How do you learn languages?…
Over the years I’ve developed a curiosity about how people successfully learn languages. And more than anything else, the methods mentioned in this series have helped me to understand that there is no one right way, there are many ways. And that we can mix and match to suit our own personality, lifestyle, and language level.
Aaron: I was never particularly good at learning languages in school. I was a ‘C’ student in German. Frankly, I did not have much interest in learning.
Thai is different. Thai is a tonal language. This makes it fascinating and challenging for a native English speaker. Because Thai is so different from Western languages, it must be learned with a different method. That method is, essentially, drilling tones. (There are a few consonant and vowel sounds that also need to be practiced.) Develop good tone pronunciation right from the beginning, vocabulary and grammar will follow in due course.
Aaron Le Boutillier
Aaron: By stress, word association coupled with mind-numbing pure memory.
Adam: Directly from the natives.
Andrew: With Tylenol and Xanax.
Celia: By talking with people.
Chris Pirazzi: Flashcards. I don’t find software programs or books that attempt to take you through it “step-by-step” and “spoon-feed” you bits of the language very useful. I’d rather be presented with a big, daunting, organized reference volume that analyzes the language and then scoop bits of it out at a time (a “top down” approach). I know others prefer the opposite “bottom-up” approach because it offers (or appears to offer) more instant gratification.
Sadly, there is no such “top-down” reference for Thai, except I guess the Higbie book (and it covers only grammar and needs a little more analysis and organization).
Colin: I really wasn’t designed to sit in classrooms and chant conjugations. Funny that, considering the number of years I forced other people to do it.
Daniel B Fraser
Daniel: Constantly asking questions and seeking to understand what is being said. Then mimicking the right way to say it.
David Smyth: One of my Thai teachers very diplomatically described me as a ‘visual learner’; I think my previous answer explains why. When I started learning Thai, audio materials were not readily available and Thais were a bit thin on the ground in London (perhaps they were avoiding me) so my efforts were focused mainly on reading. At first, I used to copy out reading passages – several times – which helped my reading, handwriting, spelling, understanding of grammar and retention of vocabulary. As I progressed to longer passages, I would just copy odd sentences or phrases that appealed to me or which I thought I could inflict upon some unsuspecting Thai.
Learning Thai made me aware how important it is to be able to ask questions. When I was at school the French and German teachers asked the questions and we answered; we never asked a thing. And if you were lucky and kept your head down, you could go for several weeks without even answering a question. A good classroom survival technique, maybe, but not very good preparation for real life. One of my former students, who seemed to have also got it into his head that, as a foreign-language speaker, his role, too, was to answer questions, complained one day, ‘Thais don’t want to talk to me.’ I think he expected that if he just stood somewhere, Thais would gravitate towards him, bombarding him with questions and that way he would learn to speak Thai fluently. It never occurred to him to ask Thais questions, whether out of feigned interest to improve his linguistic skills, or genuine interest in order to gain greater insight into another world and in the process, his own world.
Don: I prefer scholastically-written books – those that are meant for the college classroom, even though I may intend to learn on my own. After absorbing a good description of the language, reading printed articles and other such items follows. The same block of text needs to be read and reread multiple times until it can be oralized with ease. Contact with native speakers is a further aid in learning to be understood and – hardest of all – to understand the spoken language.
Doug: Practice, practice, practice.
Gareth: I’m not a classroom learner – much better to be out and using the language, making mistakes but finding your way.
Grace: Practice! Boring but true. Chatting to friends, listening to the language in any form and surrounding yourself with anything vaguely related, things can be learnt even in the most banal situation, so go and dive in at the deep end, immersion is ultimate! Personally, I have benefitted from getting to know the culture at the same time, this is really crucial, as the two cannot be separated. You will find many connections between language and culture and this will really raise interest and pleasure from learning.
Hamish: By using them.
Hardie: STUDY! Nothing is ‘picked up’ unless you’re a one year old with all the time in the world.
Herb: I start with listening and getting used to the sounds and the flow of the language, picking out particular sounds that are different and focusing on them. This is probably due to my phonetics training and also because I find pronunciation to be fun and not very difficult for me. I try to learn basic and useful (for me) vocabulary and begin to try out my hypotheses about how the language goes together in these basic ways. This, too, goes back to my training in practical applied linguistics and my desire to talk with people as soon as I can. My goal is to get a reasonable oral proficiency before I start learning to read when the language (like Thai) is not in Romanized script. Reading is crucial for vocabulary development and for seeing how phrases and sentences get put together to form longer integrated texts. But written style is often different from spoken style, so that’s another reason why I focus on oral development first.
I found that reading folktales and short stories that contain interactive conversations was important for me to learn something about how socially-affected particles and pronouns are used in context. These are still challenging for me because the systems are so different from English. But seeing how the different particles reflect attitudes and emotions in the course of a story helps me to get a feel for their use. Then I try some of them out gradually to see if my use is acceptable and appropriate.
My writing was the slowest to develop, but as I found myself in situations where I had to write in Thai, I gradually got better at it. Taking the Prathom 4 exam was a big challenge. The dictation section contained a lot of formal terms to recognize and spell correctly. Then there was a essay to write on a specified theme, and then a personal letter that needed to be written in proper format. Having been away from having to write Thai for quite a few years, I am rusty in spelling, especially words with karan that cancels out letters. But I’ve always enjoyed being able to spell well, so spelling and writing Thai was a challenge that I wanted to succeed at. And a skill that I could still recover if I put my mind to it.
Hugh: With great difficulty and hard work. Languages do not come easily to me.
Ian: By listening, practicing and correcting as I go while immersed in a language with speakers of that language. I also need to see a written, structured method, but I know this doesn’t work for everyone. Drilling doesn’t work for me – I feel stupid repeating myself.
James (Jim) Higbie
Jim: I need to learn how to say sentences in a very front brain manner. I can’t pick up a language by letting it wash over me.
Joe: My father was in the military so I grew up with neighbours and friends who had lived all over the world, and often spoke languages other than English. When I was 10 my family moved to France and I went to an international school for three years where I learned French. So by the time I came to Thailand as a 23-year-old I had been exposed to foreign languages and appreciated the language learning process. But I don’t think I was a particularly talented language learner.
I believe that since we’re all completely fluent in our own native languages, that that means we have the same capacity to learn other languages. I think most of the obstacles to learning another language are sociolinguistic rather than psycholinguistic. “I can’t speak French because I’m not French,” is the basic problem.
Jonathan: Through people; that is the bottom line. I have used different methods for each language due to circumstances, and I think different languages sometimes lend themselves better to different methods. As I said before, though, I really think a combination of things that engage all four basic skills and include all different registers of a language are the most helpful.
Justin Travis Mair
Justin: I am a systematic person. I like to follow recipes and create plans. Right now I developed a system for me to learn Spanish, mostly to satisfy my desire to follow formulas.
Larry: Hard work, putting myself into situations where speak the language, being proactive by seeking out opportunities to speak and listen.
Luke: Good question. Ever since learning Thai, I’ve experimented with different techniques. Now, in addition to as much immersion as possible, I make use of electronic flashcard programs, online study tools, MP3s, and willing (and unwilling) native speakers. What I don’t do (and probably should) is watch TV. I’m sure that I would have much less of an accent and know more slang if I did watch TV; I just can’t seem to get into it. I do read a lot which helps with vocabulary and culture, but really should get around to getting the TV thing going.
Marc: I’ve always learned languages by studying in school and then reinforcing and expanding my capabilities through practice and use.
Marcel: By parroting, by writing things down, by asking what this or that means.
When I used to teach English to French students, the first thing I did was to have them speak French with an English accent: it worked wonderfully.
One decisive moment was very early in my study of Thai when I overheard an already Thai-fluent Catholic priest friend of mine in Song Phee Nong ask a fellow Thai, ‘How would you say this correctly?’ (Tong Phoot Yanggai Jueng Ja Took): I’ve been using that open-sesame ever since.
Mark: For the first month or two I was very quiet and said little at school. I would learn vocabulary and language patterns but didn’t start speaking much Thai until I had more vocabulary (and confidence). I saw no benefit in speaking in the classroom unless it was mostly in Thai.
For the first six months I kept a notebook on me and wrote down new vocabulary, at first it would only be words I saw frequently as there were so many words I didn’t know. The notebook was later replaced by a smart phone flashcard application which I found more convenient and sometimes quicker (eg. the ability to take a photo of an advert, sign etc).
Most of my time at home was spent reading reference and course materials. This was very intensive, sometimes up to 10 hours a day. I’d often have the TV or radio on in the background for a few hours too just to let the sounds sink in, regardless of whether I understand or not.
As my reading ability grew I started buying Thai books and reading Thai websites. I’ve found modern poetry to be a fun way to learn as it often evokes an emotional reaction and therefore (for me at least) makes it easier to remember the vocabulary. Contemporary poems are also often quite short – perfect for a quick read on the skytrain.
Martin: Mainly, by listening, very, very carefully, with an open mind, that is, without bias or colour from any other language I know. At the same time, paradoxically, I listen for similarities with other languages, particularly those of the same family. Both of these are quite hard for most people, particularly if they are unaware of their own accent.
I feel lucky, because my parents came from working class cockney families, but learned crystal-clear received pronunciation at grammar school. When I was a kid, and lapsed into “lazy” speech, I was corrected, and although at the time it was annoying, I learned to hear small differences between sounds, which is the key to learning foreign languages.
Good text books and especially dictionaries, also help.
Nils: I learned Swedish as a native speaker. English as a native speaker and as a foreign language. French for 6 years in grade and high-school and again at Harvard, where I became certified by the Paris Chamber of Commerce. Spanish 3 years in high in school and one semester at Harvard as well. Danish by ear and by watching subtitled Danish TV growing up. Norwegian (Oslo dialect) since it is close to Swedish and Danish. I also get by in other European languages (German, Italian) fairly well by using the languages I have to figure out what things mean and to make myself understood. When working as a consultant in Belgium, I was mistaken for French quite frequently, which was of course very flattering.
Paul: Slowly but surely.
Peter: For me, at least, it’s got to be a combination of academic study, pattern practice, memorization work, reading and writing in the language, and near-total immersion in a place where that’s the only language spoken. Unless you’re a freak of nature, you’ll have to really put your heart into it (เอาใจใส่จริงจัง): for an adult foreigner, no matter how clever or talented, no language will come just by osmosis. I believe in classroom study and lots of homework, but that can’t be all, either.
Rick: By natural curiosity — I want to know what is going on in the society I am living in, so I read newspapers, watch the TV, and observe and listen to the people. By the same token, I cannot learn a language unless I am in-country, as the motivation isn’t there.
Rikker: With fear and trepidation. I have never learned any language in depth besides Thai, and I still break into a sweat at the thought of verb conjugation.
Ryan: The written part just by lots of practice writing, and the speaking part by actively trying to fit new words I’ve learned into sentences, then making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes.
Scott: When I was 15 I lived in France, after learning French in school. I was almost fluent within 3 months. But when I first came to Thailand, it was almost a year and a half before I could make myself understood. Learning languages is *definitely* easier when you’re younger!
I started out by learning to read and ‘hear’ Thai. I listened as much as I could, read as much as I could. Read car number plate provinces, read road signs, read advertising boards, got used to the range of fonts used. Listened to Thai-language radio stations, even the ones that play ‘international’ music, for the inane chatter and ads. Just immersed myself.
Seriously, all that stuff is what I did until I got the hang of the basics and could distinguish what a tone was and how words sounded. Almost two years in, circumstances around me dictated that I needed to decide where I was going to live (UK or Thailand – I lost the contract I had had, and so would be living here without a job unless I could find one, or going ‘home’). That’s when I booked 40 hours at a Thai language school, and struggled with one teacher, then moved to another whose strength was in teaching to read/write.
I already had a bit of vocab by then (mostly food and provinces!), and so some of the words she was teaching me how they ‘worked’ already made sense, and I was just learning the mechanics of the alphabet. After that everything was quite a bit clearer, because I had never learned the ‘rules’ before.
I learned basic phrases, and learned the alphabet. Started putting the two together, and created a crib sheet to use while chatting with friends. Realised that the crib sheet could be the start of actually learning a few more phrases and expanded it, found out about online chat, and chatted with people using the crib sheet initially and then free text later. Eventually forced myself to type everything and not use the crib sheet at all.
Stickman: We all have our own learning style and I think that it is important that we understand how we learn. I think we can loosely say there are two main learning styles, accuracy and fluency.
Those who prefer fluency tend to hear the language and then repeat it. They are more concerned about being able to communicate and be understood than necessarily being that accurate in their use of the language.
The other style is accuracy. People who prefer this method tend to want to see things written and break them down and then slowly reproduce what they see and then make variants of those sentences and check them for accuracy as they learn. They are most concerned about getting it right.
For me, I tend to be someone who goes down the accuracy path so especially in the early days I needed to see things written and then I would form my own versions of them, sort of like pattern building.
If you learn formally in Thailand the teachers are most concerned about accuracy – especially Thai teachers who really don’t seem to care for the idea of fluency based learning. That suited me perfectly.
If you learn from conversing with the locals, perhaps in the bars as many Western men do, then that is a much more fluency-based approach.
As I have often said, back in 2000 when I really went all out to get my Thai to as high a level as possible, I learned good Thai by day and bad Thai by night. I guess that was the best of both worlds!
Stuart (Stu) Jay Raj
Stu: With passion.
Terry: Listening and speaking to people, followed by reading.
Tom: I am most definitely a visual learner. I learnt how to read by plastering consonants and vowels all over my bedroom walls as a student. In the early stages I would scan these images twice a day, once in the morning before class and in the evening. It worked very well for me, but I stress I did this by consonant class and not all the characters at once. That would have made my bedroom somewhat dizzying. I learnt vocab by repetition.
Vern: First visually, then practice with speaking to other natives. I cannot, will not, or should not speak Thai with other foreigners trying to practice. It just doesn’t work for me – the context just isn’t there and I end up looking at them like I’m tripping on Red Bull or something. It just doesn’t add up. My brain goes into freeze-mode and I cannot form a conversation anymore!
Which of the suggestions suit you best? Any?
The series: Successful Thai Language Learners Compilation…
And here you have it, the rest of the series:
- Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners
- Contributors: Successful Thai Language Learners Compilation
- Interview Compilation: What Were Your Reasons for Learning Thai?
- Interview Compilation: Did You Learn Thai Right Away?
- Interview Compilation: What Was Your First Thai ‘Ah Hah!’ Moment?
- Interview Compilation: Did You Stick to a Regular Thai Language Study Schedule?
- Interview Compilation: What Language Learning Methods Did You Try?
- Interview Compilation: Did One Method Stand Out?
- Interview Compilation: How Do You Learn Languages?
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