31 March 2014; AT5 = 1063 hours; total class time = 2001 hours; TV = 682.2 hours
A recent incident might give some idea of my shortcomings in Thai as well as how I work around them. Specifically, this is about how my restricted Thai vocabulary impacts my ability to communicate.
The other day I needed to see about a repair in my apartment, so I went downstairs to the building’s office. If it were an English language situation, maybe I would have said something like, “My toilet’s leaking water from around the base. It only leaks out when I flush – sometimes just a little water, sometimes more. It kind of smells – I think the pipe that carries away the wastewater is broken or something.” Here I’ve bolded the words whose Thai equivalents I don’t know.
A rough English translation of what I actually said was, “There’s a problem in the bathroom. Water runs out of the toilet. I press” –pantomiming flushing a toilet– “and water runs out.”
I had brought pen and paper with me so I could sketch out a toilet and show graphically where the leak was, since I was pretty sure this was something I wouldn’t be able to specify in Thai. But the woman in the office instead had me step into the adjoining bathroom so I could use the toilet there as a model to point out the location of the leak.
(I actually might have been able to say something like “Water runs out at the place where the toilet joins the floor,” but didn’t think of it at the time. Also, the word for floor is one of those words that, although I can recognize it when I hear it, the pronunciation still eludes me. So there’s a good chance I would’ve just gotten a blank look if I’d tried out that sentence).
“I press here,” I said, pointing at the flush-handle, “and water runs out here,” pointing at the areas along the base where my own toilet is leaking.
“Sometimes a little like this,” I said, and turning on the tap in the sink I collected a very small amount of water in my cupped hands and poured it out on the floor along the area I had just pointed to. “Sometimes like this,” I continued, this time letting the tap water fill my cupped hands about halfway.
“It smells too,” I said. “It’s unclean water.”
The rest of the conversation, concerning when the repair would occur, was less problematic. It ended with her coming up to my room and my flushing the toilet so she could actually see the leak occurring; and then a temporary and probably not-too-effective repair – caulking around the base where the toilet meets the floor to contain the leak.
“This doesn’t really solve the problem,” I said, “because the problem is inside, the water is running out inside.” And here I pointed at the toilet, indicating that I meant inside the toilet itself. “Problem with this,” I said, and pointed to the pipe that drains my sink, then back to the toilet, to indicate that the problem is with a pipe inside the toilet.
I also again stressed that what was leaking out was the dirty water I was trying to flush down.
She understood but the repairman wouldn’t be available for a few days, so I had her go ahead and caulk around the base of the toilet in hopes that this will help contain the leak until it can be repaired. I had also asked if there were an empty apartment whose bathroom I could use, but unfortunately there are currently no vacancies in the building.
Communication about physical, tangible things isn’t so much a problem so long as you’re communicating in person, because you can usually get your point across by drawing, gesturing, pointing and demonstrating. Even if I hadn’t known any Thai at all, I could still have communicated the problem. It’s just that it takes more time and patience on everybody’s part, and it’s so much less elegant than a concise verbal statement.
Also, I think if I’d been unable to use nonverbal communication – say if I’d had to do all this over the phone – I wouldn’t have been able to communicate quite as effectively, and would have had difficulty specifying both the location of the leak and that it only happens when flushing.