Updated: Jun 11, 2021
Imagine learning English and getting to a competent level. You've got a bit more than survival skills, but definitely not fluent. You generally feel ok with your ability but know you could do better, but every time an obstacle is presented you have enough language and local knowledge to be able to work things out.
Then you get dropped into a lively pub in Glasgow and you wonder if you really learned English, or are people speaking another language. Words fly by you and although there's the odd flicker of familiarity its usually gone too quickly for any sense to be made of it.
The speed, half-said words, and strange sounds leave you a bit bewildered.
This pretty much describes the situation I'm soon to find myself in. After over 20 years here and feeling comfortable with my local language skills we are moving to an area where Thai is spoken, but it's absolutely not the daily language of choice. That honour goes to the Isaan dialect. It may be called a dialect but it's basically Lao, the neighbour across the Mekong River for the whole of north-eastern Thailand. But even Isaan has its own dialects.
It's a language I'm going to have to learn.
image from https://thailand.kerssens.in/01_isan/
The best comparison I can really give is what I've already explained: it's as close to Thai as Glaswegian, or Scots, is to English. There are a lot of similarities, but some very distinct differences, both in vocabulary and pronunciation.
I guess 'yes' becoming 'aye' as you enter Scotland is a good example. Meaning that can be worked out in context, but is quite confusing when first heard. Here, the word delicious, which in Thai is 'aroi', a well-know word that is quickly understood my most visitors to the country, becomes 'saep' when spoken in Isaan. Initially you wouldn't match their meaning, but in context you might get it.
Over the 10 years of so I've been visiting Hana's family I've picked up the odd word here and there, and there are a dozen or so phrases that I can use that bring a smile to local faces, but that needs to improve. I can't have Hana following me around everywhere being a translator.
Isaan is, in my view, much more expressive than Thai. It also seems more direct, and I get the impression it’s much ruder and cheekier too. I guess there are a few similarities to Scotland.
The sounds seem more pronounced and I like listening to Isaan. It's frequently heard at street stalls and around the city in Bangkok, due to the large number of migrant workers. But hearing it and getting some familiarity with it are two different things.
I'm looking forward to the challenge.
When I first moved here there was a famous foreigner who sang in Isaan dialect - they have their own folk music too - and he was really famous, but other than that I've only heard the odd foreigner here and there being able to speak the language. I'm sure once I get up there I'll meet a few more, but in Kalasin, the province we are moving to, well, there's not too many foreigners.
Looks like speaking Isaan will be necessary.
Hopefully it's not too long before I'm heading out to the market by myself to sell our fruit and veg, catch up on the local news, and maybe share a glass of the local whisky with new friends. It will almost feel like home - I might even teach the locals a few Scots words!