According to my translation, an elephant was coming to fix the internet. Why not, I thought. We’re in Surin, home of the elephant festival. The Thais have them doing tricks and giving rides so why wouldn’t they be able to fix the internet? It’s plausible.
I asked a guy at the office what’s wrong with the internet. He said it was out-of-order, but a chang was coming to fix it. I heard him say chaang. What’s the difference? A lot in Thailand.
Thai is tonal language, meaning a word has different meaning depending how it’s said. There are five tones in the Thai language: flat, high, low, falling and rising. Add to the tones the way some vowels are long and some short and things become more difficult.
To put things in perspective, imagine how you change the tone of your voice at the end of a sentence to let the listener know you’re asking a question. You’re going to the meeting?, as opposed to, You’re going to the meeting. Thais change the tone of their voice with every word and that tone will determine what the word means.
When the guy at the office told me the elephant was coming to fix the internet, he was actually telling me the engineer or mechanic was coming. Once I looked it up, it made more sense. Chang with a falling tone means mechanic. Chaang with a high tone (and the long vowel) means elephant. To someone who’s been in the country for seven months, they sound the same.
Sia with a rising tone means to lose, waste or get out-of-order. If you say that same word with a low tone, it means a wealthy Chinese man. I’m sorry, but the Coke machine is a wealthy Chinese man.
Here’s one I may never understand in my two years here. If I say something is glai with a falling tone, it means it’s near. If I say it’s glai with no tone, it means it’s far away. Here’s a conversation I can see myself having in the future, translated to English.
Me: The weather is very hot. Is the store near?
Thai person: It’s far.
Me: Good! It’s near, correct?
Thai person: Correct. It’s far.
There are some tones I have to be careful with as if I don’t say them correctly, the words turn vulgar. If I say I’m having a kui with someone, it means I’m having a chat. If I mispronounce and say I’m having a kuai, it means I’m having a penis.
There are some words that have five different meanings depending on the tones. The mother of all tone lessons begins and ends with maa. With no tone, maa means to come. With a high tone, it means a horse. With a rising tone it means dog. I can’t remember the meaning of the two other tones, but that segues into my next paragraph.
How’s my Thai? It’s not good. It’s not bad, either. It helps that Thai people appreciate that I can speak it at all and compliment me after I surprise them with a full sentence. Studying a second language helps me appreciate the Hmong, Korean, Laos and Taiwanese people I knew in Eau Claire all the more. Those people have courage. Be patient with their accented English – they deserve it.