CMF missionary to Thailand, Caleb Phillips, shares some recent challenges of learning the Thai language....
We all have problems with tone. By “we” I mean missionaries and by “tone” I do not mean angry, sad, or sarcastic. I grew up speaking a language that is based in vocabulary. Using different words conveys meaning. Tones convey mood. The only problem is, that is not the case for the majority of the world’s 6,913 languages.
Vocabulary is conveyed through various tones (rising, falling, monotone, lambda, and inverted lambda are the tones in Thai). One can make the sound “pak” but depending on the tone could convey one of three possible words. To answer your question: Yes, it is confusing. To answer your second question: Yes, I get tones wrong all the time. Here is an example.
When I talk about buying something for another person I would use this sentence “I buy this thing for my (friend, wife, or child)”. The word “for” in Thai in this context is pronounced “hai” (it sounds like our greeting “hi”). The word should have an inverted lambda. Also I would get confused between the word for wife and name give in this culture to talk about Jesus. You probably see where this is going.
So one day Luke and I walk to our local market to buy mango and sticky rice for Christy (we do this on an every other day basis). We always buy from the same lady so we can create a relationship with her. One day I ordered the mango and sticky rice and stated that “I buy this mango and sticky rice for my wife because she really likes it”. You know that look you get when you try to explain football to your girlfriend or girls you try to explain to your guy that chick flicks really are not all just the same movie with different actors. I realized later that I had actually said this “I buy this mango and sticky rice and I am allowing Jesus to have some because he is in love with it”. See, now you are giving me that look too.
Let me set the record straight. If Jesus wanted to have mango and sticky rice he would not need my permission. And I am not totally sure if Jesus loves mango and sticky rice to begin with (but, I am pretty sure he does). A few days later I realized my problem, proceeded to go buy more mango and sticky rice, and try to correct my problem. The lady gave a deep “Oh!” (As if I finally turned on the light bulb) and she understood, I think.
Language learning is a difficult and sometimes frustrating process. However, I am more than willing to make a few mistakes so I can make friends, gain their trust, and eat mango and sticky rice.