When toilet training our older daughter, I briefly internalized the Set Moniker Directive: refer to your child’s Number Ones as you will, but employ your term of choice consistently. I resolved to use the Japanese kidspeak o-shikko even in English- and Thai-language situations. It came easily to my husband and seemed novel to me, and I suppose promised some privacy — as if no one could decipher “Hey, time to go o-shikko!!”
But we are surrounded by evidence that young children get everything by any name. When asked by a Thai nanny to tell me korp khun kap, a Thai/American boy says “thank you.” On a visit to a New Zealander’s bathroom, our daughter quickly equated o-shikko with wee wees.
If only adult learning were so fluid. The brain’s Effortless Polyglot Center seems to take harsh funding cuts with age, so that new language goes from being easy — that color simply is green, midori, and/or see kiao–to being something like advanced algebra, something you have to apply deliberately and regularly or risk forgetting. My husband and I acquired our second tongues (English for him, Japanese for me) well after the cerebral austerity measures, so we know the deed can be done with practice. As with math, and writing and toilet training, daily repetition does produce results. Eventually.
The problem is that, as parent-writers know well, the time for daily tasks not critical to kids or work grows maddeningly elusive. With full-time obligations in English and Japanese, my husband and I converse haltingly and remain mostly illiterate in Thai, though we live in Thailand. We have paid a private teacher as much to put up with us, slogging through eerily similar exercises each week, as to tune our ears to the Thai tones and demystify the script, one syllable or marker at a time (and often more than one time).
I once inwardly tut-tutted at expats who delayed learning the language of their host country. I still indulge a private eye roll when I hear “I’ve lived here six years and haven’t learned a word!” But as a slow Thai student, I have to lose my hoity-toity. With Japanese, the language I translate from, I had time to study in college and at a summer language immersion institute, where I attended class each morning and copied ideographs each afternoon, sipping root beer in a non-ascetic ritual that made me feel like singing hymns. When studying full-time in Japan later, I could take intensive courses, punch word after word into my electronic dictionary, and talk for hours with saintly dorm-mates and mentors. I grew fatigued at first by simple tasks such as chatting over ice cream or discussing tuition payments, and spent a week in bed with mono after a stretch of language study overload (I had time to spend a week in bed!). But I didn’t have to get up and teach English, conduct business, or parent, as the objects of my pooh-poohing did.
Now, as I limp along tots-in-tow with Thai, the scoff is on me. That was me at the Subway restaurant near our burg recently, greeting the sandwich-ista in Thai but naming the bun choice and fixings in English. My older daughter and I split the sub (as in, you take all the veggies, cheese, and meat; I take the bread) and watched as other expats ordered as we had. Outside, teens from the international school wove among motorbikes, stray dogs, and food stalls to visit 7-Eleven, Thailand and Thai a mere backdrop to socializing in English during open lunch. I can hardly blame them. Many will leave in a year or two with a parent’s job transfer, or are studying for university abroad. Some speak multiple languages already, or stay up nights learning academic English. Like me, they commit to non-Thai worlds in ways that distance their geography and vocabulary.
But I regret how we can tuck into our imported lives and forget to pursue Thai, even at a snail’s pace. Many of us rely on company liaisons and native-language help when we could dig out our phrasebooks. We avoid having to make mistakes, which both toileting and writing guides will declare are golden (need I name the Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life chapter on messy first drafts?). When we tongue-tied expats, like writers, fail to try our words, even fumblingly, we hang back from the group of communicators who tackle language, who — like toilet trainers and trainees–sacrifice convenience and even their dignity to enter a whole new world (sometimes singing the chorus aloud, both parts included).
And what a world–a world where you suddenly understand that a local pop singer is crooning “can’t fall asleep,” and that chopsticks and earrings should be treated as pairs here, but not pants and glasses. You get that the word for movie comes from shadow puppetry, and that the counter for books is the same as for knives and oxcarts. The squiggle on your computer’s apostrophe key means the sound ng. And to thrill that three-year-old over there, gallantly rolling his father’s crafts to a fair trade sale, you know that you can offer the high praise geng maak!
The best part is that this new world enters your own like a new baby, as if it had always been there. The symbol that used to “sort of look like an N” now represents a sound, familiar not just to you but also to others, and links you to them. It’s like in writing, when you finally find the words for something and it’s newly yours, and at the same time your readers’; something vague assumes shape for you and simultaneously connects you to other souls.
And sometimes you’ve found it by following your writing texts, and other times you’ve found it by throwing away the manual.
Sometimes, especially if you’re a mom, just diving in is your only choice.
So, aware that I’m teaching something beyond vocabulary, I clumsily use Thai. My daughter and I order our sub without switching to English now, having discovered that the sandwich shop serves iceberg (“glass”) lettuce, that cheese is “hard butter.” I have gotten cucumber (taeng kwah) mixed up with watermelon (taeng moo), but no fruity subs yet. Adapting “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” to remember “you say tomato, I say makuh-tet” helped. As did an epiphany that the cherry eggplants sometimes growing on our balcony are makuh, tomatoes with the -tet lopped off. (OK, you pale green globes, no forming chamber ensembles like the red ones!) With this silliness, I hope to show my daughter (and myself) that, when connections linguistic or otherwise are not easy-peasy — as a Kiwi friend puts it — if we want to break through we must (a) deliberately practice and (b) go o-shikko down our own legs sometimes, trusting the process.
And even slow progress is progress. I would like to close with an image of this that was brush-penned into my Japanese wildflower guide by a teacher in a Gifu haiku group, home to some of my language-learning saints:
shirogane no | michi o hirakamu | katatsumuri
of silver | will open a path | snail
Leaves a pathway
By Hakuun Ito
Translation mine, with thanks to Keiko Kagami and Kokushi Ono