Wednesday, 13 February 2008

L = Languages

I grew up on a farm in the South Island of New Zealand. That’s a long way from anywhere. I studied French and Latin at school, but language teaching is not a strong point of the New Zealand education system. We struggled to even have opportunities to practice speaking French, our teacher preferring to instruct us in English. We never met anyone French, and the only person we knew who had been there was our teacher. Whilst I loved French, having an interest in foreign parts from a very young age, for most of my peers it was hard to imagine why it might be useful to learn a foreign language. Especially when our nearest and largest neighbour speaks a similar version of English to ours, and anywhere else is too far to visit on the weekend. Studying Latin was more relevant for me - at least it helped me translate some of the Italian instructions on my sheet music for the piano I spent my youth studying.

In the 1960s and 70s, New Zealand was a very monolingual society. Maori had been through a difficult time, when speaking their language at schools had been prohibited, and many Maori were growing up fluent only in English. We grew up knowing only a few words of the Maori language. The one word that was already part of New Zealand’s language at the time was mana.

Mana means respect, status, authority. It is a word that has no direct translation into English, but has been absorbed into our wider language and culture. We understand what it means, we appreciate the honour and significance of mana.

So when, 28 years ago today I learned I would be living with a Thai family and attending a Thai secondary school, I knew I would have to learn another language. It would be sink or swim. But I was told before I left home that the Thais speak quote “ a local dialect.” Dialect made it sound easy. I’d be chatting in Thai in no time, was the implication. But that local dialect, I discovered, is one of the hardest languages in the world for an English speaker to learn, ranked right up there with Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Arabic.

But over my year as a student I learned to converse, read and write in Thai. Just as I was getting more confident it was time for me to go. Ten years later I returned as a diplomat, and in my refresher course realised that I had to relearn the language. I had learned to speak Thai as a deferential schoolgirl. I now needed to relearn it to speak as a diplomat representing my country. It opened doors for me. With my language and my AFS contacts, I was able to attend political meetings where I was the only foreigner attending. I had so many opportunities to talk with the locals, gained so much insight, and felt as if I belonged. My husband worked on the language as well. His accent was atrocious, he had no understanding of the tones, but he was cheeky and supplemented his language with a type of charades, and managed to be understood and make friends. The number of Thai speakers in the foreign diplomatic community was small. Most learned enough to get a taxi or tuk-tuk and to order in a restaurant. They expected their maids to speak English, not to speak to their maids in Thai. Single men tended to learn Thai to speak to girls, and you could usually tell the social class of a man’s girlfriend (and consequently the circumstances in which they met*) from his accent.

I was not fluent. Fluency is a funny thing. You ask two people with the same language skills if they are fluent, and one will say yes and another no. Perhaps it is simply a matter of confidence? For me, the more I learned, the more I saw the goal of fluency disappearing over the horizon. The more you learn about a language’s complexities, the more you begin to realise how fiendishly difficult it really is.

Since those first Thailand days, I have studied Japanese at university, performed well on a language aptitude test and encouraged by that, spent a year studying Mandarin full-time (long story that I’ll tell you about one day) reaching the level of a bachelor degree in Chinese. I also taught myself to recognise the numbers in Arabic (does that count?), so you could say I’ve knocked off 4 of the 6 most difficult languages. Russian is next. Depending on where my next travel destination is, I’ve taught myself varying degrees of Italian, German and Spanish, and periodically brush up on my schoolgirl French. I would like to reach a degree of “fluency” or at least comfort and confidence in a language, but realise that that is unlikely now. I’m fickle. I flit from one language to another. Fluency requires dedication. But I figure I’ve still got a good 30-40 years to pick a language and work on it.

But back to my point. It was in Thailand that I discovered how a language can be a window to the culture, or maybe it is really the manifestation of that culture. It is impossible to understand a culture without the language, and impossible to learn a language without absorbing the culture. For example, sabai and sanuk are Thai cultural concepts of well-being and fun that go beyond the simple English translations of the words.

For this reason, and this reason alone, I wish everyone could learn a language. For a start, I find it fun. Quirky facts about the way people see the world comes through in language.** Learning a language forces you to put yourself in the position of someone from that culture, living in that environment, and to think like them. It teaches you empathy, gives you understanding. We need more of that these days. To understand others, to understand ourselves, to understand those who live among us. And it shows respect.

Maori is however one language I have never formally or seriously studied, and I’m ashamed of that. In New Zealand these days, Te Reo (Maori, but literally translated as The Language) has had a resurgence. Maori words are now commonplace in New Zealand conversations. In the last ten years it has become accepted practice to sing the national anthem in both languages.

We experience and talk about powhiri (ceremonial welcome), karakia (prayer/blessings) and waiata (song) at hui (meetings) at a marae (Maori meeting house).

A Maori will know their iwi (tribes), hapu (subtribe) and whanau (family), tamariki (children) and koro (grandparent), tipuna (ancestors), kuia (elderly women) and kaumatua (elders). They are the tangata whenua (people of the land/ indigenous people).

We routinely use Maori greetings and farewells: tena koe/koutou or kia ora (hello) and haere mai (welcome) , haere ra, e noho ra and arohanui (with love)

We talk of aroha (love) and tell people kia kaha (to stay strong).

I have two brothers-in-law who left New Zealand before this renaissance began. They would not be able to understand a typical news bulletin in this country these days. Our language has changed. Our country has changed and is changing. Our culture has changed and is changing. We understand more. We understand better. We give respect. I like that.


* Enough said! ;-)
** The Meaning of Tingo is a great book dedicated to this.


  1. That is fantastic and today especially I am glad for you all and envious: we have so far still to go.....but a happy and tearful day anyway.

  2. that was me,of course, in my other guise

  3. "It was in Thailand that I discovered how a language can be a window to the culture, or maybe it is really the manifestation of that culture. It is impossible to understand a culture without the language, and impossible to learn a language without absorbing the culture."

    Perfectly put.

    I have always felt frustrated having grown up in a country that did not value languages. They weren't even offered until high school when I was growing up. I had 5 years of French, but I never lived anywhere where I could use it. At my best, in a French-speaking country, I felt like maybe a 2-year-old: I understood at least 60% of what was being said to me, sometimes more, but I couldn't for the life of me say what I wanted to say. It takes such dedication and use.

    I expect you'll publish your blogs as a book one day...

  4. Gosh, I admire your language efforts and skills. A tonal language like Chinese just seems impossible to me. I did study Japanese for the whole time I lived in Japan, and was fascinated by kanji. Put images of three women together and you have the character for "noisy", that kind of thing...

  5. Russian wasn't as hard as all that to me--not as easy as the spanglish I've picked up in Texas and from Sophia's godparents, but not that bad. Don't be thwarted by the alphabet. It comes pretty fast. I learned Russian from an army captain masquerading as a high school teacher, and in a year covered more than the three years of college russian I tested out of. Of course, alas, it is all but gone. All but. Use it or lose it..."Russian for Everybody" is the Soviet-era textbook we used. Everything was pretty clear.

    I find it interesting that you learned thai as a "deferential schoolgirl" and then had to relearn it. I taught with a Vietnamese nun who had come to America at age 7; she could talk to the 4th graders all right, but she couldn't translate notes home that said things like "tonsillitis" or "conference to discuss a learning disability diagnosis."

  6. Peter: I felt a little guilty posting this yesterday, especially as we still have a way to go. But it is possible, even though it takes time as I've shown, and you guys have taken the first steps.

    Helen: You're a dark horse. Lived in Japan? I loved the kanji too. Thai is tonal too (5 tones), and I'm quite musical, so Chinese wasn't such a shock to me.

    IB and Bridgett: yes you're both right - use it or lose it. Which is why I'm starting some more Spanish lessons next week.

    And B, now I realise I need to learn what "tonsillitis" is in Thai


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