The Thai/English signal

“Speak (Thai), damn it!” – American redneck

The battle of speaking in a foreign land continues every day and it’s the days they speak my language that it can be at its worst.  When Thai people try to speak English to me, I realize how difficult it must be for them to understand me because I understand their Thai a lot better than their English.

Here’s a real conversation.

Thai person: Uu ah wery keen.

Me (in Thai): I don’t understand.

Thai person (speaking more slowly): Uu ah wery keen.

Me: Say again, please.

Thai person (even slower): Uh ah wery keen … jai dii.

Because this person spoke Thai at the end of the last sentence, I finally understand what she’s trying to say.  You are very kind.

Me: Oh!  Kind.  I understand.

I say that.  I think, Oh!  You’re speaking English … my language.  I wish I’d known. 

Conversations like this happen all the time and I’m too “kind” to tell them, “Just speak Thai!  I understand it better than your English.”

There needs to be some sort of signal to let the person you’re speaking to know you’ve switched languages.  Many times people will mix the two languages in one sentence.  This works when talking with fellow Americans (“Let’s gin some kao.”), but not when trying to understand Thais.  It’s like hitting a nice drive off the tee and realizing as you approach your ball there’s a creek in the middle of the fairway.  If you’d known that in the first place, you would have approached your shot differently.

Of course, I realize my Thai must be equally difficult to understand.  I went into a 7-Eleven recently to ask for directions.  After I asked where the internet café is, the clerk smiled, went to the back and asked a co-worker to help.  There was no attempt to understand my accent.

This situation is rare.  Most of the time people are more than happy and patient to understand me and help.  It’s just one more of those little things that is opening my mind to new empathies.


2 thoughts on “The Thai/English signal

  1. I’ve learned to ask people the following “Are you speaking Thai, Esan or English?” Can’t understand either one, but at least we’ll know which language you are speaking!

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