Bad language makes children die in hot cars

Bad language makes children die in hot cars

Let's say I have a bad back because I slouch when sitting at my desk. Should I: a) buy a fancy gadget to massage my back, or b) start sitting properly?

If you're a Thai bureaucrat, I bet you picked "a" didn't you, you silly billy!

Picking the massage gadget will of course help to treat the symptoms of a bad back, but won't help to solve the problem in the long run.

This is much like the ridiculously embarrassing situation we have now regarding children dying after being locked in hot cars.

The Ministry of Education's latest harebrained scheme involves schools teaching children what they should do if they find themselves locked inside a scorching hot minivan for seven hours. Teachers will instruct children in the ways of common sense, for example how to open the window, beep the car horn or unlock the door and flee to safety.

That all sounds like very sensible advice that could possibly save a child's life.

The problem is a majority of these children are as young as three. It's all well and good teaching them to open doors and beep horns, but how do they plan to teach a toddler to distinguish between playing with a car door while driving down the motorway with their family, and escaping from a scorching death trap?

And while we're on the subject, since when was rescuing themselves from a fiery prison the responsibility of someone who is not even old enough to cut their own food?

This is of course the typical Thai response to any problem. It's important to look busy while everybody's watching, but it doesn't really matter what you're busy doing as long as it looks like you're doing something.

This certainly isn't unexpected. It's called saving face and it's the reason why Thailand is the country that it is. The real question is why is Thailand so concerned with face?

An argument can be made that religion is the root of this concern. Buddhism teaches its followers to eliminate conflict for a happier life. In other words, personal suffering is brought about by desire. Desire brings with it conflict and thus everyone will be better off if they just stop fighting for what they want and get on with their lives. Forgive my overly brief summation of a respected world religion, but I hope you get the point. Religion is certainly a valid explanation for why Thais behave the way we do.

Personally however, I believe it goes further than that. After all, religion is simply an interpretation of an idea, an interpretation that is tainted by the language used to explain it. I would argue that much of the behavioural aspects of Thai culture can be attributed to language discourse.

The Thai language is inherently passive. Forget rude words and the way people talk to people they hate - the everyday language is overly noncommittal. Take for example the simple idea of going for lunch. Where in English we may say "Let's go eat" or "I'm going for lunch", denoting who is going to eat, in Thai we may simply say "eat" (kin khao).

Without context this seemingly random statement could be referring to anything or anyone. If we take this a step further we can see why Thais are so desperate to save each other's face.

A series of studies by Professor Caitlin Fausey of Stanford University suggested the language we speak directly affects the likelihood of attributing blame. Her results showed that English speakers were more likely to place blame on someone in the event of an accident. For example, for English speakers, if Yingluck Shinawatra jumped on a bed and it broke, Abhisit Vejjajiva would relay that information as "Yingluck broke the bed".

Other languages such as Japanese would simply explain that "the bed broke". The Thai language is a classic example of passive speaking patterns.

Advanced studies in linguistics suggest these differences in speech patterns affect how people think. It may sound ridiculous to say that just because we use different words that we see the world differently, but it's true. The same study discovered that people who are bilingual approach tasks differently depending on the language they are using.

Our language does not excuse the inability of Thais to accept responsibility and make suitable changes, but it does offer us insight into how we can learn to respond to our mistakes. Would the Ministry of Education's plan to save children in school vehicles be any different if our language was different?

Ask a Thai to explain this story and they will likely say: "A child was left in a car and died". An English speaker on the other hand would likely say: "A man/woman/school left a kid in a car and the kid died".

If we know who to blame, we know how to fix the problem. Instead of teaching infants to open car doors, we could be implementing more stringent rules for people in charge of children and tougher punishments for negligence.

Varying the way we speak to facilitate this change may be impossible, but changing the way we think based on our speaking habits only requires a little common sense and could make a huge difference to the development of our society.

Arglit Boonyai is Digital Media Editor, Bangkok Post.

Arglit Boonyai

Multimedia Editor

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