« Chapter Two | Main | Never Eat At A Place Called Mom’s »

Thai Girl Tattle: Present Tense... Future Perfect!

...Yes, English with its many linguistic derivations, Greek, Latin, Germanic and so on is immensely rich and complex and it’s also liberally garnished with idiotic modern idiom which makes it even more difficult.

Thus a ‘makeover’ is a made up word about makeup. We chop down a tree before we chop it up. When the alarm comes on we say it goes off. Then we wind up a clock to get it started but wind up a company to close it down. The confusions are never ending...

Small wonder that Thais find it so difficult to understand and master the English language.

Andrew Hicks muses on language difficulties.

Do please visit Andrew's Web sites

Staying married is never easy at the best of times as everyone knows. Major cultural differences are an added problem but language can sometimes be the biggest one. How can you understand each other unless you share a near perfect knowledge of a common language.

My skill in Thai is limited so Cat has to do the hard work of bridging the linguistic gulf between us and she does it pretty well. In fact she has far outstripped her English teachers at the village school and they are hugely impressed by her fluency.

Misunderstandings between us because of language happen rarely but when they do it’s usually because verb tenses in English are so horribly complex. We have twelve tenses with labyrinthine rules that are readily broken which overwhelms most Thais as the Thai language has no tenses at all.

‘He has a nice car.’ Present tense. ‘He has bought a new car.’ Perfect tense.

‘Will he have bought a new car?’ That’s ‘future perfect’… if I remember correctly!

‘Mama go market,’ says Cat to me as she shoots out of the door.

‘You mean she’s going to go or she’s gone?’ I reply, trying to be sure as I run after her.

‘I tell you already!’ says Cat. ‘You farang, you talk too mutt!’

I know farang always talk too much but while the present’s tense, if I could perfect my Thai or Cat her English, the future could be almost perfect.

If Cat has transcended her teachers despite their Masters degrees in English, why is the general standard of English so low in Thailand?

I once met a senior teacher and the only thing he managed to say, when proffering a chair was, ‘Siddow pree’. From then on he could say nothing and Cat had to act as our interpreter.

Peter tells me of a local headteacher who got funds to build a library and so built himself a private office. On the outside of the door is a sliding notice which he changes as he goes in and out. Despite protests from his colleagues, it says, ‘Is’ and ‘No Is’!

At another school we visited, nicely painted as a permanent English language display hanging along the passage way are the words ‘postman’, ‘foot’, ‘brather’ and ‘annona’.

I’ve done a fair bit of voluntary teaching and helped many a child with their homework round here in the village and they do seem to find English terribly difficult. I accept that they just wanted me to do their homework for them and weren’t interested in learning anything… that’s normal. But what’s less explicable is that the exercises set for the homework were always several years ahead of the actual achievement level of the children.

I’m sure I wasn’t coaching dummies… they were simply floundering in water that had been made much too deep for them. No doubt the teacher was storming ahead through the book at a set pace and couldn’t slow down as this would be an admission of failure to achieve. As a result the kids were floundering and dispirited.

Yes, English with its many linguistic derivations, Greek, Latin, Germanic and so on is immensely rich and complex and it’s also liberally garnished with idiotic modern idiom which makes it even more difficult.

Thus a ‘makeover’ is a made up word about makeup. We chop down a tree before we chop it up. When the alarm comes on we say it goes off. Then we wind up a clock to get it started but wind up a company to close it down. The confusions are never ending.

Even worse, the Thais have insuperable problems with pronunciation. ‘Rice’, ‘house’, ‘horse’, ‘fish’ and ‘snake’ are impossible for many of them. ‘The sa-nake wen-t into the how to ea-t rai.’

Chinese speakers too have similar problems with sound clusters and word endings but when I went there as one of the first foreign visitors in 1978 shortly after the Cultural Revolution our guides spoke ponderous but fluent English. They had never met a foreigner of any sort before and had learned solely from books and listening to radio broadcasts.

I’m also intrigued that in Cambodia the level of English encountered in the street is far better than in Thailand. The little girls selling postcards at Angkor Wat chat happily and are totally at ease in the English language. No, they didn’t learn it at school… they’re too poor to go to school, they said. Talking about this to a Japanese man I met, he then spoke to one of them in Japanese and she responded fluently.

The more needy you are, the cleverer you have to be? No I don’t think that explains it. Plenty of Thais desperately need a leg-up into a better job through better English.

As another example, in Phnom Penh the motorbike taxi driver who picked me up at the frenetic central market when I got back from Kampot elicited my whole life history from me as we rushed through the traffic jams back to Maria’s place. This gave him the opportunity to offer his services for the rest of the day but he was gracious and friendly when I declined.

In Malaysia or Singapore, even far up country in Nigeria, people speak good English. Thailand did well to avoid being colonized but now has a lot of ground to make up. Even so, Cambodia was colonized by the French and Indonesia by the Dutch, yet the standard of English seems to be higher there, despite their economies being less developed.

So what’s the big problem in Thailand?

Though good English opens the door to many a job, is there a cultural resistance to absorbing something so foreign? Could it be that English is an Everest too high? It’s easy enough to learn a few words but is functional English just too difficult?

Thai kids often have an unspoken portfolio of words but it seems to be limited to ‘door’, ‘table’, ‘book’, ‘aeroplane’, and so on. It’s never ‘a book’, ‘an aeroplane’ or ‘the tables’. Thai has no articles or plurals and they just don’t seem to get the idea.

In my teaching I've often tried drilling standard questions.

‘What’s this?’ Answer… ‘It’s a car.’ Over weeks of repetition, this simple response still seemed so desperately difficult. ‘What colour is it?’ ‘It’s a red,’ they’d reply.

And speaking is just so embarrassing! Many Thais even in upmarket shops seem paralysed by shyness at the prospect of actually uttering something in English to a foreigner.

Until I hit sixty and had free eye tests in England, I used to go into ‘Beautiful Optical’, a big opticians in Sukhumvit, the tourist epicenter of Bangkok. It looks as if they haven’t had a customer since I was there last year and they rush to throw open the door as I approach. Milky white beauty queens all of them, they surround me as they edge me towards the desk, wai-ing humbly and smiling anxiously.

I produce my broken glasses.

‘I’m from Surin and an elephant trod on my specs,’ I say jovially. They all nod in solemn incomprehension.

One tests my eyes. Like the driving test it takes about a minute. Another helps me choose a frame. Yet another sits me down and measures my nose. Then they sit me on a couch and ply me with salty orange juice and haggle hard, decimating the price of the glasses, knocking off percentages with a small calculator until at last I smile. I wasn’t haggling anyway but the price has been brutally cut without a word being spoken.

They’re sweet and embarrassed as if I’m the only farang who’s ever come their way. The deal done, they all try to open the door for me and wai at the same time. It’s raining as I plunge outside into the heat and I nearly slip and break my new glasses on the slippery tiles of the sidewalk.

In many places where you might expect a reasonable level of English, you’ll often be disappointed. I use a branch of a major bank in Sukhumvit nearby and nobody seems to speak a word of English. Instead they huddle in a corner and look down uncomfortably whenever a farang walks in. The other day the ATM outside wouldn’t do a money transfer for me and I had to go in to ask for their help. The girl was all smiles and came out and wordlessly explained what I didn’t understand. The ATM screen which says, ‘Insert number of bill’ was supposed to mean, ‘Enter the amount to be transferred’. Couldn’t a major bank do better than that?

In the sixties, Japanese English was a joke but then they got their act together so as to sell more of their stuff. Thailand’s commercial world hasn’t got there yet though. Outside another big opticians shop I saw a big slogan reading, ‘Living in a vibrant world where every eyeful stimulates’. Thai Airways recently ran a campaign saying, ‘Buy One, Get One’. The firecracker I bought said, ‘Warning… shoots flaming balls with reports’.

I sit in the visa office in Bangkok under a sign that reads, ‘The visa extension process paid only fees, do not believe anyone.’

I have to produce to them a medical report which certifies that I am ‘free of dangerous step of tuberculosis’ and of ‘filariasis (step that causes disgust to society)’, and that I am ‘free of any defect’. Furthermore their leaflet says, ‘A foreigner who…wishes to re-enter Thailand during the validity period of his/her existing approval will expire immediately.’ Sounds worrying!

The menu in a smart restaurant offers ‘fried special wild bear in spicy taste’ and ‘soured telly vermicelli with thaw’. Yes, I love the menus.

At the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok I saw a big notice which said, ‘Do not dangle any doll’, and at the Pha Thaem National Park at the top of the unfenced cliff was a cryptic notice reading, ‘No Poke’. No, it’s not fair to poke fun, especially when my Thai language skills are even worse, but still I do wonder why!

The leaflet for the elephant fair in Surin told us that the show begins ‘with the Surin deva on the back of charming elephant evacuating from the clouds’. Perhaps this was to do with the fear of losing face. While someone was clever enough to have a good shot at writing a brochure, to get it looked at by one of the many native speaking English teachers in the town could have been humiliating. Instead it wasn’t checked and a greater public embarrassment resulted.

Governments have been well aware of the extent of the problem and that the obvious answer is better English teaching in schools. There’s often talk of recruiting more native speaking teachers with better qualifications, but then they’re reluctant to pay them properly. Salaries are extremely low and the visa hassles that applicants are put through are calculated to deter the most determined applicant. Why would any decent foreign teacher bother with all that?

In reality there can be no quick fix and any real improvement in overall standards will take a generation at least. First you need an army of teachers who can actually speak English and until these have been trained and put in post, there’ll be little if any improvement. That’s where resources should be focused though… in the teacher training colleges.

Meanwhile Cat and I are absorbing each other’s languages slowly but surely. As we get to understand each other better, most of the tensions are now way back in the past.

Past tense yes, but can I claim present perfect?

Maybe not yet awhile, though is there any such thing in life anyway? I’ll have to check my English grammar book.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.