Saturday, June 11, 2011

Say what?!?!?

I am a spoiled American.

There. I have said it. Now that we haveve gotten past that, I can say with no hesitation that going someplace without being able to communicate exactly what I want to can be frustrating. In some instances it is something simple, like asking the waitress for a bottle of soy sauce to go with the white rice. Other times it is mildly terrifying, like when you are trying to figure out where you need to be from where you are (which is incredibly lost).

The lucky part for us is that almost everyone speaks at least a tiny bit of English, and many speak it fairly well. In a jam, we could probably flag someone down who speaks well enough to help us get out of whatever chaos we may find ourselves in.

An interesting part of being somewhere with only a few words of the local language is that you find new ways to communicate. Almost everyone, for example, understands a smile. On many occasions I am sure I have butchered the language while attempting a greeting and then screwed up the rules of wai-ing, and yet my smile makes my intentions to please clear and so I receive back a smile in return and what I am sure is a much more polite greeting than my sloppy attempts. (Note: A “wai” is a sort of bow that is done as a respectful greeting. There are many rules to the wai and, needless to say, we students understand very few of them thus far.) In many cases body language is also highly intuitive. Nearly everyone understands pointing and nodding. Simply ordering tea at a Mahidol University cafĂ©, for example, is an adventure. It involved the waitress using her very few words of English, me adding my very few words of Thai, and both of us pointing at menus and pitchers. Yes, I would like the tea, and yes, I would like ice, and yes, I would be happy to pay 30 baht for it. So much work from both parties goes into such a simple communication.

The real difference, though, is that between how the Thai treat the limited language abilities of tourists and how we treat the same situation in America. Here, people are exceptionally patient as we try even the simplest of words and phrases and often laugh (happily, not mockingly) at our attempts with genuine pleasure that we are trying to learn their language. They seldom appear frustrated at our lack of lingual skills. On the other hand, I have heard many Americans – myself included – state displeasure at foreigners (especially Spanish-speaking immigrants) who do not speak English. It even goes so far as to say that some Americans become highly impatient while an individual is learning the English language. I will admit that this is not the norm, but I’ve seen it exist. Rather than being encouraging and patient, it is sometimes the case that we become annoyed and frustrated because someone is not speaking clearly enough or quickly enough to suit our needs. I think it likely that this is more of a broad cultural value related to the general pacing of time; the Western world moves very quickly while time in Thailand is more flexible and fluid. Being unable to speak easily here has made me much more sympathetic to foreign visitors or immigrants who are learning to speak English. I have a much greater desire to help them.

How do you feel we can make our thoughts and intentions known when our words cannot be understood – either because of a language barrier or because of misunderstanding?

Also, here is a Thai language mini-lesson from yours truly, for your edutainment. :)


  1. Thank you! I'll be at Mahidol soon, and I need all of the help I can get! Thank you also for your perspective regarding cultural differences around learning a language. I look forward to more posts from you and your colleagues!

  2. I'm excited to hear that you'll be coming to Mahidol, too. I hope you enjoy it here! It's a pretty spectacular place to be, although it can be overwhelming the first couple of days just trying to figure out the lay of the land.

  3. Practice makes perfect! I never thought I could remember how to say thank you (kop kum ka) in Thai, but it is one of the most common Thai phrases I've learned so far and I use it often. Nice video!

  4. Nice post Rianne! I feel your pain and frustration, especially with not being able to ask for soy sauce at the restaurant! I love that pointing has been a good option, as well as some basic sign language. It's so interesting how much we can actually communicate nonverbally! But it can be confusing when that doesn't always work. In our session today, I was just SURE that the nonverbal prompting would be effective...but what do you do when that doesn't come across? Now you're stuck without your voice or your body motions-unless you can some how show "forget that first thing I showed you, do THIS instead" without it seeming like you are almost "yelling" with your body motions. This will definitely be something to ponder before further sessions.

  5. Yeah, the lack of language was rough in session. I like your description of "yelling with body motions"; that's very much what I feel like I'm doing. :/ Hopefully a bit of time and practice will bring familiarity and some comfort so that we can be more effective in nonverbal communication.

  6. Ha ha this was quite entertaining, but very insightful as well! It definitely has been a challenge leraning how to communicate without words. I would agree that body language and pointing is pretty much the most effective way when words cannot help.

  7. I definitely feel you with the spoiled American thing. I feel like we are very fortunate -- so many signs/advertisements/maps/everything are written in English as well as Thai here. And it's still been hard! I can't imagine being in America and not being able to speak English as we have few (or none, depending on where you are) things written in anything but English. And the Thais are so understanding! I wish every American could come here and witness the kindness Thais show people who only know a few phrases of their language and then adopt that kindness into their interactions with people who don't speak English! What a nicer place America would be