What can you learn from a language?
Posted by Lizz and Pete Maycock at 12:12 on 21st July 2011
One of my favourite things about living in Thailand is the opportunity to learn new languages - first Thai, and now Karen. Of course, language learning doesn't always feel that much fun, and can be pretty hard work. The rewards are immense though, being able to communicate and build relationships with local people, and also gaining precious insights into local culture.
Both Karen and Thai are wonderfully colourful and expressive languages. I recently learned the Thai word for 'coup d'etat', which is a word that has much more contemporary relevance here in the UK. Literally translated, it is 'the murder of a government!' I don't think the Thai military were involved in choosing that word!
In Karen, the word for a 'fool' is brilliant. It can be translated literally as 'one who goes out walking for fun in the morning.' For Karens, the cool morning time is the best time for physical labour, before the heat of the day makes work too arduous. Who but a fool, then, would waste his morning time on frivolous pursuits? And anyway, why walk when you could ride a motorbike?
On a more serious note, language can sometimes be very revealing about the local culture. In Thai, for example, there is no word for 'mission' - a fact which only serves to fuel the misunderstanding in the Thai church that mission is something that is done to them by foreigners. And the existence of an entire set of Thai vocabulary used exclusively for the Royal Family emphasises the depth of respect in which they are held.
In Karen, meanwhile, there is no word for 'imagination' - which reflects the traditional Karen way of understanding the world through concrete, tangible concepts. You have to work very hard in Karen to explain an abstract idea! The relative simplicity of the Karen language also means that it takes much longer to express an idea in Karen than in English. A friend of ours who taught in a Karen hostel said that he could recite the Lord's Prayer in English three times in the time it took his students to say it in Karen once!
Sometimes, language insights impact directly on our work. In Karen, the word for 'youth' also means 'immature and feeble-hearted'. This reflects the aspect of Karen culture which pays enormous respect and deference to elders, and a relative lack of respect to younger people.
One of the biggest struggles facing the youth leaders of the Karen Baptist churches (left) today is to be taken seriously by the church leadership, and to gain more freedom and independence to express their own ideas and plan their own activities. You might recognise a similar situation in your own church!
We are often embarrassed by our language inadequacies, particularly in the light of so many excellent linguists around us here. Many people are truly astonished that we arrived being able to speak only one language! Almost all Karens living in Thailand can speak Thai as well as Karen, and a number of them also speak fairly good English.
Young Karens often talk in Thai, even with their friends, throwing in Karen or English words as needed. This makes listening to them quite an experience! My most recent puzzle came when I overheard the frequent use of the English word, 'Ment'. No, it's not a mispelling of 'meant' - it's a shortened version of 'Comment', used by young Thais as a verb, in the context of adding comments to pictures on Facebook!
Rather than borrow foreign words, however, Karen more often re-uses base words to create new meanings. So, for example, in Karen you have a 'Teacher' (school teacher), a 'Medicine-Teacher' (doctor), a 'Church-Teacher' (a pastor), and my personal favourite, a 'Church-Big-Teacher' (an ordained pastor!) It's hard not to love a language like that!