Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Rick Bradford
Age range: 40-50
What is your Thai level?
Very unbalanced. At some aspects, especially to do with reading and translating, perhaps Advanced; at others, such as round-table conversations, probably still Basic++.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Professional. The further things get from formal Thai, the worse I perform. I can pretty much understand a TV address by Abhisit, but not that of a cassava farmer complaining about the drought.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I simply cannot imagine living in a place where I could not speak the language. I wouldn’t be able to stand the isolation from the culture and lives of the people.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
Yes. The very beginning of 2009, so 2.5 years ago — a quarter of a decade already.
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 began to check learning resources immediately and started to use those which appealed to me.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Yes. It is a very rare day that I don’t do some formal study. Depending on how busy I am, my daily study could be anywhere from a minimum of 20 minutes up to 2 hours.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
My core daily practice is my flashcard (Supermemo) learning, now up to 4500 elements of which I am tasked to remember about 100 each day. I went to a school and quickly realised that was the time of the week when I learnt the least Thai. I began reading the newspapers, watched the TV news, listened to the radio 100.5FM and to other audio-visual resources in the MOAFTR.
Did one method stand out over all others?
No. I think it is a mistake to stick to a single method. Apart from the boredom factor, I find myself learning different things through different methods. There’s some cross-fertilization at play if you employ multiple learning strategies.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Immediately. I am primarily a visual learner and so mastering the script was imperative.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Yes. But it had to be done. And the hard work I put in has paid off — I can read newspapers, magazines and books at close to full speed and understand most of what I read.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
I can’t remember — I get lots of little ‘ah hah’ moments when I realise that I have solved something that was baffling me.
How do you learn languages?
By natural curiosity — I want to know what is going on in the society I am living in, so I read newspapers, watch the TV, and observe and listen to the people. By the same token, I cannot learn a language unless I am in-country, as the motivation isn’t there.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I am a systematic student that is able to take bits of information and create patterns of knowledge which stay with me. On the downside, I am not particularly confident about taking my spoken Thai out on the road — I tend to use it only when I need to.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
One common misconception is that Thai is too hard to learn. Another one, I think, among people who have begun to speak, is that mastering the tones is not of crucial importance.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
French, Greek, Swedish, Vietnamese. The Vietnamese experience was the most valuable for learning Thai as it introduced me to a tonal language, plus the pronunciation, tones and grammar are very similar. In speaking Thai, I only need to pay extra attention to vowel length and the words I speak are understood.
Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?
Yes, very much so. I have built several tools specifically to help my Thai learning (a multiple-choice Thai vocabulary trainer, a keyboard emulator, and so on).
Do you have a passion for music?
No. I like luuk thung, and various bits of weird music from around the world (for some reason, Armenian dance music makes a great background for my flashcard program sessions). But it’s not a passion.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
First, motivation is everything when it comes to learning Thai (learning anything, in fact). Keep your motivation alive. Motivation can often be stimulated when you can see visible progress.
Second, to be flexible and aware in all aspects of your study. For example, there is a lot of research which shows that we learn best if we study at a level just above our level of competence; not too easy and not too hard. So a complete novice would get nothing out of watching a ‘lakorn’ on TV, or reading the Thai translation of ‘Gorky Park’. Start with a Doraemon comic and the AUA videos.
But this also means we need to constantly adjust our studies as we improve; we need to keep challenging our level of competence.
Third, an incredibly powerful method of learning is to force yourself to *think* in Thai. It’s a bit like the visualisation process that elite sportsmen are trained to use. The brain cannot readily tell the difference between an imagined conversation and a real one, so that the Thai you are mouthing to yourself is more likely to be on tap when you are required to produce it. And, even if it feels a little weird, it’s less embarrassing than making a hash of a real conversation.
Fourth, have a variety of learning methods and recycle them. That is, you may have watched ‘lakorn’ shows and given up on them because they were too hard. After six months or so, try again, and you may be surprised to find how you have improved. There is a visible pointer to your progress. Same with someone whose conversation you used to struggle to understand, or a newspaper you had trouble with.
Fifth (although this is a very personal view): Don’t ‘passive listen’. You may think you’re passively absorbing Thai when you have the TV on in the background as you check your e-mail, but in my case, this kind of passive listening simply taught me to switch off and ignore spoken Thai as a meaningless background noise — exactly the opposite of what I needed.
If I listen now, I make an active effort to understand what is going on. Even better, at my current level, is to download an MP3 from VOA Thai News, stick the cans on and listen to it a few times, writing down what I think I have heard. (VOA has transcripts as well, so I can check how well I am doing).
Successful Thai Language Learner
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.