Name: Tobias Foreman
Age range: 20-30
Profession: Manager, Language Express
What is your Thai level?
I would say that I am fluent in some aspects such as conversing at work and with friends but advanced in others, such as idioms and cultural relevance.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
I speak street with my friends, Issan with people from Issan, professional with colleagues and respected people and also the Sukhothai dialect with my family.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I had learnt French and German from a young age in school, and I had always been interested in language and the way people communicate. One teacher asked me “do you communicate to live, or live to communicate” and I felt that language was very much my passion and interest – it has been ever since.
I chose to learn Thai at degree level at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and I was very lucky to learn with Ajarn David Smyth! I need to add that I knew nothing about Thailand or the language before I enrolled to study – I had never been to Thailand before either! So I actually ended up literate and able to speak at an intermediate level before I had even set foot in Thailand. The first day I arrived here was quite an experience, being able to read Thai and speak to real Thais in Thailand – as soon as I got off the plane!!
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I do live in Thailand. I arrived here as an exchange student at Thammasat University in the summer of 2011. I returned back to the UK to complete my degree and moved back to Thailand, where I have now worked since late 2013.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I have studied Thai since September 2009 – present.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
As mentioned above, Thai was the core of my Bachelor’s Degree and we started learning by becoming literate first. We spent around 3 weeks learning the alphabet and vowels before learning/acknowledging the meaning of the words we were reading. I would say that this method was tough to begin with as you are constantly facing the unknown, however, I honestly believe that this method is the best way to tackle Thai for any serious learner.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
I studied Thai in London for 8 hours per week, and 4 hours per day in Thailand. I also practiced my spoken Thai early on with the staff in a little Thai cafe in King’s Cross, London. Nowadays, I have become slightly lazy and only learn new words that I pick out of the newspaper or that I hear spoken that I have not encountered before. However, I still love listening to songs to draw descriptive vocabulary out.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
I guess I learnt by the ‘David Smyth’ method in London – read first, speak later. In my exchange year I attended UTL in Asoke, and the method was quite rigorous. Towards the end of my formal education in London, we were analysing newspaper articles covering law, politics and social problems. The method used was to read and understand, translate into English or into Thai (depending on the article) and then form a debate over the issues raised. We would get through 2 full length articles in around 6-8 hours.
Once I had completed my degree and moved back to Thailand, I focused more on learning what I call day-to-day vocabulary. I am really talking about objects and things that we encounter in the workplace and at home – tiles, stapler, etc (some more straight forward than others). These ‘easy’ words were not included in the syllabus at SOAS, as they can be learnt easily on one’s own.
Did one method stand out over all others?
Yes, read first – speak later. I think this is perhaps the most difficult method from the beginning, however it really pays off after a month or two. It fully ensures that the students have the tools to type or write a word that they have not come across and still be able to look up the meaning and learn it and be able to use it themselves. The method gave me a certain freedom when it came to self study.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
As mentioned above, from day 1. No Sawatdee Krup, but Gor, Kor etc. Speaking and learning definitions of words came after about 1 and a half months.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
I personally felt like I was in the deep end as almost all of my classmates had some foundation in Thai language (being half Thai or had previously spent time in Thailand). However, It was not particularly difficult as I had had a go with the Russian alphabet during secondary school, so learning a new writing system was fun, not daunting.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
This is difficult for me to remember as I have had a couple now!! I do remember that I had a dream in Thai (probably fuelled by my Thai cinema module) during my second year of study at SOAS, when I woke up I remember that everything seemed more in place and organised, so perhaps that was it?
How do you learn languages?
I love to learn languages by writing and reading, followed by speaking. This is the method that was used for almost all of the non-roman scripted languages taught at SOAS. I became attached to this method, it works really well for intensive study.
Whenever I learn a new word, I remember the spelling and I will make as many excuses as possible to say that word as many times as I can until it is a useful and memorable part of my vocabulary. It isn’t uncommon to hear me say the same new word every other hour for a week or so. It gives me the opportunity to experiment with context and usage. This method also works well when you are struggling with the pronunciation of a word – just keep saying it until you get it right.
I still am not afraid to make mistakes, they guide us to what is correct.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Strengths for me are reading speed and being able to really deconstruct a piece of writing, especially official documents and news articles. I also love to play with the language when talking to my friends and colleagues, by making small jokes. I love the playfulness of Thai, you can really have fun by mixing things up.
Right now, my weaknesses are regarding subject specific vocabulary. For instance I could describe a political or economic theory well, but I can’t describe how to fix my motorbike over the phone. So, at the moment with those situations, I take them as they come and learn the words where necessary.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That tones are the be all and end all. “I must pronounce this word with a falling tone or no one will understand anything I say!!!”
Tones are important, that is true, and in the wrong context a sentence can be completely misunderstood if the wrong tone is used. However, in 6 years of learning and 3 years of living here, I can only count a handful of times that this has had any major effect for me.
I think that tones are tackled in the wrong way. The actual pronunciation and speaking all comes with time. Even the most proficient language learners get the accent down last. Nevertheless, tones are important when it comes to speaking as much as they are when reading, but they will not kill you if you get them wrong.
I would tell any new learner of Thai, to make sure that they are literate, and understand the tone rules. However, why don’t a large number of native speakers know the rules?
I feel I have come to a point where I do not know the rules any more (they are not necessary for me to remember), I do not know what class this consonant is or what this short vowel does to it – I just know how it is read and pronounced, and consequently the tone of the word.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I can, but my other languages are nowhere near the level of my Thai. I have studied French, German, Spanish, Indonesian and Khmer.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
I was learning Indonesian and Khmer alongside Thai. It was difficult! Khmer, however, was a fantastic insight into Royal Thai and some etymology of contemporary Thai.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
I would say, get out there, make mistakes, laugh at yourself and learn from it!
Manager, Language Express
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.