Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Steve Saad
Age range: 30-40
Location: Right now: Bangkok, working in Singapore, soon to return to UK
Profession: Banking – COO department. I have just written a book on spoken Thai, which hopefully should be a little different to the other books out there. Total newbie to publishing and marketing so all advice appreciated.
What is your Thai level?
I am fluent in spoken Thai but this comes with some disclaimers and qualifiers. I read Herb Purnell’s interview on here and he got it right – fluency is about the appropriate word choice, style, the feeling of the listener etc.
Personally, I think there are only three main levels – Basic, Intermediate (which includes Advanced) and Fluent. Secondly, I think the step up between each level is progressively bigger. Thirdly and maybe most importantly, I think there is a fourth level, which is again progressively much higher than the step up from Intermediate to Fluent and that is Native proficiency. I class this as those people who can be Thai interpreters, who can read the news or make a formal speech or simply sound Thai and speak Thai in the way that Thai people do. I do not think anybody (apart from the very, very, very small minority of foreigners) ever reaches this level or will ever reach this level…or should expect to. Certain ways of expression are learnt through culture and upbringing etc. and a foreigner should not even expect to speak 100% like a native speaker. So fluency and trying to go ever further beyond fluency to native proficiency, is the aim.
To return to the question, I am fluent and perhaps slightly beyond (using my own proficiency level definition above) in terms of spoken Thai but still not close to a native speaker. I sound Thai and my pronunciation is very good…BUT and this is a big but…I could not present the news on TV, or even come close, or understand a lot of the formal words / military and police ranks etc. in the news and I cannot hold formal meetings on banking in Thai. However I can discuss my childhood in detail with a friend, I can understand a taxi driver when he talks about the economic and social state of Thailand and the need to develop infrastructure outside of Bangkok and fully participate in the conversation, I can go through my career history in detail with a recruitment agent and I have been mistaken for a native (southern) Thai (partly because I am ethnically from Bangladesh) many times because my spoken Thai is very good. Then again, every now and then I mispronounce or lazy-pronounce or fail to understand a simple word and it is certainly true that you get used to the Thai of people you know well and hear often so confidence and exposure to a wide variety of situations and people helps. Just trying to qualify what I can and cannot do to put my Thai into context as fluency is a difficult question to answer properly.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Bangkok Thai. I do not speak street Thai if that means slang or ‘rough’ Thai, I speak Thai in a similar way to a typical professional in banking or other ‘middle class’ people but can adjust my style to suit the audience e.g. taxi driver versus my friend versus a senior Thai colleague in my Singapore investment bank office.
I know a few words in Isaan, which always gets a giggle. I know some slang but not much and quite a few swear words (but obviously never use them!…apart from when, in the privacy of my own home, if there is a conversation about IKEA, I deliberately replace the “K” with an “H” and shout it out and amuse myself…and she rolls her eyes and fails to see what is so funny :) )
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
A business trip for a week and, similarly to many people, becoming totally enchanted and intoxicated with all things Thai.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I worked in Thailand (Saraburi) for three years in a banking software company between 2003 and 2006. Apart from that I have visited many times over the years for a few weeks or less at a time.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
About three years – around 2002 – 2004. I did bring my Thai books with me from London and spent my first year here (2003) continuing to study by myself after work but after that less and less so, mainly because I was speaking Thai every day with my wife and colleagues and everywhere. And that is the main reason my spoken Thai is so good – I was lucky that I was in a Thai environment from the start and so, meetings were in Thai, dinner involved Thai conversation and so on. Of course everyone could speak English but as much as anything, I deliberately tried to avoid speaking English. On weekends when I would come to Bangkok (from Saraburi), I would deliberately avoid staying in Sukhumvit and mixing with large expat groups and search opportunities to speak Thai.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
I started learning soon after my very first one-week business trip from London in 2001. I did take it fairly seriously from the start, sitting on my sofa in London with my Thai books.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Not so much regular but it did take up most of my time outside of work and watching TV and whatever other errands I had in the evenings and weekends.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
I have never had a single class in Thai. I am entirely self-taught and quite proud of that fact. Basically a friend lent me Teach Yourself Thai and I also purchased Essential Thai, a book that I cannot praise highly enough even if I were to write an essay on it – it is that good!
I wholeheartedly agree with Aaron Handel in his interview on his methods and many of his other comments. Like him, I am self taught and just like him, I focused on speaking and again just like him, I went to huge effort to let go of English pronunciation and mentality and completely focus on understanding the pronunciation rules and sounds.
I am also very strident in my view that Thai can absolutely be learnt WITHOUT learning to write and CAN be learnt by transliterated or romanised Thai. The two critical factors are how much the learner is willing to let go of their Englishness or Americanness etc. and learn to move their mouth in new ways to make new sounds and not be embarrassed by it and secondly, how much they have paid attention to the first section in the book where it discusses the method of transliteration used. Again, Essential Thai is so good it is beyond belief and I challenge anyone to tell me why they cannot pronounce a word correctly based on James Higbie’s superb explanation of Thai sounds. Essential Thai does not even teach you how to read!!!
Did one method stand out over all others?
Aaron Handel and Herb Purnell have already discussed numerous great points, all of which I very much agree with. Before I went to Thailand to work, I spent hours and hours going through Teach yourself Thai and Essential Thai, cross referencing words, learning the transliteration rules etc. When I got to Thailand, I used every opportunity to practice and then go back and check my books.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
I did learn to read but not really thoroughly. I did go through the tone / class rules but that is where I left it. Why? Again, I am firmly of the belief that you can pronounce words perfectly using transliteration but it does take a huge amount of effort and lots of exposure to Thai people to practice, of course. So I can read basic things fairly slowly but certainly cannot read a paper. Basically if I see a Thai word written in Thai, I don’t know what tone it is but know it from memory so new words written down will always cause me problems.
Writing – as Herb and Aaron have said, writing should very much be a secondary concern, if at all. I never learnt to write and have absolutely no interest in doing so. I have never been in a situation in 15 years of being around Thai and Thailand where I needed to write Thai but I am of course aware that some people do need to because of their job in academia, for example. My view is many Westerners become fascinated with the exotic looking Thai script and become totally sidetracked when they should be focusing on speaking. When they type in Thai e.g. in a text message and get a positive reaction, this reinforces their enthusiasm to write while, all the while, their spoken Thai is sometimes awful. I am sure 99% of these people have absolutely no need to write Thai but just like it! Focus on speaking and get it right first!
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Yes, to an extent but as I explained above, I was mildly interested in reading so have a basic ability and had no intention of learning to spell and write myself so did not try.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
I don’t know about that but I do know that I had a decent set of memorised words before I got to Thailand and practised them a bit when I went on holiday to Chiang Mai in 2002. From 2003 to 2004, my progress was incredibly fast because I lived and worked in Thailand and was fluent by around 2005.
I spoke to a Thai taxi driver once who went to work previously in Singapore (where I work now) and he told me he became fluent in Hokkien in two years – same timeframe as me. How? He told me it was simply because he spent every single day with his colleagues speaking and listening. Exactly as I did.
How do you learn languages?
As above – by speaking and self-study. As Aaron said, Thai people trying to teach me did not work at all e.g. friends, girlfriends etc! My wife has barely taught me any Thai words but having access to her every day for more than 10 years means I have had someone to converse with every single day (albeit she insists sometimes on speaking English).
The single best way to learn however is to listen! Then listen again!! This is the one thing my ex boss – an Englishman who speaks Thai to native proficiency – told me that has stayed with me – your ears have to get used to hearing Thai and you need to pay attention!
In my book that I am about to publish, I discuss lots of other things I did such as listen to Thai songs and check the transliterated and Thai versions of the lyrics on websites and then listen to the songs again etc.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Speaking is a strength and reading a weakness. I do struggle on specific topics as I obviously would not have been exposed to them previously so there would have been no way for me to know specific words in that particular field. One random example – just two days ago, I was asked in Thai whether I wanted a standard head screwdriver or a criss cross ‘Phillips’ head and I could not respond.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That you cannot learn from transliteration rules – the problem is not the transliteration, the problem is the learner not paying attention to the explanation! Chris Pirazzi is right that people jump to speaking without getting the sounds and tones right but this is the fault of the learner. The answer is NOT to learn Thai by learning to write. The answer is to listen, listen again, study, study again, speak and speak again. Repeat!!
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I can speak very basic Bengali and I started learning Korean for a while and learnt quite a few words but never managed to string them together. I got an A in French at school but haven’t used it ever since.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Think I have already said above…but one more point…I noticed that both Herb and Aaron are self-taught and seem to be highly proficient and I am also self-taught and have achieved fluency (in speaking only). So I wonder whether there is a lot to be said for good old fashioned hard work and forgetting the classes. Horses for courses I guess so if you need to be taught, fine but I believe in study, speaking and listening.
Finally, to repeat, there is no better book than Essential Thai in my opinion. And who knows, maybe my book, if I ever get it published, will help someone out there.
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.
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