Raiden Montero

Credentials: 2022 WISLI Elementary Thai Student

Language Institute and Level: SEASSI / Elementary Thai

Why did you choose to study a language through WISLI? What attracted you to our program specifically?

Well, I chose to study Thai through WISLI for two reasons. The first and foremost is connecting with my heritage and my culture. My mom is Thai American and I am a second generation Thai American and I am very passionate about my Thai roots and culture. I have been to Thailand to visit my family five times and I plan on continuing to go. Something that I always didn’t have was the language aptitude for Thai, my mom grew up in the United States and through the process of Americanization, she didn’t retain a lot of Thai from my grandmother. So she passed on as much as she could to me but there was only surface level. I wanted to become fluent, so speaking to my family can be a lot easier so that I can connect with my cultural background that way. The second reason is specifically because I’m doing my Masters with the Asian Languages and Cultures department at UW. So I was already moving to Madison and I am the type of person that wants to just get right to it, I don’t want to wait. I want to jump right in and doing a year of Thai would make me eligible for the FLAS fellowship. So I decided to move to Madison early and jump start my graduate school career here. Because I will need the knowledge of the Thai language to continue my studies in Thai Human Rights.

How has studying a less commonly taught language enriched your life?

Well personally, it’s enriched my life in so many ways because while Thai as a language is a minority amongst other Asian languages and world languages in general, so are Thai people, we tend to generally get drowned out by stereotypes commonly geared toward to whether East Asians are harmful, stereotypes about Thailand. So being able to not only study my mother language under the teaching of a native born Thai person but also around non-Thai people who share that same passion to learn this language and their same interest in Thailand was really validating as a Thai American and very reaffirming to me that okay, we’re not just this harmful stereotype to everyone. It gives me hope for the future because with more people who may not identify as Thai, knowing knowledge and doing more research in Thailand, it’s going to spread awareness on who we really are as people and how proud of people we actually are. Academically speaking, I’m a linguist when I got my Bachelors at UW-Oshkosh, my first major was Japanese studies and so I’m highly conversational in Japanese, I speak fluent Spanish from my dad’s side, I speak Mexican and I do speak service level Mandarin. So adding another language just breaks down more and more barriers for research and being able to connect with other scholars. I am a firm believer that learning not just one but multiple foreign languages is key to being successful in academic especially when you want to continue your career into the post-graduate world of academia. So I think that SEASSI has done an amazing job in that. I mean I’ve only been in this for four weeks in my Thai, and I’m already speaking Thai comfortably, faster and at a bit more fluid rates when it comes to basic conversation and that is huge for me.

What makes studying a language at WISLI/UW-Madison unique to you?

I can’t speak for other programs because Thai itself isn’t a language that is offered by many institutions. I will say is what was unique and attractive to me as a program was that each of the teachers for Thai, and I’m pretty sure for every other languages that it teaches, are people whom they may not be born in the country of this language but they are native speakers of this language. They identify as a culture or ethnic group that speaks Thai specifically. All three of my teachers were born and raised in Thailand. They all have experience teaching both Thai to westerners and English speakers and English to Thai people. So they have a lot of knowledge on language acquisition with this specific language plus they’re native speakers. They teach us the culture. My teacher has been teaching me bits and pieces of my culture that I lost in the process of Americanization. So being able to reclaim that has been truly rewarding for me. And that’s what I think is so unique about this program.

How do you plan to use the language you’re learning in your personal/professional journey?

In my personal life, I’m going to use it everyday to speak to my family, and friends from Thailand. When I go to Thailand I’ll be able to finally fit in fully as a Thai person which will make me feel very validated as someone who identifies as Thai. Professionally, I’m going to use it to conduct interviews in my research to be able to read writing from human right activist, court orders etcetera in Thai. If my journey doesn’t end up in academia, something that I really enjoy is writing fiction and short stories. I write short stories under a pseudonym, which is my Thai name and all my short stories are under the genre horror and they are based on Thai folklore or at least takes setting in Thailand. At one point when I reach the fluency that makes me able to do it, I would like to be able to write my stories in Thai, for Thai people to read. So I have a big love for the arts and that’s always something I wanted to do or act, whether it is on stage or in front of the camera. I want to be able to be an artistic person as a normal person in Thailand would be (if that makes any sense).

What are you most looking forward to in your language program? (Event highlights)

I really enjoy the lecture seminars that we have. The one that I went to, my friend did a good talk focusing on Thai anthropology, it was a really good talk. I really liked those. While I work consistently outside of school, some of the events I am unable to go to but I always look forward to Thursdays, I started a Thai language table for the Thai program and I look forward to that because I feel really good seeing people come willingly, not because they have to for their grade, not because they feel like they absolutely need to but because they want to. They want to learn Thai. They want to speak Thai with other Thai people and that is really fulfilling to me. So I look forward to that every Thursday.

What has been the impact of the  WISLI Tuition Scholarship for you?  What would you say to other students who might be interested in applying for the scholarship?

I was really excited to answer this question because the WISLI tuition scholarship was like literally everything to me and I’ll tell you why. So, moving here, to Madison, restarting and moving in with my partner too and just kind of just starting over and a starting a new life together is very draining economically. I originally did not want to work during SEASSI and focus just on my studies but we got to an economic point where I couldn’t afford to do that anymore. It was either work and go to school or be homeless and go to school, you know. And up top of that, I was offered the SEASSI scholarship where they pay half but I still had to cough up $2,000 that I did not have. So I was going to take a loan out through my parents but then obviously I have to pay that back. So that constant stress was really building up and I remember how hard it was to focus, to mentally be okay with all of that stress on my shoulders. Especially as someone who has just started their adult life. So I remember I kept looking at my statement on my account and it kept saying $0 and I kept stressing you because the next day, we had to pay that $2000. We had to figure out where to get the money from and we didn’t want any late fees, to have money added onto that, that we still couldn’t afford. I finally emailed one of the SEASSI staff members and I was just like “… it’s showing up as $0, I’m stressing out, I don’t know what’s going on” and then I found out that was the day it was going to be announced to me that I got the WISLI tuition scholarship and maybe I might have missed a memo because everything was moving so fast. So I moved to Madison the day after my graduation. Everything happened one right after another. I wasn’t even able to have a celebration for my graduation. We just moved one right after another. So, upon hearing that because I got the WISLI tuition scholarship, my tuition was completely waived. I remember just getting so emotional, I had to take a step out and just get a breather because I was just so grateful for this institution. Always helping me since day 1 that I had even made just a quick little like “Hey, I think I might want to apply to UW”. They’ve been just so wonderful to me and I highly recommend to all students that are struggling financially and think that they can’t do it, think that can’t afford it, try. The worst that can happen is that they don’t get it but like the chances of getting this tuition reduction, the scholarship, I mean literally saved me. I would’ve been in extreme debt if it wasn’t for this scholarship. So I highly recommend that all students, whether you’re struggling or not, apply to it because it’s so worth it and it’s so worth a try.

Do you have any advice for students who are studying the same language as you?

My advice for students, I have 2 little bits of advice. This is for like the non-Thai speakers or people who wants to speak Thai. Do it, you won’t regret it. Take it slow. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s one of the harder languages to learn. I promise you during those times when you feel like “Oh man, I just can’t. This is just not clicking.”, I promise you it just takes a lot of time. Thai is an extremely difficult language to learn but as long as you’re willing to put in the effort to learn it, you will fly, you will swim, you won’t sink. Study, work hard and have a open mind. Listen to what your teachers say. You will learn Thai cultures through the language. So that’s what I say to the non-Thai people. For people like me who are either Thai American or born in Thailand and lost the language, or need to clean up on the language, like heritage speakers, I am going to say that yes, there are times where it is hard re-learning something especially when you learnt it from your parents, which may not correlate with the academic Thai that we’re learning. I know for me, sometimes it brings in the case of identity crisis, like was I even speaking this right at the beginning. Like I just want people to know that you’re seen, you’re heard. It’s not just you. It’s all of us. We’re all going through this in the same way. It doesn’t make you any less Thai. It doesn’t mean you are lesser. If anything, it means that you have even more potential. You’re doing a great job for yourself because you are taking the burden, the baggage, of re-learning this language that we once thought was ours. We’re re-learning this language that we thought we were either speaking fully correctly but people are saying we’re speaking things wrong. Good on you for taking the initiative to completely re-learn because that’s a whole other process. Learning a language from zero on up is hard enough but having to un-learn and then re-learn, that’s a whole other issue. So for the heritage speakers that are struggling or afraid that you’re struggling, I promise you that it will be okay. You are seen. You are heard. You are valid.

What is your favorite word/phrase/proverb in your language?

I have a favorite word in Thai and it’s a really fun and unusual word. That word is the word for pumpkin: ‘ฟักทอง’. I absolutely love that word for many reasons because A, I’m just a sucker for Halloween and fall season and I love anything pumpkin flavored. So I think that’s fun but also ฟักทอง and pumpkin don’t correlate. So when someone that doesn’t speak Thai might hear a little something different when they hear that word. So I just think that it’s symbolic to me specifically in a way because I would always joke around with my family saying ฟักทอง, ฟักทอง, as a kid but it shows how Thai is just different than every other language and it shows that Thai is just so unique. Just like how the word ฟักทอง will stick in someone’s brain because they’re like an interesting word for pumpkin. Thai is that language. It’s unique, its so beautiful, its so complex, in its own ways. It just makes me proud to be a part of the group of people that speaks the language. It is one that sticks out. It is one that is unique. I know its a lot to come from just the word pumpkin, but that’s the word for me. Every time someone asks me what’s your favorite Thai word, I’d say pumpkin. I love pumpkin.