Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Michel Boismard
Age range: 67
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!
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.