Monday, September 10, 2012

Thai Language Defeated Me

A few months ago, I was regularly making small talk with any local willing to spare a few minutes to let me practice my Thai. While running errands around town, I'd point at objects I didn't know the Thai for and ask strangers to kindly tell me the vocabulary. As I taught English in the classroom, I often requested my students to exchange their language with me, providing the children with a source of comedy at my butchered attempt to mock their pronunciation. When out with English-speaking Thai friends, I would pester them to teach me phrases as they came to mind whilst speaking some silly version of Tinglish over our noodle soup dinner. Come weekend, you'd find me at the local bar in my prime, confidently making new friends using only Thai, thanks to the flowing alcohol having removed any inhibitions of self-doubt.
Sometime between then and now, this all faded away. I can make a million excuses about getting absorbed into my busy routine, being surrounded by farang, barely finding time for myself between multiple jobs and feeling comfortable enough with the Thai I already knew - but what it really came down was this: I was not willing to make the necessary sacrifice.

Serious language learning is a huge time commitment. With the reality that I am leaving Thailand, I stopped caring about furthering my ability to speak a language that is dead outside of this country. In just a few short weeks, I will begin the biggest trip of my life yet, visiting around 8 countries over 4-5 months, each with its own unique language. I will be back to square one with the awkwardness, resorting to my native tongue and bits I pick up on the way to communicate. 

Learning Thai became too much of an effort that I no longer had space for. Ultimately and regretfully, I stopped caring and trying. I admitted defeat.

In my last few weeks in Ubon, I find myself reflecting on this incredible whirlwind of a year in Thailand, with the realization that my biggest regret is giving up on Thai. While it is the most proficient I've ever been of another language, I still am disappointed in my inability and most recently ashamed to tell Thais I've been here one year with not much to show for it in terms of language.

There isn't one day that goes by that I don't wish that I could understand the entirety of my student's babble and have deeper conversations with locals. I curse the language barrier that is often the only thing separating us as human beings and prohibiting the development of real friendships with many Thai people. 

As someone who calls themselves a bit of a writer, I am fascinated by both the arbitrary- & deliberate-ness of words and languages. Being an English teacher in a foreign country where citizens often appear to have a pathological fear of my language, I admire those who have prioritized learning English. I appreciate students who really make an effort. I am impressed by near-fluent English speakers who are thousands of miles away from the nearest English-speaking country. 
Even as their teacher, who am I compared to my students? What do I have to show for myself next to people who can speak multiple languages? I was merely born into the international language, whereas they have clocked hundreds of hours of effort to be able to communicate in a language that is not their own.

With all too unfortunate timing nearing the end of my stay, I recently made a new Thai friend whose proficiency in English has left quite an impression on me. At 24 years old, Gai's use of English slang and perfected accent are the product of genuine determination. As he only started really learning English at age 18, it's obvious that his dedication to mastering the international language far exceeds the classroom. He described to what end he let English delegate his life as he studied, read, ate, breathed and even spoke to himself in English - until he started dreaming in English. He is a committed teacher, friend and role-model to many Thais wanting to further their English, often challenging them by only speaking in English. 

Compared to him, I feel like a worthless piece of shit.

Living in another culture and meeting people like him has highlighted my incompetence in another language as a huge regret in my short life. Encountering fellow travellers from non-English speaking countries who are forced to speak English while travelling reminds me, not that I am lucky to be a native English speaker, but just how easy we have it in America. I feel pathetic next to my bilingual Afrikaans and Swedish co-workers with the same job and ability to teach English as me.
It doesn't seem fair to write off the possibility of learning a language from my life completely. But with my admitted defeat and imminent departure from Thailand, it probably won't be Thai. It's clear when I head back to America, I have a lot of thinking to do about my next chapter in life. Perhaps included in my consideration for my next move will be language-learning. And if there is one other thing I realized this year is that if I bring children into this world, so god help me if I don't find some way to raise them bilingual.

No comments: