Thursday afternoon I was chatting with Khruu Kitiya (“Khruu” = “Teacher”), my Thai tutor, and she told me about her other job. While she has a few private students like me, her primary job is working at one of the ubiquitous Thai language schools here in Krungthep. As Khruu Kitiya explained, her Level 3 class, the one in which writing and reading Thai is first introduced, has been giving her trouble. Of the six students from six different countries, one of them is proving to be difficult.
It seems that there is always at least one in every class. He (almost always, it is a “he”) asks too many questions, leads the conversation down rabbit trails, and is always demanding the teacher justify why the language is the way it is. As near as I can tell from my own experience, it is the analytical types (yes, you engineers!) who seem to have the most trouble just letting go and accepting that there are some things in this world – and particularly some things in languages – that just don’t have a rational explanation. They are called the exceptions to the rules.
In this case, Khruu Kitiya’s one student spent a half-hour debating with her during class about why the Thai government should just march right in (between coups) and fix all the problems with the language. Those unarticulated consonants? Get rid of them! Those confusing spellings that come from Sanskrit? Change them! He wanted to know why, if the language had these “problems,” someone didn’t fix them.
Khruu Kitiya, with extraordinary patience that is characteristic of the Thais, tried to explain that even if the government wanted to change the language, they couldn’t. The language is a deep part of the Thai people’s culture and it is the way it is because it is a reflection of the many cultures and people who eventually became a part of the country. (In fact, as a historical side note, the Thai government has tried to change the language before under the military leader Field Marshal Pibulsonggram during the World War II era. The changes did not stick.)
The student used the analogy of an old sofa. If you had an old sofa in your house and you knew it no longer was useful, why wouldn’t you just through it out? Needless to say, Khruu Kitiya was not won over by that analogy.
What I don’t understand is why someone would come to a country and choose to study the language if he or she was not prepared to accept it on its own terms. Why would someone be so arrogant as to think that his or her perspective on what was “right” or “wrong” for another language was superior to the way the language already is?
While Khruu Kitiya wanted to remain non-confrontational, I encouraged her to ask the student next time – in a friendly and non-confrontational way – whether in his country (Italy) it is considered polite to go into someone else’s house and criticize their furniture. She could explain that in Thailand, one doesn’t go into a house as a guest and then suggest the sofa be thrown out.
Anyhow, this is the type of thing that keeps me from hanging out with many expats. Whether it be the language or a dozen other things, there are many people who seem to lack any understanding of how to appreciate the culture they have chosen to live in.