Are you stuck in a Thai language rote rut? Try eavesdropping…
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