Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Weston Hawkins
Age range: 20-30
Location: Utah, USA
Profession: Operations Manager (Pearls By Laurel) and Interpreter/Translator (Global Translation Team and Asian Translation)
Youtube Channel: Vespa Hockey
What is your Thai level?
Advanced/Fluent: I’d lean toward saying I’m fluent, but I’m hesitant to be too confident since there’s still so much for me to learn. I did score a Superior rating on the ACTFL OPI.
Do you speak more street Thai, Isaan Thai, or professional Thai?
My initial language training was focused on very professional, proper Thai. That’s still the Thai that I speak most frequently. I can understand and (awkwardly) use most street Thai, and I can make my way around basic Isaan Thai, but my true fluency is in professional Thai.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
My initial reasons for learning Thai were the same as a few others who have been interviewed for this blog: I was a volunteer missionary that was called to teach in Thailand for two years. However, my reason for continuing to learn Thai after that service ended is (I hope) the same as every person who has been interviewed for this blog: I came to love Thailand and the Thai people. And the Thai language too! It’s a beautiful language. I know it sounds cliché to say that, but Thailand is magical and I fell for its spell.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I lived in Thailand in 2005 and 2006 and then again in 2010. I’ve traveled back there every year or two since then. I’d love to live in Thailand again if the opportunity presented itself.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
Since 2005. Previous to that, I couldn’t even point out Thailand on a map. When I first got to Thailand I was living in Kalasin. I think that was a huge help to me because there are a lot fewer English speakers up there than in Bangkok so I was forced to practice and improve my broken Thai.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Learning Thai was pretty much sink-or-swim for me. I spent 12 weeks learning the language at a training center for missionaries before I flew to Thailand and was expected to use it on a daily basis. I left the training center feeling confident that I was an “advanced” beginner but quickly learned that I could only understand some Thai spoken by other Westerners and not a word of Thai from native speakers. It wasn’t until 3-4 months of daily (attempted) speaking and listening with native speakers that I started to feel I had a grasp of the basics.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
My schedule as a missionary afforded me an hour of language study every morning. I mostly used that time to learn new vocabulary and practice my reading. I felt I was most effective at learning the language when I was speaking with or listening to native speakers.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
The method I was taught for learning Thai and that was very successful for me was Speak Your Language (SYL). It emphasized speaking with native speakers as much and as often as possible. This gave me the opportunity to make many, many mistakes, and mistakes almost always turn into learning experiences.
Did one method stand out over all others?
I don’t think I really tried any methods other than SYL. Generally, real-world application was a more effective learning method for me that studying from a book.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
During my 12 weeks of language training, I used a Romanized version of Thai to learn the language. I wouldn’t recommend that for new learners if you can help it. Once I arrived in Thailand, I made the transition to learning the Thai script. This card [pdf download] was a lifesaver when it came to learning the alphabet and tone markers. Once you have the “code” memorized, reading becomes a fun game of putting it all together. That’s not to say that there aren’t any exceptions to the rule with Thai, but there are far fewer than with English.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
It was difficult, but it was also fun in a way because written Thai makes so much sense once you start to get the hang of it. The most difficult part of learning to write Thai is trying to make your handwriting legible. I have a hard enough time with that in English.
What was your first ah-hah! moment?
The first moment I can recall was when I was talking with some native friends in Kalasin after having lived there for 3-4 months. I realized I was both understanding and contributing to the conversation! It was a huge boost of confidence to keep learning so that those conversations could become longer and more in-depth.
How do you learn languages (learning styles)?
I learn languages through practicing speaking. And when practicing, I mostly focus on imitating the correct pronunciation (and in the case of Thai, tones). To me, it’s not worth speaking a language if I can’t speak it as naturally (or as close to possible) as a native speaker. That usually puts me behind my peers in terms of gaining fluency or building my vocabulary, but I’ve seen too many fellow students blow past me in terms of fluency only to be stuck with a crippled accent that can’t be unlearned.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My biggest strength when it comes to learning Thai is my willingness to ask questions when I don’t know the word or how to say something. My biggest weakness is that I get too complacent and comfortable in my language abilities. I need to be more disciplined in my efforts to study and improve if I expect to come close to approaching a mastery of the language.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
I’d say the biggest misconception is that Westerners or speakers of non-tonal languages can’t learn how to speak with tones correctly. If you can speak English with inflection that imbues meaning then you can speak Thai with the right tones. Truth be told, it’s not actually Thai if the tones aren’t correct. It’s the same with Thai students of English who speak every word as if it’s a loanword. That’s not actually English.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I took a year of online Latin my sophomore year in high school. My fluency in Latin is nonexistent. I was an exchange student in Norway during my junior year in high school and learned fluent Norwegian. I forgot most of it when I began learning Thai, but the foundation is still there if I ever want to pick it back up again. My college degree is in Middle East Studies/Arabic, and I spent 4 months living in Jordan on a study abroad, but I never gained even close to the same level of fluency with Arabic as I did with Thai. The grammar is so much more complex, and that’s a weak spot for me. I’ve been using the DuoLingo app to try to learn Spanish, but I’m still just a beginner. Oh, and I’m determined to learn proper Lao.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
No, my full attention was given to learning Thai at the beginning. My brain actually cleared out the Norwegian I’d learned a few years previous to make room for the Thai.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Immerse yourself. If you don’t live in Thailand, move there (if possible). If you do live in Thailand, limit your time speaking English as much as possible. In fact, limit your time being around any Westerners to as little as possible. When you’re with Thais, speak Thai, even if their English is far better than your Thai (frequently the case).
Weston Hawkins | Youtube Channel: Vespa Hockey
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.