It has been nearly a month since my language study has started in Bangkok and what a ride it has been. I go to school weekday mornings from 9-12 am in an intensive language course that currently covers intermediate speaking. The class is done entirely in Thai and other than me, a Korean guy, and a Malaysian Chinese couple, the rest are all Japanese students. Everyone is at least trilingual except for the teacher who is only bilingual. The atmosphere is pretty relaxed where we learn new grammar and vocabulary, but the pace can be very intense. At least 10-20 new vocabulary words/grammatical rules are presented each day. You can imagine how much that stacks up over a few weeks! If time is available, the teacher gives us tests. After class each day we are expected to hand in homework as well.
Thai is a tonal language, and so how you say it drastically effects what you are saying. It’s pretty interesting to see the Japanese (and Korean) students struggle with speaking as they come from non-tonal languages, but its equally frustrating to understand what they are trying to say to me. Because I’m on a habit of speaking with locals who speak good Thai, I’m very confused when I’m trying to follow bad Thai! There are no westerners in the class other than ‘me’ (if that counts), and so I’m able to observe a lot of Asian behaviors in the class. Everyone is super studious, polite, serious, and rarely ask questions. The poor sole Korean guy usually asks the Japanese guy next to him (who speaks fluent Korean) when he gets stuck. Many of the students have lived in Bangkok ranging from 3 to 20 years.
That is only the start of my regular day. After school, it’s time to hit the streets and practice what I’ve learned. I’m usually out practicing for an average of 3 hours but can run all the way until evening if it has been productive. You could say I’m a bit of a workaholic. There is really no end to the amount of places to speak Thai. Food courts, department stores, shops, taxi drivers, universities, church, condo manager, security, family stalls, information booth, the list goes on and on. Not only must I converse in Thai, but also read and write Thai. Reading is easy because Thai is littered everywhere. Though reading the same things can get boring quickly, so I need to move around a lot. Writing is the hardest as there are few chances to practice writing, plus it is the most difficult thing to do. Writing encapsulates all other skills – speaking, listening, and reading – to put together cohesive words and sentences. I’ve found one fried rice stall that requires you to write your order in Thai, and a waffle place that does the same which I’ve done with success. But these situations are rare in Bangkok. So this is really where homework comes into play as I write strictly in Thai and have it reviewed by the teacher.
I have found practicing outdoors in the sweltering heat very difficult, especially since Bangkok is the hottest city in the world. Therefore, my place of choice are the mega malls as they are well air conditioned and have plenty of things to explore. There is SO much to explore in Bangkok, as it has the nickname ‘concrete jungle’ for a good reason! Conversations usually revolve around asking for help, guess where I am from (nobody has gotten it right yet), introductions, how’s business, where are you from, speaking in local dialects (Isaan/Laos and Southern Thai mostly), and occasionally religious topics. Many people are open to talking, but one has to be careful not to disrupt their business or personal space (as they will rarely tell you to stop).
As a fellow Asian, I am usually assumed to be Japanese or Thai and everyone is shocked to hear that I am Canadian. I think my accent can fool enough to think I am local. This comes with both positive and negative aspects. Positive on the fact that its easy to fit in with the crowd but also negative on the fact that Thai people can be brutally honest in correcting my Thai mistakes. Perhaps they may be wondering why this Thai business person is using bad Thai!
On top of all this study, there’s also practical matters. Buying food, finding the best deals, learning how to survive, learning Bangkok, dealing with crazy weather (right now its monsoon season), sickness, paying bills, team meetings, texting friends/family, home improvement, spiritual disciplines – every day is loaded!
When I get home at night, it’s time for dinner which I usually get take-out. Then pray and ask the Lord where I need to improve. I might watch a movie or play a game if I have any time left. Finally, it’s time to shower and get ready for the next morning.
I think language study when done properly is really intense and requires one to be very devoted to it. Trying to become fluent and functional in ministry by 2 years is very difficult, especially with a tonal language like Thai. I have enjoyed the process so far and praise the Lord for his strength that carries me through each day. He reminds me that without his strength and the faith that Christ implants, I would have never made it this far. As the word declares, ‘All things are possible for him who believes’ – Mark 9:37
As a side note, Saturday is my day off, though I do like to combine it with study and exploring for fun. Sunday is with the Mahapawn Sapawn Khwai church which is completely in Thai. After service there is bible study and then a lunch with everyone, so it takes up most of my day just to keep up with Thai learning (doing church is a whole lesson in itself!).