Sprints and Marathons


I’m getting older. Some say I’m already old. Today is my 50th birthday. I don’t feel old. But to think about going back to say, 30 and live the past 20 years again is not something I’d like to do either. So perhaps that means I am old. I think that by the time I get to the end of my life, whenever that end comes, I’ll be satisfied. In fact, I’m satisifed already, with the distance I’ve come. There’s more ahead, but I’ll get to that part when I get to it.

I hope you don’t think this is the rambling of a 50 year old guy. I’m writing now with a purpose. I’m thinking about different sorts of races, and how they are run. In our Thai program, most people I meet act as if they are running in a 400 yard dash. Unfortunately, learning a new language is more like a running a marathon. People who sprint don’t do very well in marathons. It takes a different mindset and a different kind of running.

Language is the stuff of life. It takes time. It’s not just some add-on to what we know, but it grows along with the knowledge and understanding of a people and culture.

Somehow, it seems like we’ve convinced ourselves that we can learn another people’s language with a minimum of time and effort. Contrary to all of those who say you can learn Thai fast, I think that learning Thai is more like a life-time comittment. It’s NOT a three month effort of 2 hours a day study.

Many of my students say that it’s important that they learn to speak. Why? After nearly 1/2 of my entire lifetime already spent living in Thailand, I’ve come to the conclusion that very few people, Thai or otherwise, really want to hear anyone else say much. Unfortunately in most cases, we all tend to listen to people we already agree with anyway.

People who come here often act as if they’re running some sort of verbal 400 meter dash. “I’ve got to learn as many words and sentences as I can in as little time as possible.” They apparently think that success has to do with the mathematics of the language [i.e. noun(a) + verb (b) = communication(c)] Forget it.

For the foreigner living in Thailand, communication is vital to your success. BUT don’t be decieved into thinking this has much to do at all with what you say. It has everything to do with yourtone of voicelook in your eyesattitude, and sensitivity to the people around you.

You won’t learn the things you need by focusing on words and aspects of language. Which means that even using the right words, often means you’re communicating something you don’t at all intend.

My advice is this: Stay open. Take in the whole experience. Let your brain sort the language for you.

This will help you learn not only the language, but the more important ideas underlying the words. In addition, you’ll gain much much more from every experience than if you were to focus on the details of things like words and translations.