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Stuck in a Thai Language Rote Rut? Try Eavesdropping

Are you stuck in a Thai Language Rote Rut? Try Eavesdropping

Eavesdropping and the Thai language rote rut…

While touring Thai language schools in Bangkok I’ve met some fairly adept parrots of Thai. By the term “parrots” I mean someone who’s memorized (or been taught) conversational dialog by rote.

And if you remember, in The “I’m Good Enough at Thai to Know I Suck” Stage I mentioned a foreigner who speaks super clear Thai. Yet the minute Thais didn’t respond on script, his ability to comprehend what was said back to him failed. That’s rote learning.

Here’s an example almost every English speaker in Thailand has experienced. If you say, “how are you today?” to a Thai, there’s a 99.9999% chance they will respond back with, “I am fine thank you, and you?” That’s rote learning.

I admit I too was stuck in a rote rut for a while, back when I learned outta Benjawan’s Thai language materials. I couldn’t understand what was said the minute they didn’t answer back with what I’d been programmed to believe the response would be. I finally pushed thru by going into what I call my “second silent phase”. This is where I stopped speaking Thai completely. Instead, I started listening to Thais talk to each other. In fact, it was almost a year before I started speaking to Thais in their language again.

During my silent phase I hung around groups of Thais, eavesdropping on their conversations, trying to work out how they spoke to each other in everyday situations. In most cases I just listened. I wasn’t a part of the conversation or even of the group. I was the proverbial farang… err… fly on the wall.

Passive listening increased my comprehension of Thai spoken by native speakers at top speed. It wasn’t the slow, over enunciated, over toned, carefully couched version of Thai taught at Thai language schools. Instead, it was real, honest-to-goodness Thai, spoken by Thais.

In the real world that’s the version of Thai you’re gonna be exposed to when out and about in Thailand. Well, unless you can get a Thai to understand that your grasp of the language is tenuous at best. But then they oftentimes speak to you like you’re a retard. At one point I got tired of asking Thais to speak slower, that I finally resorted to saying “เฮ้ย พูดช้า ๆซี่ เราเป็นคนปัญญาอ่อน” (hey, speak slowly, I’m a retard).

I recently read an article from The Mezzofanti Guild where Donovan is learning Korean. He too advocates passive listening, although for a much shorter time than I managed. It is possible that I’m slow learner (which is probably why my Thai teachers call me a ‘special needs’ student).

Seeing as there’re close to 65+ million native speakers to eavesdrop on, anyone studying the Thai language while actually in Thailand has a giant advantage. Now, before someone points out that only about 25 million have Central Thai as their native tongue, believe me, I’ve been from Chiang Rai to Hat Yai, Kanchanaburi to Chantaburi, Trat to Trang, Surin to Songkla, yet never came across a single Thai who, if push came to shove, couldn’t speak and understand Central Thai.

Here are a few eavesdropping suggestions for those living in Thailand:

  • On the BTS or MRT, listen to Thais talking on the phone, etc.
  • In 7/11 listen to Thais interact with each other and the sales staff.
  • At a Thai food court listen to the banter of the sellers and buyers.
  • Pick a table near a group of Thais and just listen, listen, listen.

No surprise, in Thailand there are hundreds of opportunities to listen to Thais speaking Thai. The trick is to see this opportunity as a free learning Thai resource rather than background noise.

The added bonus is that some Thais believe we can’t understand them, so they don’t alter how they speak. Or at least, Thais don’t seem to be that dialed into changing registers of spoken Thai when I get near ‘em. This is almost directly opposite compared to Thai teens getting within earshot of older Thais. The teens immediately alter how they speak, just in case they are overheard by the older generation.

Oh. One other thing I don’t do is play the “I can speak and understand Thai card” too soon. I rarely bust out with Thai when I meet Thais for the first time. Instead, l speak English in a slow, clear manner. It lets me gauge their English comprehension and I get hear what they say to each other first.

Now, if they get over the top in their observations – Thais can make some of the most blunt, downright hurtful observations about people – you can always throw in a snarky “เฮ้ย พูดยังนี้ทำไม บักสีดานี้ มันเข้าใจไทยได้ ” (hey, why are you speaking like this? This guava understands Thai!) That reins them in (while using the Isaan word for guava too). That phrase is a real ice breaker and conversation starter as well. Okay, maybe not for you, but it works for me…

The other thing passive listening does is get your ears dialed into hearing the subtle intonation differences in real spoken Thai (as opposed to that over toned sugar-coated stuff they speak in language schools). It gets you familiar with the cadence and rhythm of spoken Thai.

To me Thai doesn’t have a musical quality but it does have a distinct cadence when it’s spoken. So when you do start speaking Thai, try to dial back the over toned version you were taught in class. And to sound more Thai, leave out the ผม’s ดิฉัน’s and ชั้น‘s when speaking in the first person. Put your eavedropping to good use. Focus on getting the cadence of what you’re saying to sound just like Thais do in the real world. And don’t forget to use what I call “pause and think words”: ก็, แล้วก็, ว่า and แบบ <- if you're a teenager (seeing as that's the Thai version of "like" when they speak; it's like = มันแบบ, lol). It's not nearly as hard being understood by Thais as it’s made it out to be. It just takes time, patience, and the willingness to practice, develop, and then hone your Thai language skills. Please note that I’m not trying to tell people how to learn or speak Thai. I’ll leave that for the those more learned. I’m only sharing what works for me. As I always say, I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed. But, if I can get Thais to listen to my American accented, poorly pronounced Thai, anyone who really tries can do it too. Good luck in your learning Thai endeavors. Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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Tod’s specialty is reviewing Thai language schools in Bangkok. And in his years studying Thai he’s also collected a few language learning tips to share with you.

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16 Comments

  1. Great article, as always! Sounds a lot like the ALG approach :)

  2. It does sounds like ALG. In AUA you can re-sit classes, right? But you can’t do that on the street. Recording conversations would be the thing to do, but, isn’t recording without permission illegal in Thailand? Hmmm… Catch me if you can?

  3. And if you can bring yourself to watch, and get involved with, a Thai TV soap or two, you’ll get to hear some (nearly) natural language spoken at full speed.

    Not everyone’s cup of tea, of course…..

    (Fan sites post episodes online, as well)

  4. Rick, what Thai soaps you are ok with? Do any stand out for you?

  5. I totally agree with Rick Bradford; Thai soap operas are a good source of improving your listening skills in Thai spoken “at speed” once you have a fairly solid baseline vocabulary.

    While this is slightly off topic; recently I’ve started really concentrating heavily on my reading skills. I do what I call “predictive reading”. Every month I buy Maxim, FHM, Stuff Magazine, Science Illustrated even Penthouse (although the articles in it are only marginally interesting ;P). Most of articles especially in Stuff and Science Illustrated have pictures, charts, diagrams so you know the topic being talked about. This increases a reader’s comprehension far above what I call “cold reading”; which is reading a block of Thai text with no idea what it might contain.

    Thai soaps can be used in the same fashion due to the almost comic over-acting, the endlessly repeating story lines and especially the “mood music” sound track. By that I mean; happy light background music for the “good family/good girl/boy” and menacing Jaws/Alien sounding background music for the “bad family/bad girl/boy, the ever present criminal element or the occasional ghost.

    Oh, one last off topic thing; I started buying a magazine called “I Get English” about 6 months ago. For the 30 baht it costs it’s worth its weight in gold for someone learning to read Thai. It has regular columns by Andrew Biggs, Christopher Wright, Kru Kate, and others. Obviously it’s geared towards Thais to improve their English skills; however the topics can easily be used by foreigners to improve both their reading ability in Thai and to see how the Thai constructs used in the examples differ from English. It’s a great little resource to buy.

    Good Luck all…

  6. If the author comments on an article, is it really “off topic?” :-)

    I Get English looks interesting, and to give good practice reading other fonts besides the “schoolbook” ones. And it’s online too.

  7. I believe Hugh mentioned “I Get English” in one of his posts. Being online makes it a double handy resource… off I go to find it!

  8. I thought as much. Here’s Hugh’s post recommending “I Get English”: Thai Language Thai Culture: Rosetta Stone Methodology

    I also found it on FB and YouTube (but they don’t have anything in their channel yet)…

    Facebook: iGetEnglish
    Web: I Get English

  9. A drama called “ยอดรักนักสู้” that has just finished was one of the best I have seen. The locations were stunning (Phang Nga), and the lead actress (who rejoices in the name of Doughnut) is quite an accomplished performer (being a director, as well).

    Even the storyline is a cut above — Doughnut is the serious girl from Bangkok with a hatful of degrees and certificates who comes to the seaside to do marine research and tell the villagers how to live in a more sustainable way.

    There’s less of the tiresome shoutiness which is a staple of most Thai dramas, and Doughnut is well worth watching.

    There is a repository of episodes here http://drama.tlcthai.com/category/%E0%B8%8A%E0%B9%88%E0%B8%AD%E0%B8%87-3/%E0%B8%A2%E0%B8%AD%E0%B8%94%E0%B8%A3%E0%B8%B1%E0%B8%81%E0%B8%99%E0%B8%B1%E0%B8%81%E0%B8%AA%E0%B8%B9%E0%B9%89 — there may be better ones elsewhere.

    And Channel 3’s current 6.30 offering, แม่เปียดื้อ is just about watchable.

  10. Thanks Rick! I need to get back to watching Thai. I have loads of movies to get through (keep buying more) but I prefer to mix it up.

  11. Hi Todd,

    Some more very good observations and suggestions. Although I have always used your ‘listen” approach I do have a difference of opinion on one thing though. You have mentioned often that you like to sit by some young people and listen to their banter and pick up lots of useful words and phrases – the more modern and informal kind. That is a great idea. Only, I have a different target when I listen.

    I am 66 years old and just because of that I get lots of respect here. Also, I am an Ajarn, a former university teacher, and because of that I get even more respect. I kind of like that. People wai me first, they pour my drinks, and they stop and listen when I voice an opinion. That is the way Thai society works, and I go with the flow. When in Rome …

    So my target for listening are people my age, other Ajarns, and people who have reached a certain status. And Thailand, if nothing, is a very staus conscious country. If I were to talk like a teeager I would be trowing away a status that took years and a lot of hard work to achieve (Think it’s easy to live 66 years?).

    But whatever works for you is good by definition.

    Good luck with your studies.

  12. Interesting observations Hugh.

    While I listen to younger Thais talking I rarely emulate the way they speak Thai, but I do want to see how they’re changing the language and know what’s being said. I used the current morphed version of จังเลย which is จุงเบย the other day and had an older Thai almost fall out of their chair laughing..

    I also tried the version of “thank you”, where you say the Thai pronunciation; “tank-u” and throw on the Isaan particle หลาย at the end. Again, not quite the age appropriate slang even though that’s quite old for slang.

    I have tried to “data mine” my Thai friends who are close to my age for slang they used as kids, which would be totally ไม่อินเทรนด์ nowadays but more appropriate to a nearly 54 y/o guy.. So far I’ve met only marginal success..

    Obviously we “run in different circles” and I can appreciate that. However, I ain’t here to impress anyone, nor do I care one iota if they respect me or not. I find all that “fake” respect which these people are masters at slathering on, tiresome to the n-th degree.

    I think it’s why I try to alienate everyone no matter their race when I first meet them. I can “be me” and don’t hafta worry about offending anyone, because they don’t particularly like me to begin with. It just saves me a lot of time…

    Still always welcome your input. Compared to the time you’ve been here, I’m still a pup, you’re the old dog. <- No disrespect was intended or implied with that analogy.

  13. I just hear the slang term “tank-u หลาย” /lǎai/ “Thank you very much” in Issan (หลาย /lǎai/ means “many” or “numerous”), and really like it. Can’t wait to meet up with a friend from Issan and try it out.

  14. เเต๊งกิ้วหลาย goes over great with my Isaan friends and even better if I throw in the particle เด้อ at the end!

  15. A great place to data mine for Thai teen slang is from VRZO on YouTube. Here’s an example: http://youtu.be/gYjLYxHx1eE – go about 10:45 in. The hosts do rapid-fire questioning to teenagers shopping at the mall. Every answer is subtitled in Thai. Whether or not you want to ever use teen slang (I do occasionally as a joke) get ready for some rapid-fire reading practice! There at least 50 of these episodes online.

  16. Wow, VRZO is cool! It’s really fast, but very entertaining! Thanks for the link! :)

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