Values, Culture and Language


Values shape us in more ways that we’d probably care to realize. They are the why, underlying everything we do. Our values are largely shaped by social groups. And there’s nothing that sticks out like a sore thumb more than when someone shows up with different values into our little worlds!  Children growing up join into groups based on the groups values.  Sometimes, those groups can be defined by that fact that they don’t subscribe to the values of that other group.  With young people, it appears to me that group values are rather obvious.  This group values popular music and clothes.  That group values sports.  The group over there values academics.  Perhaps it helped that I never really fit in to any of the groups.  I never tried to.

What does this have to do with language acquisition?  I think it has everything to do with it.  Societies seem to be defined by their values – those ways of seeing things, doing things, and beliefs that are distinctive to it.  Unless one understands a people’s values, how is it possible to communicate effectively?  Government representatives live abroad – normally in a little bubble of life that is based on their own values.  Because they are there to extend the agenda of their own country, this makes sense.  They should be living, acting, and communicating to everyone else out of their own values, and they do.

But in Thailand, it seems to me that a very large part of the foreign community actually wants to live here, to integrate, and have in many ways rejected many of the values of their own social groups.  Many here express reasons why they feel that life in Thailand is better for them.  Tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of foreigners have moved to areas throughout Thailand, desiring a more attractive life based on different values.  How are those values learned?  (I hope at this point that you don’t expect me to say through language study!)  I believe that they can only be learned by opened-minded experience.  I know that explaining the values differences is both fun, and ineffective.  People are left mainly unchanged but these types of stories – the differing values never become “mine” and always staying “theirs”.

It isn’t until I experience these differences that I’m brought to choose – will this be my value?  Most foreigners I know, prefer to avoid these life changing moments.

When I was in language school at AUA, two of our teachers decided one day to make somtam for the entire class.  By this time, we knew they were relatively poor, and worked quite hard by our standards to scrape enough money together each month just to meet their basic needs.  This particular day, there were about 15 of us in the class, and these two teachers came loaded with food stuffs to make a fantastic somtam meal for us.  While they were preparing the food, myself and a few friends decided that it would be a great idea to take up a small collection of money and to say thanks to them with it.  So we did.

What a surprise when giving them the money, I was met with anger I’ve rarely experienced from any Thai in over 20 years!  They were both visibly offended, placed the money down on the table and left the room.  I think at that moment, I realized that I probably needed to understand something more about Thai values.  According to my sense of things, it was a nice gesture – sort of the expected, American Share thing.  A couple of days later, I spoke with them to apologize, and rather than any explanation much, they just said, “mai pen rai” meaning nevermind (another great indicator of Thai values that foreigners often have trouble with).  Being me, I wanted them to explain, so I kept asking, and kept getting the same answer – maipenrai.  Finally, they simply said smiling, that Thais don’t do things that way.  That was it!

Looking back, that experience, which was most lacking in any explanation or seeming logic, was of great importance in teaching me something of differing values.  That experience more than any other, has helped me to stop and consider that there are things here I don’t know.  It has helped me to be more sensitive to things I may think of as polite or good manners which may actually be offensive to others.  It has helped me to be more alert to the feelings of those around me. Now all of these things are (for those of you who know me) things I’m not very good at yet.  So you can just imagine how bad off I’d be otherwise!  Yet with that same intrigue of the woman defying explanation, Thai values, culture, and ways of understanding the world have been passed on.  Not only to me, but to the whole society. Can you understand them by someone telling you about it? I don’t think so.

So when we think about traditional language lessons, what do we have? Explanations about values, culture and language designed to accommodate the values, culture and language of the learner.  So while the student may get some good hard words to repeat, he will have no real understanding of the keys.  And this is where I find many of my foreign friends and acquaintances who stay in Thailand – always and often struggling over the same issues.

How is this to be avoided?  Gain experiences in Thai.  Let those experiences change you.  As language students, we tend to get very focused on certain outcomes – back off from your agenda just a bit – you will reap a harvest in understanding that you never believed possible!  One great source of real experience is the AUA Thai Program, but it’s not the only place.  The important thing is that once you realize that values, and language too, are the result of experiences, then you simply set out to gain as much experience as possible!  What better way is there to live life?


The next time a Thai person turns around to me and says, ไม่เป็นไร I shall think of this article!

I think ‘Mai pen rai’ probably has hundreds of nuances in meaning.

I shudder to think of the times this apparently innocuous little phrase has been said to me in the past, but not with the meaning of “don’t worry” but probably with the meaning “forget about it, I am too upset to talk about what you have done”! 🙁

Your observation about cross cultural misunderstandings is spot on; language has to be seen in a cultural context.