How Learning Thai Helped us to Speak French

It’s been 3 years since we spent any time in France and since then we have spent a fair chunk of time in South East Asia and, most especially, Thailand

Every time we visit a country we Google the standard 10 words, the first 5 are numbers 1–5 and the rest usually include, “hello”, “thank you”, “beer” and “fried rice”

As an aside, we were amused to learn that Vietnamese for Fried Rice is “Cơm Chien”. Now knowing a little of the history of French Indochina and the French influence on Vietnamese culture, how in the hell did “Chien” come to mean fried? Was there a point when someone was served fried dog and asked what it was and then misunderstood the application of “Chien”?

With spending so much time in Thailand we have spent a little more effort in learning the language, about 200 words, mainly nouns. But Thai is a tonal language and there are 5 tones for every word, each for a different meaning.

Suay is great example, at one end of the tonal spectrum it means beautiful and at the other it means unlucky. To a western ear, the differentiation between the extremities is perceptible but we have little chance between the neighbouring tones.

So how has this helped us to speak French?

The Thais are both proud and sociable so they are incredibly helpful with the language, we have had a waitress stand at our table in Chiang Mai for over 5 minutes until I got somewhere close with the beautiful variant of Suay. The irony is that she was called Sai which could either mean ‘left’ or ‘sand’ depending on the tone, I never knew and I didn’t have the time to go down that path with her as my Khao Pad Gai (Chicken Fried Rice) was now cooling quickly.

And I’ve lost count of the times that we’ve asked for something in simple Thai such as ‘Tom Kha Gai’ (coconut chicken soup’, or even more simply ‘song Tiger’ (2 Tiger Beers), just to be met with a blank stare of incomprehension and then, when we finally manage to communicate what we want, then they correct me with a long ‘aaaahhhhhh’ and repeating exactly what I just asked for ‘Tom Kha Gai’ or ‘song tigerrrrrrrrr’ where the emphasis is on the second syllable of Tiger.

Tom Kha Gai

The point is that we’ve become increasingly aware of the subtleties of pronunciation and have spent so much time now making twats of ourselves that we are far less self conscious about really going for the local intonation.

In 3 years, our French vocabulary hasn’t increased, if anything it has decreased, but we have had a much higher ratio of our conversations in French on this trip than ever before and we’re so much more comfortable with Le Franglais, slipping between the languages effortlessly.

Je suis sabai.

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