The Language Barrier: Turning an Obstacle into an Opportunity

“Sawasdi Khap!”

I say this Thai greeting around 4,000,000,000 times every day. A solid 90% of my interactions begin and end right at “Sawasdi Khap.” Even though I have learned a little bit of Thai, mostly consisting of phrases having to with things at school or food, not many Thai people want to suffer through a ten-minute conversation with me and my atrocious accent; they would much rather speak in some broken English and get on with their lives. Fair enough.

The language barrier is frustrating. Sometimes it can be extremely frustrating. Just the other day, there was a communication issue between the director of my school and the director of another school where went to guest teach for a day. This led to some confusion as to where I was supposed to be that day, and resulted in a very uncomfortable interaction with my director (all in broken English which just added to the discomfort).

I would be lying if I were to say that I haven’t ever felt the urge to run through a wall as a result of language barrier complications.

However, the language barrier can be liberating in many ways. Here are a few examples.

I Talk to Myself in Public

We all do it when we’re alone. Here I can do it in a grocery store and no one thinks I am crazy (even if they did, I would never know #languagebarrier). I can flesh out new ideas, have full on arguments, and even talk in funny accents without a care.

You Feel Like a Kid Again 

Remember when you were little and your parents talked about grown up things in front of you or just spelled things so you wouldn’t understand? That is exactly what it feels like most of the time when I am sitting at lunch with my co-teachers. While that may not sound great, I have found it strangely liberating in many ways. I can come in and out of the conversation as a I attempt to speak some Thai, but I don’t have to fully invest in it if I just feel like stuffing my face with delicious Isaan food (I will write another blog post about Isaan food because it the best). Embracing and being content with not knowing what is being said also forces you to communicate creatively with facial expressions, body language, strange noises, or whatever works. Go have fun!

Confront Your Fear of Being Alone 

This is the most important one. Being in a place where no one speaks your language is a great way to feel lonely fast. Many people, myself included, cope with this loneliness by whipping out ye olde iPhone and scrolling through Instagram. I am not here to judge. Like I mentioned, I do this a lot too. However, this lonely situation doesn’t have to be terrible. In fact, it can be a wonderful opportunity. 

A wonderful opportunity?

Yes! This opportunity is a test of your ability to just be comfortable in your own skin. No verbal affirmation from others, no trying to convince or explain away anything to anyone. Honestly, you feel very vulnerable and vulnerability is terrifying, especially in front of strangers. However, this is where things get wonderful. You now have the opportunity to develop a relationship with the one person you are stuck with for the rest of your life: yourself. You could also get an imaginary friend, but I still think developing a relationship with yourself is a better option.

So much of my life back home is about wooing, convincing, and persuading people of things (these could be personal things, religion, political issues, where to eat, blah blah blah) but when you don’t have verbal communication to fall back on, it is often a good opportunity to look inward. Take a step back and just observe people and learn from these observations. This is especially helpful for extroverts like myself; it is a chance to step away from the social spotlight and just breathe! Be somewhere and don’t feel like you need to do something to let everyone know you are there. Be silent, be still, be calm. These are also great opportunities to pray because St. Paul tells us to “pray ceaselessly.” He doesn’t ever want us to stop if we can manage it!

Of course, you should learn as many languages as you can and really try to immerse yourself in new cultures. This goes without saying. However, if you want to travel and even live abroad (or you find yourself in these situations at home) you will face seemingly insurmountable language barriers. Turn these language barriers into unique opportunities for personal growth.


Embracing the “Tourist-y” Things

For the past three weeks, I have had the pleasure of taking off my teaching cap and putting on my tourist shorts and flip-flops. My parents came to visit and it was so much fun being with them as they experienced Thailand for the first time. From amazing floating markets outside of Bangkok to beautiful sunsets on the beach in Phuket, we got the full tourist experience. It is strange, but the terms “tourist” and “tourist-y” have some pretty negative connotations, especially among young people, like myself, living abroad. The term is often used to put down any activity that seems too mainstream or not part of the “authentic” Thai experience. While it is great to try and live the “authentic” Thai experience (I am enjoying life on a mine in rural Thailand!), there is also something to be said about the importance of being a tourist and doing “tourist-y” things.

Being a tourist is a different and very important travel experience. I did not come to Thailand as a tourist, I came to teach. I started teaching within the first week and a half of being here and, while I certainly got to do some fun things, I did not get to really be a tourist until later. As a tourist, you are not travelling for work, for the advancement of any sort of agenda, or to “make an impact” in any way. You are going for pleasure and for the excitement of just experiencing a new culture. This is so important for so many reasons. Contrary to popular belief, people from other countries around the world do not always “need our help.” Westerners, Americans especially, often feel like the only way to go to a foreign country outside of the Western world is to go as a volunteer, missionary, or a teacher. I know this might sound weird coming from someone who is in Thailand as a teacher, but just hear me out. While there is nothing wrong with travelling as a volunteer, missionary, or teacher, sometimes it is best to go to a new place without any specific goal in mind. Go and be a tourist. By just letting go of your pre-conceived notions of a certain country and just enjoying a new place (the food, the music, the views, the customs, etc.) you are letting yourself be a guest in someone else’s home. Thai people love to share their culture, but many farang (the word for “foreigners”) are too caught up in their own narrative of “saving the world” to listen. Real tourism is listening. Real tourism is being willing to “rip up your cool card” and jump in to a new place. That being said, here are some tips for being a good tourist.

Try to speak Thai!

Thai is a very difficult language for foreigners to master, but Thais love it when people try to say a few words and phrases. By just learning a few words like the ones for “hello” and “thank you” and phrases like the very popular mai bpen rai (its like hakuna matata, no big deal, and you’re welcome wrapped into one phrase) you show the Thai people you interact with that you actually do want to learn more about their culture. Also, knowing a little smattering of Thai words and phrases goes a long way in getting discounts (I got a pretty big discount for a boat tour in Bangkok just by speaking a little broken Thai).

Make friends with drivers.

As a tourist in Thailand, you will spend a lot of time in taxis, vans, busses, and maybe even planes. While you probably won’t become besties with the bus driver or the pilot, you will have the chance to speak to taxi and van drivers (especially in Bangkok where the the traffic makes for some pretty long taxi rides). I have learned so much about everyday life in Thailand just by talking to taxi drivers. Some speak pretty good English, others don’t speak any at all, but that’s where an acting degree and google translate comes in handy!

Haggle! But don’t overdo it. 

Haggling is an essential part of the marketplace experience. While you never want to pay full price that pair of knock-off Nike’s that has caught your eye, keep in mind that people are trying to feed their families. Haggling is an art and it is super fun to negotiate in broken Thai and in broken English (Tinglish), but try not to be too over zealous. Remember that you will be spending infinitely less money than you would at home for these goods (especially for clothing) so try not to be too cheap. These people are trying to make a living, so just be mindful of that and haggle respectfully.

These tourist tips apply to places outside of Thailand and there are many more that I could mention! If you have any questions about travelling or being a tourist in Thailand, feel free to contact me!

Go forth and be a tourist!