What does “fluent” mean anyway? …
When people start talk about learning Thai I often hear the word “fluent” bandied about. A couple of forums are talking about just this sorta thing (google). So what exactly is the definition of “fluent”? Being an American, I’ll use the Merriam Webster dictionary.
flu·ent adjective \ˈflü-ənt\
Definition of FLUENT
a : capable of flowing : fluid
b : capable of moving with ease and grace
a : capable of using a language easily and accurately [fluentin Spanish] [a fluent writer]
b : effortlessly smooth and flowing : polished [a fluentperformance] [spoke in fluent English]
c : having or showing mastery of a subject or skill [fluent in mathematics]
I’ve met more foreigners than I care to count who’ve told me they know someone who’s fluent in Thai. My question to them is, “how do you know if your friend is fluent if you can’t even speak Thai?” I’ve since met some of their friends and when I ask them to “bust out with it”, seems they are anything but fluent.
I’ve also had conversations with a guy who makes no bones about his fluency in Thai, and the fact that every foreigner he’s taught is also fluent in Thai. Now, in his defense, he is a clear, concise foreign speaker of Thai. His rhythm and cadence are what makes him so easily understood by Thais.
I’d learn Thai from him in a second (he’s that good) excepting he’s set a maximum age limit and in his opinion, I’m well past my “sale by date”. And darn it, on top of all that, and for reasons beyond my understanding, I seemed to have rubbed him the wrong way.
Anyone who’s listened to Thai knows it’s spoken with a definite rhythm. For myself, the more I emulate the distinctive tempo of spoken Thai, the better Thais understand even my quirky version of Thai.
Awhile back I started a post asking about comma words in Thai. Written Thai is bereft of commas so comma words are where you pause either before or after a word. I asked about comma words because when it came to my turn in the reading aloud portion of Thai class, the teacher would often be in tears either from tryin’ not to laugh or from the sheer anguish of havin’ to endure my reading. I now know that what I was doing wrong was pausing to take a breath in the middle of compound words, or at the wrong place in a sentence. So unless someone was following along with the written text it was hard to understand what I was saying.
In my own defense I’ve gotten much much better but that’s the direct result of reading books aloud for hours on end while a Thai friend lounged around my house half listening and then yelling corrections whenever I messed up. It hasn’t made it into my spoken Thai (yet) but at least my oral reading skills are doing okay. Not that I do a lot of that, come to think of it…
But let’s get back to the topic of fluency. What is fluency and what makes a person fluent? I read somewhere that being able to ask about the meaning of a word you don’t know in your target language demonstrates fluency. To a degree, I believe this is true because I routinely do the same so experience the value.
I also read somewhere that being fluent is having a conversation in the target language without breaking into your mother tongue. Dunno about that one as it’s a pretty broad interpretation of fluency. I talk to taxi drivers and never have to fall back on English. However, I’m using the same ‘ole predictable taxi driver conversation that anyone who speaks even marginal Thai gets into. Not exactly fluent. And seeing as in taxi situations you are usually just answering questions, or maybe even elaborating on the topics a little, it’s not a big stretch language-wise.
Now, if you were to talk to the taxi drivers about, oh, let’s say the recent law where you can report a taxi driver who declines to take you somewhere. And let’s say you start chatting about your personal feelings, that it’s not a fair law because: 1) taxis are rented and hafta be returned at specific times, 2) taxis run low on petrol and maybe where the customer wants to go will drain the tank, 3) that there’s just nothing but a parking lot where that someone want to go, and 4) the meter for fares haven’t increased in Bangkok for almost 10 years, etc. Well, all of that might constitute being a little more fluent than the run-of-the-mill Thai taxi chatter.
As far as I’m concerned, there is a huge difference in fluency between you driving a conversation topic-wise or participating in one where they are in the driver’s seat. Keeping a conversation in Thai on a topic you’re comfortable with can seem to demonstrate fluency. That is, until it strays off script, leaving you all of a sudden floundering around without a word to say in response.
Fluency can also be broken down into a myriad of subjects: politics, religion, business, or any specialty trade lingo, casual conversation, conversations with superiors/subordinates, giving presentations at meetings, etc.
I recently worked for a Thai company on a consultancy gig and I had NO business Thai vocab to fall back on. I was woefully behind the curve on projections, sales, training, and basic office and managerial lingo Thai. It was vocabulary I’ve never needed to know before. So again, depending on what you need to communicate, fluency can be rated based on different criteria.
On a sidetone: At the beginning of the consultancy gig my casual (and very coarse) direct, no frills way of speaking Thai didn’t really play that well with the people sporting impressive titles. But thankfully, they’re now dialed into Todz-Thai and realize that’s just how I speak.
I think what I’m trying to get at is that for most of us it’s better if we just chuck the idea of fluency out the window. Seems that when it comes to speaking Thai, we put way too much time and effort on attaining this mythical fluent rating. And really, in the big picture it doesn’t always mean that much of anything.
If you’re gonna go for something, go for fluidity instead (another meaning for fluent):
- Pause where Thais pause.
- Say things more like Thais do.
- Speak with the rhythm and cadence Thais use.
And if you live in Thailand these Thai traits can be gleaned just by listening to the Thais around you.
Talking Thai to Thais ain’t a grammar or structure test by any means. No one’s grading your ability to converse. And the Thais I know don’t give two hoots if I make an attempt to speak perfectly constructed Thai or stick with the half-assed version of Thai I speak. What they do care about is being able to understand what I’m saying.
And here’s another thing. You shouldn’t be speaking Thai to impress anyone. And if you are, IMHO, you’re learning Thai for all the wrong reasons. Because at the end of the day, aren’t we merely trying to connect with Thais in their language?
To finalize: Don’t take this language or yourself too seriously. Don’t let other people bring you down. Oh, and if your opinion differs from mine, that’s fine. What I’m not is a Thai language pundit. I’m just someone who’s struggled for over four years to get a working semblance of Thai under my belt in order to communicate with Thais.
Now, because I’m considered “old” by some, I could very well be a slow learner because “old people can’t learn”. But I’m gonna prove that fallacy wrong. Not to impress anyone, but to prove that old dogs can learn new tricks. Because you know what? This old dog still hunts! Yeah.
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com