Say it like a Thai would…
Now before you even begin reading this be forewarned that it might ruffle your feathers some. Truth be told, it’s kinda-sorta meant to. At the same time, what I want to do is get the readers’ heads around a concept about learning Thai as well.
Not surprisingly, as I make the rounds at the Thai language schools in Bangkok, I run into plenty of foreigners wanting to learn Thai. Almost to a person, everyone I meet says to me, “I want to speak Thai with a Thai accent.” First off, I laugh out loud (really more of a guffaw, which could possibly be off-putting) but then I ask “exactly which ‘Thai accent do you want to learn?” They invariably get that dazed expression, hem-n-haw saying something like, “you know a Thai accent.” I go on with as much sincerity as I can muster (which after seven+ years studying this language and touring more Thai language schools than I remember is marginal at best).
Do you want to speak Thai with that over-the-top Bankokian accent which hi-so’s use? Most of the younger Bangkokians use this accent so other Thais don’t confuse them with country Thais in Bangkok. This is known as พูดดัดจริต. Or do you wanna speak Thai with a Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai accent like the north-western Thais? Wait, I know! You want to speak with that singsong choppy southern accented Thai like from Hat Yai or Songkhla? No? Okay, I got it now. You wanna speak with that พูดเหน่อ บ้านนอก accent like the people from Kanchanaburi, Suphanburi or Ratchaburi, right? Or maybe you want one of the many Isaan accents like from Buriram, Ubon, Udon, Nongkhai, or the dog eating province, Sakhon Nakhon? It could even be that you want the edgier, slightly almost Cambodian accent like the Thais from Sa Kaeo or Surin. Or is it the Chantaburi eastern sea side accent, or the one that pegs a Thai speaker as coming from Korat? I dunno. Really.
One thing I do know with 100% certainty is this: there is no such animal as a “Thai accent” because they’re ALL Thai accents! It’s just like I can tell someone from New York, California, Tennessee or Texas from the accent they have when they speak American English or like a Brit can tell immediately where another Brit was born in the UK because of the accent when they speak the Queens English.
Here’s something for foreigners learning Thai to ponder, especially ones who say that they wanna speak with a Thai accent. It is highly unlikely that is EVER gonna happen! I don’t care how much you think you or someone you know sounds Thai, or how much the over praising people around you say that you sound “just like a Thai”, believe you me, to them you really don’t. Full stop, period, end of story. You should just throw the idea into the circular file and not waste another second on it. You’ll learn Thai about a gazillion times faster than either A) – pretending you sound like a native speaker or B) – agonising over the fact you don’t sound like a native speaker. Believe me, to native Thai speakers listening to you, you sound like a non-native speaker!
There are a handful of gifted non-native speakers of Thai doing the ‘Westerner speaks Thai’ circuit. And in no way would I put myself in that illustrious group of people. Yet, they’re never mistaken for native speakers by real honest to goodness born and bred speakers of Thai. The fact that they’re non-native speakers ALWAYS comes out within a few sentences. Maybe it’s that they speak with the wrong cadence or rhythm, or maybe the structure is a little too forced or un-natural, or maybe their pronunciation is slightly squirrelly. But whatever it is, no Thais would confuse them as being native speakers. Honestly, Todd Lavelle is possibly the closest thing I’ve heard to a native speaker when he isn’t speaking in that over accented Thai he uses on his tv program.
Now, don’t mis-read or mis-remember what I’m saying. I’m saying that there’s no doubt in every native Thai speakers mind that those people are foreign speakers of Thai. What I’m NOT saying about those foreign speakers is their Thai isn’t clear, isn’t concise, isn’t understood 100% outta the gate or isn’t responded to by the Thais. I’m just saying that ANY native Thai speaker knows those people aren’t… <-native speakers. I've said time and again you should take ANY compliment thrown you way about your Thai with a grain of salt. There is a Thai idiom for something so insignificant, so trivial that it means less than nothing and that idiom is เท่าขี้ตามด or "equal to the sleep in the eye of an ant”. In all my world travels (and I’ve been to a fair few countries) I've never ran into a demographic of people who were more over complimentary to foreigners speaking their language than the Thais. If a foreigner can manage to spit out "Sweaty Crap" <-(you read that right) for สวัสดีครับ, these people are piling on the accolades. In fact, I’ve found the exact opposite is true where foreigners speaking Thai is concerned. When a Thai doesn't say anything, as in not one word about the fact that you're a foreigner speaking Thai to them, that's when you know your Thai language chops are getting there. Now don’t get confused and start thinking you’re sounding like a native Thai speaker, because you don’t. What you are doing is "saying it like a Thai would”. That is the key to success in speaking this language so that Thais understand what you’re saying to them. I'm not telling you that you shouldn’t learn how to pronounce Thai words to the best of your ability, because you need to pretty much nail the words. I mean if it's a short vowel you can't draw it out, if it's a long vowel you can't shorten it and the same goes with the tones. You can’t add emotion into your spoken Thai by varying the intonation like we do when speaking English. That’s what the myriad of Thai particles are for. You also need to hit the tones pretty darned close (for the most part). What I am telling you, is to invest the time learning how to "say it like a Thai". Don't take an English sentence and translate it into Thai, re-sequence the words, and think these people are gonna understand you, because they won’t (most won’t anyway). Instead, LISTEN to how Thais say things in regards to sentence structure, cadence and rhythm when they speak. Pay close attention to where they pause <- (very important!) when they are speaking, what words they routinely leave out or drop because they’re understood in the context of a conversation and start speaking your version of Thai that way. Benjawan Poomsan Becker has a series of c/d’s and booklets out called Speak Like a Thai. They are plain and simple worth twice their weight in gold. Well, most of them are, some are just fluff, but still, they’re good. The vocab is fairly contemporary, the example sentences are good, and you can get the feel of how a native speaker says things She also has one out called Improve Your Thai Pronunciation and it’s good too.
You will improve your spoken Thai by leaps and bounds if you just forget about trying to sound Thai. I know, every one of you will say, “I have a friend who’s fluent in Thai”. My question to you is this, “how would you know the person you’re referring to is fluent in Thai when you aren’t?” Did you consult your crystal balls? Is it because the Thai they’re talking to understands them or the fact that they didn’t hafta repeat what they said three times? Or is it because your Thai is so poor you only imagine your friend is fluent because they don’t have the problems conversing with Thais that you experience?
I say all the time my Thai is nothing to brag about, not at all. It’s totally un-Thai insofar as it’s coarse, blunt and I don’t ครับ, ขอ or หน่อย much when I talk. As far as the conversational rules of engagement in Thai it’s right on the borderline of being rude and sometimes it’s more than a little over that line. It’s also poorly pronounced, off cadence and not surprising, it has a definite Midwestern American (Ohio in fact) hillbilly accent to it. What is surprising is, nearly 100% of the time, once a Thai knows I can speak something close to Thai, I can get ‘em to understand me and answer in kind on the first go round. I guess by some imaginary criteria, I’m fluent too, even though I always tell people when it comes to speaking Thai I’m effluent.
For non-native speakers’ structure, pronunciation and cadence/rhythm are the linchpins of this language. You got to get them all or you’re out in left field with Thais scratching their heads wondering what you’re trying to say. The only way to say things like a Thai is by investing the time it takes trying to nail the sentence structure and getting as close to the real pronunciation as possible. You can get some of the cadence down by reading aloud. Be forewarned, just sitting in a room and stumbling over reading Thai out loud isn’t going to help your spoken Thai one bit. You got to have a live Thai sitting around carefully listening to you AND correcting you while you read. It is my personal experience that few if any Thais are up for this, mostly because it’s about as exciting for them as watching paint dry. It takes a rare breed ‘o Thai indeed to sit there and endure you mangling Thai out loud and also having them man up to correct you time and again when you mangle words or sentences. They just lose the will to live after a while and go watch Thai soap operas, chat with their friends on Line or play Cookie Run.
The next thing you need to do is listen, listen and LISTEN to Thais talking. It doesn’t matter if it’s the radio, the t/v, you-tube or what. There are TONZ of Thai audio out there in internet land, USE them! The only caveat is you need to make sure whatever you’re listening to is close to your comprehension level in Thai. It doesn’t work if you can only understand one out of five words spoken; you gotta pretty much get what’s being said. Another thing is pick topics you have an interest in to listen to. Nothing will suck the life outta you faster than listening to a sound file in Thai about something you don’t have an interest in. Some people find those Thai ละครน้ำเน่า’s palatable, but I don’t. The acting is campy, the mood music sound track is as bad as the mind-numbing theme song and their production values are not all that good. Still, I know several really competent foreign speakers of Thai who data mine incredibly good sentences and phrases out of them. Another plus for this learning is, as fast as a ละคร comes out it’s on You Tube so you can watch it at your leisure.
The last part of the equation is talking in Thai to Thais almost all the time. Stop falling back on English, mime, hand signals, stick figure drawings, sock puppets or whatever you resort to when Thais can’t understand you. I know most of you aren’t gonna like this one bit, BUT here’s another news flash – there’s no short cut, no magic pill, no secret formula, no best way which will get your Thai to the point it needs to be other than speaking to these people, day in day out, all the time. For most of us (or at least early on for me) that was a bummer. I was so put off by them not understanding something I said (which at the time I was saying to the best of my ability) that I plain and simple stopped talking. Instead I went thru a prolonged “silent phase” of listening.
When we first start speaking Thai to Thais, we’re afraid, in fact we’re scared witless. We’re afraid that the Thai we’re talking to won’t understand what we say. We’re also afraid that if the Thai understands us they’ll answer off script or not use the spoon-fed dialog we were taught in our Thai language classes. That is indeed vexing. But what is even sadder still, is the fact that we aren’t able to receive the information coming back to us from a Thai IF it’s off script. In schools we are not taught alternate answers to those rote dialogs pounded into our heads. Despite the fact that there’re usually a myriad of ways a Thai can answer a question we ask which doesn’t follow the script we were taught in school.
One BIG point I want to touch on to make you sound more Thai is to STOP using first person pronouns when making statements. Especially statements where everyone listening understands it’s you saying something. Nothing makes you sound more un-Thai or tips Thais off faster that you’re a newbie Thai speaker than ผม‘ing or ดิฉัน‘ing every time you open your mouth to say something in the first person. Listen to these people when they talk. They just don’t do it, as in, hardly ever! Younger Thais will sometimes use their nicknames, but most of the time no one says anything and it’s understood in context that they’re making a first person statement, unless they designate in the sentence they’re talking about another person.
As I said in the beginning of this piece this isn’t about you speaking Thai with a Thai accent, because you ain’t ever gonna sound Thai enough to fool a native Thai speaker. This is about you saying things like Thais do. If you do that their ears will auto-correct the off-toned words and the long/short, short/long vowel swaps we all make when we speak Thai. I’ve found if you say things the way a Thai says them you’re universally understood. They just get it.
And thus ends the lesson for today. This may sound like a rant from a nobody who writes about learning Thai and you’re free to throw out the ideas I mentioned if you want to, but, I’m telling you it is my personal experience after adopting some of the techniques I’ve outlined that Thais understand me far better now than they ever did.
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com