Then Why the *#%! Did You Decide to Learn It?

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. 

Ugly American 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.


0 thoughts on “Then Why the *#%! Did You Decide to Learn It?

  1. hey, not all engineers are like that! anyway, i think i know what you mean, but sadly this has been happening for quite a long time — people come in to explore a culture and, seeing things that they do not accept, feel the need to change it. i think this arises from a feeling of superiority — their way of life must surely be superior to these “savages” living here, and so it is their duty to change things to make them better. this is certainly the wrong attitude, and simply reflects remarkable ignorance. the field of anthropology, which faces with this issue constantly, now stress the importance of being a passive observer. however, many researchers still struggle over the question of how to passively observe a culture without — by simply being there — influencing it. so i wonder if, as much as we try to not change other cultures but instead absorb them, simply being there does effect changes?

  2. Hah. I love that book. I read that my freshman year in high school. When I moved from the US to India I kept most of my clothes behind and made as much room as I possibly could for my books. That book was one of those possessions I carried with me and still have to this day… Love it. I’ve always been in awe at the English language how many funny rules and exceptions we have and how I would even begin explaining let alone teach the language to someone. Hats off to your teacher for so much patience. How could a person compare a whole language to a piece of furniture. that is just beyond me. Sounds like someone who is stationed there and just doesnt want to be there. Or maybe he’s in Thailand but he’s the kind of tourist who wants his home comforts in a different country? Its like going to Mcdonald’s while you’re visiting Cancun? or ordering a cheeseburger when you’re in Japan??? I donno those kind of tourists really make me feel sad…

  3. Well, the Thai language is fairly difficult to learn to start with. But comparing it with an old sofa is not too good an analogy. (Hey, how about throwing out their old FIATs?) I guess learning any new skills needs to start with a proper attitude. And arguing with the teacher in a unproductive way sure gets the negative attention from your classmates. I hope someone would eventally shed some light on this nuthead.

  4. I guess there’s always varying degrees to which someone is willing (or not) to adapt to a new environment. Did the problem student want to learn the language or is he being “forced to”? I guess your friend has been too polite and at some point she will end up snapping at him (probably in a rather polite way but that will be better than nothing!).

  5. I agree with you Chris and also with a couple of the posters comments above. First of all, while not excusing the behaviour, I do think it is difficult for those who are in some way ‘forced’ to be in a strange country and ‘have’ to learn the language, especially if they find it difficult to learn. However, taking out your frustration on the teacher and disrupting the class is no way to deal with it and it’s not fair on those students who ‘do’ want to get on and learn. As for people who do ‘choose’ to go and live in another country, I fully agree that they should accept that countries culture, and not just the language either. If people don’t like the way things are done in a particular country – why do they choose to go and live there!?

  6. Every language ahs rules and exceptions to those rules. That is part of the charm and flavor of a different language. I’m in awe of those that undertake to learn a new language. Unfortunately this student has not gone into the study with the right attitude. Too bad really. Italy has lots of buildings that are in shambles and about to fall over – but no one is going in and suggesting they bulldoze the colosseum to put up apartment buildings.

  7. Let’s face it…some people are just jerks. Regardless of the reasons why they are trying to learn the language (or anything else), they won’t make it easy on themselves or anyone else. Teachers run into these types of students all the time. Patience is the only way to approach it, hoping in the back of your mind that they will find another class in the very near future and pester someone else. Another possibility for Khruu Kitiya is to take the student aside and try to determine the reasons for this behavior. It could be frustration with the difficulty of Thai, difficulty with language acquisition in general, having to learn rather than wanting to learn, who knows?

  8. @jandsschultz –  @Chatamanda –  @Dezinerdreams –  @TheLatinObserver –  @yang1815 –  @decembriel –  @CurryPuffy –  Thanks for your comments. One question that came up a lot was around whether the student was there of his own free will. While I don’t know the answer for certain, this is the type of school that is composed mostly of voluntary students. I don’t think they have a lot of corporate clients, for example, who would mandate training for short-term expats.@murisopsis –  And the Italian language is not free of its quirks. All languages that attach a feminine, masculine or neutral prefix to nouns are in need of “fixing” on the basis of that quirk alone!@gweirdo –  Although sometimes it is interesting to go into McDonald’s in different countries simply to see the interesting localized menu items. They have a McRice burger here (pork patty) that has rice cakes instead of a bun. Also a pork and basil burger, since most Thais don’t eat a lot of beef.@kunhuo42 –  Interesting points about the anthropological effect. Would not be surprised to find that there is influence rubbing off on both sides of any meeting of cultures. Of course, that’s a bit different than suggesting the government impose changes to “improve” the language! =D As for the engineer slur, it isn’t all of them, to be sure. But people who have a more analytical mindset tend to need to be, from my observations, able to fit things into a logical framework. We have one expat friend who constantly has questions about Thai culture – that curiosity is a good thing – but is often unsatisfied with the answers he gets because they don’t map into a logical construct that makes sense to him.

  9. English is one of the most difficult languages to learn, seems that we have more “exceptions” than “rules”. Try explaining To Too and Two to a beginning English student!! Or how about There Their and They’re??? I know just the type of person that your teacher was dealing with, they were the same wives who were MISERABLE in Thailand because no one spoke their language or they didn’t like the quality of the fresh fruit at the market or a hundred other things they found to complain about!! Instead of embracing the wonder and joy of Thailand they spent their entire tour there lamenting the  fact that it wasn’t just like home. No wonder we were called The Ugly Americans!!! Ruth Ann

  10. Is there such a term? Nation-centrism? I know sometimes I think, “why don’t they do it like we do? it makes more sense?” but then after learning more about the culture, I realize the way they do it really makes more sense than the way we do it. There’s so much background in cultures, much more than we have in the US. Something that strikes me every time I think about it:Think about this.When we in the US think about “old”, we think “wow, that building has been up since 1700.”In Japan, we think “1700? not that old. This inn has been here serving travelers since 1100.”In China, we think, “1100? not that old. This castle has been here since 1500BC.”Age of buildings aside, it gives us insight into the cultures these structures exist in. Who are we, who think 300 years is old, to pass judgment on a culture five times older?

  11. Another thing that could’ve been told that student was that he should be thankful he wasn’t learning English. Maybe that would’ve straightened him out in a heartbeat. But it’s true. Some things just have to be accepted at face value. I heed that same advice whenever I study Hebrew.

  12. That is absolutely bizarre. I find linguistics super interesting but even if one is not into linguistics, one still needs to accept the language for what it is. All words and letters have history behind them and you can’t discount any of them!

  13. @Redlegsix – And this is something that really amazes and impresses me, Ruth Ann – you and your husband were lived in Thailand more than three decades ago and you obviously had such an open mind to the experience because you have such a wealth of memories of those days.  On another note, the wives were complaining about the quality of fresh fruit?  Wow, the fruit we get here is absolutely amazing – provided you like tropical fruits unknown in the US in those days!  =D@arenadi – Good points, Michael.  I think it is hard to appreciate just how thoroughly marinated we are in our own culture and the viewpoints and values that come with that marinade.@zionlover – Amen to that!  English is not an easy language.  Ironically, I think English was probably the common language the student and teacher were using whenever his Thai was insufficient (which it probably was at just two months’ of studying) to express his point.@TheCheshireGrins – What a shame more people don’t think like you…

  14. just reminds me how I tried to adjust myself to blend into living the Canadian way when I first moved to Vancouver 14 years ago….over the years I also saw lots of people who didn’t want to change and accept the cultural difference, and move back to their home countries, for those who’re unable to move, living unhappily and complaining every time I see them till today….I just don’t understand…

  15. GRRRR This sort of stuff REALLY makes me angry! That man is clearly a clueless nitwit that not only believes himself more intelligent than the people he has chosen to live with, he is also clueless about the way that language and society work in general. In modern history, the only country to successfully give ‘sweeping’ (read: very, very minor) language laws was North Korea, and most of those were later reversed anyways. Language is a HUGE part of someone’s identity, and regardless of redundancy and difficulty, to reject certain parts of a language (especially those as deep and submerged as phonological processing) is not only useless, it is downright offensive!I know Thais are a peaceful people, but I would encourage her to punch this fellow in the face.

  16. @agmhkg – That’s a good point.  I recall that there is a large population in Richmond that, by the looks of it, you would never know they had left Hong Kong!  =D@gweirdo – Exactly.@marc11864 – Exactly, too!@secade – Regarding your suggestion, I have a hard time imagining Khruu Kitiya punching anyone.  Ha ha…

  17. Ha! I was going to ask what the students country of origin was, and advise your tutor to point out all the ridiculous aspects of their language if they wanted to compare. But when you mentioned Italian I was like, “Ahhhh.” It all made sense. I lived there for a month or two, and though I love it and the people, they’re the sort of people who think that their home town is the epicenter of the universe…so there’s no reasoning with them. There’s not much you can do about that. All languages are messed up and organic, that’s what makes them fun. I guess all she can do is smile and nod. I feel her pain though. My comp class always has one of those to. I try to make it a ‘learning experience’ but sometimes you just want to gag them. ^^

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