How a Friend Will Make a Difference in Your Language Learning

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What is vital to learning a new language? Making one or two friends. That’s it. Your friends will motivate you and push you to communicate.

I’m guessing you already have eight to ten people in your circle of influence. Meaning next door neighbors, co-workers and people you see on a regular basis. These relationships will fire you up to get “out there.”

I learned this principle first hand with my third language-Thai Lue. I moved into a Lue village where I got to know my good friend Praphan. I met him at our local village church. After my first Sunday worship there, he came up to me and said,

“I know you came here to learn Thai Lue. I want to help you.”

The next day I went out and helped Praphan load bags of rice at his relative’s house. While I diverted the sweat rivulets from my eyes, He taught question words, phrases and idioms to me. I don’t think I could ever repay Praphan for how much he helped me. The thing is, I was inspired to learn Lue because I really liked Praphan. We liked to laugh, eat food together and talk about spiritual matters.

What I’m not saying is language apps, sentence drills, and audio files, are unimportant. But your greatest resource is the national people you’re living among. Your language learning will take a turn for the best. Make one or two friends. That will make the difference in your language learning.

Do you find this principle true with your experiences?

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Planting Seedlings By Hand

Rice is still planted by hand in our community.  The lady in the center takes 3-4 seedlings at a time and plants them in the shallow mud.  They are planting glutinous rice or sticky rice as it more popularly known.

The seedlings are also grown by these farmers.  When the tender plants are about 3 weeks old, they are pulled from their seedbeds are put into bundles that you see in the video.

I’ve done this type of planting before, and they make it look easy.  It is hot, backbreaking work.   Until I moved to a Lue village, I never gave much thought to what it takes to put a serving of rice on my plate.

Sticky rice is the main staple of this area, and the Lue people in particular.  What is grown here will be used throughout the coming year for consumption.  Rice is grown not only for eating but for sacred uses as well.

Sticky rice is used for offerings to a variety of spirit beings and ancestors that the Lue revere.  Rice has a unique status.  It is  believed that sticky rice has its own “essence” which somewhat related to a soul.  One ceremony in particular, Khao Haek, is to appease the rice spirit for protection or to keep the rice from spoiling throughout the year.

Growing rice then is an integral part of the life of the community.  It is much more than just providing food for the family.

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Prepping the Field

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My buddy Nan Mong is tilling up one of his rice paddies.  He’ll be planting rice seedlings in it very soon.  It takes strong legs and endurance to muck through this job all day.

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Sleeping Southward Sounded Strange

IMG_7049When I moved into my first Lue village several years ago, one my neighbors helped me put my bed together in the “master” bedroom.  After we put the headboard on, I started to slide the bed next to the closest wall.  He gently asked, “Don’t you want to put the head of the bed on the east side of the room?”  I didn’t get it.  He was really saying, “This is wrong.  You shouldn’t be putting the head of the bed on the south side.”  I still was in the dark and didn’t understand the deeper meaning behind my friend’s concern until years later.

As I lived among my Lue friends I learned that points on a compass matter.  The east and north are auspicious and are correlated with blessings.  The south and west are inauspicious and are associated with bad luck and cursing.

For example, the entrance to every Buddhist wihaan (temple) building in Thailand always faces east.  Also, ancestor spirit shelves that are made during house dedication ceremonies are always facing north or east.

During the Thai New Year, many families have a ceremony to get rid of ill fate from the past year. They’ll have a ritual specialist come say a chant and then symbolically place the past year’s fate in a satong (a shallow four-side tray with 9 compartments).  After the ceremony is done the satong  will be taken out of the house and placed on the south side of the property or community.  Somewhat similar to the ancient Hebrew law of a scapegoat being released to take away the Israelites’ past sins, the satong was placed outside the property to release the ill luck of the past year in the appropriate place: the inauspicious south.

Another part of my learning curve was to grasp that all parts of the body aren’t viewed the same way. The head is considered the most sacred. The feet are considered the lowliest part of the body.  Pointing your feet at someone is a very rude thing to do. In most circumstances, you wouldn’t touch or slap somebody’s head.  That would be considered as a major breach of etiquette.

So when I attempted to slide my bed along the south wall of my bedroom,  I communicated the following: I wanted the holiest part of my body pointing towards  inauspicious south while my lowly feet would be pointing towards auspicious north.

Here was a classic clash of values when “East meets West”.

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The Joy Of Catching Coins

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Before a man dons the saffron robes, he would wash the feet of his parents to show them honor and respect.  Then the family of the ordained monk tosses gift-wrapped coins to all the relatives and well-wishers.  The crowd goes from mildly happy to a rowdy roar every time coins get flung into the air.  Sometimes a shrewd onlooker will turn an umbrella upside down to snare more treasures from the sky.

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Which One is the Elder Twin?

thAwhile back I was checking a Thai Lue lesson that I thought was cut and dry. But it turned into something else.

My lesson was about the birth of Jacob and Esau, from the biblical account in Genesis.

One day after my initial draft was written, I had it checked with my helpers Pa Pong and Pa Sanguan. We read through the Thai Bible (which they could read and understand easily, even though it isn’t their mother tongue).

The passage was out of Genesis 25, where Isaac pleaded with God on behalf of his barren wife to have children. God answered his prayer to not only have one child but twins. Then God told Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, that the two twins represent two nations, they would be rivals, and the older son would serve the younger.

Pa Pong, Pa Sanguan and I read through the scriptures about Rebekah having twin boys. The first child out of the womb was Esau. The younger child was Jacob who was grasping his older sibling’s heel.

I then explained (in my written lesson) what it meant that the older son will serve the younger. Both Pa Pong and Pa Sanguan exclaimed, “Of course, Jacob will serve Esau. We get it.” Perplexed, I once again conveyed the story of the birth order with Esau being born first and then Jacob. Jacob was the younger brother, not Esau. I thought this was obvious.

Now my helpers were the ones with the blank look of “huh?” Pa Pong said “Jacob must be the older sibling. He came out of the womb last. It is just like when a group of Buddhist monks leave a ceremony. The eldest monk always leaves the room last.”

Ahhh. Now I get it. From the Thai Lue perspective, they automatically thought that Jacob was the older one in the story. They thought that Jacob would one day serve Esau, which is not what scriptures were proclaiming.

Once I understood their perspective, I was able to share that from the Hebrew viewpoint, the elder twin baby was born first, not last. This was in direct contrast to what my two helpers thought the passage was saying.

This was a classic case study of how the scriptures can be misinterpreted due to cultural frames of reference. Such a good learning time for all parties involved.

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Overpassing Individualism 

Our village does things together.  Whether it is making a temporary walkway over our main waterway or harvesting rice, everyone pitches in and helps.  The Lue simply don’t enjoy doing things by themselves.  There is a colorful idiom that describes this communal spirit:

Lots of people are a good thingLots of ghosts are an evil thing. (หลายคนดีหลายผีฮ้าย)  

Lue people don’t like to sleep in a house by themselves (mainly because they are worried about ghosts harassing them).  It is just plain strange to do things on your own.

I’m an American who grew up with T.V. shows like MacGyver.  My heroes were men who could dive out of a plane and survive, with only a paper clip and some duct tape.

I’m learning that communal honor is of upmost importance.  Lue people build bridges not because they are thinking to themselves, “I would feel better if I got out and helped in the village today.”  (possibly based off of a guilt-based culture)

But are more likely feeling, “Helping out with this project brings honor to our community.  We are honorable because we help each other.  Hence, I need to get out there.”  (probably based on this shame-based culture)

Overcoming my individualism is difficult.  I’m grateful that my Lue friends are patient with me as I learn to span over selfdom.

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