Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Learning Thai, backwards & in high heels

You know what they used to say about Ginger Rogers - she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels. I'm starting to feel that way about learning Thai.

(this is the female "hello")

I've been listening to a set of Pimsleur CDs and while overall, I think they're pretty good, they're extremely sexist. The Thai language is gendered... not so much like French or Spanish where nouns are arbitrarily assigned a gender... but in that you say things differently if you are a man or a woman. They don't really have an equivalent for "Please" (that I've figured out anyway), but there is a 'polite term' that is added to the end of every sentence. If you are a man speaking Thai, you would end every sentence in "krap" (it actually sounds like half way between "crab" and "clap") and if you are a woman you would end each sentence in "ka". In addition, the words for "I" are different for men ("pom") and women "de-chan". So an expression as basic as "I understand" would be, with the exception of the verb completely different coming from a man or a woman.

A man would say: "Pom cow-jai krap"
A woman would say: "De-chan cow-jai ka"
(oh, and since I've only been listening to CDs, I'm sure this transliteration is completely wrong - but you get the idea)

Coming from an essentially gender-neutral language such as English - this is confusing enough for me. But the CDs are geared 99% to men learning the language. So far all but one dialogue is set up as "You are an American man speaking to a Thai woman." Now I'm not even going to go into the socio-political reasons why this bothers me...except to say that most of the people buying "Learn Thai" CDs probably are American men who will be talking to Thai women. But just from a language learning perspective... it's really pissing me off.

For the actual conversation that starts each lesson - it's not so bad, I practice both parts. But in the rest of the lesson, when the CD asks me to "tell her you understand" I've got to do the mental gymnastics to turn my sentence into the appropriate female response... and know it's not going to match the answer given after the pause. It's driving me crazy. It's taking me at least twice as long as it should to get through one of the lessons and I just have to guess that I'm pronouncing things right. The CD went through an extensive explanation of the intonation of "pom"... ("it starts in a high tone, but abruptly drops to a low tone rising again to a mid level tone - see if your tone matches the speaker... let's try that again") but in 5 lessons it still hasn't given the same treatment to "de-chan" (is it more de-chan or de-shan for example?). I know I'm not going to be fluent when I get to Thailand, but I would at least be able to communicate what little I know without sounding like I don't know if I'm a man or a woman.

The really tough part is that I know I'm going to experience a bit more of the same once I actually get to Thailand. From everything I've read Thai society is hierarchical and status is very important. Unsurprisingly, men have higher status than women, and I'm just going to have to make peace with that notion. After all, the whole reason I'm going abroad is to experience a different culture. I can't very well complain when you know, the culture is actually different from what I am used to. That said, I do wonder how much this will come through in day-to-day life. After all, the US has a reputation for having a very violent culture... and despite our high rate of violent crime - no one's ever tried to beat me up or shoot me. So, I guess it'll just be one more learning experience I'm setting myself up for.


Michael5000 said...

I was at a discussion of sexism in language once where the presenters said they simply could not imagine a language having more built-in language bias than English. And I thought, wow, these people don't know the first thing about languages....

Karin said...

Not that you should have any confusion with this, but what if you're a hermaphrodite? What does one do then?

It's like externalized and internalized sexism every time you open you mouth. I'm a woman and I'm speaking. Now I know my place.

De-chan oh, it's a good thing you're going there and not me ka.

loulee1 said...

Doesn't the fact that you are a visitor/tourist give you status?

Bezzie said...

Hee hee, a hermaphrodite. Well as long as you try not to talk like one, right?

Doug Anderson said...

I am 62 and male and taught ESL in Thailand off and on over 20 years, pro bono. I am not a trained teacher, but I found so many Thai people to be warm and friendly that I volunteered my services.

In a formal classroom, your first reaction will undoubtedly be shock and dismay because their English language skills will be dismal. If they've studied English for 10 years, you will wonder why they cannot string 5 words together into a sentence. The reason is that they had very large classes (typically 60 students), their teacher was Thai (not a native speaker) and nobody got individual instruction.

On the other hand, I found many people from Isaan, the large NE area of Thailand, had only 4 years of schooling, as their family could not afford the $6 a month for school fees and forced the kid to quit school at age 10. These people invariably had a high IQ and spoke 2 languages fluently (Thai and Lao) with Lao being their native language. English is their third language and I found Isaan people highly motivated, much more so than native Thais. I believe this is due to the extreme poverty in which they were raised, they take nothing for granted and try harder.

I have a Teach ESL web site with lots of free info at www.Learn-Faster.org/Emglish; if you sign up to my mailing list, I will send you teaching tips from me and other teachers. They won't all be relevant to your particular situation, but overall, I am sure you will find things and learn things you never thought of. There is no cost.

Doug Anderson said...

Regarding sexism in the language, Thailand is famous for its ladyboys, men who have switched gender from male to female. They are well accepted in Thailand, not an oddity as in Western cultures; they use "ka" when they speak.

"Ladyboy" is "katoey" in Thai.

When you watch TV, you will see katoeys as actors, presenters, and doing commercials. Go to a Pizza Hut, and your waitress may well be a katoey.

Many stay in male clothing most of the week, and only change for weekends or parties. These are typically "cross-dressers".

Many get the sex change operation, where a piece of the large intestine is cut out and inserted in the abdomen such that it becomes an artificial vagina; the penis is then slit and inverted into the tube; vaginal lips are fashioned from the scrotum, and the head of the penis becomes the clitoris. Yes, they can still have an orgasm, but if they take hormones to grow breasts and reduce body hair, they don't ejaculate much, if at all. By Western standards, the cost of this operation is cheap, and doesn't require 2 years of psychiatric therapy as in the US. You pay the money and get it done in an afternoon.

There are several bars in Bangkok that employ ladyboys. During my last stay there, I made it a point to interview half a dozen as many people think the idea is gross and perverted.

I found them all to be from Isaan, all bright but uneducated, and all very friendly. Some were gorgeous, and they tend to flaunt their sexuality much more than any Thai woman, who generally are quite shy about their sexuality. Every ladyboy I talked to said he knew by the age of 6 that he was a girl in a boy's body. Sad, really.

Interesting people. If you are given the opportunity, meet one.

Doug Anderson said...

About learning Thai:

When I started 20 years ago, I used books and cassettes with transliteration: the Thai is printed in English phonetics.

Eventually, I realized this is the wrong approach. Your brain focuses on the English and ignores the Thai, which is the wrong way to learn Thai.

Being a programmer, I sat down and wrote some software, Speak Easy Thai, and the result is now on the market in Thailand at 400 bookshops owned by Asia Books and B2S (in Central and Robinson department stores). You can also order it on the Internet at www.thai-culture-publishing.com as a CD-ROM or download. In Thailand, it costs only 800 baht (about $20).

The basic problem with Thai is the tones and the vocabulary; the grammar is straightforward. But the vocabulary is a bugger because the roots of the language are Sanskrit and Chinese, not European languages like Latin and Greek. This means there is nothing to hang your hat on. Worse, every word has a tone. "Seuah" means "clothing" or "tiger" depending on the tone. You might want to say "my clothing is dirty" but it comes out "my tiger is dirty" because you used the wrong tone and therefore nobody understands what you said. You would think that they would realize you used the wrong tone, but they are so used to hearing the words correctly, that they truly do not understand.

Here in Ottawa, Canada, where I live now, we have a street called "Baseline Road". The word is pronounced "base" and "line", as you would expect. A while ago, it was reported in the paper that a visitor (tourist) was angry because he kept asking for directions and nobody had ever heard of the place he wanted to go. Turns out he was pronouncing "Baseline" like the greasy "Vaseline". You will have the same problem with Thai.

Speak Easy Thai, which is the learning product I wrote, teaches Thai vocabulary by showing you a picture and the Thai word, and then speaking the word. This is the best way to learn vocabulary, as humans are visually oriented.

Do NOT learn by transliterations. You will kick yourself after you have been in Thailand a while because it is important to learn to read Thai.

Learning by audio recordings works for some people, but not generally as well as images + audio. Your brain will store the image, and the pattern of the Thai characters, and the sound all linked together.

Doug Anderson said...

Oops, there's a typo in my first comment; the link is www.Learn-Faster.org/English, but as an English teacher, you immediately spotted that, didn't you?

By the way, cats are highly prized in Thailand, especially in curries.

IamSusie said...

Wow! Doug is very knowledgeable. My advice is just the hope that they'll give you a pass for effort if you use the masculine tone instead of the feminine at first because you are a well-meaning foreigner.

T is said...

I would suggest looking into a Rosetta Stone program. I know they can be a bit pricey, but I heard that they work really well. My sisters are going to do the Spanish version... Good luck anyway.

Melissa said...

Wow, this is really interesting. Good luck! It sounds like you've got some good advice in the comments.

The Calico Cat said...

When there is a feminine or masculine version - is that when you say as a female or what you say to a female.... (Vice versa, what you say as a male or to a male.)

Olga said...

Whoa! Thats a heap of info to digest. It doesn't sound boring in the least!! You HAVE to keep blogging to tell us about everything you see!

Rebel said...

Wow Doug - Thanks for all the fantastic information! I'll have to take a look at your website.

M5K - anytime someone says "I can't imagine it could be anything other than what I believe"- you should probably start running!! What parts of English did he/she find so sexist? (the he/she thing is the only thing I could think of... we do need a gender-neutral human pronoun)

Karin - I was going to bring up the lady-boy thing, they use "ka" but I guess they don't have a truely gender neutral "I".

loulee - the fact that I will be a teacher will give me a great deal of status. However, I've been told that the high status of being a teacher comes with a high-status (conservative) dress code, but not an especially high salary. =/

bezzie =P

Susie - yeah, they're used to farangs who don't speak Thai, but still I want to do my best.

t- since I've only got a month before I go, I'm going to just finish up the CDs I've got (I'm on lesson 5 of 10) then take a class once I'm there.

Melissa - yeah, there is a lot of information!! It's going to take me a while to get through all of it!

Calico cat - the "ka / krap" thing depends on who you are, not who you're talking to, but I think there are also formal / informal ways to say things depending on who you're talking to. I haven't gotten into that yet.

Olga - boring, no; terrifying, yes! LOL.

Doug Anderson said...

Like all other Asian languages, Thai is a social language, meaning that the vocabulary changes depending on the status of the person you are talking to.

We do this in English, too, believe it or not. In court, you say, "Your Honour"; when meeting royalty, you say, "Your Majesty"; when meeting Bush, you say, "You asshole".

Thai does the same with royalty, priests, etc.

Like French and Spanish, there are different forms of "you" depending on whether the person is a close friend or not.

More Thai resources at www.Learn-Faster.org/Thai

In Thai, you can't just say "brother" or "sister"; you must say "older brother" or "younger brother", "older sister" or "younger sister", because you must show where you fit in the hierarchy.

This concept extends even to laundry. You can't wash your underwear with your towels or shirts, for example, and a bath mat must be washed separately from everything else because it's for the feet, which are considered low class.

You can't point your feet at someone when sitting cross-legged, or they will get very angry at the insult. You can't pat a kid on the head and say "nice kiddy" without risking the wrath of the mother for insulting her child by touching his head.

Doug Anderson said...

One of the bad/good things about Thailand is the sex trade. Many men go there to meet a Thai girl and marry her. Prostitution is illegal but tolerated because it brings in so much money. There are prostitutes everywhere, not just in the bars, but also in massage places, restaurants, and barber shops. There are a couple of illegal prostitution places in Bangkok that are huge hotel-like structures with many floors and rooms.

When you talk to the girls, you will discover that they are much older than they look. They might look 16 or 17, but in fact, they are 26 or 27. Thai people in general are 80% the size of Caucasians, like Filipinos.

90% of prostitutes are from Isaan, are married, have two kids, and are separated from their husbands, who were abusive when they (the husbands) got drunk. Most don't smoke or drink, and are horrified at the thought of drugs (called "ya bah" in Thai... "crazy drug").

If you ask a prostitute if she has kids, her face will light up and she will talk happily about her two kids, who are invariably back in her rural village in Isaan with her mother. She left her husband after he punched her out once too often, and went to live with her mother. After a year or two, realizing there is no future, she goes to the big city to try and find work. The pretty ones end up as prostitutes in bars and restaurants; the not so pretty in massage parlours, and the plain or ugly or deformed ones in sweat shops making clothes for foreigners on peddle-operated Singer sewing machines. There are many clothing shops in BKK offering 24-hour service on custom-made suits, dresses, shirts, etc. These are made in the numerous sweatshops.

Before you get involved with a Thai man, do some background research on the culture, because there are vast differences.

To sell my software, Speak Easy Thai, I set up a company there, Thai Culture Publishing. I don't own the company, due to foreign ownership laws. The Thai lady who does own it is from Isaan, and fits the pattern: 2 kids, abusive husband, the kids are with her mother. She was one of the few who was not a prostitute. She had to quit school at age 10. When I met her, she was a waitress in a restaurant. She struck me as being very bright, even though she spoke only a few words of English. I hired her to record some sounds for me. She blew me away with how fast she learned things. In one year, she taught herself English, computers, the Internet, Microsoft Word, how to record and edit sounds, do basic computer maintenance, etc. She now owns the company, as is the Managing Director. She taught herself marketing, and how to run a company. She has a grade 4 education, which means she can add and subtract but not multiply and divide because you learn that in grade 5 and 6, and she never went to grade 5. I think she has an IQ of about 150, smarter than me.

Thailand is an incredible country of contrasts.

If I were God, I would force everyone to spend a year there and open their eyes.

Exuberant Color said...

Wow it sounds like you are really in for an adventure. I admire you for taking the opportunity to do it. Do you have any Thai people living in your city that you could talk to that could help with the tones? Here in the Chicago area we have people from just about every country.

Libby said...

I openly admit to not having read that closely, but have you said where you're going to be in Thailand, or do you know yet? I spent two weeks in Thailand 8 years ago and I loved a lot of things about it. But in two weeks I didn't really see much of the country or learn any of the language except "welcome" "thank you" and "I don't understand." Anyway, I'm really excited to follow your adventure, although I can totally relate to the insanity/difficulty of the whole "drop everything and start over" thing. But it will all work out!! Hang in there!

Doug Anderson said...

It's funny how life works. I discovered your blog a few days ago more or less by accident. Today I discovered another by a 25-year old kid (hey, I'm 62, anyone under 40 is a kid) living in Northern Thailand near Pai. She is a single mother of a 3-year old boy, and an Iraqi war vet, and makes a decent income by selling an ebook about how to make money on the Internet. Her blog is at https://www.plimus.com/jsp/buynow.jsp?contractId=1729504&referrer=DougBangkok

gl. said...

super fascinating, rebel! i'm really going to enjoy reading about your experiences!