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Successful Thai Language Learner: Weston Hawkins

Weston Hawkins

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Weston Hawkins
Nationality: American
Age range: 20-30
Sex: Male
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).

ครับ/ค่ะ
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.

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

5 Comments

  1. Cat and Khun Weston

    Thanks for a smashing interview!

    “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.”

    So very true!

  2. Isn’t it grand? And this part is soooo me: “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”.

  3. I assume that the SYL method works because you have a set of people all starting to learn Thai at the same time and therefore at roughly the same levels of Thai progressing at roughly the same rate with the same purpose/vocab goals at the end who are with each other most of the day every day? I assume it needs a minimum of two people to work together, committed to the SYL method, (may or may not also need a teacher), who have the time to spend many hours a day together before it would have a chance to work in the designed way. It does seem to be a fairly good and efficient method, but unfortunately maybe not really practical for Joe Blogs learning on his own? What are your opinions on these points/assumptions? Could lonely Joe benefit from it?
    As you advise, Joe can of course benefit from the immersion part and the “speak as much as possible” part.
    Can you tell us more about the “‘Orange book of Death” please? What’s in it? How it is set up? Is it any good, and if so, is it obtainable to non-missionaries, and if so, where?

  4. Gordon, granted, I started out learning Thai and using the SYL method with a bunch of other beginners, but I was mostly referring to using that method once I was in country and with native Thai speakers. By that point I was mostly learning it on my own. I will say that those first 12 weeks of language learning laid out a good foundation and that a big part of that was having a teacher and structured lessons. If I hadn’t had those, I don’t know that I would have done very well finding my way on my own.

    I don’t remember ever calling it the Orange Book of Death, but I know what he’s talking about. It wouldn’t be very helpful for new learners for two reasons: one, it’s mostly religious vocabulary; and two, it was written completely in a custom version of Romanized Thai. Nowadays missionaries going through that same language center learn to read and write using the Thai script right from the get-go. I doubt they’re using the same resources I had ten years ago.

  5. Weston,
    Thanks for that reply. It does lead me on to ask another question though and that is in regard to using SYL with naive, non-English-speaking Thais. How well did you manage to maintain a conversation or even get your point across when using SYL? I would think that unless there was only about one word that could be “translated” from the surrounding context of the sentence (or body language or other hints) then the English word would prevent them from understanding the sentence and that would pretty much kill any conversation dead, unless you could talk around the word to explain its meaning. (Was 12 weeks of classroom that efficient that your “foundation” was that fluent that quickly? How many hours a day in class and how many a day in total speaking SYL with others in a day?) Certainly in Bangkok that “untranslatable” word would likely be enough of an excuse for Thais that speak English to switch the conversation to English, and if they don’t speak English then a likely response would be a blank stare and /or a “ไม่เข้าใจ” (Don’t understand) followed by then making as quick an exit as possible from the conversation. How did you manage to keep them talking to you? Keeping Thais talking to you in Thai when the conversation is even slightly difficult for them seems to be a common problem for most of us so would be great to know at what level of Thai you were at after the 12 school weeks, and how you tackled keeping them interested in talking to you when you hit comprehension issues. Thanks.

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