Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Brett Whiteside
Location: All over the place (Uluru when I started writing this and Queenstown, NZ when I finished it.)
Profession: Self Employed
Website: Learn Thai from a White Guy
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
As with any language, the manner in which you speak to a person depends on the situation and who you are talking to. I don’t completely identify with a particular dialect, but I’d guess a spectrum of central with Northern tendencies. I can pretend to know what I’m doing in other dialects and similar languages because I know about the sound changes, but I have never spent a significant amount of time in any of the regions other than Chiang Mai so my knowledge is limited.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I found myself in Thailand quite randomly and figured if I was going to hang out there for a minute, I’d like to be able to talk to other humans on occasion.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I arrived in Thailand in early 2003 and lived in Chiang Mai for about 13 years. It’s still a base for me now, but I’m a lot more nomadic these days and don’t usually stay anywhere very long.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I started with a Living Language CD, which was awful and a Lonely Planet phrasebook which I bought the same day I got on the plane in March, 2003. I think I managed to learn the numbers, how much and a few greetings before I landed. Naturally, I said them all very wrong.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
When I started learning Thai, I didn’t know what I was doing. However, I found that double-fisting Chang beers and talking to girls at the night bazaar every night went a long way for making progress in the language and seemed like a great idea at the time. So, in the beginning, it was all restaurants and bars. I’m vegan so a lot of the early days my language learning focussed on figuring out how to stop people from putting fishy things into my food and then later, convincing them it could still taste good without them.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
I didn’t really know how to study at that point in my life. I just went out and tried to talk to people every day. I carried around a notepad and I’d review that when riding in song taews and lifts or when I was eating. I believe that played a huge part in me actually making progress. I probably went through a notepad every two or three months and before I’d start on a new one, I’d skim through and find I’d usually retained about half of what I wrote in there.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
I never really tried any actual systems. I just kept trying to talk to people and gradually sounded less and less ridiculous over a long period of time. I briefly tried the “learn from your girlfriend©” method and found that it wasn’t very effective. I did a very brief stint at AUA in Chiang Mai. The “advanced” course was under way when I got there so I paid full price to sit in on the class for maybe a week and a half. It was pretty ridiculous so I swore off schools after that. Towards the end of the first year, a friend and I scouted out some of the schools in town hoping that we could find one willing to teach us “advanced Thai,” but that never panned out. I used Benjawan’s Advanced Thai book a bit in the early days since that’s all there was at the time. I liked the short newspaper articles.
Did one method stand out over all others?
I attribute my modest success in being able to speak a bit of Thai to the magical notepads and me actively using them over a long period of time. One other thing that made a huge difference was that during the first year, I didn’t really hang out with any foreigners. I would just roam around solo, get lost and find myself in pretty crazy (and sometimes scary) situations and I just kept on learning a bit at a time. I’d be among a group of Thai people and I’d try really hard to keep up until I was exhausted then zone out. It felt very much like exercise except for the sitting and drink whiskey part.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
I tried right away, but I was just using the LP phrase book at that time and it wasn’t great for learning the alphabet. I definitely didn’t understand the vowel shapes and I ignored all the crazy letters for a while. As soon as I knew a few letters, I was constantly trying to figure out what all the signs around me were saying. I would just skip over anything I didn’t recognize. And, yes, the sign fonts were a pain in the ass at first, but you get used to it.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
At first, definitely, but that was really because I wasn’t sure how to go about learning it. It was all crazy squiggles and I had no idea about the tone rules or how the vowels worked. My phrase book didn’t mention any of that stuff and I didn’t yet understand how crippling romanization was. I know now that it isn’t that hard and the problem was that the average native speaker has no idea how to explain what’s happening and how it all comes together. This is how I ended up developing the system that I use for my online courses.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
The day I had finally internalized all the tone rules and could produce them at will. I actually remember the day when I realized I had it all down. Suddenly, I no longer mixed up similar sounding vowels, I could write down new words I heard phonetically even if I wasn’t sure how they were spelled. I could now start self-correcting all the words I had been saying wrong up until that point. I was pretty horrified to discover how badly I was butchering everything those first 9 months or so, but once you accept that you are pronouncing everything wrong, you can begin to fix it. It all fell into place pretty quickly.
How do you learn languages?
I spend a fair bit of time on the sound system in the beginning and then I jump in to learning full phrases immediately after and then just start talking to people. I usually skip a lot of basic vocabulary that people tend to study so it’s not uncommon for me to be having pretty limited conversations with people before I know how to say all the numbers or basic words like “sister.”
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I’ve gotten quite good at using mnemonics and other memory techniques that allow you to quickly retain things. Years of teaching Thai has given me the magical ability to quickly teach even the most thick-headed, frustrated “I’m not good at languages and I’m tone deaf” farang to actually learn the sounds and be able to speak Thai. This requires much patience, and beer.
I’m really bad at sticking to study routines and I have problems focusing on things for any length of time, but I find that very short bursts of study a few times a day can work fairly well. I’d also say my memory isn’t that great and I either need to be exposed to things many times or actively use mnemonics for them to stick.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That you can just “speak Thai” without learning to read the script.
Basic literacy is such a huge part of learning any language, but it’s particularly important with Thai. It’s extremely difficult to master all the different vowel sounds without some hook to help you separate all the new sounds.
You don’t have to read War and Peace in Russian if you don’t care about literature, but there’s no excuse for not being able to read the sign for the bathroom or know how to properly pronounce the name of the city you live in correctly. It’s not Pat-tai-ya people.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I’m conversational or better in four languages aside from English and I have some limited ability with a bunch more. Thai was the first language that I made real progress with.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
Yes, I spent a few years taking classes in Japanese, Chinese and Korean. I went a bit language-crazy in the mid-2000s. It’s also worth noting that for all those years of lessons, Thai which I definitely did not learn in a school is the one I became most comfortable with. This really made me rethink the entire process.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Learn the script and master the tone rules. It doesn’t take that long and it’ll save you from heaps of frustration later.
The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: 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.