In Thailand, my main cultural concern is my lack of Thai language skills. Lucky for me, I am able to survive in this country largely because Thai people know English.
Until coming to Thailand, going to school in the United States has comprised most of my academic experience. Despite a few visits to schools in Japan and Ireland, I have never before seriously endeavored to study at a school abroad. Among the many differences between Thailand and my home country, the key difference that has affected my experience has been language. In America we are taught how to read, write, and speak eloquently in English. In Thailand students learn how to read, write, and speak English and Thai. English is a requirement for all Thai students. It is considered the international “scholarly language.”
I feel lucky to be in a country where people frequently can speak and understand my native tongue because I only speak English fluently. I would like to blame this on my education, or lack thereof. In my public school system, my first memory of learning another language is a single monthly class in French and Spanish in fourth and fifth grade. Our teacher traveled from class to class with a cart holding her teaching materials. With this method, I learned hardly enough to say hello in both languages. In middle school, I did not take any language classes and in high school I took the maximum amount of classes one could take in foreign language, which was four semesters in Spanish. Spanish being our only option, I decided I would take the opportunity to learn some basic conversation skills. But after going into my AP Conversational Spanish exam with only a handful of classroom experiences in conversing, I failed the test miserably. I assumed I would attempt another language in college, but the language of music took over my life; I only took one semester in Italian language and culture. This class prepared me to order a coffee and ask for directions in Italian. So, what does one do with a little book learning in Spanish and a few conversational skills in Italian? Go to Thailand, of course! I have to admit: I am jealous of the Thais for being required to take another language in school until they are competent in it. So many opportunities for communication come from knowing two languages.
Even though my education is of a high quality, I often feel very ignorant and illiterate here. I do not know more than a few words in Thai, while most Thais with whom I speak know how to converse in English. The Thai people I have met seem to expect me to converse with them in English, yet they sincerely appreciate my attempts to speak in Thai. It is common to ask someone their name in Thai and receive the answer in English after a giggle. Apparently, the giggle means that they like that we are trying their language, and think our accent is funny. So far, I have had one compliment on my use of Thai. Once, after saying “sawadii-ka” to a shop vender, she asked me in English how long I had lived in Thailand and told me I had “natural pronunciation.” Sadly, I believe the shop vendor might have been trying to flatter me in order to make a sale; I can only wonder how far my Thai would come after an entire semester of being here. I have a hunch that, after being immersed in the culture, I could probably ace a conversational exam.
My wish, in the future of American education, is that children will be required to learn a second language starting at a young age. Perhaps at that point the American people can show the world that they are willing to reciprocate communication with other nations of the world.
What do you think about language barriers? How do you feel about language education in the United States and elsewhere in the world?
Hui (to the right), our guide, speaks fluent English as well as Thai. Also, Bing (to the left) knows fluent English and Chinese. Being bilingual allows them to work with the many other people in the world who also know English, and make good friends along the way!