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.