“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart.”
– Nelson Mandela.
You may be wondering what my title means, or you have guessed it. Having stayed in Chiang Mai, Thailand for 3 weeks, I have picked up some basic Thai phrases from my dear Thai friends in the school. The phrase in the title means “Hello, my name is Linh”. “Raa khaa tao rai?” means “How much is this?”.”Khop khun ka”, “Khot thot ka”, and “May pan lai ka” are “Thank you”, “Sorry”, and “No problem/You are welcome.” Of course, this will not qualify me to say that I can speak Thai, but if you can ask a shop owner for an item’s price and say “Thank you” in Thai, that shop owner is much more likely to give you a discount on your purchase. Also, learning a new language can give you insights about the culture as well. If you look closely at the sentences in Thai that I have listed above, you will notice that at the end of every sentence I added “ka.” In Thai, men say “krap” at the end of their sentences to show respect, while women add “ka.” These are called ending particles. These make Thai unique from English and Vietnamese and carries a cultural significance in their functions. Furthermore, people can use these ending particles alone to display agreement. Interestingly, when talking to children, usually mothers can change “ka” to “krap” for their sons to easily follow and imitate.
On the topic of language and culture, I noticed one thing about myself recently when I switch from English to Vietnamese when talking to the two Vietnamese students at the school. Many Asian cultures value age and experience as deserving respect while Western cultures do not emphasize on such a value. Therefore, when speaking with others in English, I feel more equal and open to express my opinion without being afraid that I would make mistakes not being polite enough to people older and more experienced than I am. For example, all of the students at the school are adults who are working in NGOs or are lawyers, teachers in their communities so I am much younger than them. However, as their English mentor, I am paid more respect than a young person like me would normally be receiving in Asian countries as conservative as Thailand and Vietnam. They jokingly address me as “younger teacher” and always say “Thank you, teacher” after I helped them with their homework or essays. Because of how we communicate, I do not feel the age difference when talking to the students. However, with the two Vietnamese students, since the first day, I had asked for their ages and determine which pronounce to use (in Vietnamese, there are pronouns to indicate if you are older or younger) and which ending particle to add as to appear polite and well-mannered. I am always aware that I am much younger and have to be as polite to them as I can, even when I am closer to them than other students in the school. Funnily, since I have to go back and forth between English and Vietnamese sometimes, I get age-indicating pronouns confused and get teased by the Vietnamese students a lot.
What I find most amazing about the students here is that all of them speaks more than 2 languages. Most of them speak three languages: their ethnics’ language, their country’s official language, and English. I know 2 Laos students who speak five: their ethnic group’s language, Lao language, Thai, Vietnamese, and English. Living near the borders made learning different languages an essential skill for trade. In this sense, I am already lagging behind because I only speak 2 languages fluently. Although they did not learn languages in a structured way, they are great at picking up new vocabularies and expressions. On top of that, it is their eagerness and enthusiasm that help with learning these languages faster and enable them to learn so many. Concerning English, the students do not have perfect sentence structures and perfect grammar, however, they can communicate decently and reveals their quick wittedness. For example, during a sharing exercise, the students were talking about events that formed their identity so it was very personal and touching. Then, one student said: “I have never felt my heart go disco like this in my entire life!” While “my heart go disco” is not a correct expression, we could still understand clearly what the student wanted to convey. It also created laughter around the classroom and lifted everyone’s mood. That saying also caught on like fire in the classroom. As the English mentor for the students, I could fix that expression for the students. However, in doing that, I might discourage students from compositing authentic and unique sentences and may cause them to be afraid of making mistakes. In my opinion, the students already have the necessary skills to effectively learn many different languages and can produce meaningful sentences in English, therefore my job is only to remind them of the rules in an appropriate setting (e.g. in the English class or when doing one-on-one mentoring), not to be an “English police”. This is something that I make effort to keep in mind while working with students. Furthermore, having studied English for more than 10 years, I envy the students for their ability to be creative with the language to express their ideas, which is important especially in making connections with others through communicating. Once I have mastered a large portion of the language, I became a robot that produces fixed expressions that I have heard from teachers, friends, songs, and TV shows. I no longer can use English as a tool as freely as my students do. Upon reflection, I am inspired to learn from my students, from their sense of humor and their love for knowledge, to persist on improving my own English skills.