Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Ruedi Seiler
Profession: Scientist (Geography, Dendrochronology), Diving professional
YouTube channel: Ruedskins
What is your Thai level?
The very first question is already hard to answer, since in Thai, there does not seem to be any classification or degree like in English for instance.
I would consider myself fluent in Thai, that is true for oral as well as my writing skills. By fluent I mean that I am able to communicate and understand. It depends a lot on the subject of discussion as well.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
I do not actively use street or colloquial Thai when talking to people. Standard Bangkok Thai, as it is tought at schools is what I speak. When I talk to Thais they sometimes say that my Thai would be very correct much like it is in books. The reason for that, obvioulely is, that I learnt Thai mostly with books; but more on that later.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
Whenever I went for vacation as a child, I would always start to learn a little bit of the language. That was true for Greek, Spanish, the English and Tibetan. However, when I went to Thailand for the first time in my life I told myself that this time I will not do that. The reason being, I just wanted to enjoy my vacation.
Astonishingly, Thailand, it’s people, culture and it’s friendliness convinced me to start learning Thai. In that moment I realized that Thailand would play a major role in my life. People who live in a foreign country should be able to speak the language the locals speak, that is my opinion.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
At the time being I am located in Switzerland. Before I had lived in Thailand for a couple of years and at the end of March 2013 I returned to Switzerland. Until now, I cannot exactly tell you when I will move back to Thailand.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I first started learning Thai in 2009 when I took a Thai language course at the university of Zurich. That course took two semesters and gave me the basic knowledge that still prooves to be very useful now. In between I hade some phases when I did not really have that much time to keep learning Thai. I do, however, up until now write down words I don’t know and watch Thai-TV, read books and so on.
- 2009-2011: intensive learning at the University and during a language exchange in Thailand
- 2011-2013: sporadically learning on my own using audio, video, books…
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Fortunately, after having started to learn, my motivation to keep learning grew even further and within the first two year there was no way I could have lost focus about where I wanted to go with my Thai-learning whatsoever.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
The university course with which I started off, took place twice a week (2 hours each session) and then there was some homework to do. But there was no single day that I didn’t learn Thai. I guess in my last two years at the university I spent more time on learning Thai than on my actual subject I graduated in :-)
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
As already mentioned I started by taking the university course. In the course we used Everyday Thai for Beginners which I still regard as one of the best bookes for learning Thai, as well as Khian Thai. The first we utilized to learn the use of the language and the latter for learning to read and write.
After that I went to a Thai-school in Thailand where I spent two months doing an intensive language course (that was 5 hours a day + homework).
Then I learnt by myself using books etc. It was very difficult to find useful materials for advanced learners. Even now, I have difficulties keep on learning effectively.
Did one method stand out over all others?
The best way to start learning Thai is learning with a NON-native speaker; and then of course it is an absolute must to learn the writing system right away. It might be hard at the beginning but it is the solid foundation to learning Thai.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Maybe I was able to more or less read and write after about three to four months, but now and then I still encounter words that I don’t know and which I have a hard time reading. By the way, I am not a very fast lerner. The process of learning never comes to an end, but the basic skills can be learned very quickly.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Never have I looked at Thai as being a difficult language to learn. It took time, of course, but it was a lot of fun. Therefore I was motivated all the time and found it rather challenging than difficult.
I mean, honestly, every Thai can speak Thai so it cannot be difficult, right?
What was your first “aha” moment?
When I realized for the first time, how the combination of consonants and vowels in order to create syllables and words works. That was a very rewarding experience.
How do you learn languages?
Since I am grown up now, I prefer to grasp an understanding of the language structure first, rather than just learn like a child (listening and speaking), which is a very new trend in “language-learning” nowadays.
Then of course, I prefer to listen to native speaker dialogues and also learn as many words as possible. After I master the basics i enjoy “learning by doing”, which means to use the language as often as possible.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
For quite some time my strength was writing and typing Thai and my spoken Thai wasn’t at the same level. However, I feel like that has changed over the time when I was living in Thailand, since I spoke a lot more and did not write that often anymore.
The biggest weakness at the time is to keep my motivation to learn Thai.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
Wow, that is not easy to answer. I guess there is not a general misconception which is true for everybody. What I have observed often times is that people think it is too hard to learn Thai, just because the letters do not look familiar to us. Prejudice might be the biggest and also the first hurdle to take on a very rewarding adventure that is learning Thai.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
My mother tongue is Swiss german and of course I speak German too. Further, I speak English and Thai to a certain extent. At school I learnt French and Spanish, two languages that I still understand but have difficulties speaking. At high school level I also took Latin.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
No, I wasn’t but in a way I wish I were. I had the impression that whilst learning Thai my skills in Spanish and especially French, both languages I was able to speak pretty well, kind of got lost. The better my Thai got, the more I forgot about these other languages and I did not really care about that. I guess it had to do with me being so focused on Thai. Whenever I tried to speak another language Thai words kept popping up in my mind.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
There are five major considerations:
- Learn the Thai letters first.
You will not be successful if you do not learn how to read and write. When you build a house you do not start by building the roof first; you lay the foundation first. Thai alphabet is the foundation of your future Thai. Why would anyone waste time and effort on something that is not solid enough to last – trust me.
- Pay close attention towards aspiration and pronunciation.
The difference between aspirated and unaspirated consonants as well as the pronunciation decides not only if you can speak Thai or not, but it is also necessary to correctly understand. Since Thai is a tonal language incorrect pronunciation cannot be labled as “accent”, like in English for instance.
- Try to find a non native Thai speaker when starting to learn.
Learning with somebody who had to learn Thai himself in the same way you are learning it now. Such a teacher can provide much more detailed information, explanations and advise than a native speaker can. The biggest mistake in nowadays language teaching industry is hiring native speakers to teach beginners. That is my believe! How often do you see: “Wanted: English Teacher – Native speaker only” that is just stupid. Language learning (for beginners!!!) needs explanations that non-native speakers are able to provide in a much better way.
- Talk with and listen to native speakers often.
Once you are able to speak and understand a little bit, it is, of course, important to use the language as often as you can. I always talked to myself in Thai trying to utter whatever I could come up with.
- Read books – learn words.
Reading books will have you passively practice the letters, tones, tone-marks and pronunciation over and over again. It will also help you to grasp the structure of language and you get a better idea of how Thai is used. The best way is to read out loud. You could also record what you are reading and then listen to it afterwards trying to compare your language to the way Thais speak. Reading out loud is much more difficult because you need to actually speak the words including the tones and everything. When you catch yourself reading mistakes, do not just go on but repeat it.
Write down the words you do not understand. Does the same word appear several times you look it up, it might be important. In order to learn and memorize the noted words try to include them into sentences so you can memorize them more quickly.
Focused reading with looking up words frequently is very hard, so sometimes I enjoyed just reading out loud without paying attention towards the content – also a nice practice ;-)
YouTube channel: Ruedskins
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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