Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Aaron Handel
Location: Thailand, sometimes Bangkok, Pattaya, or the mountains north of Chiang Mai
Profession: I’m the author of two books, Thai Phrase Book with Tones, and Thai Language Course, Speaking and Listening, 4th Edition. Recently, I received a Master’s Degree in Economics from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. I have worked as an English teacher and as a Thai teacher.
What is your Thai level?
Thai people tell me I speak fluently, but part of their culture is to say nice things. My pronunciation is pretty good. My vocabulary is moderate. I read, write, and type Thai at “turtle level.”
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
The answer to this depends on which street you are referring to, as there are many Thai dialects and local nuances. I speak Central Thai. I’m quite comfortable with Bangkok Thai. My Thai is colloquial, but a bit more formal than ‘market Thai.’
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
When I first came to Thailand, very few Thais spoke English. I traveled extensively in the North and in Issan, as an amateur photographer. I learned Thai because it was necessary. If I were to ask in English for “fried rice with chicken,” Thai people would show me to the toilet or bring me their baby pictures. This just would not do. I had to learn Thai.
Beyond basic survival, I found that Thai opened up a whole new world of light and color. Speaking Thai helped me to feel that I was present and involved, rather than just a passive observer. I became part of the picture.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I have lived in Thailand, off and on, for more than 30 years.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I’ve been studying Thai for decades, but I have never been a student in the formal, classroom sense. I have never had a Thai teacher. A few Thais have attempted to teach me some Thai, but I found this to be counter-productive. Almost without exception, Thai people cannot tell you the tone of a syllable.
I once met a Thai teacher who could identify tones. She taught Thai to US Marines in California. If you’re lucky enough to find a teacher like this, stick with it. I firmly believe that to learn a tonal language like Thai, you need a drill sergeant!
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
In the beginning, I only learned a few words and phrases, but I did something much more useful than that. I traveled all over the country with a tape recorder. I recorded various Thai speakers as they read from a text book. This provided me with the tools that I needed to actually learn how to speak. Later, I used those tapes to drill.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
My schedule was determined by chance. Initially, I was not really learning Thai, but learning how to learn. I was collecting information. Whenever I would meet a Thai person who was kind enough to help me record a tape, I would seize the opportunity. Usually, I would also make a tape in English and share it with that Thai person.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
Her name was Nók (pronounced with a high tone, it means “Bird”). She was neither a school nor a product, but rather a quiet young woman from a Vietnamese family. She lived in Nong Khai, near the MaeKong River. Her parents spoke very little Thai, but Nok’s Thai was perfect. She was university educated in Bangkok and understood that if you want to fully integrate into Thai society, you have to speak Thai like a Thai. She also seemed to have an instinct for teaching. She spoke slowly and clearly, but with a natural conversational sound.
Nók and I produced our own tapes using the AUA text book, by Marvin J. Brown, 1969. After all these years, I still believe it is the best book for learning Thai, although AUA’s own tapes sound like they were produced under water and there are no CDs. Unfortunately, AUA no longer uses this text book and its drilling methodology in the classroom.
Did one method stand out over all others?
I find it difficult to separate the idea of “learning how to learn” from actually learning to speak Thai. I stumbled upon the best method (for me) through a process of trial and error. At first, I ‘picked up’ a little bit of Thai just by traveling in Thailand. Occasionally, I listened to the tapes that Nók and I made. After a few months in Thailand, I could only say a few phrases. My pronunciation was not very good.
I think it was on my second or third trip to Thailand that I made my big breakthrough. I was up in Mâe Săi during the rainy season. It rained all day, everyday. I rented a room for one month. I had assembled the tools to learn Thai. I had a good book with tone marks on every syllable. I had the Thai tapes that Nók and I had made. And I had motivation. I was inspired by the friendliness and generosity of Thai people. I was intrigued by the language and the culture. I told myself, “I’m going to try this. I’m going to learn to speak Thai.” I locked myself in the room for 30 days, going out only for food and water. I drilled the tapes as I read the text. Drill! Say it again. No, that’s not right. Do it again! Drill again, with better pronunciation. Focus on the tone. Even if it is only one syllable, drill that tone again and again.
After 30 days, I emerged from my room, pale and exhausted. Had I learned anything? Yes. Although I didn’t realize it yet, I had broken the tonal barrier. I learned most of the Thai that I now speak, during those 30 days.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
I learned to write about 15 or 20 years after I learned to speak.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Learning to read and write was not too difficult, because I had already learned to speak. Spelling remains a challenge, because many consonants have the same sound (there are five letters that have the ‘s’ sound). At first, vowel position is a bit confusing. It helps to have a good book. I used Reading and Writing Thai, by Marie Helene Brown, 1988, DK Books. Many years later, I wrote a chapter about writing in Thai Language Course, 4th Edition. I focused on how Thai spelling determines the tone of a syllable. Learning to read and write can improve pronunciation. Written Thai offers more precision than transliteration.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
I do remember my ‘ah hah!’ moment. I was alone in my room, practicing tones. There were some Thai people lurking outside in the hallway. They could hear me stumbling and struggling. Suddenly, the Thai people out in the hallway began clapping and cheering me on! Somehow, I had managed to hit the sweet spots of the five tones.
How do you learn languages?
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. I use the same method for teaching Thai. The first chapter of my book consists of tone drills.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My pronunciation is pretty good. The Thai that I speak is fine for ordinary conversation. I have found it useful to use a little bit of Thai when teaching English. I speak some Thai for business. However, my vocabulary is limited to my experiences. Very fast teenager talk is a bit perplexing to me. When I hear the Southern dialect, I’m lost. It would be wonderful to study great works of Thai literature and poetry. I’m not there yet.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
People tend to cling to what is familiar to them. They are most comfortable with the sounds of their native language. The tonal characteristics of Thai are seen as cumbersome, trivial, and alien. Some people actually convince themselves that tones are unnecessary. This is a great misconception.
I have met many foreigners who communicate quite well with their Thai girlfriends, but are not understood by others. Usually, this kind of “Thai” is spoken in a mono-tone or it may have an inflection that conveys the English speaker’s feelings. This is not Thai.
I once met a Chinese gentleman who spoke “Thai” at lighting speed. He had learned it in 6 months, from Chinese teachers. There was only one problem. No matter how hard I tried, I just could not understand him. His Chinese influenced tones didn’t make any sense to me. Some Chinese dialects have as many as 13 different tones. It seemed to me that he was using at least 13 and maybe more! It made my head spin. I felt a bit sorry for him. It will take him a long time to unlearn what he had learned incorrectly.
Speaking Thai is not just a matter of using tones, but using the correct Thai tone for each syllable. Fortunately there are only five tones in Thai. The tone of a word is an integral part of its meaning. Consider this. Suppose you go to a restaurant and want to order roasted chicken. You should ask for gài yâhng (literally, chicken roasted). Yâhng is the verb meaning to roast. It is pronounced with a falling tone. However, if you were to pronounce yahng with a middle tone, you would be requesting a rubber chicken!
Usually, Thais have a good laugh when a foreigner bungles the tone, but sometimes the wrong tone can lead to confusion. The tonal distinction between near (glâi, with a falling tone) and far (glai, with a middle tone) has caused many a foreigner to wander around aimlessly.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
You can learn to speak Thai. You don’t need to be a genius. You do need perseverance. For some, it helps to have a good teacher. Others learn with CDs and a good book. If you want to start by learning to write, all I can say is good luck! If you want to start by learning to speak, you will need a book with transliteration (Thai written with English letters or symbols). The transliteration must have tone marks. You must have sound that follows the book. There are many books to choose from. Frankly, I think it’s beneficial to have several books for learning Thai. You might prefer one transliteration system over another. Whatever tools you use, you will need to break the tonal barrier. It simply cannot be avoided. Put some effort into tone pronunciation right from the start.
Not everyone learns in the same way. Learn at your own pace. Seek quality, not quantity. Remember, the turtle reaches the finish line before the rabbit.
Dtòw mah tĕung sên chai gàwn gràdtàai
เต่า มา ถึง เส้น ชัย ก่อน กระต่าย
Literally: Turtle come arrive line victory before rabbit.
The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Getting advice from experienced Thai language learners is important. If you are a successful Thai language learner who would like to share their knowledge with those coming up, please contact me to make it so.