No longer lost in translation

Delora L. Sales-Simbajon

GOING on vacation for a period of time in another country is certainly different from relocating there. Relocating means a more intimate experience of the everyday reality of another culture. And this would often require one to embrace well the language of the new country, of the new culture.

While we, Filipinos, are consistently exposed to the English language here in the Philippines, the reality is that it is not necessarily true for other people in different parts of the world. For a number of them, loving their country and their culture also means choosing to just focus on their own language.

A few years back, I set foot in the Kingdom of Thailand and made it my home for three years. I was involved with cross-cultural mission work and it was the place for me.

But just a couple of days after breathing Bangkok air, I soon realized that unless I focus on learning the Thai language, life would be difficult for me in that part of the world. And many things that I would be learning and speaking about could also be lost in translation in the “Land of the Free.”

Within two weeks after my arrival, I suffered excruciating stomach pains. I was working with only Thai people at that time and it so happened that none of them spoke or understood English that well. (Take note that the people in Thailand are called Thai, not Thailander as most Filipinos refer to them). It was only after a lot of frustrating attempts to explain my need to see a doctor and lots of prayer within that I was finally understood. And what a breath of relief! My Thai companions finally brought me to a US-trained doctor and so I was able to converse with her in English.

The diagnosis was food poisoning. The doctor then told me: “If you want to stay in this country, do the best you can to learn the language. This is for your good.” The whole scenario intensified my desire to learn the language. After all, as I would be dealing with people in mission work, how would I relate with them if I could not speak their language, if I could not understand them?

Going to language school turned out to be a big challenge. Reality check: Thai language is tonal. There are five tones to learn. Simply put, if I say a word with the wrong tone, it could mean something entirely different from what I meant! For instance, when I say the word “mai”, depending on the tone used, I could either be saying new, wood or the negative (no, not, none). As our classes moved on to learning how to read and write in Thai, I also began to see how seemingly complicated the language was. The Thai alphabet has (surprise, surprise!) 44 consonants and at least 28 vowel forms. In fact, I remember our teacher showing our class 33 vowel combinations we needed to get familiar with! And by the way, depending on the kind of vowels used, they could either be written before or after a consonant as well as above and below it! Adding to all this complexity, there is also such a thing as common and formal Thai language. For instance, when you write or speak about royalty, you use a different set of words (formal language).

Needless to say, I had considered quitting language class several times. It seemed too much for me. But somehow the stories of other foreigners (including long-term missionaries) who had finished their language classes were a source of encouragement.

They told me that some of them even cried as they studied the language. Learning Thai may be difficult, but not impossible. Doing so in a class setting was also very helpful. My classmates were French, Korean, Japanese, Mozambican and American, who all came from different age brackets and professions. We were all intent on learning the language, and in the process, we also learned to encourage each other to continue with our studies. I must mention that I eventually had an advantage over my classmates. As I shared a house with Thai single ladies, I had ready language helpers at home. It also meant I was always speaking Thai during every waking moment.

My three-year stay in Thailand eventually came to an end. But I have continued to pay visits there; it’s almost like my second home country. My latest one was just last year with my husband. My Thai friends as well as the strangers I converse with when we were there were all quite pleased that I could still speak their language. I guess when you learn a language with both the heart and even the sacrifice to do it, the words (and yes, the tones!) can stay with you for all time.
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