Monday, March 12th, 2012

At a Loss for Words: My Foreign Language Meltdown

© Johan Larson -

I am probably spoiled, being brought up bilingual and exposed to many languages and cultures. Perhaps I just haven’t been adventurous enough in my travels, but I don’t ever recall finding myself in a situation where I could neither derive any inkling of meaning from the exchange nor express in any terms or gesticulations what I needed to say—that is until now.
A few days after arriving at our new home in Bangkok, I set off for the hospital with a hefty fever, bronchitis and my two kids in tow since one of them was also sick. We had an easy and quick taxi ride there, despite the dreaded traffic, and shelled out just over 50 Baht (US $1.65).
An hour or so later, wowed by the incredible efficiency of our visit and the modernity of the hospital, and carrying two stylish bags of meds for my eldest and myself, we took a taxi back home. I check if the driver knows the main artery we live right beside, since I am utterly incapable of giving detailed directions. Geez I can’t even introduce myself yet.  The driver vigorously shakes her head, yes, she knows, and off we go. I am not too worried as I have the address written both in roman and Thai characters as a backup.
Fast forward twenty minutes with no recognizable landmarks, and she makes the first call for directions. By some miracle, my 18-month-old has fallen asleep so I welcome a small scenic detour as a way to prolong her snooze. Forty minutes and two calls later, I am starting to get a little antsy. My eldest, who is now a few months shy of four, says she wants to go home, and I know she isn’t feeling very well. At this point, the driver stops and gets out to ask directions. The vendor answers confidently—it is a major road after all—and off we go, only cars have lined up behind her and she can’t back out of the alleyway, so we first have to creep down this tiny passage to head back. As we pass the vendor, the driver seems to turn in the opposite direction that has been indicated to her. I sense she is getting a bit anxious too.
After another 10 minutes, I call my husband, positive I will be able to keep my cool as he already has enough on his plate and I am determined not to be a burden. Of course, within a second I am bawling, which only freaks out the driver more. Amazingly, the baby remains asleep and my other girl is super calm. We decide I should tell the driver to take me back to the hospital but even saying the name again and again slowly seems to make no sense to her. She keeps rattling off and pointing to the paper as if accusing me of providing inaccurate information. I should probably mention that this paper was given to me by the taxi company at the airport and no other drivers have encountered any problems with the address.
While my husband works to locate someone who speaks Thai and English, my driver gets out yet again to ask directions. What’s the point, I wonder, given that four calls and two people later, she still can’t find my Central Business District address. At last, someone on the phone directs her to take me back to the hospital.
As she starts speeding back, I suddenly see a HUGE sign—you know the big green ones similar to U.S. highway signs—saying NANGLINCHI Road, i.e. the road I asked her to find. She zooms down it and past my house. Dreading the possibility of her getting lost on her way back to the hospital, I shout out to stop and turn around.
The ride that took me 15 minutes in the morning and cost me 55 Baht was now over an hour and very close to the 150 Baht mark. The building management staff kindly argued my case to the driver and explained there was no way I would pay the metered fare; I am told the fact that she tried to get the full amount illustrates the fact she was indeed very new to driving as most experienced taxi drivers here will turn off the meter if they get lost.
As I sobbed, I kept telling my eldest that sometimes mommies are tired and don’t feel well and cry when they get frustrated. She seemed to think that was totally normal and remained nonplussed by the ordeal. (Yay, one less thing for her to seek therapy for in the future). Although I felt like an idiot afterwards, I blame the exhaustion built up over the week of fighting off bronchitis and caring for two wee ones while sporting a fever, which had me exuding enough heat to merit some sort of alternative energy harnessing mechanism. I have to say, I am grateful it was a female driver as I might have really freaked out if it was a male.
While I think the above is true, I also think something deeper is going on. I have never had a complete inability to communicate with someone (except severe crushes as a tween), and I had never felt so vulnerable and so lost.
Some people have looked at me sort of funny when I’ve told them I plan on learning Thai. People generally seem to think either “why bother” or “good luck, that’s an impossible language to learn.” The former didn’t affect me as I love languages and plan to be here a while so of course I would bother! The latter however started slowly eroding my self-confidence and I wondered if I was crazy to think I could actually learn this tonal language.
As I’ve been rehashing that morning, debating what I could have done to avoid that situation, I remembered this father I met in Denmark about 15 years ago at a dinner party. He had been living in Copenhagen for at least five years if not more. He was married to a Dane and he was actually half-Danish himself. He had two young children to whom he spoke English. As we talked about learning Danish, he told me that he didn’t actually speak any Danish other than some basic phrases (really basic). He admitted being slightly ashamed as he had recently met a young Serbo-Croatian refugee and she already spoke fluent Danish after just a few months in Denmark. He thought it was extraordinary and said something along the lines of “well I guess if your survival depends on it, anything is possible.”
Bingo. There is no reason I can’t learn Thai. Perhaps I was lucky to learn so early on that my survival, or at least a state of low anxiety given my worry-prone nature, depends on it.

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Born in New York back when subway graffiti was rife, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas mostly spends her time pondering, parenting, and writing. Franco-American, she spent her summers in the Loire indulging in heart-arresting foods. An eclectic background ranging from Japanese art and postal history to environmental social innovations and rigging dinghies has taken her to England, Turkey, Singapore and now Thailand, where she resides with her Mexican husband and their two daughters. They are attempting to raise trilingual kids in Spanish, French and English with some Thai thrown in. She can also be found blogging at

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  1. CommentsAt a Loss for Words: My Foreign Language Meltdown | Multilingual Mama   |  Tuesday, 13 March 2012 at 9:53 pm

    […] post was written for In Culture Parent. To continue reading please click here! Share this:FacebookEmailStumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This […]

  2. CommentsJen   |  Wednesday, 14 March 2012 at 4:53 am

    Oh no, that sounds terrible. I am such a crier, I would have been bawling before then.

    I think it’s important for kids to see their parents as normal, and to know that releasing emotions is okay.

    Hope nothing like this happens to you again and someday this becomes a story you can laugh at. Someday!

  3. CommentsHiragana Mama   |  Thursday, 22 March 2012 at 5:39 pm

    That is SO amazing that you are teaching your children so many different languages. Good for you! This was a fun article to read.

  4. CommentsMarch Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism « pebblemeddle   |  Thursday, 22 March 2012 at 6:12 pm

    […] of Multilingual Mama shares a story about being driven all around her new home town of Bangkok, along with her two children, by an […]

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