Thursday, February 04, 2010

It's a mystery

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...


liz fenwick said...

JJ - I just love the way you see the world :-)

BEAST said...

I find "barm-ruung-rard" works well for me. But I couldn't have expressed "Eurrrrw" better myself.

With fractionally more Thai vocab than you, I get a few more issues too. For example, I have always struggled with "glai" (pronounced like fly) meaning near and "glai" (also pronounced like fly) meaning far. So as you can see, the answer to the question how "how far is it?" is pretty pointless, either way it's "glai".

Also "Mai" (pronounced "my") means New, not, divorced, notice, wood, question word, to count and to burn.

Worse still is "khao" (pronounced "cow") meaning: he/she/they, white, food, news, rice, to enter and mountain.

So the much visited tourist destination for backpackers, the "khao san road" actually means "milled rice road", as it used to be the rice market. But you are equally likely to be asking your taxi driver to take you to a "low hill" or even for a "little meal"!

Leatherdykeuk said...

Good for you to manage it at all, though. I'm useless at languages and admire anyone who can speak more than one.

Carol said...

LOL...I had totally forgotten that you have always struggled with Bumrungrad...the funny thing is that I never had a problem with it!!

LOL at Beast's comment. Glai and Glai always got me when we lived there...I just couldn't get my head round a language in which the same word said in a different tone could mean the complete opposite!!

Ting Tong as the Thai's would say!

C x

Loved Ever said...

nice post keep blogging .
Work From Home India

JJ Beattie said...

Liz, thank you (I think.)

Bea, yeah, I do seem to be alone in struggling with Bumrungrad, although I do like the g at the end of the middle portion! Fractionally more vocab than me? You do yourself a disservice mate. LOADS more. Once you told me that near far thing, I never bothered to learn it. I do wish I could remember 'opposite.'

Rachel, I don't know that I manage it all. I've got enough to mostly get around... but not enough, for, well life.

Carol, yeah, Bumrungrad always only seemed to be me. I wonder why? Or "dting dtong" as I knew it, but that rather proves my point in the original post, doesn't it?

JJ Beattie said...

Ooops, and Loved Ever... errr, yes, thank you.

Denise said...

I think learning languages with the same alphabet is one thing, but Thai is quite another! I'm currently struggling to recapture some of the French in my head for a trip and that's plenty hard enough for me.

Now having flashbacks to a trip to Italy where I thought I was asking for a strawberry milkshake, and it turned out to be something quite, quite different!

JJ Beattie said...

Denise, that was exactly my problem with Thai... the alphabet. We went skiing in France at Christmas and every single time I opened my mouth a mixture of school girl French and Thai emerged. Bizarre. In the end it was just safer to keep quiet.

Flowerpot said...

I was OK at French but the thought ofnlearning another language with a differnet alphabet makes me cringe! Good for you JJ!

HPofP said...

The first time I entered a Manchester chippy and asked for a 'chip barm' it took three, maybe four, repetitions before my clipped southern vowels formed anything the locals could equate with "baaaammmm". In my opinion, bread products cause significantly more than their fair share of dialectal confusion.

HelenMHunt said...

I'm useless at languages. I'd have to have a laminated card for everything I think.

Debs said...

Oh no, you have to go through it all again tomorrow.

I would definately need a laminated card, I'd be useless without one.

Susie Vereker said...

Yes, I found the tones pretty difficult too. Krai kai kai gai. Who sells chicken eggs? The older one fries dried shrimp. Phi tot gung heng. All falling tone. That's practically all the Thai I can remember apart from Hong nam you tee nai, ka.