Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Luke Bauer
Age range: 20-30 (26)
Location: Hamburg, Germany
Profession: Independent Translator/Interpreter (also currently studying an MA in Southeast Asian Studies)
Web: YouTube: lbb2r: Farang Kii Nok Teaches Thai | The Breakdown
What is your Thai level?
I’d say it is somewhere between advanced and fluent. I speak fluently about everyday topics as well as about such things such as philosophy, politics, history, language, and many more. However, as a translator, I know that my translations into Thai are never more than 90 per cent correct, and they almost always need a little bit of tweaking from a native before they can be officially submitted/published. The question of “when are you truly fluent” is a difficult and interesting one. Maybe in 5 years, with enough practice, I will reach a level of full fluency, but right now I am hesitant to label myself as fully fluent.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
I only speak KamMeuang (language of Laan Na)!! Haha, kidding, but…… Isaan is a dialect, while the other two seem to be registers of standard Thai or something closely approximating it, so this question seems a bit strangely worded to me :) To answer the question, I live with two central Thais and also have Thai colleagues in both the university and the translation industry. Depending on age, subject matter and situation, I speak either “street Thai” (informal Thai) or “professional Thai”. I have been to Isaan and can understand more than 80 per cent most of the time, and I am currently taking a course on Lao for speakers of Thai which is helping me branch out into many dialects (Lao also helps one understand the northern dialect(s) of KamMeuang). To be quite honest, I usually am sort of in the middle, as I often discuss linguistic or cultural issues with colleagues in an informal tone, but the subject matter often demands a somewhat elevated style.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I have a series of three videos on Youtube about “How I came to learn Thai” but as many viewers have complained, I really give no exact reasons for why I learned Thai. If you want the long version, you can check it out here: 1, 2 and 3.
While I often used my desire to better understand Buddhism as a justification for learning Thai, and while this may have been true to some extent, I think the main reason that I kept learning Thai was due to one main thing: the Thai language is so much fun to learn. The pronunciation, the idioms, the way things often “make sense” when a westerner formulates them but still don’t quite “work” in terms of the way Thais express things.
Of course, my many great experiences with Thai people have also been a great motivation for continuing my studies, but the thing that really gave me the drive to continue learning was the pleasure I derived from being able to both understand and produce both the sounds and written symbols necessary for communication in Thai.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I do not, I currently live in Hamburg where I am working on my second Masters (the first was in German Languages and Literatures), this time in Southeast Asian Studies with a focus on Thai Studies (living in Germany helps me keep my German alive) at the University of Hamburg. I have been to Thailand three times: the first time in 2008 (from May to September), the second in 2010 (February to end of April), and the third in late 2012 (the whole month of December). It is regrettable that I have been unable to spend more time in the Kingdom of Thailand, however I am planning to do a one-term study abroad in late 2014, which would put me in Thailand for another 4-5 months.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
I made a lot of progress in the first 5 months of learning Thai. I discovered Thai food and made Thai friends who helped me understand the writing system as well as how to engage in basic conversation. Then I went to Thailand in 2008 and applied all of the knowledge I had gathered up until then and gained much more. After returning to the States, I got more serious with my German studies for 2 years and Thai kind of fell by the wayside, but in 2010 I began working as a community interpreter for all three languages and had to bring my Thai up to speed with my German ASAP. So yes on both accounts I’d say right away and many-pronged.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Yes, fortunately I had a job at a dormitory checking students in and out of the building (girls aren’t allowed to be on guys’ floors and vice versa), and I pretty much did nothing but learn vocabulary and write out long sentences. I worked there for 15 months and this was crucial for me in learning the basics of both Thai and German.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
An onslaught of methods….try everything you can find, at least for a while to see if it works.
Started with Rosetta Stone Version 2 and learningthai.com (features free lessons from Manee Mana, you don’t learn the whole alphabet, but it’s a great start).
Used books from AUA to learn handwriting, as well as Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s Thai series (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, although it is more like A1, A2, B1 in terms of the European Language Framework). The series comes with audio and while it has some drawbacks, I found this series to be great in terms of how it organizes its lesson with a mixture of contextual and linguistics themes (so while you do learn all the words for food in one lesson, you also might learn about many words constructed by ความ (kwaam) and การ (gaan)), as this served as a good memory aid.
In addition, I took one week of classes at AUA on Rachadamri Road in BKK, but I ended up finding it more enjoyable to try and strike up a conversation with the vendor at a nearby food store (raan aahaan) or the motorcycle drivers outside my apartment.
Having a significant other that is Thai definitely doesn´t hurt. There. I said it.
Reading cartoons is also a really good way to learn because 1) the pictures provide context 2) sentences are not so long and 3) there tends to be a decent amount of repetition and predictability.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
It found it less difficult then than I do now. Learning to read Thai wasn´t that difficult for me, I had lots of time to write the letters over and over until I got them and had great help from friends, but of course remembering how to write lots of words influenced by Pali and Sanskrit was and is quite challenging, especially since I didn´t have any formal Thai education until now. I would forget how to write easy words all the time. Also, reading and writing Thai names is something that I have only been able to really get the hang of in the last 2 years, and I still definitely stumble across lots of names that I need a couple seconds to process.
Now that I am seeing more Thai names than ever before during my studies, and reading more Thai than ever before, I am realizing how incredibly slow I am when in comes to skimming texts in Thai. I can read aloud pretty comfortably, and if I am reading a story in a leisurely manner, then it´s not so noticeable. But when I am looking for information in an article or something, I feel like I am at least 3 times slower than in my native language and still twice as slow as in German. I have read articles by some Western scholars of Thailand who reference this except problem: some claim to still have trouble with this although they have been doing in for 40 years – but I sense a certain modesty there judging by their 100-source long list of Thai texts in their bibliography :)
Did one method stand out over all others?
Manee and Mana was fun, and so were comic books. Tin Tin has been translated into Thai, and I have a book Airy Fairy or something like that in both langauges (Thai on one page and English on the other). Airy Fairy blew my mind, haha. Seriously, if you are just now starting to grasp the Thai orthography, I can´t more strongly recommend that you try this approach. Putting the two languages side by side, even in a seemingly silly children´s book, proved very insightful for me.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
From day one. I think it makes sense since I was not in a hurry to communicate. I took three weeks and just learned words that arose with the teaching of the writing system, so like, you know, learning gaa, kaa, aa, maa, etc. I don´t think I knew stuff like “how old are you” until about 2 months in or so. The first month was almost exclusively writing and reading, but it is not like I didn´t spend plenty of time practicing saying gaa, kaa etc. Like I said, the pronunciation was pretty much my favorite thing about the process.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
I have already pointed to a lot of them I think, but I think one that I will never forget was when I learned the words dhukka and kasatriya from Schopenhauer! I know that sounds silly, but there I was reading a text from a colleague in the German department, and there are these words being used in italics, dhukka, kasatriya, and several others. When I realized that dhukka was suffering, i.e. tuk ทุกข์ in Thai, and kasatriya was the Thai word gasat (กษัตริย์), or one of the many words for ‘king’, I went back and looked at my vocabulary lists and figured out why Buddha gets spelled พุทธ in Thai. To tie that to another aha moment, I was learning some basic Cambodian and was seeing all these influences on Thai from Cambodian as well. This was perhaps more of a cultural aha moment, but it was so cool because it shows how the Cambodian influence is not only evident in palace rituals but also in the everyday Thai language as well.
How do you learn languages?
I gather everything I can find and continually try to corroborate what I find one place with what is available elsewhere. For me, languages are about believing to an extent. It is really hard to believe upon first hearing that Thais do not really have an accurate translation for please. The only way to understand this on a deeper level is to either see words like ขอ (kaw) and หน่อย (noi) used by a native speaker or to see it in multiple sources. So I try to never rely on one book, although of course I always tend to favor the ones that let me practice my accent the most, which is why Rosetta Stone was fun, as well as Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s books. Experimentation is great, taking enjoyment in my mistakes, things like that.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Weaknesses – names, writing academic texts (that are not translations but rather my own thoughts), Raachaasap, understanding everyone talking at one time when I am the only non-Thai (especially when it is gossip about someone I do not know, I cannot figure out whether the person is male or female…the worst is when someone whose name I have forgotten is explaining – wait, are they talking about themselves maybe?), pronoun use in general (I am so inconsistent sometimes with people I just meet, unless I know it is culturally correct to use Pom and there is no other one possible in that situation).
Sometimes I talk too fast, doesn’t matter what language. Okay, not sometimes, a lot of the time. That makes me mess up and have to fix myself, which is probably annoying for the listener sometimes if I do it too often. Just slow down, dude!
Strengths – I guess my accent and vocabulary.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
I don’t really know, I don’t know too many people learning Thai. I’d say probably that one shouldn’t get too caught up in issues of transliteration, as no one really has agreed exactly how this should be done.
Can you make your way around any other languages? Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
German – C1/C2
Mandarin – B1/B2
Vietnamese – about A2
Russian – A2
Czech – A1
Cambodian – A1
Spanish – hard to say where I am here, took this is high school, but now I have Spanish friends who I ask for help from but never speak Spanish with, and I have been watching TV with Spanish subtitles most of my life haha.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Find out what kind of learner you are. Make long-term and short-term goals. Figure out what you want to learn. What kind of material do you want to be able to read or talk about? Start with the things that interest you most, do your best to be an independent learner.
Learn the tones slowly and steadily. It is much more rewarding than trying to learn to say as much as you can in one week. Practice saying pom puut paasaa tai dai nit noi REALLY slow first, seeing how the tones change into one another. It is one thing to understand each tone, but it is another to understand the interrelationship between the tones. How do I get to mid from rising or from falling? I made up lots of little games for myself for back to back tones like mai chai wa mai chawp waai nam ……there are 6 falling tones back to back here, even today I have fun saying this slow at first, then faster, then even faster until it sounds as native as possible.
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.