Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Scott Earle
Profession: General Manager of a local software development company with a very large US parent company.
Blog: Scott Earle
What is your Thai level?
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
More ‘street’ Thai, although I also tend to speak Thai almost exclusively in the office. Partially to try to speak more politely! I also speak some Isaan, but it’s pretty much the same as regular Thai with the tones shifted and a few basic words changed.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I came to live in Bangkok as part of my job, and felt that it would be rude not to at least try.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
Yes, I arrived in Bangkok at the beginning of January 2004.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I would not call myself a student so much – I am mostly self-taught. But I have had an interest since mid-2003, when I first met a group of Thai software developers.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Initially I was working in an office full of Thai people, and tried picking up a few phrases. It was a risky business, though! Some of the guys enjoyed mis-teaching me, with hilarious consequences …
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Not even close. I never really have, I am afraid to say.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
When I first came here, I used a website (no longer in existence, sadly) to learn the basic letters, and that allowed me to read some basic things like road signs and the provinces on car registration plates. After that, I started to read menus at restaurants – they have a limited vocabulary, and tend to have similar contents. I took a course of 40 hours at a Thai school in late 2005, initially learning to speak, but then switched teachers and learned the alphabet. After that, I started to chat with people online, which is a very good way of meeting Thai people willing to chat.
Did one method stand out over all others?
I think getting familiar with the letters and then learning the alphabet, is a very good way to start. However, casually chatting with people (online, and talking to people you meet everywhere) is the best way to build confidence in both writing and speaking.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Immediately – I could read/write basic phrases long before I could make myself understood by talking.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Not particularly. I imagine it’s several orders of magnitude easier than learning Chinese or Japanese, for example.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
When I was able to order something from a menu for the first time – and answer the questions asked as a result. It was about a year and a half after I first came here, so it really did take a long time!
How do you learn languages?
When I was 15 I lived in France, after learning French in school. I was almost fluent within 3 months. But when I first came to Thailand, it was almost a year and a half before I could make myself understood. Learning languages is *definitely* easier when you’re younger!
I started out by learning to read and ‘hear’ Thai. I listened as much as I could, read as much as I could. Read car number plate provinces, read road signs, read advertising boards, got used to the range of fonts used. Listened to Thai-language radio stations, even the ones that play ‘international’ music, for the inane chatter and ads. Just immersed myself.
Seriously, all that stuff is what I did until I got the hang of the basics and could distinguish what a tone was and how words sounded. Almost two years in, circumstances around me dictated that I needed to decide where I was going to live (UK or Thailand – I lost the contract I had had, and so would be living here without a job unless I could find one, or going ‘home’). That’s when I booked 40 hours at a Thai language school, and struggled with one teacher, then moved to another whose strength was in teaching to read/write.
I already had a bit of vocab by then (mostly food and provinces!), and so some of the words she was teaching me how they ‘worked’ already made sense, and I was just learning the mechanics of the alphabet. After that everything was quite a bit clearer, because I had never learned the ‘rules’ before.
I learned basic phrases, and learned the alphabet. Started putting the two together, and created a crib sheet to use while chatting with friends. Realised that the crib sheet could be the start of actually learning a few more phrases and expanded it, found out about online chat, and chatted with people using the crib sheet initially and then free text later. Eventually forced myself to type everything and not use the crib sheet at all.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Strengths: I can pronounce the tones pretty well, and can make myself understood pretty much anywhere.
Weaknesses: I am hopeless at ‘formal’ Thai – it’s like a whole nother language!
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
1. That the tones are not important (they really are!)
2. That you need not bother to learn to read and write. It makes a difficult job a lot easier!
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I can still speak a little French, and know a little German from School.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
No – I think my brain would have been fried. I did notice that my French started to drop off when I started to get more proficient in Thai.
Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?
I have been a programmer for 25 years.
Do you have a passion for music and/or do you play an instrument?
Not even close! I used to play guitar with my brothers 30 years ago, but have not touched one since.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Do not give up. I know it sounds silly (and obvious), but the more you can practise, the better. Most importantly, do not get put off when people don’t understand a single word you say – Thai is a strictly tonal language, and people who are not used to speaking with foreigners will not understand anything you say if you aren’t using the exact right tones and intonation at exactly the right time. It’s not your ‘fault’ that you speak using the wrong tone, because you are not used to speaking a language where it is relevant – and it’s not their ‘fault’ for not understanding you, because their brain is not tuned to listen to their language spoken with the wrong tones. Remember that people brought up speaking Central Thai will usually not understand a thing that someone in Isaan is saying (because the tones are all shifted).
So whatever you do, try and try again to speak. As much as you can. Most Thais are very keen to help you speak their language, because so few foreigners can, and so many give up before their brain has had a chance to adjust to speaking a tonal language. (Also, remember that English is also a slightly tonal language, kind of – the words PROject and proJECT have two entirely different meanings).
When you go to the local noodle shop, try ordering in Thai. Try speaking to people you meet in shops. Whenever you have the chance to speak to someone, do.
Also be aware that if you hold a conversation with someone and they say how well you speak Thai, it means they can understand you but it’s still pretty terrible! When nobody comments on it, that’s when you know you’re doing well. And no, I am not quite there yet!
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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