Countless of times I have heard people talking about “speaking the language of the people,” and most often we would love to interpret or expand its meaning to the extent of living, acting, breathing like the people. Sometimes, the interpretation goes so far that the interpreter himself or herself could not even grasp the point where to start, and eventually end up mystifying themselves with more complications. Speaking the “language of the people,” therefore, means solely to learn that language very well, literally.
After a week of having recess in my exquisite hometown, I rigorously set my compass going right forward to Khek Noi, a Hmong village located in Petchabun Province, central north of Thailand. My primary intention was to learn the language of Hmong people, to live and hopefully to experience their way of life.
First of all, I have to accept that learning a new language is not a piece of cake at all. Hmong language, in this case, is a tonal language with 8 different tones which is hilariously tough. However, the toughest part is the pronunciations or phonemes with more than ten alphabets that are literally out of this world adding to it for example, ntxh, nplh, ntsh, nqh, etc. which obviously cannot be transliterated.
I had spent five months in total in sitting in a one-on-one class with a Hmong teacher. And after having finished, I spent approximately three more weeks with a Hmong family in Namkham, a mountainous village located in a valley of Pitsanulok Province. I wished to expand my language more extensively by repeating word after word, sentence after sentence like a child from the people I mingled with. Even though I had learned how to read and write quite impressively, nonetheless, listening and speaking the language were another strenuous things that barricaded me from getting closer to the people, especially to their heart. The feeling of alienation and otherness never got away from me. Every time I participated in their daily activities which involved with a lot of conversations, whether they were aware of it or not, I felt I was a stranger to them. It’s you-are-not one-of-us feeling.
I was always reminded by many Hmong brothers and sisters that “Brother, if you want to get the heart of the Hmong, it’s very easy, I tell you. Just speak their language.” I admit that to embrace anther culture is not easy, particularly that culture appears to be alienated to my “own culture.” Saying my “own culture” meaning to say, the culture that has formed me to be myself as I am today which includes local and Thai cultures, educations, knowledge, Oblate formation, and other psychological things. Furthermore, there are lots of things seem opposed to my way of thinking and several times I have been tempted to turn my back on them. It’s hard to change my belief and perspective, especially when I think I am right and more knowledgeable.
However, “Rome was not built in a single day”, my affection and appreciation for Hmong people likewise began to form in every single day as I exposed myself through their language. I began to deepen my understanding of the language by internalizing its philosophical logic integrated behind a single sentence—this is my way of learning a language. “Nyob zoo” (nyo zshong) can be translated as “hello,” and is used as greeting word. However, its literal meaning conveys the meaning of wishing each other to live happily. Nyob means “to live”, and zoo, on the other hand, means “good” and more meanings depending on the contexts. When Hmong people bless each other, they will say something like this, “Thov koj noj qab nyob zoo. Thov koj tej hauj lwm tawg paj txi txiv!” which roughly literally translates that “may you eat well and live well. (I) wish your works become bountiful.” The way they talk, if reflect deeply, unleashes their thoughts and minds which can’t be found explicitly anywhere else but in their own language.
Little by little I begun to understand what they were talking about, I could communicate with them, then I felt like I was one of them. Language, I strongly believe, is not just a group of words babbling desultorily out from the mouth, but it has encapsulated deep sense of mindsets, cultures, way of life, and attitudes realistically in it. It’s almost impossible to be detected except for comprehending so deeply its phonology. As getting through the lens of language, I find myself creating love and compassion for the Hmong regardless of their stumbling blocks in my eyes. Meaning to say, language has opened my eyes wider to look beyond their inadequacies in many ways, to gaze on them with the eyes of the Master when He gazed so compassionately at the children, the widows, the outcast, and the people of every life condition.
Love and compassion for the people in reality neither always begin with ideology of what have been taught nor do they start from assignment obligated by superior to do. I believe it starts from our immersion in a way with people as well as embrace their “realities” which begins with the language. Sooner and later it will lead to the “language of heart.” If not to the point that we speak like them, we can’t never ever say that we are speaking the language that touches their heart.
By Sc. Mongkol Wongwai