Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Learning Thai can be a solitary pursuit. And while a student might have a teacher, Thai wife and/or Thai friends, sound advice from successful Thai language learners is also needed.
And as I often come across questions from beginners enquiring about firsthand experiences, I thought I’d ask those very same questions of the Thai language learners who made it past beginner. Well past beginner.
And if you read my earlier post on Chris, you will know that he is such a person.
Interviewing Chris Pirazzi…
Name: Chris Pirazzi
Age range: 30-40
Location: Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Profession: Software Engineer
Website(s) less related:
What is your Thai level?
Intermediate (I know a lot about certain esoteric areas like Thai phonetics but general use is still definitely intermediate).
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I wanted to escape Silicon Valley in California, and Burma was having a revolution at the time.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
Yes. Travelled part-time 1999-2003, full-time 2003-now.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
I started learning Thai because I (ignorantly) thought people would not speak English in Thailand before my first trip.
I attended a nearly free Sunday Thai language class taught by volunteer Thai-Americans at a Thai Temple in California (there are more than three Thai temples in the San Francisco area alone).
This was fun so I kept it up, going almost every Sunday that class was in session from late 1998-2003.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Yes, in fact I was almost the only student ever in the history of the informal Sunday school Thai class to actually do the homework and use flashcards to drill the language.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
Mostly tutoring from Thai-American teachers in California (mostly volunteer, some paid)
Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s “Thai for Beginners” was useful.
Also really liked Higbie and Thinsan’s “Thai Reference Grammar”.
Made lots of stacks of flashcards of consonants, vowels, and words.
Did one method stand out over all others?
Tutoring and flashcards most useful.
One thing I’ve discovered is absolutely crucial but left out of nearly all “programs” of Thai study: on their very first day of learning Thai, students should sit down with the teacher and go over all the sounds of Thai (where “sounds” means consonants, vowels, and tones), independent of how the sounds are written in Thai script. The students should sit there and verbally drill the tricky sounds with the teacher until the students are able to make and understand all the sounds that differ between Thai and English.
The teacher should critique the sounds made by the students and refine the students’ pronunciation until the students can make each sound correctly (i.e. until the teacher, as a native Thai listener, can distinguish which sound the student is trying to make). So in some sense, the teacher is acting as a “voice trainer” for the students.
The teacher should then say words to the students and verify that the students can correctly recognize and distinguish each sound that they hear. If it takes 5 sessions to do this, so be it: it’s worth it.
The teacher must drill not only the 5 tones and all the Thai vowels including the tricky อื vowel, but also make sure that the students can correctly make and distinguish b/bp/p and d/dt/t and the other consonant contrasts that English lacks.
Note that it’s even important for the teacher to drill sounds that English already has, because many sounds have different distributions in Thai. For example, even though the b, bp, and p sounds occur in various English words, the English-native student is not used to thinking of them as three separate sounds instead of just two as in English.
But in Thai, unlike English, you can have 3 different words that differ only by b, bp, and p, like ใบ bai (leaf) ไป bpai (go) and ภัย pai (danger).
In order to satisfy the students’ desire for instant gratification, the teacher can drill the consonant, vowel, and tone sounds using real words, as in these examples (from the intro of the 2009 Paiboon dic):
- ดี dii (good) ตี dtii (hit) ที tii (turn)
- เดา dao (guess) เตา dtao (stove) เทา tao (gray)
- ใบ bai (leaf) ไป bpai (go) ภัย pai (danger)
- เบ็ด bèt (fishhook) เป็ด bpèt (duck) เผ็ด pèt (spicy)
- นา naa (rice field) งา ngaa (sesame)
- ถุง tǔng (bag) ถึง tʉ̌ng (arrive)
- กลัว gluua (scared) เกลือ glʉʉa (salt)
- ซี sii (letter C), สี่ sìi (four), สี sǐi (color)
But the focus of the instruction for both student and teacher during this period must be on the sounds, not the words or meanings or grammar. The student will naturally be itching to move on to whole phrases like “Where is the bar?” and “How much is that pad thai?” but the teacher must guide (force) the students to focus on sound first.
I discovered how important this was more or less by accident. The very first day I went to the Thai class at the California Thai temple, I happened to be the only student, so I sat down with the teacher and we drilled sounds because that’s what’s on the first page of “Thai for Beginners.” It has helped me immensely.
Most students want to “jump ahead” to learning whole words and phrases right away, but in most cases I have observed (and I’ve now observed hundreds of people learning Thai at the temple), this impatient behavior seriously damages their long-term ability to function in the Thai language. This is because the students spend the first few months of instruction learning words incorrectly: many students are not even aware that ใบ bai (leaf) ไป bpai (go), and ภัย pai (danger) are different words in Thai until long after they have supposedly “learned” these words. This makes it nearly impossible for them to understand a Thai person correctly or speak the words so that a Thai person can understand.
By the time they realize that they should have studied the sounds first, it’s already too late: they’ve accumulated a huge dictionary of incorrect Thai in their head! It takes much more work for a student to un-do damaged learning than it would have taken to learn the sounds correctly in the first place.
For students without access to native Thai speakers, it’s still worth spending a long initial period familiarizing themselves with the sounds via available websites and software. That’s part of the reason I made the pages about Thai sounds on my hobby site slice-of-thai.com.
As a side note, it does not matter what system of transcription the teacher uses during this initial period, as long as the system writes each different Thai sound using a different symbol (that is, as long as the transcription system is complete). The focus is on sound, not writing. The students should not obsess over the English(-like) spelling that the transcription system uses.
The teacher must tell the students right at the beginning not to rely on the transcription system as a guide for how to say each word: instead, they must use their ears as the sole guide, and regard each written transcription symbol as just that: a symbol representing the sound they just heard.
With this advice, the student will be able to avoid the enormous pitfalls and wastes of time that have plagued so many students who obsess over systems of transcription.
In theory, the teacher could even discard transcription altogether and start with Thai script during this initial period (in which case the student is guaranteed not to make comparisons with English spelling!) but of course the problem with this is that Thai script has so many ways to write the same sound, leading the student to unnecessary confusion while the focus is on learning the sounds of Thai.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
From the beginning, a few consonants at a time (as seen in “Thai for Beginners”).
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Not so much but I am used to learning new “codes” from computer programming.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
I guess for me there was no such moment. I just kept learning a little bit at a time. It helped that my study of Thai was linked with an escape from the soul-sucking grind of engineering work in Silicon Valley, so I was motivated.
How do you learn languages?
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).
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I can analyze things well so I can get to understand grammar and certain spelling/pronunciation rules quickly. But I do not like to speak “off the cuff” or improvised so, unlike some learners who can learn huge amounts of Thai vocabulary by “winging it” in nearly-one-way conversations with Thai people, I learn most vocab much more slowly through self-study.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That any transliteration system shows them how to make the sounds of Thai. See above.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I used to know French but if I try to speak French now, Thai words and grammar come out. I guess there’s only room for 1 extra language in there.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
See “learning the sounds first” advice above.
Sage advice on learning sounds…
Chris, thank you for taking the time to share your learning experiences. Your advice on drilling sounds was an ‘ah ha’ for me.
I can see how concentrating on the sounds from the start would bypass the frustration of not being understood. Especially with a tonal language such as Thai.
There is a whole series of Thai books on drilling the different sound combos. I purchased mine at Chula bookstore but you can also get them online at SE-Ed: Learning to Read Thai the New Way, Volumes 1 – 7 by Suwai Suntor.
The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
As I believe in the importance of getting sage advice from experienced Thai language learners, this series will be ongoing. 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.
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