Friday, November 28, 2008

Am I Lost in Translation?


The Thai alphabet is pretty intense.

I've studied, and forgotten, a number of languages and I have to say that Thai ranks right up there with some of the more difficult of them. (maybe it's age getting the better of me)

The spoken language is a challenge because it is a tonal language where one syllable stressed 1000 different ways can have 1000 different meanings. This results in nobody really getting what you're trying to say the first time around.

Listening comprehension is hit or miss. If you're talking to a Thai who understands that you are not very proficient in the language, they will try their hardest to lower the level of the vocabulary and the grammar. If you're just watching the news or then the talk is highly formal, more formal than normal conversation. Formal language is a lot different. There is language and vocabulary used when talking about royalty as well as a different set of vocab for monks. When talking to someone (usually taxi drivers) who is spewing politics, religion and astrophysics, even though it's quite apparent that you have no clue as to what they're saying, then the conversation is generally short lived...and a confidence killer!

The written language is complicated out of sheer volume! There are something like 42 consonants and 42 or so vowels and vowel blends. The picture above is the consonants, below, the vowels and blends. Along with the different vowels and consonants, there are a number of tone symbols placed above the words to change the spoken tone and thereby changing the meaning. Imagine the English word "dog"...written with a tick mark above, a plus sign, a dash, a squiggly, an ~ , a smiley face or a heart. Then "dog" would be pronounced with that many different intonations and would only mean "dog" in one of the iterations. The other meanings would be something like "hair", "bloody", "to be intense", "ferris wheel", and "transliteration". You can imagine the native speakers having to try to translate my poorly toned sentences during conversation! And each word is the same...so I speak in very short sentences, just to make things easier for the unfortunate folks who approach me for small talk!

I have kindergarten students come to the school and run circles around me (both figuratively and literally) with the level of their Thai...I'm talking 3 and 4 year olds! And 4 year olds don't really understand that I don't speak their language and often look perplexed...at both my Thai and my not understanding their simple requests/needs. Thank goodness for body language!

I use the excuse that "I am in an English speaking environment every day all day" as the reason I'm not as proficient, knowledgeable, or conversant (word?) in Thai even after 18 months here! Excuses are like poo-holes...we all got one right!?

I'm trying though...trying.

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