Our two-year-old speaks more Thai than Mommy or Daddy, and knows it. She turns it off when only we are around.
“Do the mung, mung (hand, hand) game!” we might urge, thinking of a “head, shoulders, knees and toes” routine she enjoys. No dice.
“Chang, chang, chang! (Elephant, elephant, elephant!) / Nong kuy hen chang ru plow?” I might sing, beginning a famous children’s song and trailing off, hoping she will pick up where my memory ends. No such luck. “Chang chang chang, wa?” my husband might add, the last wa Japanese for “how about it?” Again she demurs.
Our two Thai babysitters, who between them watch her several mornings a week, report that she will say “come here” in Thai, or sing a song about a bird, or follow adults’ conversations. She does not, however, demonstrate for us.
Yet we know it is happening. One sign is that her Thai influences her English: She will say that two things are “same-same,” a Thai-ism, rather than saying “same.” When she and I ate dried strawberries together, she told me I had had “enough,” meaning I should stop eating (so she could have more berries). “Enough,” or po in Thai, is used often to mean “stop.” Parking attendants shout po when they want me to back no further.
My husband’s native Japanese affects our daughter’s English as well. She will ask to have a children’s CD turned bigger in the car, rather than louder. That is a direct translation of Japanese for the request.
These shades of other tongues in her English make sense, and do not worry us. We know from our older daughter’s first years that, with guidance, the languages will sort out. Indeed, the two-year-old’s reluctance to use Thai with us shows an important ability: she can associate languages with people who use them often, and speak accordingly. So, Japanese for my husband, English for me.
What gives us pause, is what our little one’s Thai shows about her inner world. Her secret Thai powers suggest that she engages deeply with our host culture, perhaps more than anyone in our family. While my husband and our kindergartner use English all day at international school, and I use English and Japanese for work, the two-year-old’s mornings are spent in Thai. Our sitters take her to play with other children and Thai caregivers, and train her to greet Thai repairmen, guards, and housekeepers at our sixty-unit apartment complex. As a result, she sees these workers and their words as hers; she gazes at a photo from the all-staff fire training, posted in our stairwell, as at a family portrait. There they are! All of her buddies’ nannies, the custodians, and the director of maintenance whose blue van she knows. The gardener who buffs his black pickup truck on breaks. The technician who cleaned our air conditioners. When he left, she tried to kiss him!
Little wonder that when we travel from Thailand, as we did last month on a fall vacation, she misses Thai. Though disinclined to speak it with us even abroad, she appreciates it when I use some Thai. She smiles widely as if reassured.
What will this mean for her future? In the short term, international preschool and elementary school will soon send her English shooting ahead. Both English and Japanese will still be spoken at home. But her time with native Thai speakers will halve at least, slowing the growth of her secret lexicon.
So my husband and I will face the task of nurturing friendships in Thai, ensuring more chances for her to practice. This will pose a challenge, given that our own Thai needs lots of work.
Also sobering is the fact that language works not in isolation, but linked with places, people, society—a culture, complete with behavior norms, economics, and politics that may differ from our own.
Our daughter’s Thai may bind her, and us, to a world we observe closely but sometimes still find baffling.
And, at times, alarming. As I write this, news outlets beam bulletins of upheaval due to a political amnesty bill that passed part of the Thai legislature. I learned of it on a Thursday when my phone beeped, announcing the school’s buses were affected by protests. By Saturday, newspapers told of university rectors and national airline staff voicing concern en masse, and demonstrators gathering in Chicago, Frankfurt, Melbourne, London, and The Hague, as well as Bangkok. Thailand also awaited a verdict from the International Court of Justice regarding a disputed stretch of the Thai-Cambodia border. Violence was feared.
These never used to be our problems.
But they belong to a world with a growing claim on one daughter’s heart. Just before I sent this column, I sang the “chang, chang” phrases to her again and she supplied the last plow, unable to help herself. So much for her secret.
We have yet to see whether chang, chang will lead to her blowing a whistle outside a Thai embassy someday, or deliberately saying “same-same.” Meanwhile, we need to respect her loves, including Thai. We chose to birth our children here. We commit to exploring their worlds with them. Recently that meant piling into the apartment pool, making a Japanese-style bus with foam noodles from Kansas, greeting a Kiwi lap swimmer and floating along while discussing Thai . . . the word yut can mean stop or also lots, as in thick/yut hair.
Our youngest blew fat bubbles and reached for the deck ladders, as if to say I know that already. I’m on to my next discovery. Are you coming?