Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: John Boegehold
Location: Los Angeles, CA USA
Profession: Property management / songwriter-composer
Facebook: John Boegehold
What is your Thai level?
Not fluent. A combo of intermediate and advanced.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Probably somewhere in the middle of professional and street. I know a bit of Isaan, but not enough to throw in more than an occasional word or phrase.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I didn’t really have a specific reason when I started. Los Angeles has a very large Thai population. A few years ago, I discovered that Wat Thai Los Angeles was only a few miles from where I live and that there was great, cheap food available there in an open-air market setting on the weekends. A couple of my friends and I started going there occasionally to eat and hang out since it was a really great atmosphere.
One day I noticed a sign about Thai language classes being held there on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I had been toying with the idea of learning a second language at the time and figured that since I was already coming there regularly, I’d check it out.
I’d never been to Thailand and besides a Thai ex-girlfriend trying (unsuccessfully) to teach me a word or two a year earlier, I knew nothing about the language. I went to the class and was deeply confused pretty much immediately.
Maybe I have a bit of a masochistic streak, but the idea of starting from zero on a language so radically different from English really appealed to me. So, I took the plunge.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
No, but I started visiting a few years ago, two or three weeks a year.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
About 3-1/2 years.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
I definitely jumped right in! I was pretty much obsessed immediately.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Yes and no. I still go to both the Saturday and Sunday classes at Wat Thai every weekend which helps keep me disciplined. The first 90 minutes is mostly for beginners so I just put my ear buds in and study on my own by reading various books, Thai newspapers, watching Thai YouTube videos on my iPad, etc. until the intermediate / advanced class starts. Outside of that I don’t really have a set schedule because my workload varies so much from day to day. I do try to study every day, even if it’s only a few minutes.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
When I started, the classes at Wat Thai L.A. were the predominate method, although I tried a few others along the way. On my own I went through the Benjawan Poomsan Becker / Paiboon Publishing beginner, intermediate and advanced books as well as the Speak Like A Thai series. All very helpful. Their Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary for iPhone and iPad is great. I read a lot of other books I bought on Amazon, at a Thai bookstore in L.A. or when I visited Thailand. I’m always snooping around the internet and pick up little bits and pieces of a lot of different websites. I found the vocabulary and grammar lessons at ITS4Thai to be really useful.
One thing that’s been helpful for me is watching Thai TV and trying to follow along. I have a satellite service with a large number of Thai channels and usually have some program on a few hours a day, even if it’s only in the background. Right now, my favorite shows are กินอยู่คือ, which is a cooking show on Thai PBS and วันวานยังหวานอยู่, a talk/entertainment show on Channel 7. I try to watch Thai soap operas, but those can be tough to take.
Did one method stand out over all others?
Not really. They’re all pieces of the puzzle.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
From day one, right along with basic vocabulary.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
I learned the mechanics of reading and writing consonants, vowels, tone rules, where words begin and end, etc., for the most part in about 10-12 months. I really didn’t find it difficult, just very, very time-consuming and tedious. For me, it was all in the repetition. I know there are a lot of mnemonic devices and tricks for learning all of that, but it seemed easiest to just plough through it. The part of reading for me that’s a bit more difficult at this point is the vocabulary, especially in newspapers and books where you come across a lot of technical, political words and phrases, proper names, religious terms, etc. The difficulty for me in writing Thai isn’t physically writing or typing the characters, it’s forming a thought and writing it the way a Thai person would.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
That pronouncing “mai” with different tones and vowel lengths was actually several different words rather than the same word pronounced several different ways. That realization made a lot of things fall into place for me.
How do you learn languages?
I’m probably not a good person to ask. Thai is only the second language I’ve tried and I was too young to remember much about learning English!
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I think my biggest strength is reading. My pronunciation of consonants, vowels, words, tones, etc. is usually pretty good. I can follow conversations fairly well, but I still have trouble following rapid-fire dialogue in TV shows, newscasts, etc. Again, my biggest weakness is thinking in English while trying to construct a sentence in Thai. My conversation is definitely not up-to-speed with my reading. A lot of that has to do with not living in Thailand and not being able to practice speaking Thai in everyday situations. Same with vocabulary. Words I don’t use consistently I tend to forget. It seems in my case that quantity time would be more beneficial than quality time at this point.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That’s tough from my perspective because I had no conceptions at all when I started! I have noticed a fairly common one in other students has been thinking (or hoping, anyway) that tone is a secondary component in pronouncing a Thai word when in reality it’s as important as consonants and vowels in being understood clearly when speaking.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?
Do you have a passion for music?
Yes. I’m a songwriter and composer and have done it professionally on and off for 20 + years.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
A few things. I know it can seem tedious, but back off on trying to learn a lot of vocabulary at the start and focus on reading and writing. Once you have a grasp on the consonants, vowels, tone marks, etc. learning vocabulary becomes a lot easier and you have a much better shot of nailing the pronunciations.
Also, wean yourself off of using English transliterations as soon as possible. While they may seem helpful in the beginning, they quickly become a crutch and will ultimately slow you down. Once you learn how to read Thai, you’ll realize how inadequate English transliterations are in capturing the actual pronunciation of many Thai words. Don’t get me started on the supremely annoying (to American English speakers, anyway) of using “r” in transliterations like larb, Sathorn, gor-gai, etc…
I know there are some notable exceptions, but when you start to learn Thai as an adult, I don’t believe you can be fluent and speak clearly without knowing how to read the language.
The Series: 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.