Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Mirko Martin
Age range: 30-40
Profession: Artist, Photographer
What is your Thai level?
I’d say probably intermediate to advanced.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Something in-between, I suppose. No Isaan, though.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
In my first year here, I was not focused on the language at all. Obviously, one can get by without speaking Thai and the initial hurdle is very high. But I became more and more embarrassed when, even after more than a year, I was limited to just a few basic words. I’d understand the culture only superficially. And I wanted to transcend the role of the typical Farang, who, apart from his girlfriend(s), only hangs out in Western circles and has somewhat of a joking-only relationship to Thais. Luckily, I have two Austrian friends here, who are fluent in Thai and who encouraged me to study the language, too. As I found it too hard to do it all by myself from the outset, I started going to school.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I currently live here and have been here for over two years.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
For almost a year.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Ever since I started going to school, I stuck with it. What helped was that I had to pay the tuition fee for a year in advance. I wanted to get best results for my money.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
The schedule was determined by school hours and homework. Even though homework and self-study exceeded school hours, the school provided the necessary frame.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
To be honest, I don’t know much about different learning methods. At school, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on vocabulary, which is good, but there obviously can’t always be ample speaking time for every student, so I also focused on pronunciation at home. Other than that, usual things I guess – watching TV, reading texts from various sources, and of course speaking to Thais, which also includes questioning them about language related issues.
Did one method stand out over all others?
As pronunciation seems to be the most difficult thing for most Thai learners in terms of speaking, I focused on this a lot. At first, it felt kind of affected to push and pull the tones up and down, plus I needed (and still need) extra energy to constantly do it, to sort of have a second layer of awareness in the back of my mind while speaking. That’s probably why foreigners tend to speak the tones rather flat. So I do a lot of reading out loud at home. The tones started to feel more natural soon and now they are even kind of a fun aspect for me, too, even though I still get them wrong many times.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
I had playfully started reading and writing a bit before I started going to school, so actually before speaking – mostly, because I was intrigued by the meticulousness of the alphabetic characters and the spelling rules.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
No. It took me a while to be able to understand the tone rules, but after that, it became a lot easier. Obviously, Thai has some difficult words with irregular spelling, but overall, I don’t find basic reading and writing difficult. When it comes to academic writing and building complex grammatical structures, however, I find that very difficult.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
When I was about to take the official Thai language test for foreigners, I became sick with a fever. Instead of preparing, I wasn’t able to do anything but sleep in the two weeks or so leading up to the test. It was my first serious break from studying Thai since I had started out eight months before. What a bad timing, I thought. But to my surprise, during the test and since, I was suddenly able to speak out much more freely than before, not always having to deliberately construct the sentences word for word anymore. While I’m still far from being fluent and much depends on the topic of a conversation and my daily form, becoming aware of the fluidity threshold was surprising and exciting.
How do you learn languages?
I’m not an expert. Thai is the first language that I started learning after being out of the school system, so I’m learning it in a much more condensed and speedy way than English, for example.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
When working on something I am fascinated by, I can be quite obsessive. I’m a visual learner and have to see the words written out to be able to remember them, which is strength and weakness at the same time, I guess. What I enjoy most is speaking and reading, so I tend to neglect developing the other skills a bit. Especially listening to long, uninterrupted texts still gives me headaches.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
Maybe that reading actual Thai instead of relying on a transliteration system is overly difficult?
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I’m fluent in English and speak a bit of French. Mixing English and Thai is not a problem, but with French and Thai I get confused, so I try to stay away from French now. No disrespect meant though.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
No. I imagine that very difficult.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Be patient. It seems hard at first but will get easier after crossing some basic hurdles. Obviously, spending time with Thais is key, so to me, it only really makes sense to study Thai if one lives here. Try to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. Don’t get discouraged if your pronunciation creates amusement at first. Have the mindset of on ongoing student; try not to let your ego get in the way. Use the Thais’ readiness to express compliments, appreciation and advice as fuel to stay motivated.
The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: 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.