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Successful Thai Language Learner: Michel Boismard

Successful Thai Language Learner: Bettina Friedrich

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Michel Boismard
Nationality: French
Age range: 67
Sex: Male
Location: Thailand

What is your Thai level?

My Thai level is advanced. I learnt some rudiments on my 2nd visit in 1983 (1st in 1979) but really took off in 1987 where I was lucky to stay in a Thai artist’s busy locale in BKK and made a point to study everyday starting with the script for about 6 months, which led me to what I can call an intermediate level.

By that time, I had studied Hindi with its Devanagari script and was fascinated with the similarity due to, I discovered, the common indic origin of both. Plus, I was struck by the fact that there is a strict match for each letter of those alphabets, as indeed is the case for all indic scripts (from India to Indonesia, Burma and Cambodia), being lined up along the Sanskrit order. So it became for me an increasing thrilling game to decipher Sanskrit or Hindi words from the Thai writing, replacing Thai characters with Nagari ones, obtaining the original pronunciation and meaning, sometimes well hidden by the specificity of Thai phonetics and semantics. Who would guess that the Thai word khaorop came from gaurav, phitsanulok from vishnu loka, udomkan from utama karan, sawasdee from swasti and so forth?

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

My register varies between classical (standard, Rachasaap with some Pali and Khmer notions) and colloquial, but almost no slang… yet!

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

Well, I have a tendency to want to learn at least a modicum of the tongue of countries I feel good in and expect to come back to. Plus the beauty of the script itself. But the esthetics and poetry of Thai only grew up on me gradually.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

I move about from India to Indonesia, but Siam is my base. I have no fixed profession but my activities gravitate around languages and cultures of my comfort zone. But, yes, I have been teaching languages.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I started with the now out-of-print Fundamentals of the Thai Language, some local school kid’s manuals and later the AUA method volumes. Then in 1992 I studied 4 Asian languages and civilisation in a Paris University for 2 years. 

For proper sounds and tones, I used the multitude of anonymous teachers of the talaat sot around the country! Of all my Asian languages, Thai is the one I put in the most effort and time as well as grew the most fond of.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Well, memorization of letters was greatly helped by my knowledge of Devanagari. The principle and even some shapes being similar. But yes,those tone rules can really drive you mad at the beginning, being so complex and illogical. Once you get over them though, you’re not likely to meet any major difficulty with grammar. And of course you have to learn to separate words from sentences! I was astonished to find out that there are only very few possible double readings. You’d expect many more.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

No “ah ah!”I can recall,but rather a”oh oh!”. After 3 assiduous months of study, I hail a samlor and tell him I want to go to Sathon. The guy just can’t get it! No use getting mad, when that happens, you’re wrong somewhere! Likely: tone, vowel length or aspirated consonant. When at last you’re being systematically understood, expect your mind to have become incredibly sharp, a bonus for all its uses in life!

How do you learn languages?

I guess you kind of develop a system as the number of your acquired tongues grow. A musical ear definitively helps, but that can be developed. Same for memory. Then the affective factor is essential. It’s the drive without which learning is merely dull and slow memorizing. The response from locals is a major factor so positive attitude and affinity is determinant.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That it is very difficult and a block against learning the script. While getting the basics in Thai is a particularly steep climb form the onset, grammar is definitely easy, you have to fine-tune your ear to new phonetics. For that a good teacher is essential to prevent you from growing bad habits that are harder to change later. A foreigner who has been through that learning process is abler the a Thai to point to the difficulties from a westerner’s approach.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

Yes, I probably am a language freak. At times too deep into them. (I find myself taking myself too seriously!) I am and have been busy for decades with: Hindi, Thai, Indonesian, Nepali and recently Khmer, although that one on the back burner. Then for Europe: French, English, Italian and Spanish.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Do start with learning the script! The pay-off is well worth the effort, which can be fun anyway. You’ll get: an added mean for proper pronunciation: your eyes! (the writing gives you vowel lengths and tones). Plus, golly! the whole country becomes your own private reference manual and dictionary! You’ll dig deeper into both language and culture everyday. Finally, after the initial effort, you will progress a lot faster and accurately in your science, until you’ll realize the incredible limitations of the non-writers.

Invent your own “memotechnics”! One of mine: nuat means either massage or mustache. Well, a massage makes one happy: high tone. A mustache usually droops: low tone. Have fun!

A good idea is to try to memorize whole sentences with the music. Do make sure the melody is accurate, then repeat audibly until they are imprinted in your brain. Picking one word out of the “song” will result in its precise tonal and phonetic rendering with easier recalling than just trying to fix it by itself in your brain. Start with everyday common use items or from your pet topics. Naturally, we tend to remember words in situation much more than just out of a manual’s list: “That person told me that one day” works wonders!

I fail to comprehend just how university language students manage to memorize dozens of new words at one sitting without the living experience. Some have even never been in the country of their language course! Hats off to them, but theirs is not the way I or, I suspect, most people naturally function. Enjoy!

Michel Boismard

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.

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.


  1. Jørgen Nilsen

    June 29, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    Seems like you share many of the same interests as me. I have a basic level of Indonesian in addition to Thai. Also interested in other related languages like Khmer and Lao, although I never have the time to study all of them. I bought the massive Sanskrit – English dictionary from Monier-Williams in order to be able to find the origin of all the Sanskrit words in the Thai language. Although I cannot make out more than a few of the devanagari letters, I can usually find the word Im looking for. Looking at words and tracing them back is like looking at the genome and history of the language. And the interest just feeds on itself. Maybe a bit nerdy, but very fascinating :) And the scripts are beautiful.

  2. Michel Boismard

    July 1, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    The kick is in the discovery.The”eureka”moments!You agree?
    Soon I’ll write a short text on how to spot Indic vocabulary
    in Thai.But it seems that you have already gotten the keys…
    Some words are not obvious at all:take the honorific “khun”
    (sorry I could not teach my laptop to write Thai yet!).That
    word is the Sanskrit/Hindi “guna”meaning:quality.You notice the rare
    nasal “no samanera”at the end:it correspond to the nasal of the
    retroflex serie of fives of Sskt.It is produced by linking the tip
    of the tongue to the back of the palate,a very light “n” indeed.
    Then,briefly: “chôk”is”jog”also written”yog”:the link.(English”yoke”from Indo-European)(“yoga”is the
    same word,although in Thai that discipline is “yôkha”).
    + lots more…
    After the “revelations”,the story of meanings is as intereting:you
    often have a”semantic shift”when a word migrates from a cultural
    context to another.
    Since you have mastered the Thai script,Devanagari will be a kid’s
    play for you,Just jump into it!

  3. Jørgen Nilsen

    July 4, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Yeah some of them are not too difficult to spot. But not all of them. And a guide to the way in which to find them would be great. Do you have the thesis “Indic Loanwords in Spoken Thai” by William J. Gedney from 1947? I have not been able to track it down, but it would help a lot in finding/looking at most of the indic words. Btw: regarding guna, is it the same root as in the indonesian word guna, as in for example menggunakan? You see the more you learn, the more questions seem to pop up ;)

  4. Michel Boismard

    July 5, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    No,Jorgen,I have no knowledge of that book.
    But yes,”guna” in Bahasa Indonesia IS that sanskrit word.And you can see here that”semantic shift”I was refering to in action:”To use”is a long way from “quality”! (check out”triguna”from Ayurveda)As you know,the Thai for that word”quality”is:”gunaphaap”.The added bit being the Sanskrit “bhaw”which has a very broad sense in that language,but in Thai only means “the state of…”as in”santiphaap”,etc.(and in Khmer,the same word pronunced”pheap”).

  5. Michel Boismard

    July 5, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    If you read at least a bit of French,there is an old book edited by the Assumption College(New road,BKK): VICTOR LARQUE: ……? de grammaire Thaïe.
    It includes a whole chapter on Sskt words with a list of affixes and roots.

  6. Michel Boismard

    July 10, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Got it back! The title of that old but good volume in French is:
    NOTES DE GRAMMAIRE THAIE by VICTOR LARQUE,Assumption College Edition.
    Contains a whole listing of Sanskrit affixes.

  7. Jørgen Nilsen

    July 13, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Unfortunately I do not read french. But this list http://www.thai-language.com/ref/pali-sanskrit-affixes has a lot of the prefixes and suffixes in Thai from Pali and Sanskrit. How comprehensive is this compared to the one you have in your hands?

  8. Michel Boismard

    July 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    This is good.My book has some more though,and it does give the Devanagari equivalent with its pronunciation,which this article does
    not.Plus,this list contains lots of words used in Thai that are not really affixes.(nothing wrong there of course,although it makes it a mixed bag and incomplete as far as affixes go) BUT:
    I note in there: KHA (kha rakhang/mai et/sara’aa)meaning to kill dubious as Sanskrit:it has a tonal marker:Indic words never have any.Now would this “mai et”be exceptionally added there because of competing KHA s in Thai?
    Then,THÔR (sara’ô/tho thahan/ro reua)has no proven relation with “tele”.It comes from the sskt”dur”(far away)so that the Greek word “tele”would have to come from that one first…and by the phonetics,it is far from evident.
    Finally,you have notes such as”Sanskrit?”as if the author was not sure.All those entries have been well documented and are known to be either Sskt or Pali,some having both forms in Thai.
    I do not have access to my references at the moment,being on the move,but by end of August I will.Including my own annotations on the Thai-English Sethaputra dictionary for what I like to believe is an integral listing and transliteration of Sskt/Pali terms.I will be able to respond more accurately then.Again,Have fun,Jorgen!

  9. Michel Boismard

    July 17, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    PRACTICAL TIPS for catching the elusive “machha”in “mahasamut”…
    To start with,you may safely search ALL Thai words tailed with RO REUA and LO LING ! Happy harvest !

  10. Hi Michel,

    What are the ways to spot Sanskrit and Pali terms in Thai?



  11. Michel Boismard

    April 28, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    Sanskrit and Pali words are snugly camouflaged in Thai.What follows is what I found are telltale markers in the Thai script to uncover them.Not exactly straight forward as you will see,but that’s how it is…
    1/ Polysyllabic words are not “Thai Thai”.They may be Khmer but much more frequently Skt. or Pali. Note:A few Skt. terms are monosyllabic too.
    2/ Skt and Pali words in Thai sport no tonal markers.Just bare heads.
    3/ Written but unpronounced letters as well as double consonants at the tail of words indicate Skt.,whether they have a “karan”or not.(_Did you say “garun”?_Nope! “ko kai” never was a” go guy” !).Ex. ทร ณย์ ชน์ ตร พท์ งค์ กษ ษณ์
    4/ There are no compound type vowels in Skt. Vowels always constitute of short and long versions of: a,e,i,o,u.
    5/ All “Thai Thai”words with a final K sound always end with ก
    All … T … ด
    All … P … บ
    All … N … น
    Most other endings for those final sounds indicate a Skt.word.
    Note:Some Skt.terms also end with ก or น,but none with ด or บ.
    6/ Some Thai characters are specific for Skt.:ฎ ฏ ษ ฑ and ฬ for Pali only.
    Some others are mostly used in Skt.: ค ฆ ฉ ฐ ธ ภ พ ฤ ศ
    The special vowel รร (short “a”)is only used for similar words in Skt.and Pali.
    7/ Many Skt.affixes are easily recognizable:
    Prefixes: สุ ทุ พยา วิ อภิ อนุ อุป ประ etc.
    Suffixes: กร บาล คดี etc.
    Have fun !

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