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The International Writers Magazine: Eastern Promise

Tongue Tied in Surin
Studying with Cambodian Holy-men in the Khmer speaking region of Thailand leaves the Brooklyn Monk speechless.
Antonio Graceffo

The powerfully 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!”
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.
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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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, didn’t 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 aren’t 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.” It’s 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 and number… 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
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 four.

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 haven’t 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 can’t 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 don’t speak. As a result conversations started in Khmer often lapse into Thai because of miscommunication or because the Khmer Surin monk’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 day’s 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 I ask.

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 couldn’t 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 Contact him see his website

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