Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Rikker Dockum
Age range: 20-30
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
I’d characterize what I speak as Bangkok Thai. I don’t try to be overly “correct” in ways that native Thais wouldn’t be — I don’t roll my r’s, and I generally simplify clusters and let my r’s become l’s. I do use Thai in more formal situations, which requires ‘polite Thai’. My wife is Bangkok born and raised, so I speak a lot of Bangkok Thai at home, and with her relatives. I can understand some but speak virtually no Issan or other regional flavor of Thai.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
My reasons for learning Thai, and the path that Thai has taken me down, are perhaps atypical. My very first reason for learning Thai was because I had to. At age nineteen I signed up for volunteer missionary service. Thailand requires two years of military service from its young men. Mormons require two years of missionary service. While not strictly compulsory, it’s a strong cultural expectation, and the idea that one should put in one’s two years is planted from childhood.
Part of volunteering meant agreeing to go wherever assigned. As I recall, I was asked two questions that might have influenced my assignment. They were: 1. Have you ever learned a foreign language? (The answer was ‘Yes, two years of Spanish in high school.’) and 2. On a scale of one to five, how well do you think you could learn a foreign language if required to? (I said, ‘Five.’ I was afraid of being sent to Topeka, Kansas.) So ending up in Thailand was a very happy accident. Before leaving I took a two-month intensive crash course in Thai. 10 hours a day, 7 ways a week, 8 weeks. I found I loved the challenge right off the bat.
The missionary service lasted two years, but it was the language that really fascinated me. I returned to the U.S. to finish my university studies. I majored in linguistics, and while at school I wrote every term paper I possibly could about Thai. Sociolinguistics, semantics, syntax — I even wrote a term paper on Thai for a class on the languages of China — I convinced the professor to let me write about the influence of Chinese on Thai. There was no formal instruction in Thai of any kind, so this was my best option for keeping up my language studies. Eventually I won some grant money to come back for a few months to do a research project on Thai dictionaries, which would eventually become my senior thesis. During those months I visited the Royal Institute. I observed the work of its Dictionary Revision Committee and interviewed several of its members. This was the beginning of my interaction with Thai academia, which is what brought me back after graduation, and what continues to keep me here for now.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
For now, I live in Bangkok. I first arrived in July 2002, and have been here off and on since. In all, five of the last seven years.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I began my intensive crash course in May 2002, two months before I first set foot in Thailand. A couple months before that, I purchased the Becker book for beginners, but I made no headway with it on my own.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
I learned spoken Thai first, focusing on the tones and basic conversation. In the crash course I had three teachers for three shifts: morning, afternoon, evening. One native Thai, one native Lao (with near-native Thai), and one American with pretty good Thai. The Lao fellow was the supervisor, and he was a strong believer in mastering speaking before reading. He took the other teachers to task if they tried to sneak any of the alphabet into our lessons.
Once I arrived in Thailand, I learned to speak through trial and error (multiplied by 1 million), and lots of jotting words down in notebooks. I had to teach myself to read Thai. I pored over the Mary Haas dictionary (the green brick) in my spare time, and I had a photocopied list of the basic rules for reading Thai to study on my own. I looked at all the signs around me, puzzled over the fonts, but things started to look familiar relatively quickly, and I jumped into reading books right away. (Initially quite slow going, of course.)
In those days, for me reading meant underlining every word I didn’t know with a red pen (those first books were more red ink than black by the time I was through), looking it up in my pocket dictionary, and writing the meaning in the page margin. If it was a word worth remembering, I would run across it within the next few pages. In that case, I would underline it again, and then flip back and check the definition I’d written in the margin before. I found that when I did that several times for the same word, before long I recognized the word and understood it in context.
Speaking came more organically. I simply spoke with people on a regular basis. Since I was usually speaking more Thai than English all day every day, the basics came relatively quickly. This is still my primary method, though it has its limitations.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
At first, yes. I was in the classroom setting on a very regular schedule for two months. Then for several more months I did about an hour a day of explicit language study — tone drills, going through vocabulary lists, memorizing the consonants and practicing reading.
What Thai language learning methods did you try? Did one method stand out over all others?
I was low tech. I carried around little pocket notebooks which I constantly wrote in. Most any office or stationery store in Thailand sells them for about 8 baht — a little bigger than a business card, with ruled paper and a rugged plastic cover.
At first a lot of the things I jotted down were in roman script, but that was soon replaced by Thai script as my ear got better and I became more comfortable reading and writing Thai. Whenever I came across a noteworthy or interesting word, I wrote it down. Often this was dozens of words per day. Names of people I met, food I ate, random objects that I had asked someone the name of.
This habit was helpful in improving my listening comprehension, too, because whenever I heard some word repeatedly, but I didn’t know it, I’d write down what I thought it sounded like, and then ask a friend what that word I kept hearing was, explaining the general context. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I got it wrong, but my ear kept getting better.
I still carry pocket notebooks sometimes, because I still run into new and interesting words on a regular basis.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Pretty much right away.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Yes, but entirely doable. It was challenging, but it felt like a natural part of the language learning process for me. Being in Thailand provides constant reading opportunities, so the basics quickly became second nature.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
When the Thai found on endless signs and advertisements stopped looking like mangled English. I recall the McDonald’s logo being particularly perplexing to me: แม็คโดนัลด์ in yellow on red background. The font is very modern and reductive, typical of the “difficult” Thai typefaces. Once the written word surrounding me started making sense, everything began to click.
How do you learn languages?
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.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I’d say a strength of mine is that I have a good ear for mimicry. One “secret” to my success has been to carefully observe and internalize how and what native speakers say. This includes tones, stress patterns, vocabulary, idioms. And then reproduce what I hear.
One of my weaknesses is retention, especially taking the time to review and solidify my knowledge. I am not good at finding the time to go back over things I jot down, nor do I typically use things like flash cards. Generally for me it’s what sticks, sticks and what doesn’t, doesn’t. I guess this is why reading was so helpful to me, because the important words invariably show up repeatedly. But these days I feel like I don’t actively read as much as I’d like to, either, so my vocabulary stagnates.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That learning Thai is anything other than fascinating, engaging, and rewarding. Also, the misconception that literacy is non-essential, or should be put off until later.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
For functional use, no. I have limited academic knowledge of a few languages I’ve studied, especially those which interact with or relate to Thai. For example, Lao, Khmer, Sanskrit, Pali.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
If you’re serious about learning Thai, tackle the written language. It unlocks the world.
The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
I don’t know about you, but each week I look forward to this section. In a big way, I enjoy reading about how others have tackled Thai. Their success invigorates my own Thai learning focus.
And whether they studied Thai at university, in private Thai schools, or on the street, they mostly agree on one main point: Learn to read the Thai language.
I hate to be a broken record, but as I really do believe that this is so, here it is again… Getting advice from experienced Thai language learners is important. If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your knowledge with those coming up, please contact me to make it so.
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