Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Overcoming language barriers in a new culture

When I came to Thailand, the first thing that I did was study Thai. I enrolled myself in a language school in Bangkok and spent the large part of my day pining away at the Thai language – grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and eventually , reading and writing Thai characters. Fortunately, I somewhat have a gift for language because I managed to pick it up rather fast. A few months later, I could read simple writings, order my food at the restaurant, negotiate prices at the market place, and understand the fights that occurred on Thai TV drama.

Nonetheless, people told me that the Thai that I was learning was not going to be the Thai that people in the Northeast, where I would end up working, were using. People in the Northeast didn’t speak Thai, they said. They spoke Isan. What? Isan! What’s that? It’s like Laotian, they said. I was a little bit worried. How was I going to understand them if we didn’t speak the same language?

Still, I persisted with learning Thai because it was the national dialect. After my language preparation time was over, which consisted of five months of studying at the language center and another three months of self-study, I packed up my belongings and moved up to the Northeast. I was expecting to find myself in a totally different country with a different language, but it turned out to be a lot less scary than I thought. As it turned out, people in the NE did speak Thai. And they did understand what I was saying. I also understood what they were saying, that is, unless they spoke Isan.

Isan is the local dialect of the people of the Northeast, which is the biggest region of Thailand. It’s comprised of many provinces. And the Isan spoken in Khon Kaen isn’t necessarily the same as the Isan spoken in Sakon Nakhon or in Nong Bua Lamphu. Still, it was the Isan language, and people who spoke Isan generally understood each other. People in this region converse with each other using the Isan dialect. However, in official settings, ceremonies, the classrooms, and the like, people used the “Central language,” which is the dialect used by the people in Bangkok and the central region of Thailand. I was grateful for this reality.

It’s been over two years since I’ve lived in the NE, and if I were asked whether I could speak Isan yet, I’d have to truthfully say that I still can’t. Isan dialect has its local vocabulary, and its own method of intonation, which I have not been able to catch on yet. Not that I’ve actually tried to learn. I’m just happy to be semi-fluent in the language that I started out with.

Still part of me wishes I could speak Isan. I envy my assistant who is from the Northeast and can make children laugh in the colloquial language. I get frustrated when I go visit the elderly in the village and have to pretend to understand their answers to my question, which are almost always spoken in Isan.

Right now, I have not made it a goal yet to be able to speak Isan. Although, I do find that as the days go by, I’m beginning to understand the Isan more, sort of like the way the old folks understand my central Thai but don’t speak it. There’s less guessing or pretending going on than before.

Indeed, to be able to communicate in the same language is so important to building relationships and intimacy. It is a challenge on the part of foreign missionaries like myself to overcome barriers of language, culture, customs, and worldviews. It is a daunting task, but it can be done if we are willing to listen and be patient. Eventually, that word that the people pronounce so differently from the way you’ve learned in school will suddenly sound familiar and natural. And you don’t even realize that it’s being pronounced in a different way.

Nong Bua Lamphu, 1 June 2010

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