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Successful Thai Language Learner: Peter Montalbano

Peter Montalbano

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Peter Montalbano
Nationality: World citizen with a U.S. passport
Age range: 60+
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Profession: Musician/writer

What is your Thai level?

I have problems with using the word “fluency” linking me and the Thai language. I am extremely facile on some levels, but quite dorky and clumsy on others. So, even though I’ve been applying myself to the language for many years, I feel uncomfortable saying that I’m fluent. That said, I generally speak fast, have very few problems in any kind of conversation one-on-one, and have a good accent, except when I surprise myself by blurting out wrong tones. But I still read too slowly, and though after all this time it amazes me, my vocabulary sometimes feels vastly inadequate.

I can’t agree with a non-native calling himself truly fluent in Thai unless he can read and write well, and can understand Thai TV programs without concentrating, and so far I am not up to my own standards in those last departments.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

I do them all with equal abandon. I spent two years in Isaan, and can get around in generic Lao, or northeastern dialect. I suppose “professional Thai” means “really good standard Thai,” and that’s what I work hardest on, although I like knowing and appropriately using slang as much as possible.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I was in the Peace Corps here from 1965-67, teaching English and living in places where no one spoke any English to speak of, so it was a necessity. But it wasn’t a hardship. I love learning languages, and it has been a great adventure to learn Thai.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

Of course, I was here for two years over forty years ago. Now I have lived continuously in Thailand since June, 2008. In between I stayed or lived here off and on, or visited, a month or so at a time, for decades. Spent 6 months in 2005 doing Tsunami relief out of a Thai government office in Phangaa Province, also courtesy of the Peace Corps, they called it “Crisis Corps” at the time.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

Since those great lessons the Peace Corps gave us in 1965. But after returning to the U.S. in ’67, I neglected it completely till returning for my first visit in 1984, seventeen years! But at that point I picked up a book and some tapes, and by the time I’d spent 3 weeks in-country, I was speaking better than I had when I’d first left. Still, I was pretty lackadaisical about it until about 10 years ago, when I developed a firm plan for coming back for good, and since then it’s been a steady “onward and upward.”

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

Peace Corps did a great job, four hours a day, small classes, rotating teachers. Within three months I was able to get around pretty well, and when I hit the ground in Isaan there was nothing else to speak, so conversational Thai came in pretty fast. That said, my Thai back then was much more limited than I knew. I wish I had paid more attention to learning to read then.

When I decided to get serious, I dug into the reading side, and learned how to “touch-type” by sending e-mails. Good thing there was unicode and the internet to help! But that still wasn’t enough. I audited a graduate course at U.C. Berkeley with Susan Kepner, perhaps the best translator of Thai women’s literature, and in class we read stuff, including selections from Kukrit’s สี่แผ่นดิน (Four Reigns), maybe Thailand’s best modern novel. Did translations of a couple of short stories for Susan which she is still threatening to use if she ever publishes an anthology, anyhow I loved doing that, want to do more.

In 2002 I started writing my own dictionary. I was tired of looking up words like “till” and finding Thai telling me it only meant a drawer that held money, or “see” and finding that it meant only an administrative region defined by the Vatican. So I have been adding to my own dictionary and using at as a study guide ever since.

This year I tested into Chula’s (Chulalongkorn University’s) intensive Thai for foreigners program and have done 2 five-week modules, have two to go. Instead of going straight through like most people, I am doing five weeks at a time, then breaking for several months till the next level comes around again, because it eats one’s entire life when doing it! But worth it. Short answer? Many-pronged, but sharp prongs!

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Generally, I do, even when not studying formally. I review vocabulary and try to memorize everything, like everything, completely, spelling and all. And I do some reading aloud from the many books I have, and some reading of newspapers. I generally spend at least an hour per day on this. Why am I not เก่งกว่าที่เห็นตัวเองเป็นนะ ก็ไม่เข้าใจ? Just that this language is really hard to completely master for a Westerner, even one with an ear and experience learning languages.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I’ve looked at the Benjawan Becker material, which it seems just about everyone praises highly, and must say I have problems with it. I do find her material on Isaan dialect very useful, that’s true. I’m using it, thank you, Khun Benjawan! But some of the fundamentals are flat out wrong, from my perspective. If you can separate the wheat from the chaff there, there is quite a bit of useful stuff, but some of the pronunciation guides are quite misleading, and some of the spellings are not conventional spellings. Let’s just say that I think a student should not be required to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I would recommend the U.S. Foreign Service Institute courses, which our Peace Corps training was modeled on. A lot of the phrases are old-fashioned, but they are dead-on accurate, you can download them as pdf files, and the pronunciation guides are perfect. There are sound files for the lessons, too! Cat, I noticed that you are involved in a project to revitalize this right now onthailanguagewiki.com. Not complete yet in that form, but a worthy project. Memorize that stuff, do the pattern practices, and you’ve got a great foundation. If you have a teacher to take you through it, but it can be done on one’s own if needed.

There are several English/Thai dictionaries in electronic format that I have found indispensable. Besides Glenn Slayden’s wonderful work on thai-language.com, you can download a multi-university academic project called Lexitron (the English page). It’s free, but you’ll have to create an account in order to download it to your own machine. Download both the program and the data file. When installing or opening it on a Windows machine you’ll have to set your computer’s regional and language settings to Thai, or you won’t be able to see it properly. Once it’s open, you can switch back to whatever other setting you use, and it will work fine.

I also use So Sethaputra’s Thai Software Dictionary, which has a lot of inaccuracies, but a tremendous amount of useful information. You can buy the cd for a ridiculously low price at DCO. The advantage of having the electronic format is that you can just type in a word, and it will come right up, not nearly as hard as looking through the pages of a thick book.

When I was in Peace Corps we had a great Thai writing workbook—can’t remember the name—which is obviously now out of print. It took you through all the rules, high, low, mid consonants, live and dead syllables, tone marks used with which, how and when, exceptions, etc., and step-by-step exercises until you finally got it. You can find these rules all in Mary Haas’ The Thai System of Writing, and it’s amazing to me that this was written over 60 years ago and yet still remains the clearest description I can find in English of the rules you need to understand.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Look at, immediately. Tackle, relatively recently. Ten years of typing e-mails has been a big help (learning to type in Thai is easier than you might think), but when I got in the Chula classes this year, for which I had to take a reading/writing test, I found that they were right to ask me to write everything by hand. At first the old hand cramped up a lot, but it has gotten easier.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Yes, it is a monster. 44 consonants and 33 vowels, depending on how you count, plus all those tone marks and other miscellaneous signs, a lot of duplication, so that it’s usually impossible to tell how something is written from how it’s spoken, and then there are the exceptions! And the ambiguous spellings! And the alternate spellings, they’re like opinions, everybody has one! It takes a lot of memorization. Also, the words are all run-on together, you have to parse them out with your eye, and sometimes that gives ambiguous readings, too. Only after a lot of experience can you start to discern the patterns which begin to make things easier. Reading Thai subtitles in English-language movies is a challenge, if they’re more than five or six words long. Thais can read them in the time they show on the screen. Reading karaoke doesn’t count, that’s slow and easy, even though it’s good practice. When I can read ninety percent of the subtitles as they come up we’ll break out the champagne—but I’m not there yet. And love that Chula course: writing essays, making a few presentations in class on news stories. T’ain’t easy, but there’s no giving up.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

When I was 21, it was the first time I walked into the class in Hawaii all those years ago and heard the language: love at first listen, I was hooked. The tones, the lack of tenses, cases, singulars and plurals, it was like having the door opened on a new, beautiful, and mysterious universe.

How do you learn languages?

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.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I’m good at producing the sounds accurately, and have a pretty good memory. At this point I’m finding, though, that when speaking fast I sometimes unwittingly use the wrong tones. I usually correct myself, but the mistake has been made. Also it’s surprising how hard it still is to catch fast conversation between other people. Final consonants p, t, k, are often hard to tell apart. In English we’ll pronounce those fully, with a release at the end, but in Thai the syllable will just end without a clear final sound, and there are other problems like that. Usually I have no problems one-on-one. But watching TV and catching most of the words is a big challenge. And I need a lot more vocabulary: working on that pretty hard now.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I think different people have different misconceptions. Some think the tones aren’t important, and that’s about as wrong as could be. Some don’t notice the difference between long and short vowels. Some don’t get the difference between aspirated and unaspirated unvoiced stops (p, t, k, ph, th, kh).

And I’ve heard quite a few people claim fluency when they have only enough vocabulary for basic conversation. This may stem from the misconception I’ve heard from many speakers of Indo-European languages that this language is as easy to learn as another European language. At the basic spoken level, it may be as easy as those, or easier. But in the end, it comes from the other side of the world, and learning to speak it is like growing a second soul. There are almost no linguistic cognates, so the vocabulary you have to learn from scratch is immense. The grammar at first glance seems incredibly simple, but that’s deceptive. You will at almost every level of learning run into sentences that are nearly impossible to decipher without help. If you’re like me, the learning process is a lot of fun, but much harder than your third-year Spanish class, or whatever.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I used to have a good enough grasp of Latin to read and write papers on Ovid and Virgil in grad school, but for some reason—probably lack of interest— that’s pretty much slipped away. But to get my M.A. in comparative literature I also had to read and write a lot of German and French, and I have a pretty good fluency in German, which used to be maybe more than pretty good. I can still read middle-high German, middle Dutch, and old French. I did study French literature at the Sorbonne for a summer way back when I was 19, but while I can still read French pretty well, my listening and speaking needs quite a bit of practice. Still love French and hope to work it up to a high level someday. Studied a little Chinese before and during a trip there twenty-five years ago, and had fun bumbling around with the people and making them laugh, remember a little of that. Also made a stab at Japanese for awhile, since I worked there off and on for a few years. I found Japanese the hardest of all the languages I’ve tried, and remember next to nothing.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No, fortunately there were no linguistic distractions at the time.

Do you have a passion for music?

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have lasted all these years (well over 30) as a professional musician! Most of the music I did back in the States (and around the world, on cruise ships and such) was pretty mind-numbing, but in spite of that, it deepened my musical knowledge and feeling. Now it’s great, I can afford to just take the jobs I want, which are pretty much only jazz jobs.

But does that have anything to do with my language learning? I don’t think so, not much, anyhow. Thai is a tonal language, and I suppose musicians can hear the tones better than others, but I’m not sure. Language is so different from music, the meaning expressed in music is the kind you really can’t express in words. And, of course, the other languages I studied were not tonal, and they came faster. And there’s the reading thing. I read music all right, I suppose, but I’m much more likely to get a complex sentence in a foreign language right the first time than a complicated musical phrase.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Ya wanta know the way to Carnegie Hall, kid? Practice, practice, practice. Oh, and get a Thai girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, whatever your flavor, but don’t speak any English with ‘em. Take some classes, do all the things I suggested before. For about 10 years, then you’ll have a good start. Go for it. Don’t give up. Be humble and realize this isn’t for sissies.

If you only want to learn enough to get around by yourself, that shouldn’t be that hard, but in all cases, be clear about what your goal is, and how close you actually are to it.

And if you’re in Bangkok, seriously ambitious to learn, and can afford the time and money, you probably can’t do better than the Chula intensive Thai course, check it out.

Peter Montalbano

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.

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

11 Comments

  1. Hey

    I am Joel from Antwerp (Belgium) living in Thailand for 14 months now, able to read Thai and I do speak really good for that short time I stay here now, learn all by self starting from the alphabet on the Internet… I wake up at 4 and learn for 1 hour everyday, and the rest of the day I speak from morning till evening Thai,
    nice to read about your guy’s how you did learn Thai

    A warm greet from Surin

    Joel

  2. Seems that quite a few of your interviewee’s have the Peace Corps in common as the reason to learn Thai…I really missed the boat there…I could have been in Thailand 20 years ago doh!

    It’s nice to read these interviews Cat as they give me some glimmer of hope that I am not just wasting my time.

  3. Catherine and Peter – Another informative interview and Peter comes over as somebody who is focused and determined to succeed at whatever he’s doing, by his own methods if need be.

    There are lots of good solid links attached to this post and Glenn Slayden’s thai-language.com is already in my bookmarks as it is an excellent learning tool.

    I think the message Peter is putting across is keep trying, keep studying and one day even if it’s 20 years down the road you will reach your goal. Solid advice.

  4. That was an amazing interview…very informative (the links are great) and also inspiring for me. I have the Thai wife already so now it’s down to practice, practice, practice. That being said, I find that what Peter said about the grammar is absolutely true…it is deceptively simple. I am a relatively new learner so my Thai is atrocious, but reading this gives me hope that I can learn Thai, even if it takes me 10 years!

  5. Hi Joel, it sounds like you have an aptitude for learning languages. I have a few friends from Belgium and they all grew up speaking three languages, then took on more after (one is an onboard translator/hostess for KLM). And waking up at 4am to study, wow! I am totally impressed. So you have a drive on top of everything else.

    Talen, I have been noticing the Peace Corps coming up often too. And like you, I now wish I’d taken advantage. Off the top of my head, there are several jobs that offer sure travel: Peace Corps, Armed Services, Diplomatic Corp… and of course, being a geologist! Each has its pluses and minuses, but the Peace Corp most likely suits my personality.

    Did you notice the before and after photo? Peter has not changed that much over the years.

    Martyn, Peter’s message is one that I can take on for sure. I am in no great rush. Slow but sure is ok by me.

    Btw – will you leave the UK before the snow hits? I came in worried that I’d be driving through the mess from Heathrow, but now I’m told we get snow today instead. Yeah! I love snow at Christmas, especially in the UK.

    Steve, welcome to WLT! I often go to your blog to peek around. If you get a chance, read the rest of the series as each share something special for those learning Thai. I know I learn from each one.

    Btw – congratulations on your wedding to the lovely Adchara. It is a beautiful sounding name (what does it mean?) Your wedding is not recent, but this is the first chance I’ve had to send my well wishes to you both, so congrats! :-)

  6. Thanks for the warm welcome Catherine! We’ll need it this weekend as we’re expecting 15-20cm of snow tomorrow. Not quite Christmas yet, but snow already on the way :) Since I’ll be snowed in it may give m the chance to read the rest of the series over the weekend.

    Thanks too for the congratulations, late or not it is greatly appreciated. Coming up on 4 wonderful years for us and not sure if you’ve heard, but we also have our first child on the way.

    Adchara means angel, which is appropriate don’t you think?

    Finally, thanks for stopping by Thailand Musings from time to time, always nice to have more readers!

  7. Steve, lucky you, snow! It snowed here several years back in the late spring/early summer and was grand. Even when it is not the holidays, snow makes it seem so. I know, I know, when you live in it, it’s just not the same. But for me, these days it is a rare treat.

    Four years married with your first little one on the way? Perfection. Little ones are such great fun, and yours are guaranteed to be gorgeous!

    Angel is indeed apt (and such a great name :-)

  8. You’re so right that snow does make the holidays more merry. I love it when the snow is falling, it’s the aftermath that I don’t care for so much. I could be wrong, but I honestly don’t think I’ll miss snow all that much. This is the 2nd storm of the season already and I’m fearing this year will be pretty brutal as the past 3 years have all been mild winters. Golf may be in for a rare treat!

    While this is our first little one together I do have two teenagers from a previous marriage so I know what fun the little ones can be. Plus we have built in babysitters! :) We are both very excited as you might imagine!

  9. I SO agree on the aftermath. I’ve lived in many places with snow: Scotland, Japan, France, Alaska, Colorado, Washington, Virginia, California, New Mexico… and it even snowed in New Zealand once. I blissfully forgot just how miserable it can get when the snow turns into a muddy mush. What a mess!

    Built-in babysitters… you are indeed lucky. My son has a half brother and half sister too (11 and 14 at the time). But they schooled away and only came home during summers. They were a great help when they were home though.

  10. Catherine I am leaving today (20th), so far Swindon is snow free so I guess Heathrow will be as well.

  11. Martyn, you might want to check Heathrow. In the news yesterday, they did have problems with snow. But, there is no snow out here (I am now in Wellington) Pooh! It is cold though. Snow/ice on the ground when we went into the forest to collect holly and ivy.

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