Polyglot Stuart Jay Raj on Learning Tonal Languages (1)
Steve: Today I am really pleased to have with me Stu Jay Ray, who is a person that, uh, in the polyglot sphere somebody that I've been following for it must be it's certainly more than 10 years. I don't know how many years. And I've seen him and he excels in languages that I don't know anything about like Southeast Asian languages, South Asian languages.
So without further ado, Stu can you tell us a little about what you do, where you live, and, uh, what your various, uh, you know, activities are on the internet?
Stu: So thank you, Steve. It's an honor to, um, to be here with you and a long time coming. Uh, first of all, my name, so Stu Jay Raj, that's the Indian part of me.
Stu: Yes. Um, but that's cool. You can call me what you want. Um, I, most people in this part of the world know me as my middle name, Jay. It's a lot easier in Thai and it actually flows well in Thai. The other thing is... sounds like , which sounds like cockroach, which is also a pimp in Thai. So my name in this part of the world, everyone knows me as Jay, everyone else, Stu, and very few as Raj and my Chinese name... so depends what you want to call me.
So, um, yeah, I've been here in, uh, my base is Thailand here for over 20 years now. Um, before that Indonesia originally from Austria. Uh, I grew up speaking a bunch of languages. My grandfather was a polyglot. He spoke my, so my white grandfather on my mom's side, um, he spoke Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Russian, French, Italian, Latin, and a bunch of other languages.
And so as a kid, we grew up playing with language and sound and Morse code and listening to shortwave radio. And it just grew from there. And so as I grew up, I also had a surrogate family was Indonesian. So I grew up speaking Indonesian and then Chinese, they were Chinese Indonesians. So from my grandfather, both Chinese and then the, um, Indonesian side, they also speak Chinese and it grew up our base language at home here is Thai.
Um, and then around in my work, basically I work with companies, uh, around the world, governments in aerospace, oil and gas, modern trade, a bunch of different industries where language is just a tool to get other things done. So it's building communication channels, making deals. And for me language is, um, a thing that gives me an edge, especially in this region and with this looking face, um, you're able to speak with Western clients as one of them.
But then also speak with people on the ground and get them to open up as one of them. And so that's where, that's where I'm from. I guess the languages that I use the most, uh, Thai, Indonesian, Mandarin, actually surprisingly Danish, um, Spanish, um, and then other languages from around the region.
Steve: I thought Danish was an Asian language actually.
Stu: Yeah, actually it is. You'd be surprised how many Scandinavians...
Steve: No, just to listen to it.
Stu: Yeah. Yeah....
Steve: So, and you, do you have like a YouTube channel or a blog or anything?
Stu: Yeah. So actually, if you go to, um, anything Stu Jay so Minecraft, so my blog, if you do a YouTube search on Stu Jay, Stewart Jay so Stu Jay, you will find me otherwise go to Mindkraft that's with a K. So M I N D K R A F T.Me. And I've been migrating everything into that because this is the latest project that I've done, um, from this year, which will hopefully keep growing out, which is consolidating everything from language, from tech and just the brain and learning.
And we have a huge community there. So mindkraft.me is like the portal into that. Jay academy is my, um, platform J C A D E M Y.com. Uh, but they, they sort of host the content of Mindkraft and other stuff. And then we have a great Discord server, but it's all my Mindkraft of me would be a first port of call.
Steve: Hmm. So we'll leave that information with links in the description box. Now, first question is which languages, in fact, do you speak?
Stu: Um, as, as you know, there's a big gradient, the languages that I speak regularly and that I, uh, let's, let's start with the languages that I facilitate training and do work in and do business in regularly, uh, Indonesian and Malaysian, of course, Thai, Lao and, and anything, I guess, from these Thai gradient of languages, um, Chinese.
So Mandarin Cantonese, uh, too, when I'm in Hong Kong, I'll use Cantonese, uh, quite a bit, but my Mandarin is much more strong, stronger than my Cantonese. Um, then we go down to like Vietnamese, Burmese, which talking about this part of the world, Vietnamese, Burmese, I will use them when I need to go down and speak to people and get things done.
However, say my Vietnamese and Burmese wouldn't be at the level where I'd facilitate full classes yet. Um, possibly soon but not yet. Um, then I also actually use Spanish a lot. I, during my, um, university years, Uh, I shifted my Italian, which my grandfather used to speak with me to, into Spanish. And, um, I also play jazz.
So I played with a bunch of Latino musicians as well, for many years in university and dated a Chilean woman for four years, so that got my Spanish up to par. Um, Danish, of course, and Swedish and Norwegian. I'll put those in there. When I'm in Sweden and Norway...
Steve: Why the Scandinavian?
Stu: At school, there was surprisingly a big community of exchange students, both of my friends who would go and live in Scandinavian countries and Scandinavian students that came and um, went to our school. And so there were a bunch of us that just spoke Scandinavian languages together. And then, so I got the bug. And so as a young kid, I actually then took it off my bat to go in and I think I've told this story in other places, but basically I looked up Scandinavian surnames in the, uh, then white pages and yellow pages for Scandinavian restaurants.
I tracked out where in Sydney they were, and I went door knocking and I found a Scandinavian community and it just happened that Danish was the predominant one there where I found, and I really just immersed myself in Danish and ended up in book clubs and everything as a young kid, um, to the point that I actually got quite fluent back then, uh, into my teenagerdom with Danish.
Steve: You know, if anybody wants to get a Danish experience, they should look up the seaside hotel in Netflix.
Stu: Oh, really?
Steve: The series it's phenomenal, phenomenal. All in Danish. It's a love, it's a lot, very, a lot of fun, just a lot of fun. The Seaside Hotel or Beach Hotel. I can't remember what it's called, but something like that.
Stu: I put a clip out recently where I spoke Danish, but if I were to do it all again, knowing what I know now and having traveled through also Norway and Sweden, I think I would have learned Norwegian first, um, because Danish has had a long lasting impression on my throat which is really hard to kick when you're speaking Swedish and Norwegian.
Steve: Oh, okay. Interesting. So one question comes to mind, like people have stereotypes, uh, you know, they, it's not unusual to see an Asian looking person speak, uh, Aussie English with an Aussie accent or, uh, you know, American English or even Scottish or whatever, you know, that's just a given, but when you see someone who doesn't look Thai or Laotian or, uh, you know, Vietnamese, even Chinese. Like what do you think is more difficult for a, uh, say a European language native speaker to learn those languages that seem exotic to us, or is it easier for those people to learn what is probably to them a more exotic language, English or French or Spanish?
Steve: Which way is it?
Stu: I think it's expected in the west that anyone going there will learn the language. If they're living in the country over here, you get what's called these ex-pat bubbles, I guess.
And which, you know, what's the difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant? Um, but these ex-pat bubbles where people live 20, 30 years without having to speak a word of the local language. So this has becomes a normal, um, what I have found, however, and since day one, because I knew a lot of languages that feed into Thai as well as like old Chinese, middle Chinese.
And then, um, from my dad's side, so Hindi and Sanskrit and other Indic languages, Thai was actually quite easy, um, to, to get up to speed. I could write it in an afternoon from my understanding of Devanagari, um, and Sanskrit. And so within months I was up speaking Thai. And the thing that I find is, it's not difficult, but you just have to get beyond that, but it's understanding the system and it is that system that's based on... and even Chinese is based on, I dunno if you've ever looked at their ... system in Chinese, but this is also based on the map of the human mouth, which is the Devanagari or Sanskrit. Uh Brahmic, um, And so everything from tones... tones in Mandarin, a parallel one-to-one in these boxes that you have Thai tones and Vietnamese and anything, um, is actually based on this map, which is traced back to Sanskrit.
Believe it or not, even the Korean writing is based on this same format from Sanskrit. So having that, it's not a hard jump, but if you're going into Thai say as your first Asian language and not having that backup, it is like, what the heck is this? Because most native speakers of Thai don't actually understand the system because the native speakers, nobody ever taught them.
Stu: And even in the schools. And so the way they learn is by rote and just by memorizing rules, that seemingly don't make sense. So that is a huge challenge, but actually Thai is not a difficult language to, to learn and to develop prosody in. And this is the key I think, is developing this process. And prosody always trumps what you look like on the outside.
If I go into a Seven Eleven and I can speak in a way that feels natural, um, they will instantly just speak to me normally. And there are some tricks that you can throw some cues in. Um, that will, uh, for example, if you go in, um ... you don't need to put that in a plastic bag. And the way that I say that is a colloquial way that anyone else would say it and they might even be looking at your face and then the whole interaction will just be in Thai and go without any surprise at all.
Steve: There, there is a tendency for them to speak to you in English, as soon as they look at you?
Stu: Yes, so this gets back to then your question. The big challenge is, and most people say oh they won't speak Thai to me. Um, or they just won't speak Chinese to me. Maybe you've had that where people will just speak English to you. And so that is one of the biggest challenges.