grunt but can they count and then verbally communicate that number? Ever try to get directions from a Thai? You'll find the idea of specificity in language interesting then I'll warrant. What is the demarcation line between animals and humans, and between language and not-a-language? All the mutterings we hear from bipedal humanoids can not be classified as languages, that makes a mockery of the notion of evolution. Languages do not fall from the politically correct sky, they develop; and they all start from zero.

I don't think this ancient noble-Tahitian language was really a language. Granted, I wasn't there–but that is where I am putting my politically incorrect bet. Prove me wrong. Specificity has to be part of the standard for a language and having such an incomplete alphabet makes the notion that this is a language a challenging idea. Choices have to be made.

Some of the extremely remote tribes in the upper Amazon had no concepts expressed in verbal language for time, counting, yesterday, tomorrow, quantity, measure, colors, emotions, geography, family, seasons, sky events, flora, fauna, sex, nursing, conception, birth, child development, or — hey, are these people human? In what way? How would you prove it? You can't do it with their language. They do not have one. Sorry. Sorry, not enough. I know you have gotten along for the last ten thousand years by eating grubs and spearing fish but that is not enough. Call me when you have a language and we will welcome you to the family of Man.

The politically correct language apologists say that the reasons these humanoids have no words for these things and these concepts is because they have no reason to have language for these things and these concepts. Baloney. Review the sky knowledge of the Incas and the Aztecs. We are not all equal and not all muttering is a language. When you start your Learn-To-Speak-Thai language classes because Carl Parkes leads you to believe that it is an easily achievable goal; how deep a well are you going to be required to tumble down? Beware and be careful. And you might also give some thought to whether the language you are learning is even a language. Just signed up to learn the language of an upper Amazonian Indian tribe have you? Good luck.

Think I am engaging in hyperbole for argument's sake? Ok, you might also ask yourself if the language is static enough to learn. In other words, have the natives agreed on the language? Example: I have a map of Thailand (Bangkok's Map–No. 3950) where they spell the name of a park differently on each side of the map: Lumpini Park and Lumpinee Park. Same map. The language is either evolving or devolving but you do not care; all you care about is that this is going to be one bitchin' hard language to master. Ever looked up the word 'obtuse' in two Thai dictionaries? Chok dee to the maak tourist dude.

I realize some of the things and ideas enumerated above could be blown off by anthropological elitists and language apologists as too self-evident to need verbal descriptors of specificity, but my instincts are that it is not a point-of-view that has legs. Hominid history is around one million years old and human (humanoid) history of a more interesting kind is approximately ten thousand years old and you STILL don't have a language of specificity, or adjectives, or reflection, or quantity in the year 2010? I think we are permitted to judge you. The mortar and pestle of time grinds fine and it has ground up all of your sympathy chips.

You and your tribal family are barely human. Uninteresting. Beneath the value of a time allotment from advanced members of your species. You can't talk to each other, and you can't talk to anyone else: you make Australian aborigines look like Shakespearian scholars. Go away: I'm not interested in you. My interest level bar that uses language as a measure is something you can only crawl under.

Not all individuals or tribes are worth knowing. There is not enough return on the effort required. Since the dawn of Man first connecting the dots of Hunger-Aggression-and a Thrown Projectile; thousands of tribes, and groups, and countries have come and gone. Losers in the history sweepstakes. Who lived in Thailand before the Thais? Who before them? And before them? Know why you do not know about these people? Because they didn't write anything down and leave it for us to read. Learning to speak Thai does not have value because you can then get to know the real Thailand. The real Thailand is not that interesting. It is a mostly empty vessel. And learning to speak Thai does not have value because you can get to know the real Thai people. They aren't that interesting either: empty vessels locked in a march towards historical oblivion. Thailand is a country by courtesy only: it is really just a boring geography of torpor and ennui that hasn't made much noteworthy progress since the rule of King Ramkhamhaeng (1278-1318). A geographic outline on the World map that will someday disappear and be forgotten.

I mean, let's be fair. Thailand is in the developing nation category which could also by extrapolation mean that Thais are in the developing human category. How much can they offer in intellectual ferment? A Thai knows a number of different words for rice. Ok, but how important, or novel, or homosapien insightful can this be? The Thais as a group of cultural people look with disdain on all of their contiguous geographic neighbors plus further away Vietnamese and assorted foreigners. Ok, true; but again, how interesting is this and how interesting can this be? This is just standard territorial jingoism found worldwide. So far no compelling reason to learn the language to plumb the depths of a familiar and mostly empty well.

This doesn't make Thailand special or unique; there are 188 countries and many of them are 'Thailands'. But it doesn't make the Kingdom interesting either. If expats in Tierra del Feugo, or a remote mountain valley in New Guinea told you they were learning the local language to better understand the culture and to better communicate with the natives would you make a mental note regarding their greater civility; or would you smile indulgently because a foolish person had said a foolish thing?

There may be a good reason to learn another language but only a fool would not measure work vs. rewards before embarking on the journey. I have a Mothership lounge lizard friend who spends a lot of time in Thailand and has been doing so for years. When I asked him if he had taken 'learn-to-speak-Thai' classes he said 'no'. Waste of time. Objectively speaking there was more return on effort in learning Spanish. His objective response can not be faulted on logic. This makes the 'learn-to-speak-Thai' people hobbyists. Got a hobby do you? Learning to speak Thai? Good for you: hobbies are fun. I have a friend who collects doorknobs (hint: do not invite him to your house). But it's only a hobby. If you start to think less personally and less locally, and more objectively and more globally; learning to speak Thai starts to look silly.

Hobbyist: Yes, but I want to know what the Thais are really all about. Me: How are they treating you now? That is what they are really all about.

Let me ask you a question. Have you ever even once in your life heard someone say that they wanted to learn the language of children so that they could sit around with children and babble the incoherent incomprehensible gibberish of immature minds? No, you have never heard anyone say this; not once. Instinctively, people do not want their time wasted by going backwards.

One of the elephants in the room that no one ever acknowledges is the dream that if you are fluent you will be respected by the Thais. This silent yearning flies in the face of the fact that if you are not a member of a tribe, you will never be a member of the tribe. The most you can hope for or receive is that you will be treated as a foreigner
(outsider) who can do tricks (speak the language). This isn't an observation or a criticism to be directed at Thais exclusively—all tribes behave this way. It is hardwired into us to reject people not like us. Survival demands that we identify enemies or potential enemies, and take the appropriate steps to reduce risk. You will never belong, ever. Enjoy your hobby.

When I lived in the Caribbean it was never hard on any island to find some elderly, leathery white guy who had spent decades interacting with the local natives: helping them with their homes and businesses and families, playing with them in the Friday night baseball game, going to the Saturday night fish fry picnic, loaning money, going to churches on Saturday and Sunday, learning the local pidgin language, teaching their children in school, etc. Result? Zero. No respect. If you are not a member of a tribe, you will never be a member of the tribe. Good intentions and good actions mean little in the face of instinctive tribalism.

And what are we to make of the expat in Thailand who has lived in Thailand for ten years, learned the language, married a local, taught Thai children in schools; and yet, only has zero, or one, or two, or possibly three Thai friends? Is this person a misanthrope? Is there something socially wrong with him that all the Thais instinctively see? No, he is not socially defective, or misanthropic, or boring. He is simply a non-tribal member. He will never be included no matter how skillfully he can sing Thai at village or company karaoke events. Want to learn to speak Thai do you? Ok, good luck with your hobby; but do not expect it to mean anything or produce anything, including respect from the populace.

Section Five: Conclusion

If you are an expat is there a good reason to learn Thai other than buying pink bubble bath soap, gossiping with neighbors about a new neighborhood three-legged dog, or trying to teach Thai children about the history of World War II when they can't even locate Europe on a World map? Yes there is. The reason becoming fluent in Thai has intellectual value is because foreigners could write something down about Thailand. Leaving a written record is the Thais only hope of being remembered. It is the foreigners that the Thais should be hoping and praying to for immortality. Fluent farangs could act as witnesses and leave a record of a people and a culture and a country that will eventually be a loser in the history sweepstakes. Thailand has nothing of value and contributes nothing of value but every beating heart wants to be remembered. Thai fluent foreigners are it's only hope for unearned remembrance. Linguistic charity from Thai fluent foreigners is more than Thais deserve, but it's a guarantee they aren't going to do anything themselves. They are too busy looking for the whiskey, and the bucket, and the ice.

So, don't tell me you are going to spend the next ten years learning to speak, and learning to read, and learning to write the Thai language so that you can get to know the real Thais and the real Thailand. You aren't going to believe it when you say it; and this is not an expressed idea that is going to earn my respect. You are treating me like an unreflective fool.

Tell me instead that you are going to spend the next ten years learning complete Thai language fluency so that you can spend the following ten years writing (recording) about a tribe that is going to disappear. You have decided to serve as a witness and to sacrifice your life in charity to a people and a record that does not deserve it. I don't think this is a particularly good use of your time on Earth, but the notion does have intellectual charm and attracts consideration through argument not usually heard regarding language awareness and language learning. And learn from history. The Egyptians might have had an Internet also, but what we have left to read is what was cut into stone.

The inscribed stone slabs you and other witnessing Thai fluent farangs leave behind may someday be as lonely as the spooky sentinels of Easter Island, but at least there will be something to read and ponder about a people long gone. If history and witnessing is left to the Thais, there will be nothing. Pride-of-place and xenophobia are the sandcastles of the historical losers. The only hope for Thailand is foreigners learning Thai and taking action out of intellectual commitment, not love of too much spice and too much fish paste on everything. Long odds. Tonal languages are not built for survival. So if an expat tells you he is learning Thai so that he can memorialize the Thais and Thai culture and the country of Thailand listen to him. He may be worth endorsing, and encouraging, and respecting.

Section Six: Denouement

Between the challenges of tonal, glottal stop, clicking, and often disgusting throat sounds of many languages you would think so-called language prodigies would be a little more conservative in their self-serving statements. Not a bit of it. A group of greater interested braggers it would be hard to find. Example:

'I can speak fluently 35 languages and 12 dialects.'

Really? Who says so? Where is the documentation? Who made the determination? Who was qualified to attest to this–another bragger? Google up Mr. John Bowring for some opinions different than his own on his level of language mastery.

Example again:

'I can learn a language in one day (week, month, year).'

Really? This isn't even worth my time. Ridiculous. Ask yourself this question. Can you think of one other activity of humans in which we have this kind of non-documented and unchallenged bragging?

Doctor: I learned orthopedic surgery in 14 hours. Airline Pilot: I learned to fly 747's in 2 days.

We are sometimes asked to accept or believe an awful lot from the language literates community. Example: Jessie Little Doe Baird of the United States just received (9/2010) a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation 'genius' grant for her work in reinvigorating the Wampanoag Indian language of Massachusetts. Part of this project will include a school where Wampanoag children will be able to be taught in their own language. Only one problem: Wampanoag has not been spoken since the late 19th century. Boy, Jessie Little Doe Baird must be a genius.

I'd like to be a fly on the wall as the teachers teach (make up) issues of speed, intonation, tones, throat sounds, stopping and starting behaviors, connectors, ends of words chopped off (or not), lazy (or not) speech patterns, gutturals, slurring, grunting, wheezing, glottal stops, clicking sounds, differently weighted syllables, whistling, humming, variations among consonants, etc. Let me make myself clear. I don't think you can teach someone to speak a dead language. What is your standard? Who does the grading? Etc. I believe this 'genius' grant is a case of too much money and too much political correctness chasing a chimera: in the words of Webster; an illusion, a fabrication of the mind, an unrealizable dream.

Suppose the Thai language had not been spoken since the late 19th century and someone opened a Learn-to-Speak Thai school in 2011? What would you think? Sometimes the language literates of the polyglot kind ask us to accept an awful lot. It's as if there is no internal gauntlet of logic that they run their ideas through before they make statements.

They also often make statements as if they have never had to defend their statements. This is how children behave. Jessie Little Doe Baird is going to teach 21st century Indian children how to speak Wampanoag? No she is not. This part of the grant should not have been approved, and she should not have accepted money for this part of the grant. But that is the world of languages folks; where grandiose statements, hyperbole, lying, and chimera chasing trump pride and dignity.

If Carl Parkes (aka FriscoDude) told you that 'dedicated students can learn to speak some {dead} Thai within a few weeks.' would this sound reasonable? Think I am picking on Mr. Parkes? I don't think so. I believe it is acceptable to use him as an example of a larger problem. The matters of language and language learning forest seems to be full of little boneheaded elves popping up and saying stupid things. They make targets of themselves. More to the point: is a person handing out inaccurate advice and encouragement on how easy it is to learn to speak the Thai language? I'll let you decide: but I would counsel you to use the brains you were gifted with, and apply the balm of logic to the problem before handing over your money to a Learn-to-Speak program. Every time money leaves your hands your heart is involved. Don't break your heart.

Section Seven: Invitation

Ok, now I'm exhausted. Anyway, like to meet up and share a few beers and talk about matters of language and learning languages? Ok, see you at the Polyglot Bar, 100 Liar Lane, Pattaya. Look me up, introduce yourself, and I'll buy you a drink. How will you recognize me? Easy. I'll be telling people about how last week I picked up a mother named Language and her daughter named Dialect off the boardwalk and satisfied them both sexually at the A. A. Hotel for two days without stopping. Sure I did. How do you know? Because I say so. By-the-way, Stephanie will be there. We'll set her up on the bar and she'll show us how she can crush a mango between her thighs. Then we'll give her a pizza.

And hey, maybe you will meet Carl Parkes. I hear he's got a new Learn-to-Speak-Thai course he is promoting. Only takes three days. The first day you learn the words, phrases, sentence structures, and; you know, that stuff. The second day you learn all the tones and; you know, that stuff. The third day is lab; you know, practicing out loud and stuff. Student admission to these classes is limited though. Students can only be admitted if they display 'hard work', 'character', and 'attitude'. You knew that.

Khawp Khoon Maak Khrap Dana


Stickman's thoughts:

Wow, you've put a huige amount of effort into that, well done!