I sometimes wonder whether my need to write has increased since I’ve been surrounded by a foreign tongue. Although I can speak some Thai, it’s strictly practical – getting around in a taxi because only about 5% of the city’s taxis know where they’re going; ordering food, finding out where the loo is. I can hold a conversation with a Thai about why we’re here, how long we’ve been here, where we’re from, how many children I have. Those are the things – along side food – that they make small talk about.
With, from memory, some 44 consonants and 26 vowels, I found it bloomin’ difficult to learn Thai but then I’ve never been a natural at learning languages. To start with most beginners are learning from phonetics and not from the Thai alphabet so what you see written is down to interpretation. Then there are the sounds that we don’t make at all, like NG at the start of a word. D and T can sound interchangeable, as can P and B. L turns into an N (don’t ask!) R turns into an L… that old Asian joke. There are many more foibles but it’s a nightmare.
Once I decided I wanted to write a novel, I found my excuse as to why I wasn’t going to learn more than a smattering of Thai. Nothing to do with laziness! Still I’m ashamed after nearly five years to be so pitifully equipped for life here.
There are some words, when written in phonetic that simply don’t or can’t convey the way you’re meant to say them. U Chu Liang, a building in Silom I frequent, tripped me right up in the early days. “You Chu Liang” I said to the taxi driver. “Grunt?” he said. “You Chu Liang…” I said more hopefully… I’ll spare you the details of our exchange but this went on for some time. Thank god I was outside the apartment because my friend L’s driver came to the rescue. I repeated the exchange, then handed him the address that was written in phonetics. (No point, therefore handing it to a Thai who couldn’t read English.) He looked at the card and light dawned on his face and he made a noise like a man pushing a melon out of his backside: “Eurrrrrw Chu Liang.” If you can conjure distaste while you say it, you’re much more likely to be understood.
There’s remained, for the best part of four years, another destination I couldn’t communicate to a Thai. It was the name of the hospital we go to: Bumrungrad. (I’ll hang on a minute while you giggle.) So obviously, I’d say Bum-run-grad: simple. Except I’d get the grunt and total failure to communicate face. After too many embarrassing exchanges with this word, and thinking that one day I might need it urgently, I laminated a card from the hospital with the name written in Thai and I’ve still got it in my handbag. I’ve since worked out that if I say Barm-ruun-graad I stand an 80% chance of being understood.
I still get a frisson of anxiety before I announce "Barm-ruun-graad" to a taxi… as I had to this morning as I had check up there. But hurrah, I didn’t need my laminated card. It was a small triumph and I felt pretty pleased with myself until I went to check in at the counter for my blood test, where I was informed that my appointment wasn’t today at all, but tomorrow.
Tomorrow is going to be something of a Groundhog Day...