Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Luke Cassady-Dorion
Age range: 34 in May, which, by the Thai way of thinking, means that I start calling myself 34 now
Profession: Artist, Yoga teacher, Student, MC
Website: LUKE.org | Goldenland Polyglot | Ok, it’s really not that hard to grok | twitter: @lukecd
What is your Thai level?
Yeah, that’s always a hard question to answer. I’ve been studying this language for six years, I’m a few months away from finishing a Bachelors degree majoring in Thai at Ramkamhaeng University (Thai-standard curriculum), I co-host a Thai-language TV show …. but … I still run into words that I don’t know. I know a smattering of monastic language and enough Sanskrit that I can just barely understand the Royal report on the news. That said, there is absolutely no way that I could properly talk to people, were I suddenly transported to the palace.
So am I fluent? I guess it depends on the meaning of the word.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Hmmm, what streets are you referring to? I can talk to my professors using full polite forms, I know way more gay-slang than is really appropriate and I feel at-ease working with the rural population when filming my show. The challenging thing with Thai is that it has all these layers of politeness; each sentence has to be a carefully crafted using verbs, pronouns and particles. Sure it’s fine as a foreigner to just use general Thai, but being able to use Thai that is situationally-appropriate will do a lot to impress on your listener that you understand his language.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
Well, first off I love learning and I love learning languages. Of course, the fact that people told me that it was impossible for a foreigner to fully master this language was further reason to work hard and prove them wrong. More than that though, I feel that it shows a level of respect for the country. People who move to a new country have an obligation to learn the language and culture of their host country. I don’t think that anyone would have much sympathy for a Thai person who walked into a Boise, Idaho store and got mad because the store manager didn’t understand his Thai. Yet, the same people grow frustrated when Thais don’t understand their English, or when Thais get an order wrong because they are too embarrassed to express their inability to understand.
I don’t mean that we are obliged to adopt 100% of what it means to be Thai, just that we have to understand the language and culture if we are going to successfully co-exist.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
Ratchathewi, Bangkok … Been here since August of 2005.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
Technically since before I came … I came to this country having taught myself the alphabet using Thai For Beginners and speaking about ten words that my ex-boyfriend would say when he was mad at me:) I started to formally study the language soon after arriving, within the first seven days.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
Did one method stand out over all others?
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Ok, I’ll answer all these together. Soon after arriving in the Kingdom I looked around for a school that would teach me using the Thai alphabet. I saw (and still see) absolutely no reason to learn using a non-standard Romanization that few Thais understand. The Thai language is composed of building blocks (sounds) which are represented using consonants and vowels, these building blocks, once mastered, are easily combined to form words. Which are then easily combined to form sentences. We’re lucky here, there are no verb conjugations or noun declensions to deal with, but the sounds have to be mastered.
I finally found a school called บ้านภาษาไทย over near Plenchit which agreed to give me private lessons using the Thai script. They actually wanted me to start by spending three months using a romanization and getting going speaking (with Thai that few would probably understand), but I refused and they relented. I’ve got to say that บ้านภาษาไทย is a good school, but not a great one. They had a fair amount of experience with beginning students, but (like many schools) they didn’t have much experience teaching intermediate-level ones. I stayed with them for over a year, meeting with a private teacher for two hours per day, five times per week and followed that up with a healthy-dose of home study.
I made piles of flashcards, I did them alone and with friends; I immersed myself in Thailand. That first year, I really focused on making Thai friends, not socializing with foreigners or even with Thais who had a decent command of the English language. I remember many times sitting around a table eating Somtum, straining to make out even part of the conversation that my five or six friends were ratting off, but still telling them not to worry about me and just to keep on talking in Thai.
In retrospect, I was probably a bit over-board this first year. In addition to surrounding myself with the language, I also ate most of my meals on the street (something I occasionally still do, but my obsession with health food has caused me to realize is not the best idea), I gave up wine for Thai beer, I saw lots of bad Thai movies (and some good ones) and hung out in all sorts of dives. There was something fun about it all though, moving to a new country is an opportunity to try on new identities, almost like being a teenager all over again.
After studying for 18 months I took the P6 exam (passed with a middle-of-the-road grade) and then started studying at a school called ศุมา which I really liked. The school was started by the professor who had run the program at Chula that is famous for teaching Thai to foreigners, but that requires a bigger time commitment than I was able to give. At ศุมา they created a custom textbook for me that focused on words that have similar, but different meanings. They are words that if you looked in a Thai-English dictionary you would likely find the same English word, however the nuances of the meaning in Thai are quite different. As a comparison think of English words like tired, pooped, zonked, out-of-it, fatigued, enervated, suffering from the vapors, etc … sure, they all mean tired, but what else do they mean? As she taught me each of these words, the teacher would have me draft sentences, then she would have me read a paragraph that she wrote which used each word. She would record me reading the paragraph and then when we next met she would give a sheet identifying all of my pronunciation problems. This was hugely helpful as it helped me to realize that many of my problems were not with individual words, rather it had to do with the way that one tone ran into another one.
For the last four years, I have been studying at Ramkamhaeng University doing a Bachelors degree majoring in Thai. I’ve got to say that I’ve learned more about the Thai language and Thai culture at Ram than anywhere else. Ram is unique amongst Thai universities in that they will allow foreigners to study any major alongside Thai students for the low price of 25 Bhat per credit (my whole degree will probably run less than 10,000 Bhat). Being one of 20 (or so) foreign students (there’s me, an Australian, a Korean and lots of Laotian) amongst over 100,000 Thais is the best way to learn how this place ticks. Even just taking one or two courses a semester (and doing the homework) will bring your Thai to new levels. That said, you have to have a decent foundation before they will let you in. This is not a place to learn the basics of the language, there is a language-proficiency exam and interview that all foreigners have to pass, but if you can do that you’ll be fine. The government P6 exam is a good metric, if you can pass that at a grade 6 level, you should be able to struggle though a few semesters at Ram while you build your fluency. Ram’s huge student body means that students who study popular majors (like English or Law) will often study in giant education factories that hold 400 kids. But for people who take less popular subjects (like ancient Khmer stone inscriptions), you’ll often get the benefit of a class with two or three other people in it. This past term, I was the only student in Burmese 201.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
Hmmm, how about two? One was being able to sit at a table of eight or so friends and keep track of all the conversation threads (this took around nine months). The second was when people who used to not have patience to speak Thai with me, suddenly started to speak to me in Thai. It’s not hard to find someone to tell you that you speak beautiful Thai when you can only mangle twenty or so words, but these people are of little help. You need to find Thais who want to speak English, who can’t be bothered to figure out what you are saying with your bad accent and have no desire to be a teacher or a stroker of egos. These people will be your metric for success, once they feel more comfortable speaking to you in Thai then they do in English, you’ll know that you’re finally getting it.
How do you learn languages?
Good question. Ever since learning Thai, I’ve experimented with different techniques. Now, in addition to as much immersion as possible, I make use of electronic flashcard programs, online study tools, MP3s, and willing (and unwilling) native speakers. What I don’t do (and probably should) is watch TV. I’m sure that I would have much less of an accent and know more slang if I did watch TV; I just can’t seem to get into it. I do read a lot which helps with vocabulary and culture, but really should get around to getting the TV thing going.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I’ve become quite good at just sitting and spending hours working on something, I think a big part of that is the focus and concentration that I have developed through my yoga practice. At the same time this can often be a downside as I’ll get so lost in the way that I think is correct, that I’ll fail to see the shortcomings.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That it’s impossible for foreigners to learn, that tones are a hurdle which can’t be surmounted (anyone who has been to a Karaoke parlor knows that this country is full of tone-deaf Thais who can speak their own language just fine) and that the writing system is an obstacle.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
In order: English, Thai, Spanish, Japanese, Burmese, French, Lao plus I’ve taken courses in Sanskrit, Pali, Lanna and ancient Khmer stone inscriptions.
English and Thai are the only ones that I feel totally comfortable with. I used to speak Spanish and French very well, but forgot most of it. I did take two Spanish classes at Ram and was surprised at how quickly it all came back, but I don’t really practice. Japanese is my minor at Ram and I’m studying Burmese to fulfill my foreign-language requirement (most students study English).
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
Yeah, tons. Learning lots of languages together is (IMHO) a grand idea, as you can use their similarities to help built deeper pathways in your brain.
Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?
Not anymore. I spent 8 years writing Java software during the Internet revolution thing, then gave it up to pursue yoga and other passions. That said, I still love computers and playing around with them, I just don’t want a job where I spend 10 hours a day looking at a screen writing something for someone else.
Do you have a passion for music and/or do you play an instrument?
I tried a few times back when I was a lazy teenager and never made much progress (I wanted to skip over the practice part and just form a band), and since then haven’t gotten back to it. That said, I would love to find a way to finally spend some time learning an instrument; I just seem to get bogged down in 10 million other projects.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Study, study, study. Don’t give up, get as much exposure to the language as possible, learn to read, learn to write, talk to people, make friends, make enemies (if you can speak enough Thai to say something that pisses someone off, you’re doing great).
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.