A Little Difficulty…Can I Please Live in the Matrix?

Monk in Thailand

Thai monks takes a break from his sunset sweeping

So, I’ve started taking Thai lessons – just one class so far, and yet I’ve come to this ripe conclusion: I may have been a little crazy in thinking I could learn Thai.

Thai is hard. (And I swear, I wasn’t saying that in a whiny voice…) I’m living in Thailand for four months and that should technically be enough to learn a passing fair bit of Thai, especially if you ask Benny the Irish Polygot (who claims three months is enough for conversational mastery of any language).

The thing is, as far as the tonal languages go, Thai is fairly easy from a grammar point of view. But for a non-tonal language speaker, this is a whole new ballgame and a far cry different from the romance languages I’ve already mastered (Spanish and English), my Italian comes and goes relative to my proximity to Italy, and American Sign Language really isn’t coming in too handy yet on my world travels.

A Word about Tones…

Tonal languages may use the exact same word itself to signify different words and the word meaning changes depending on the tone you use. There are five tones in Thai: low tone, mid tone, high tone, a rising tone and a falling tone.

Take the word “mai” (written in Roman English…obviously…not Thai script :) This means anything from “not” to “wood” and then “silk,” “burn,” and “new” and is a question indicator to boot!

Confused yet? I Am.

The one thing I have going for me is the fact that I love learning new languages.

Or any new skill for that matter.

I like knowledge as whole.

I also like sharing new knowledge, a slightly obnoxious quality if you’re a friend of mine who listens to me prattle on about my latest issue of National Geographic. It sounds corny, but I do believe those “knowledge is power,” all knowledge is worth having,” lines (the mysterious) they feed you.

So, with all of this in mind, the Thai language is high on my list over the next four months, and photography comes in as a close second. I won’t go so far as to pretend I’m going to master either skill in four months, but I’m in a perfect spot for learning both right now and they’re both things on my life list that I can then check off.

Street food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Gratuitous street food photo in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A shout-out is in order to Daniel from Canvas of Light, he’s my photography tutor; he’s swell. And in addition to drawing me a lovely little triangle of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed for my first lesson, the markets, wats, and people of Chiang Mai are shaping up as perfect backdrops for future photography trails!

That rounds out two of my own personal learning goals for the coming few months, what skills, knowledge, languages are you working on right now? Any fun classes or things you can cross off your own bucket list before summer?

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34 Responses to A Little Difficulty…Can I Please Live in the Matrix?

  1. Ucfniki February 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    I’m trying to learn a little of chinese so we can say please and thank you on our trip!

    • Anonymous February 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

      Nice! You’re a step ahead of me then :) You’ll be schooling me other there

  2. Magda February 9, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    I remember like two things :)

  3. Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    Thanks for the support Katrina! I had actually heard of Live Mocha, but never clicked over to the site (which I just did :) so thanks for giving that resource. I’m actually switching teachers this week so I’m hoping that the next one clicks better!

  4. Nomadic Matt February 8, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    The trick to Thai is to just hear and repeat the sound. I also like writing words out how they sound too. You’ll probably never be perfect unless you live there for awhile but when you go order white rice they will know you dont mean white knee. Lol!

    Good luck! Next time I see you, we can speak some time!

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:40 am #

      Thanks for the tips Matt! I am hoping that context and a smile will get me far when I’m speaking – will be fun to practice a bit next time we cross paths! :)

  5. Jennifer Barry February 7, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    Don’t give up yet, Shannon! I have a friend who taught English in China and she got pretty good at Mandarin after a year. I have faith that with the immersion it will start to click soon. :)

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:38 am #

      Thanks for the moral support Jennifer! Proficiency after just a year is a feat, so props to her! :)

  6. Ayngelina February 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    Wow Shannon that is impressive. I met a Thai girl who tried to explain it to be but when she was saying two different words tonally all I could hear was the same word.

    I think Spanish is much easier, come join team South America :)

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:37 am #

      You’re tempting me Ayngelina…on that note though, how long do you plan to stay in the region? :)

  7. Andrea and John February 7, 2011 at 2:33 am #

    Wow, Thai…that’s impressive. I’m struggling to learn Spanish on the fly at the moment as we travel around New Zealand. I was supposed to take a course before we left Melbourne but it got cancelled and I didn’t have a chance to enrol in another one. So I’ve got an iPad course, but it’s difficult to find time to do all the lessons. I’m pretty much just able to greet people and order some things in a restaurant. I better step it up because we arrive in South America in less than a month!

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:36 am #

      I think you’ll be safe with just the basics once you land, the hellos and food are important. Have you considered taking a week or two of everyday classes once you land? I did a week in Guatemala with a one-on-one teacher for 5 hours a day and just US $120 for week (including food and lodging)…it was amazing and took my Spanish up to a whole new level. :) Good luck though, you’re going to love South America either way!!

  8. Anonymous February 7, 2011 at 4:53 am #

    Good luck with it Shannon, I’m learning Japanese and am thankful it doesn’t involve tones. Tonal languages seem to be a whole different level and difficulty in getting your ears around understanding.

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:34 am #

      Thanks Rob! And good luck to you with the Japanese, I didn’t know that they weren’t tonal..that makes the language a whole lot more appealing now if I ever study another! :-)

  9. Shannon February 6, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    Good luck! Languages do not come very easy for me and Benny does not have me convinced yet. lol I tried Arabic once, in college. I was ok until they start leaving letter out to shorten the word. Yeah… that was fun. I’ll just stick to English and Spanish for now.

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:31 am #

      Thanks Shannon! I’m with you – Benny has a talent for languages and I’m not so sure it’s meant to be replicated by everyone! :) I can’t even imagine the difficulties with Arabic…and then shortened words…::shudder::: I’d say mastering any language is room for props, you can still travel widely with a good base of Spanish!

  10. My Kafkaesque Life February 6, 2011 at 9:58 pm #

    I’m learning Chinese now.. I mean.. not really learning in the sense that I’m going to classes, I’m doing it on my own.. so far I had minor successes. The biggest pain in the s are the tones for me… I just need my gf to pronounce for me many times til I get it. Sheesh.. Shannon, keep your head high, I’m rooting for you :)

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:33 am #

      Wow, on your own is brave so props for the successes you’ve had – and it’s wonderful that you have some built in help (the gf) when you need it. I sometimes feel stupid asking the teachers to repeat the word a million times, but your gf is obligated to help! :) Good luck to you as well!

  11. Andy Hayes February 6, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    Kudos to you for making the effort! Immersion helps, for sure. Just stick with it :0

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:27 am #

      Thanks Andy :) Now I just have to talk to some people other than Team Chiang Mai to really have that full immersions!

  12. Jill February 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    I’m and Indonesian born Chinese, you’d think I have the genes it takes to learn the language. But after years of Chinese lesson when I was in grade school my parents simply had to accept the fact that I’m tone-deaf :p I have no doubt I’ll fare just as bad in Thai.

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:29 am #

      Ooo no! That must be so rough, though I’m not sure I’m tone deaf I am beginning to wonder if I lean that way too. Hopefully it hasn’t discouraged you from languages though, the romance languages are a might bit easier for native English speakers :)

  13. Anonymous February 6, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    Wow I had no idea Thai was so difficult! I’ll stick to perfecting my French–and maybe someday delving into Spanish!

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:26 am #

      Wise choice – and you’re French is going to be near perfect by the time you leave after that long in the country, and fluency is a noble goal. I’m not fully fluent in anything but English, so I respect your quest for French! :)

      • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

        I’ve actually already left France! I spent seven months in Nice, but I’ve been in the States for the holidays and will be moving to Australia next! Certainly wouldn’t mind going back to France someday, but want to see a bit more of the world first :)

  14. Magda February 6, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Good luck with learning Thai. Don’t give up :)
    I know how hard it is. A few years a go I lived in Malaysia for 10 months and during that time I tried to pick up some Mandarin Chinese (there is a large population of Chinese people in Malaysia) and speaking was so hard. I managed to learn to write and understand about 60 signs, but pronunciation was just too hard….

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:21 am #

      Thanks for the moral support Magda! I’d say that if you were learning the written as well that you had your work cut out for you! At this point I’m sticking to oral Thai and learning with the Roman alphabet because I’m only here for a couple of months. Now the question is, have you managed to keep any of your Mandarin since you’ve left?! :)

  15. Kenan Lucas February 6, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Languages with tones terrify me. I had a friend who went to China who spoke intermediate Mandarin and she was in this one situation where she had to keep trying to say a certain word in different tones because the people she were talking to could not understand her! So she ended up saying this one word, ten or so times, each time trying to adjust the tone and until finally she conveyed the meaning she was intending.

    For me: I am busy learning Japanese for this year and my intention is too become conversational and semi-fluent. Wish me luck and have fun with your Thai studies!

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:42 am #

      See, that’s what scares me! They say when you’re learning “oh don’t worry, most times the situation will take care of any wrong words with the tones! Guess that’s not the case :)

      Good luck learning Japanese – that is no easy feat either! Are you learning the characters as well….because if so, mad props!

  16. Anthony February 6, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    Asian Languages in particular are the most difficult. The tones are the harest thing to get around. Good luck with learning Thai. I think I will stick to Italian, Spanish and French. First I just have to master Italian. I don’t think I could get my head around any Asian language.

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:26 am #

      Thank you for the encouragement Anthony – the jump into Asian languages is tough. But you also have your work cut out for you, when I learned Italian it was so tough for me to keep from confusing Spanish and Italian all of the time! :)

  17. Maria Staal February 6, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    This post made me smile.
    When I was living in York, my housemate tried to learn Thai for two years. He even went to special classes (at the university). Many were the times he would come down to the kitchen after studying the whole afternoon, complaining bitterly about how difficult it was to learn Thai and how he would probably never ‘get’ it.
    So I can imagine what you’re going through. All the best of luck with your studies, Shannon!! :)

    • Anonymous February 9, 2011 at 9:24 am #

      Thanks Maria :) It is truly one of the toughest undertakings for me in a long while. Thanks for the support and encouragement!

  18. Katrina February 6, 2011 at 6:55 am #

    Saw the title of this post on Facebook and thought I might point you to Benny’s website, but I see you know about him already, lol. A friend of mine bought his language hacking guide and said it really helped him in his travels. It was more about attitude than mechanics. But maybe you know all that already!

    Something else that may be of use is Livemocha.com. Of course, if you’re there and already taking a class, it could be redundant. On the other hand, maybe you’ll connect with someone who teaches in a way that “clicks” just right for your western mind. ;)

    Wow, sounds like a challenge — but a fun one. Keep us posted! :D

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