Being an older volunteer in the Peace Corps I know that acquiring new language skills will be more difficult. Last year at this time I learned that I would be going to Ukraine at the end of winter, just before mud season. The Peace Corps sent a slew of language info, downloads of Ukrainian and Russian words and phrases and some audio clips. I knew it would be more trying for me to communicate in either language. I wanted to get a head start, take control of my training, step more purposefully through that mud and begin mastering the language before I started up officially with the Peace Corps. I downloaded additional language tapes to my iPhone and listened to them as I took long walks in the autumn woods thinking about the long winters I would need to endure in Ukraine, the ice and snow and biting winds. I would listen to the phrases and try to repeat them. I would pause the lesson, rewind, listen again, repeat again, pause again, and again, and again. The first half hour lesson took two afternoons and I learned how to say “Excuse me.” There was a difficulty in listening and repeating the words and phrases being spoken, simple phrases on how to say hello and how to ask for directions. I was to mimic the sounds without knowing what letters were in the words. I needed a better connection with what I was repeating. I needed to see the letters, see how the letters were connected to form the words. I had to be sure that the word I was speaking, letter by letter, made sense to me.
So I went looking for a tutor. I quickly found Maria. Maria was from Ukraine and she had taught Ukrainian and Russian in London; she taught English in China. Maria found a lesson book on line and I’d meet with her three times a week for an hour at a time learning the Cyrillic alphabet and how to read and write in Ukrainian. I spent last winter comforted by Maria’s friendship, patience and borscht. As long as I could learn the alphabet, could see and visualize the letters of the words I was speaking I knew I’d be okay. The language lessons during those grueling first three months of training in the Peace Corps would be slightly easier, I thought.
Then the Peace Corps pulled out of Ukraine and left me hanging for a few months while they found me a new location for my service. Now I’m waiting to go to Thailand in January.
Of course I downloaded the same tapes from the iTunes store on Thai as I did for Ukrainian and I’ve listened several times to the beginning of the first lesson. But I can’t decipher the pronunciation. Is the speaker saying “crahp” or “clahp”? And I get hung up on not knowing. I can’t simply imitate the sound as I hear it because I can’t see the letters to distinguish crahp from clahp. I need to know if I’m saying it as it’s spelled. I get frustrated and turn the recording off and go back to listening to music instead. The Thai alphabet is nothing like our alphabet or even the Cyrillic alphabet. In Cyrillic where an H was our N, a P our R, I could get passed those differences. I could visualize the letters forming the words I was speaking.
In Thai simple words have various accents above the letters and one three-letter word can have 5 pronunciations, slight changes in tone: rising, falling, up then down, down then up, or simply flat. And with each tone the word has a different meaning. I’ve read that over half the words in Thai are an amalgamation of Pali, Sanskrit and Old Tai-Mon-Khmer languages. What does that even mean?
I have been frequenting all the Thai restaurants in the Capital District, introducing myself, asking if anyone can teach me some Thai before I depart in January. So far the closest recommendation is a temple 3 hours away in New Jersey that teaches meditation and Thai on Sundays.
The message on the Peace Corps Facebook pages and on volunteer blogs tells us future volunteers not to fret over the language and to wait until we arrive in country. They assure us that the language instructors in Thailand (and any other country Peace Corps goes to) are top-notch and that our total immersion into a Thai family and Thai life and culture will force us to pick up the necessary skills. It’s a leap of faith at this point for someone my age, but I remind myself that over 200,000 volunteers have tread this path before me. I’ve trusted the Peace Corps so far in this process and will continue to follow their lead. I don’t have to drive the tuk-tuk.