Chapter 3 THE TERRIBLE TONES

Dear Mom,
Hello there. It's hard to imagine us way off in Siam, isn't it? But here we are! We have started to study the Siamese language the third day after we arrived: five tones, forty-four consonants and thirty-two vowels. We have already learned the alphabet and can say many words. David caused quite a stir because of his white skin and blonde hair. Crowds of children follow us when we go shopping. There are only eleven white people in this entire area and all are Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries.


We were in Thailand only a few days when we were informed that language study would begin immediately. We had assumed that language study would be a priority, so we were not surprised by the news. We were also informed that a Thai girl would be hired to look after our baby. Click to Select Click to View Our first child DavidClick to Select That was a shock. We had not realized that the Mission rules required us to have a babysitter take care of our 14-month-old David for the six hours of each day that we would spend in study. But rules were rules. The girl did not know a word of English and had never taken care of an American child. This was not going to be easy. It would take a little ingenuity to make the plan work. I wrote out two pages of instructions and the Mission chairman wrote the Thai translation next to my English sentences. When I wanted something done, I would point to the Thai sentence and she would know what to do.

Also, within days of our arrival we received a letter of welcome and instructions from one of our fellow missionaries. "As the language examiner" he wrote, "I take pleasure in presenting to you the Course of Study of the Siamese Language. You are very fortunate in having excellent teachers and we trust you make rapid progress in the language. Your teachers know English but are instructed to use it as little as possible in order that you may make rapid progress in Siamese." alphabet

Thus began our two year, six hours a day language study program. Unfortunately, it soon became evident that I would never make the rapid progress the examiner hoped for. Rather, language study for me became the time of the terrible tones! I remember asking my mother to have the people in the church pray for me because I seemed to be tone deaf - a rather serious situation when trying to learn a tonal language! They thought I said "stone deaf" and were praying for my healing!

I had always hoped that God would call me to a country where the language was not tonal. Instead, I found myself learning a language that has five tones (levels or pitches). A slight mistake in tone can completely change the meaning of a word. Click to Select Click to View Thai Alphabet

One Thai word, pronounced "kow", means many different things according to the tone one uses and the way it is drawn out or cut off. It can mean rice, to enter a room, the horn of a buffalo, your house, the color white, news, he, she or they! Another thing makes the written language even more difficult - there are no capital letters, no punctuation marks and the breaks between words are at the writer's discretion!

After three months of language study, I was ready to pack my suitcase and head back to America. I couldn't keep up with the others in the class and to make matters worse, the Thais would ask, "Why don't you speak the language like your husband does?" That was not a question that a person in my position wanted to hear. I was utterly discouraged. One day, about at the end of my rope, I went into a room alone to pray. I poured out my heart to God - the discouragement, the frustration, the futility of it all. As I prayed and agonized before the Lord it seemed that a light bulb flashed on inside my head. In that moment God gave me the assurance that He would help me learn the language. The terrible (tone) burden lifted and I began to comprehend in a new way.

In addition to the already difficult process, our language study was interrupted by the tragic murder of our dear missionary friends, Paul and Priscilla Johnson. (More on this in the next chapter.) We had just moved to a newly rented house up on the Mekong River, but after their death, the Mission asked us to move once again, this time to live temporarily in the Johnsons' home. Click to Select Click to View Bangkok tract house

On top of that upheaval, I was expecting our second child. I was sick the whole time and two of the nine months were spent right in bed. I remember how our Thai language informant sat beside my bed and tried to teach me. It was extremely hot and as there was no electricity, there were no fans. A small generator provided lights only from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., but the noise of the motor made my head ache and the smell of the gasoline from the generator increased my nausea. It seemed like a no-win situation.

I shall never forget two letters that our chairman Rev. Robert Chrisman wrote to me in those terrible tones days:
Dear Corrine, As a language student, you have my special interest and sympathy. I have noted that the language has been unusually difficult for you and that you have that dogged determination to acquire it that will eventually lead to success. I am glad that you completed your first year examination in a satisfactory manner and that you have covered the most difficult part of language study. In your case, as it was in mine, Churchill's old and famous adage is true: "It is by blood, sweat, toil and tears plus a lot of prayer that the Victory is won."

I'm not sure if his quotation from Churchill was accurate, but it certainly was appropriate for my situation.

His other letter arrived after I had failed my 18-month exam (one month after the Johnsons were killed):
Dear Corrine, My heart goes out to you in a very special way. I want you to know that I have a deep sympathy for you and a deep interest in you and in your acquiring the language. When you have had an opportunity to profit by that more than a month of language study you lost, let us take the 18-month exam over again. Don't let yourself get discouraged. Maintain that dogged perseverance. There is no question in my mind but that you will sharpen this invaluable tool for use in winning souls to the Lord.

Click to SelectClick to SelectClick to Select Click to View Language Certificate

Nobody ever appreciated a certificate more than I did when I finally successfully completed the two years of language study. The certificate said, "This is to certify that Mrs. Corrine Sahlberg completed on January 27, 1953 all the requirements of the two year Thai language course as prescribed by the "School of the Siam Mission of The Christian and Missionary Alliance." It was such a relief to have language study behind me! It felt like a big bag of cement had been lifted off my back. Within days I went to Bangkok to deliver our second child.

Soon after returning to our station, I began speaking in children's meetings. The children didn't seem to mind when I made mistakes. Gradually my speaking improved to the point that I was able to teach adults when Elmer and the Thai pastor were away. One Sunday after I had spoken, an old man came up to me. "You opened a door in my heart," he said. I could have hugged him! I was communicating in the Thai language. Some time later the same man asked my husband, "When are you going away again?" "Why do you ask?" Elmer wanted to know. "We like the way your wife teaches better than the way you teach!"

Click to SelectClick to SelectClick to Select Click to View Sharing the Word

I never could speak Thai as well as Elmer but that day I learned that God could use even me in my own simple, basic language and teaching style. What a turnabout from the days of the terrible tones! Now more than 35 years later I sometimes even dream in Thai, a language I thought I would never be able to learn.


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