Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Names: Jonas Anderson and Christy Gibson
Nationality: Swedish-British and Dutch-British
Age range: 20-30
Profession: Lookthung performers
Jonas and Christy, were you put in local Thai schools, or schools with more of an expat focus?
Jonas: During most of my early school years my family was living in upcountry Thailand and so arriving in Thailand at nine years of age with absolutely no background with the Thai language, my parents opted to have me enrolled in a correspondence course from the States as it would have been too difficult to catch up in Thai school and there were no International Schools in the area at the time.
Christy: I never went to Thai school. I was schooled completely in English and by all expat teachers. I picked up Thai mainly from hearing it my whole life, although throughout my childhood and teen years actually my Thai speaking was quite poor. My understanding of the language was very good, but as they say in Thai, “ฉันไม่กล้าพูด (chun mai glah poot)” and I was always afraid of making mistakes in my speaking or pronunciation—a major barrier, I would say, to learning to speak any language—and thus I really didn’t progress in my spoken Thai as I should have until later.
What is your Thai language level?
Jonas: Thai is a very diverse and complex language, at the same time as being a fairly simple one. I say complex because there are so many levels of Thai and different language categories—religious Thai, literary Thai, royal Thai and so on, but at the same time the grammar structure is rather simple so reaching a basic conversational level is not that difficult. What is difficult is to perceive the true spirit of the language because there are so many nuances in proper usage. Even so basic a thing as addressing people properly is not as simple as “me and you”. You often don’t quite know whether to address people as “pee”, “tan”, “khun”, “lung/pah”, or to avoid a title or pronoun altogether. So it is difficult to say what my language level is. Obviously my basic fluency is good and due to growing up here my accent is not so bad, but at the same time there may be some rather basic words I don’t know because I don’t generally use them. Plus Thais are so complimentary about even the most elementary efforts to speak Thai, so it can be hard to assess oneself properly.
Christy: That’s a tough question to answer. I’d say I have basic fluency for sure. But I still have a long way to go when it comes to the more in-depth aspects of the Thai language and also in my writing skills.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Jonas: In my line of work I have to use all of these. I am often in professional situations that call for the appropriate communications, with Issan fans with whom I always love to embarrass yourself and give them a good laugh with attempts at that dialect; and dressed down or “market Thai” is often called for with our audiences too.
Christy: I use them all as well, depending on the situation, venue, and audience.
Thai friends tell me that your accent is just like the Thai people. How did you learn to speak Thai so clearly?
Jonas: Again, Thais are very complimentary so I have learned to take the appreciation with a grain of salt. I often mistakenly blurt out a badly pronounced word eliciting laughs and smiles, but I do place great importance on speaking as clearly as I can because their language is something the Thai people consider an art form and they deeply appreciate our attempts at proper pronunciation and clarity.
I think that the reason Thais compliment my Thai pronunciation owes to two main factors—one is that I am fortunate to have arrived in Thailand when quite young so picking up the Thai accent was easier than if I had moved here as an adult. The other element is my musical background. One of the main challenges people face with Thai is with the five tones in the language. Being able to differentiate and thus reproduce tones properly involves a keen ear which is also required in learning the pitch and tonality of singing. Actually learning Thai through song is a good method for grasping the tones of the language because the melody in Thai songs must go along with the tonality of the words. In other words if a word has a low tone you can’t sing it with a high note. Songwriters have to come up with lyrics to match the song melody or find alternative words.
I have had foreign musicians comment that Thai songs seem to overdo on vocal acrobatics and bending notes when actually it is just that the singers are using the rising and falling tones of the language in the songs.
Christy: I don’t think my accent is just like the Thais, though it’s a goal I’m working towards and something I certainly hope to attain to in the not too distant future. Being surrounded by it for the majority of my life though has definitely played the major role in regards to my accent and pronunciation.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
Jonas: Mainly just “the school of life”. I have had very little formal study of Thai except what I have learned personally with books—primarily for reading and writing. I have been lucky to be in situations which naturally enrich my Thai due to the requirements of the situation. This can involve a huge amount of pressure at the time—particularly if I have to use very challenging language with a small amount of preparation time, but those times end up being unique learning situations I am privileged to experience.
Christy: I used a private teacher for a short time and it was helpful to a point as she gave me tests and assignments and homework. The actual teaching didn’t benefit me as much (though I know many people say that a private tutor has been very helpful for them), but the assignments did me a world of good and forced me to buckle down and do some of the “grunt-work” that I otherwise would not have done on my own.
The main thing that helped me though was just speaking, speaking, speaking, and making mistakes. Thai friends were extremely helpful, and for awhile I just asked them constantly how to say things. Thais also, as Jonas said, are often very complimentary, but I asked Thai friends close to me to please correct my incorrect speech and pronunciation at every possible opportunity, and they did. These 2 methods helped me more than anything else—1. Speaking the language with native Thai speakers as often and as much as possible, and 2. Being willing to make mistakes and not be discouraged by them or daunted by the frequency with which I initially made them.
Some of the resources that I used in my Thai learning experience were the textbooks The Fundamentals of the Thai Language (by Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs), and Thai for Advanced Readers (by Khun Benjawan Poomsan Becker). Nowadays I also often use thai2english.com to check my spelling, etc., as I’m trying to work on learning to type in Thai. Wish me luck!:)
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Jonas: I started to learn to read Thai the first or second year here, but at a very relaxed pace (double speak for lazy pace). I started to be more fluent reading Thai in my mid-teens.
I have learned most of my writing since becoming a singer actually, but that is an area of Thai that is frankly quite weak for me still, probably because I have had difficulty finding the time for more formal study of Thai.
Christy: I was pretty interested in learning Thai reading from a very young age and I loved doing those alphabet writing books as a child. I always loved writing, penmanship and art, and my “girlynature” thought that the Thai letters were “so pretty and curly” :). So I learned the basics pretty early on, but didn’t really gain fluency in my Thai reading until my late teens. Having to learn Thai songs helped me a great deal as I didn’t want to work from phonetics and knew that of course my pronunciation would be far better if I was reading straight from the actual Thai. And just the practice of having to read and stare at all those song words for hours every day was a sure-fire way of improving my Thai reading skills.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Jonas: I think once you “get over the hump” reading Thai is quite easy actually. Written Thai is much more phonetic than English. You don’t face “cough” vs. “through” situations in Thai—it reads as it is written, so it is just a matter of memorizing the sounds and the few exceptions.
Writing Thai is much more difficult because of the many consonants that have the same sounds, and the Sanskrit influences in the written language such as silent letters, vestigial endings to words and so on. There are many ways to phonetically spell words properly but only one correct spelling, so basically you have to memorize the proper spelling.
Christy: I think that reading Thai is actually quite simple once you understand the basics of it. Once I’d memorized the alphabet and the general rules, after that it was just a matter of trying to read anything and everything I could.
This might not work for everyone, but one interesting tip that really helped me with my Thai reading was signboards. In a moving vehicle I would sit and stare out the window (not while driving of course ☺) and try to read the signs on buildings, advertisements and the like while travelling along. Although in the beginning the challenge was just to be able to read a certain word or phrase before I passed it by—and it was even a challenge in Bangkok traffic (just to show you how weak I was when I started out)—little by little I began catching on. I think the reason I found this helpful is because the wording on signs is often large and the reading is bite-sized—usually only short phrases and words. Obviously it wasn’t the only method I used for learning to read Thai:), but it’s something that worked for me and others may find it useful as well.
What are your strengths and weaknesses with the Thai language?
Jonas: By far my strength is speaking Thai and colloquial usage. I’m at kiddy levels with the written language.
Christy: I think reading is a strength for me and it’s something I really enjoy. Jonas is a better Thai speaker than I am, especially in regards to vocab and usage.
Pronunciation is more of a strength for me as well it seems. I’m nowhere near “there” yet, but I do work hard at trying to pronounce things correctly, and perhaps also being a singer and/or musical helps me somewhat in hearing and identifying the tones and sounds correctly (although I know many non-singer expats who speak Thai very well too).
On a more personal level, I would say a weakness is still sometimes not being brave enough to go ahead and try a new word or something I want to say that I’m not 100% sure of or haven’t said before. This has often held me back in my Thai speaking over the years, and definitely having improved in this area for the most part has been one of my greatest breakthroughs in learning the language.
Did your parents learn to speak Thai? If so, how did they go about learning the language?
Jonas: My Father learned a fair bit of Thai while here and still remembers some of it, but in general my parents were more at an elementary level with Thai speaking.
Christy: My parents did learn to speak some Thai while they were here also and they remember quite a bit of it as well. They enjoy having the opportunity to practice their Thai whenever they visit Thailand, though it is also more on an elementary level. In their case also it was a matter of learning by hearing and speaking as much as they could. I don’t think they ever had formal lessons as far as I know.
What was it like growing up surrounded by the Thai language and culture?
Jonas: Based on my personal experiences I am convinced that children are very adaptable to unique cultures. I am not an expert, but I think there is a misconception that moving between very diverse cultural situations destabilizes children. They are much more resilient and capable of handling culture shocks than adults I believe. Moving here simply became the “new normal” for us as kids and I found the change exciting. It was peculiar to be stared at so much in upcountry Thailand and to be surrounded by so many black haired children, but I have always been a socially active person, even as a small child, so I enjoyed making new friends and learning about my new environment. I think that is the main key to my learning to speak Thai—simply wanting to talk to people.
Christy: It was awesome! I loved it—really!
I read a post on your site by Hugh Leong that I really agree with, about how Thai Language and Culture go hand in hand. So true. Learning about and being immersed in the culture and understanding has helped me a lot in my usage of the Thai language and my understanding of the things that Thai people say and what they mean when they say it, etc. I think it’s difficult to know how to use the language, at least on a deeper level, if you don’t really understand the culture and/or Thai mentality and way of life. That’s been my personal experience anyway.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Jonas: The main advice I would give would be to not fear the “giants” of the language—the main “giants” being the tones, the written language, the sentence structure, and the fact that Thai is from a totally different language group with scarcely any similarities to Germanic or Romance languages that Westerners are familiar with.
I think that while many people are wrestling with these giants and trying to grasp the concepts to the point of giving up, other people are just out there talking to people, being attentive to speech patterns and usage and end up able to communicate even better “pit pit, took took” (sometimes right, sometimes wrong). It is not always as hard as it seems, you just have to “think you can”. If you can’t manage the tones, don’t worry about it right away. Most things are understood from context anyway.
After a certain amount of exposure to the language it is good to go back and try to put labels on some of the things you have learned through language books and courses and then you can progress a lot more quickly, but if you start out trying to dissect the language with theory and terminology it could be much more frustrating. Some people say learning new languages the way we learned our mother tongue is the best method, and I tend to agree—it’s called the immersive method—putting yourself in situations that force you to learn the language.
Oh, and don’t worry about if they laugh at you. In Thailand being laughed at is not an insult, but rather they would say they are laughing because it is “nah rak” (cute), and you can take heart in that you brought someone a smile!
Christy: Speak, speak, speak. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Make mistakes and then keep trying until you get it right. Immerse yourself in the Thai language and culture as much as you can. Ask for help and ask questions when you don’t know or understand something. Accept from the beginning that it’s not an easy language to speak and don’t expect immediate results, but do work hard to make as much progress as you can. Don’t give up.
Jonas Anderson and Christy Gibson
The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.