How to Learn Thai: The Papaya Salad Method


The Whole Story

Suhtan wears a backwards black trucker hat and denim shorts. He’s hunched over on a little red plastic stool, grating green papayas into a five-gallon bucket, working through a twenty-kilo bag of the fruits in preparation for the dinner rush. He’s thirty-five but looks twenty-four and grins like there’s a practical joke he’ll never tell you about. Suhtan runs a papaya salad – som tam – stand with his friend Poom in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Bai nai kap? Gin kao ruh yung?” I’m walking across the street from their shop, intermittent motorcycles buzzing by between us—didn’t even see them notice me. Poom wants to know where I’m headed and whether I’ve eaten yet. Though I’ve known these papaya salad proprietors for about a year, were we in the U.S., I’d still consider this a bit intrusive. Here, it’s become a language learning opportunity.

Mixing Langauge Learning and Culture 

I’ve been living in Thailand for two years. Out here, these sorts of questions are greeting: “Hello, I acknowledge that you’re a part of my community, what’re you doing, you strange white man?”

It is at once an ordinary exchange between friends and a moment in which I’m asked to account for myself. For me to earn any sense of belonging, I owe it to Poom and Suhtan to internalize this aspect of their culture and language—to earn my papaya salad. And it happens with everyone I pass, no matter how small our connection, no matter whether we know the first thing about one another.

These delays, if I’ve convinced myself that I must be in a rush, or the seeming intrusiveness can wear me down. But rather than exercising the privilege of an outsider and shirking these interactions, I do my best to make myself stop and have a chat. I cross the street.

“How’s the restaurant?”

“Slow, quiet”

“Why have you still not cut your moustache?”

Sorry, foreigners are hairy sometimes.”

And, like that, I’ve learned the Thai word for hairy: Puy.

As I peel the layers away, what were once overwhelming and cumbersome interactions instead become opportunities to build vocabulary and get to know my daily interlocutors.

If, as a language learner, I take each daily chat with each person I encounter as a chance to learn one new word, the lessons add up fast. Each new word is tied to a relationship. If I forget the words for hairy, cured pork, or fermented crab sauce, Poom and Suhtan will have my ass. No formal studying and I’m off the language learning apps for this.

I’ve known Poom and Suhtan for almost two years. They’ve built out their shop, doubling in size after they took over the struggling seventy-five cent pizza stand next door. They’ve turning the papaya salad stand into a staple of our neighborhood, and because of those initial connections to these two, taking the time to chat and learn a couple dirty jokes, they took it upon themselves to introduce me to their first employees, favorite customers, old woman who want me to marry their daughter, you name it.

The Outcome Of Cultural Exchanges

This is what I seek in language learning: to put in the work and build the basics on my own: simple sentence structure, the first fifty words or so. That’s enough to take me on the road into immersion, using relationships and exchanges just like the Thais’ “Where are you going? Have you eaten yet? (And do you have a girlfriend?)” to shrink the distances between a few seemingly very different people and to help me press on towards fluency.

Sgaw Karen: Why I’m Learning an Indigenous Language That I’ll Rarely Use

Why I’m Learning an Indigenous Language That I’ll Rarely Use

On Studying Sgaw Karen

To my left, just out of arm’s reach, a tall man hacks cuts from the torso of a pig that he’s laid across a giant slab of wood. I look back to the stone mortar and pestle in my hands. A shorter man with long curly hair throws a handful of dried chilies in. He stands back and smiles in approval as I smash them into oblivion and feel my eyes begin to burn. They speak to one another, but I’m silent.

 

Somewhere in the jungle along the Thai-Myanmar border, I’ve been drafted into the kitchen workforce on barbecue day in a Karen village. The Karen are a group of indigenous ethnic groups from Myanmar and northern Thailand. They speak any of a number of Sino-Tibetan indigenous languages. This village, on the green banks of the wide and muddy Salween River, speaks Sgaw Karen language.

The Salween River
The Salween River

My Decision To Learn Sgaw Karen

I’ve lived in Thailand for two years and my Thai is decent. I’ve dabbled in Burmese in honor of a couple trips to Myanmar. My Vietnamese goes as far as “can I take your picture?” and “take it easy.” But despite having close relationships with a number of Karen, I don’t speak a word of their languages.

I’ve never touched an indigenous language. At the beginning of this year, I realized I need to. Sgaw Karen it is.

Historical and cultural structures of power and privilege dictate the languages we choose to learn. National languages have a platform that allows them to spread, survive and evolve in a way that’s much harder for languages that lack this reach—especially indigenous languages. If we care about an indigenous culture, we have a duty to learn their language, to support them to preserve their culture and to spread this appreciation.

Preserving Indigenous Languages
Think of this jar of cucumbers as indigenous languages.

It makes sense to learn languages that are spoken widely and applicable to our lives, yes. For example, it was much easier to convince myself and others that learning Portuguese is a valuable pursuit (not that I got very far with that one), even though I have far more connections to Sgaw Karen. Indigenous languages are often spoken by a much smaller population and the chances that you’ll use one in an international metropolis may be much lower, for a whole host of reasons. But once you realize that a person can learn more than two or three languages in a lifetime, that’s no longer an excuse.

 

“Tabluh, tabluh,” says the long-haired guy as I pound his chilies. I look to him with a question on my face. We do a little translation through Thai—“tabluh” means “thank you.” My first word in Sgaw Karen. The guy adds garlic some garlic to the chili paste, a welcome change.

SAM_0962

Soon, we step outside to throw the pork on the barbecue—a wide pit that’s already throwing off smoke. Salween River flows by, a broad expanse of silty brown water winding through the jungle. Within minutes, the smell of the barbecue is intoxicating and folks from around the village start passing through, ostensibly to say hello to my fellow cooks.

I realize I had an impending need for the word delicious. “Wee doh mah,” they tell me. And I’m mostly vegetarian.

 

The Importance Of Preserving Indigenous Languages

As Ellen Jovin, a well-known proponent of language learning put it, “Polyglottery is an antithesis to linguistic chauvinism.” As languages with more commercial or widely-recognized social value dominate, they corner and threaten languages that are central to cultural identities around the world, especially those of indigenous peoples.

The pursuit of polyglotism
Language over borders

Polyglottery may seem to some like a self-centered pursuit—it’s an incredible privilege for many, simply a part of life for others. But if we make the choice to take on a language based on our values, this decision becomes about understanding and supporting others, especially those whose lives feel impossibly different from our own. It helps justify the hours spent squinting at seemingly indistinguishable, cryptic, crop circle-esque characters. Language learning allows us to communicate with the people we care about and to use these relationships as a force for positive social good.