Way back before our children were born, my husband and I spent two months in Thailand where we tried our best not to be obnoxious foreigners. Part of this effort involved things like not screaming at tuk-tuk drivers when they wanted to charge us an extra twenty cents to drive halfway across Bangkok, but the main thing we did to minimize our farang status was attempt to learn a tiny bit of the language.

With Thai that is easier said than done, because while things like verb tenses and prepositions are relatively easy in Thai (especially compared to English), the pronunciation is so difficult as to be almost impossible for Western trained ears. Not that the Thai people ever let on: they were so polite, and so appreciative of our pitiful attempts to speak their language that they encouraged us at every turn, and even put up with our childish delight when we managed to communicate simple requests like, “May I borrow a pen?” (Even when our version of “May I borrow a pen?” came out sounding more like “May I kiss your pig?”)

Actually, I’m pretty sure that it came out sounding like “May I kiss your pig?” most of the time, for the simple reason that Thai is a tonal language: changing the rising or falling inflection of a word can completely change its meaning. The most commonly used example of this is the Thai tongue twister “New wood doesn’t burn, does it?”, a phrase which sounds to most Western ears like “mai mai mai mai mai?”

As you might imagine, this caused us a great deal of confusion, and, as much as I enjoyed our time in Thailand, I was very grateful when we got back to an English-speaking country where I was able to understand what people were saying without having to bend my ears so hard around tone and inflection. Back to a land where, with the exception of a few regional variations, words all meant what I thought they meant, no matter how they were pronounced. And then, of course, I went and had children. And I might as well have never left Thailand.

Why? Because sulking, like Thai, is a tonal language. And there is as big a difference between “fine” and “fine” as there is between “mai” and “mai”—it all depends upon the inflection.

“How was your day?” I’ll ask my kids when they get home from school. The different answers (“fine” “fine” and “fine”) might, to the uninitiated, all sound the same, but to the practiced ear there is a world of difference.

“Fine” means that nothing very much happened: there is no gossip to report, no drama to relive. “Fine,” on the other hand, means that an important assignment was misplaced, a trusted friend was unkind, and they were soaked to the skin by an unexpected snowstorm. And heaven help you if the answer is “fine.” That means that you, as a parent, have failed them so greatly that it will take them a lifetime of therapy—maybe even two—to ever recover.

See the difference?

I know, neither do I—that’s the problem. When they were little I used to wish I had a “baby translator” so that I could finally understand what it was, exactly, that they wanted. Now that that they are older, however, I am starting to realize that those infant days were the high points of our communications. At least back then they seemed to think that it was worth their time to try to tell me what was wrong—even if I was too thick to understand.

Now I don’t even rate that. Or maybe I do: like I said, it’s hard to tell. Whatever. It’s fine.

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