International Writers Magazine:
The lesson was over.
Pra Kru Bah, the last warrior monk in Thailand, was teaching me the Thai
martial art of Muay Thai. But in the process, I was learning Thai language.
This experience left me with no doubt that Jab Koh, meant,
grab the neck. Kaoh was knee. And an incredibly painful
experience the previous day had already taught me that Taeng
meant thrust or stab.
Tied in Surin
Studying with Cambodian Holy-men in the Khmer speaking region of
Thailand leaves the Brooklyn Monk speechless.
built monk grabbed me by the back of the neck, yelling Jab
Koh. He pulled me toward him, and his knee crashed into
my solar plexus. Taeng kaoh! he shouted. I would have
collapsed, but he tightened his grip on the back of my neck till
I thought my vertebrae would shatter. Jab Koh! he said.
Then he hit me with the knee again. Taeng kaoh!
Tough love? Spoil the rod and spoil the child? Maybe, but the Pra Kru
Bah language training program is clearly not for everyone.
This anecdote, which is 100% true and I have the bruises to prove it,
was just one of many such ditties I recorded in my linguistic diary, documenting
my own experience of learning the Thai language. Someday, I hope
that my notes will help further the study of linguistics and help to refine
language acquisition theory, ultimately resulting in a change in the way
languages are taught.
My full time job is writing books and magazine articles about adventure
travel and martial arts. I also do some martial arts shows on TV, movies,
and web TV. As an apparent contradiction to this line of work, I have
an academic background in applied linguistics, which I studied for a period
of four years at the University of Mainz, in Germersheim, Germany. Linguistics
is a hobby which occupies much of my mental energy, but which doesnt
pay particularly well. For this reason, I have to spend countless hours
in the gym, keeping my biceps as big as my head, so I can eat.
Thai is my ninth language, but it is the one I have studied in the most
unorthodox way. At present, I am probably only 30% fluent. This means,
when people are talking directly to me, about a subject I have knowledge
of and where there is an established context, I understand up to 50%.
But, as soon as people are talking to each other, or to me with no context,
or talking at all, my comprehension drops, until I am only understanding
individual words, such as Jab Koh!
My experience with Thai language began four years ago, with a three month
stay in a monastery, on the Burmese border, studying Muay Thai with a
venerable monk, Prah Kru Bah. During the next three years, I worked in
Thailand a total of four months, as a journalist, but never had the time
or money to attend Thai classes. Finally, six months ago, I began attending
classes at AUA Rachadamri, which employs the ALG (Automatic Language Growth
Method) of language teaching. The method stresses listening, rather than
speaking, and has revolutionized my own approach to language learning.
My work takes me in and out of Thailand, and I normally dont get
to study for more than one or two weeks at a time, with months in between,
spent working in other countries. Much of my time is spent in Cambodia,
where I speak the language with approximately 70% fluency.
Most recently, the first observation I made upon returning to Thailand
was that ten weeks of working in Cambodia, didnt effect my Thai
language all of that much. If anything, after two or three days of classes
my listening was pretty much back to where it was or in some ways better.
What I do notice, however, is L2 to L3 interference, meaning that when
I try to speak Thai, Khmer words come out of my mouth. A further observation
is that interference effectively only occurs in speaking. The effect on
listening is negligible. Often, it takes a moment to realize what language
someone is speaking, but then the brain switches gears and understands.
One reason for the difficulties is probably because my Thai language skills
arent as developed as they could be. Another reason could be that
the linguistic triggers, cultural linguistic triggers, are similar. In
other words many of the sites, smells, and situations encountered in Cambodia
on a given day are also confronted in Thailand, triggering the same linguistic
responses. One more issue is the similarity of vocabulary. Many Thai words
are similar to Khmer words (actually are of Khmer origin). But, the more
I study the more I realize the languages are very different.
I find that I begin speaking a Thai sentence, but as soon as I come to
a Khmer word, the rest of the sentence comes out in Khmer. For example,
Kao IQ dee, kao chilat na! as soon as I got to the word chilat,
which to my ear sounds the same in both languages, the rest of the sentence
came out in Khmer. Numbers are also an issue. The tens, from thirty to
ninety are almost identical and sometimes this triggers a switch in mid-sentence.
Normally when people ask me how similar the two languages are, I use the
analogy of the similarity between Italian and Spanish. But as I get deeper
into my study of Thai, I realize the languages are extremely different.
If you are speaking Spanish, and slip into Italian, it is possible that
no one will even notice. Esa es mi casa. Questa
e mi caza. Its not terribly far apart. Beyond that, the syntax
of Italian and Spanish are similar: Subject first, followed by the verb,
adjectives come after the noun, subject/adjective agreement by gender
All of these elements are the same.
Thai and Khmer do not share identical syntax and grammar. As I understand
the origins of the two languages, Thai comes from a Tai dialect spoken
in Szeuan Banha, in Yunnan province of China. Khmer comes from India.
The similarities between the languages are only similarities of vocabulary,
borrowed from Khmer to Thai.
A better analogy, therefore, for the similarity between Thai and Khmer
would be the similarity between Chinese and Korean. Korean uses many loan
words from Chinese, perhaps as high as twenty to sixty percent of
the vocabulary. But the grammar, syntax, and sentence structure of Korean
is completely different from Chinese. In terms of origin, they are marginally
related (Korean coming from a now defunct dialect spoken in the country
of Manchu Gwo which no longer exists. ). Some superficial students of
the languages would make a faulty assumption that the similarities in
vocabulary suggested a similar origin. This, of course would be wrong.
(To see an example of this mistake, see my article, On Learning
the Awful Korean Language. If you are interested in mistakes made
by semi-prominent linguists see also my articles On Learning the
Khmer Language, and On Learning the Awful Chinese Language,
which are all available for free, online. They are full of linguistic
mistakes. ) I discontinued the Awful Language series after
repeated death threats made by angry Khmers. The long-awaited Awful
Thai Language will never be written. Instead, I will write semi-intellectual
pieces about Thai language.
ALG (Automatic Language Growth), the teaching method applied at AUA Rachadamri
Thai program in Bangkok, was developed by Dr. J. Marvin Borwn, who based
his language acquisition theory on early theories, such as The Silent
Way or Natural Language, which stress listening as the key to learning.
ALG teaches learners to ignore words and focus on communication.
If you could ignore the words, there would be little or no similarity
between Khmer and Thai. So, a learner who is tripping over the similarities
between the two languages is obviously too focused on words.
In Surin I am living at a Buddist Temple, sharing a room with a Khmer
monk, I have been friends with for years. Surin belonged to Cambodia until
250 years ago, and today, Khmer, Lao, Thai, and Kuy are widely spoken
in the area, with most individuals speaking at least two to three of these
language. The Kuy tribal people are usually the only ones who speak all
Inside the temple, about a quarter of the monks are actually from Cambodia.
Nearly all of the rest are Surin Khmers, who grew up bilingual. I am the
only native speaker of English, and my friend, Prah Song is the only monk
who speaks enough English to hold a conversation. As a result, the monks
are constantly switching between Khmer and Thai. Some of the Khmer monks
are recent arrivals who havent learned Thai yet, so it is obligatory
to speak Khmer with them. Most of the Khmer monks would prefer to speak
Khmer, because they feel more comfortable in that language. And many of
the Surin Khmers are excited to speak their home language with a foreigner.
So, people will often come to me speaking Khmer. Or, they speak Khmer
to one another in front of me.
Many of the Thai monks cant or simply refuse to speak Khmer, so
everyone is obliged to speak Thai with them. Even the Surin monks who
speak Khmer speak a dialect of upper Khmer which most Cambodians dont
speak. As a result conversations started in Khmer often lapse into Thai
because of miscommunication or because the Khmer Surin monks knowledge
of Khmer is limited to home and family.
The Cambodian monks are a click unto themselves and take pains to help
the new novices master the Thai language. Often, an older Cambodian monk
will speak Thai with a young Cambodian novice. Older monks, who have been
in country for a number of years, study at the religious university all
day, and are nearly constantly exposed to the Thai language when they
are away from their sleeping quarters. Even older Khmer monks often lapse
into Thai when talking to each other. It is similar to experiences I had
studying in Germany, where discussing the days events with my American
friends it became too difficult to take German cultural experience, which
happened to us in German language, and translate them into English. So,
we often spoke to each other in German. The Cambodian monks do the same.
Where does this leave me? Tongue tied. When I see someone approach,
I dont know if I should anticipate that he will speak to me in Thai
or Khmer. As stated earlier, I am finding it easier and easier to just
not care which language they are speaking. I understand. But then I need
to reply, and this is when I become completely tongue tied and respond
in a mix of Khmer, Thai, and nothing.
Once again, interference is in speaking, not listening.
While I am here, I train with a martial arts master who doesnt speak
English or Khmer, and I find it very easy to communicate with him in Thai,
without tripping over my words. When we fail to communicate, the fault
lies on my lack of Thai language, not the influence of another language.
When I am not training, I am out doing my interviews and filming which
is not quite as confusing as being with the monks, since most people automatically
speak Thai with us. At the Wat, I spend a lot of time working on the computer,
uploading photos and transcribing the days interviews. Several of
the Khmer novices come and sit with me while I work and constantly ask
me questions about English or Thai vocabulary. We communicate with each
other in Thai and often find we are learning together. When we hit an
impasse in communication, they take out their dictionaries and tell me
both the Khmer and Thai for a given word or phrase. Nearly all of the
monks will give me both the Khmer and the Thai for any word or concept
The Khmer monks are amazing because most of them come from poor families,
in remote provinces, and are learning English for the first time in their
life, while they are learning Thai.
The head abbot is very interested in the outside world and has called
me for two audiences. He speaks limited English and no Khmer, so we communicate
in Thai as best we can. Luckily, I feel so at ease with the monks, that
when we fail to communicate or find we both lack the words, we just laugh
and get through it as best we can.
Sadly there are four Bangladeshi monks here, who after one year of study,
still cannot speak Thai. Their English is very limited, although one of
them speaks fluent Korean. I suspect they feel like complete outsiders.
Tonight was a Buddhist festival and we all stood around massive cooking
pots, stirring rice cake batter with long sticks. This stirring went on
for two days. It was actually quite a lot of fun. The girls from the local
university came to help us, and the monks and girls were laughing and
joking, respectfully, but in such a way that we could see the absolute
human side of the monks.
The language changed constantly between Khmer and Thai. The Bangladeshi
monks were just out of the loop the whole time, and couldnt enjoy
the event. I found that just sitting and listening was great, very much
like sitting in an ALG class at AUA. Talking, of course was difficult,
as I kept mixing the languages.
The Bangladeshi monks tried to communicate with me in their limited English.
As I said, Prah Song and I are the only ones who speak a lot of English.
When we hit a linguistic obstacle, two seconds into the conversation,
they sent for the Korean speaking Bangladeshi monk. He tried to talk to
me in Korean and I actually reacted violently. I dont speak much
Korean. It is by far the hardest language I have ever studied. But in
the context of this world of ever shifting Thai and Khmer, the introduction
of another Asian language, especially one I dont speak well, actually
hurt my brain. I regret how violently I put him off. I realize they were
just lonely and hoping to reach out. But, it was just too hard for me.
I wish I could stay here longer. I find that my daily martial art lesson
is similar to an AUA lesson, just one or two hours of pure listening.
The goal of an ALG teacher is to create a memorable and portable
experience. Students learn best through experience, not teaching. The
martial arts lesson meets both of these requirements. The learning is
further strengthened because it is something I am interested in. Using
martial art to learn a language is in keeping with another language
acquisition theory, called TPR, (Total Physical Response) which uses motion
and muscle memory to facilitate learning. Every time my master yells Sork!
I hit the pads with my elbows. Now, my elbows are bleeding, but probably
for the rest of my life, I will never forget the Thai word for elbow.
Studying with the monks, although difficult, I think is a brilliant mental
exercise. While I am learning Thai, we are constantly reinforcing
my Khmer and my ability to translate between the two languages. I also
feel that learning through a medium of two foreign languages makes the
language stronger. It is harder and may even take longer, but the end
result will be built on a solid foundation.
Has there been any work done on this concept, learning a foreign language
through another foreign language medium? At the end of the day, this is
what most Asians are doing when they learn other Asian languages since
the teachers and textbooks are often in English. This is one hundred percent
true in Cambodia, where foreign language books with Khmer translations
are unavailable. It is often true in Thailand, where the Chinese, Japanese,
or Korean teacher may not speak Thai.
Oh no! Someone just knocked on the door. What language should I speak?
© Antonio Graceffo November 2007
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia.
He is the Host of the web TV show, Martial Arts Odyssey, The
Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running on youtube. The
Monk From Brooklyn - Kuntaw in the Phillipines
Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him
Antonio@speakingadventure.com see his website www.speakingadventure.com
More World Travel
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.