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  • Elizabeth Cochran

Liz learns the language of the Land of Smiles

One of my absolute favorite things about travelling is when you land and immediately you are hit with the classic culture shock. I know, I know for some this is the hardest part. I would agree, it is the hardest part, one of them anyways. I have been living in Thailand nearly a year now and the amount of language barrier stories I have to tell could go on for days...

I mean first I landed in Bangkok, the capital and epicenter of Thailand. It is the biggest city and one of the biggest cities in the world. I am a small town girl, I can't hide that. I was as far as one could be from a big city in the US. Bangkok is a huge bustling town and the traffic is horrid. I remember just wondering how to find my place in this new adventure. I observed the culture and remember being filled with excitement. Immediately you notice the street food everywhere.. and all the trendy cafes too. But, there was just one problem..... I had no clue how to talk!! I mean all this delicious food and I had no clue how to order it. One of my Thai friends from the USA gave me a few phrases to help me when I wanted to order food. I knew basically everyone had fried rice so that is what I ordered, it was what I was the most comfortable with in speaking in Thai.

Thai fried rice- Cow pad

Typical Bangkok traffic

I remember just being like I can't keep eating the same dish, I mean there are so many other delicious foods, so I went to a stall and pointed at their sign and said I want that. I had no clue what it was, so either I would like it or not. I was tired of ordering the same thing and I learned the name of the dish, and it was delicious, so it worked out. A time when I was at a food market was a huge market outside one of the big malls in BKK. I was confused as heck how to order. I looked up on my translate app as one does. How to say "I want" .... so useful! I struggled with the tone.. I was frustrated. It said "Ow" I pronounced it wrong either the tone or just wrong all together... This is the biggest challenge over and over. Thai is a tonal language and when you say a word such as "ma" there are five tones, and that means there are five different meanings too. I just listened to others order, and time after time kept at it... that's the only way with Thai. You have got to grasp the tones, but this takes time... so endless language barrier stories continue.

Delicious Thai skewers- my favorite is squid

The first time I went to the big markets by myself I was so nervous. I had gone to the market to get fried rice and pad thai (a classic, and seems to be all foreigners eat at first too hahah 555). I decided it was time to face my fears and buy street food, fruit, and other Thai street food finds. I had no clue the name of the fruits. I knew how to say "I want" though and "how much". I did my best and succeeded because I had plenty of fruits, veggies, and thai fried banana to bring home with me. As I faced me fear though it still wasn't easy. I didn't know what they said when I asked how much.. no clue. I would just repeat the number they said and use trial and error. I would come back to the market over and over for my favorite fresh fruits and I started to slowly learn more and more. I was determined to keep building my language learning and I kept doing it! I felt so proud, its so fun when you are speaking a language that isn't your own, and integrating to the best that you can.

Fried banana, my favorite!!

I will say I was lucky to start off in Bangkok, transport was easy. There are taxis everywhere, BTS, MRT, and even Grab. I recommend this app to all foreigners coming to Bangkok. You type in the address and order a taxi to you. This app prevented so many problems for me, I mean I can't even imagine how I would have communicated for those first two weeks with no knowledge of Thai. Grab is awesome, I could even order food from this app to me. I mean Thailand is really doing something right with this app. I used the BTS for the first time and I was so nervous for this, to get lost and not know how to get back. I found out you could buy a day pass and that saved me. This is a big deal, because remember I am from rural Illinois, we don't have taxi's let a lone any public transportation. I had a successful day using Bangkok's BTS. I went to the malls, markets, got street food, and just spent a day getting used to public transport and the busyness of Bangkok.

When my Thai really reached a new level that was when I was in Nakhon Pathom in the small town of Kamphaengsean. It became a further immersion, because seeing a sign in English was rare, and the only people who could speak English were other foreign teachers.. the other Thai teachers it depended, some had a high level, others very low. Your everyday local, rare they know English. I became very brave and was speaking Thai when I was out most of the time. I learned about how to order food and lots of different dishes, names of foods at the market, some clothes, going to the pharmacy, and asking basic questions. I started to learn and let myself embrace the language immersion. To this day my level is still similar, but it is hard to tell how much I have learned. I can tell you though after nearly a year I have less struggles doing everyday things. However, being conversational with friends I cannot.. this is my next goal to be able to have more conversations and actually be able to carry a conversation with a Thai speaker. I will say from being a solo traveler in Bangkok, a teacher in Nakhon Pathom, to the islands, and still staying in Thailand to this day my language level is much much better. I struggle less and less, but Thai is still an extremely difficult language. It's the tones... 555. Mai bpen rai (No problem) though! It will come with time if I want it to.

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