Last year living in Kravan, living everyday in the village surrounded by Khmer, I was frustrated. I'm not a person who has a particular gift for language. I'm a plodder. The only language (apart from English) that I have ever had a chance of learning – really learning – is Thai. So finally, here I am most of the time in Thailand, and two years ago I end up living in a village where
everyone speaks Khorat (a Thai-Lao dialect), and then last year living in a village where everyone speaks Khmer (a language not at all related to the Thai-Lao family). I was happy living in Kravan, but language-wise it was frustrating.
But here in the town of Prasat, three languages – central Thai, Lao-Isaan, and Khmer – exist almost side by side. School kids learn central Thai. A bank employee or a government official will speak in central Thai. Most people here in Prasat are Khmer-Thai, meaning that Khmer is their first language, but everyone learns to speak and function in Thai. But outside the bank or a
government office, that Thai most often becomes Lao-Isaan, the dominant language of northeastern Thailand.
To give an example, to say that something is really delicious, in central Thai you say (in transliteration)arroi mak jang luhy. In Lao-Isaan: sep lai lai. And in Khmer: jiangan jinap. They are all completely different. But in Prasat, with three languages to chose from, people mix and match in fun and creative ways (as people do in many places where multi-lingualism is common – like in India, or Beirut…). When I first started living with Khmer people here in Thailand I would commonly hear Thai words mixed in, and I would think that Khmer has borrowed Thai. But then I started to think just the opposite: that Thai borrowed Khmer. NOW I think that both are true, and that it happens each and every day, never staying still.
When I look back now on my time in the village, I think that my Thai actually improved by not being able to talk. It improved because I had to listen better, hear better. One of my big pleasures in Prasat is just listening to people talk together, flowing effortlessly between three languages. I love listening to Pea talk straight Khmer with her mother on the telephone, or in three languages with a same-age friend. Last night I sat out on our porch listening as best I could
to our neighbors' small birthday party (a lesbian couple who are both high school teachers). An educated group, there was a lot of central Thai, but as the night moved along, a lot more Khmer.
I think it's finally dawning upon me. What I want most to do is to learn the language of where I am, and that "language" is a mix.
In Khmer: "Dtoh na?" Where you go?