Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
What is your Thai level?
Advanced. I’m not even fluent in English yet.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Although I’m living in the south, I stick to central Thai. I get the feeling the southerners don’t necessarily appreciate our efforts to speak like them. Of course they all have TVs so they understand everything. But they answer in southern dialect so my ear’s getting better.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I don’t believe you can live anywhere unless you can speak to and understand the natives of that place. It’s easy to slump into an environment where everyone speaks English so it helps to have an incentive. Mine was that I was working at the open university and needed to communicate with the technicians. All the Ajans spoke English. That’s where a lot of foreign English teachers fall off the motivation wagon.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
Yup. Although I passed through in the seventies, I first came to live and work in Thailand around 1985. I came and went a lot but I’ve been here for about twelve years now if you add up all the parts.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
If you’re really serious, you never stop. You tend to slow down as the years pass but I’m always learning new things and realizing that things I thought I knew were wrong all along. My formal study time amounted to four weeks at the YMCA. I really wasn’t designed to sit in classrooms and chant conjugations. Funny that, considering the number of years I forced other people to do it.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Do you mean did I start to study as soon as I got here or did it stick? If the former, no. I first arrived in Thailand by accident on my way to work on the Burmese side of the border up in Mae Hong Son. Due to a little SLORC skullduggery, I was forced to retreat to Thailand and wait for things to cool down. They didn’t, so I stayed. I didn’t study Thai because I didn’t intend to be here. If you mean the latter, then no also. I have a shocking memory. I needed to use a lot of mnemonic devices to remember vocabulary, and lots of tape recordings to get familiar with the pronunciation.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
I started off with a doorstep of a book called Fundamentals of the Thai Language. It looked like a rather ominous bible but, unlike the actual bible I found it really useful. I haven’t seen it around for a long time. I also learned to read from that book. But the bible was my backup. Most of my real learning came from hanging out with Thais and writing vocab in my little everywhere notebook. I am quite thick skinned when it comes to being laughed at for making linguistic mistakes, but it gets annoying after a while. So you learn to get it right.
Did one method stand out over all others?
I think language is all about learning acres of vocabulary but I have an awful memory. I learn all my word lists through convoluted mnemonic methods. I did the same thing when I was attempting to learn Japanese ideographs. I had elaborate stories for every stroke of the kanji. Thai was easy by comparison but, as a visual person, I needed to see the words and their meanings. So, for example, the word ‘jeep’ (to flirt) was accompanied in my notebook by the image of an amorous soldier in the back of a jeep attempting to pick up his female companion (in fact my cartoon was a lot dirtier than that but this is a family website). Not all words lend themselves to interpretation but I have a good imagination so I can still see the image of a severed hand on a plate whenever I think of the word ‘ahan’. Being weird helps with this method.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
I still can’t write. I’m told it’s odd that someone can read and that skill doesn’t cross over to writing. But I guess I’ve never really had a need to write anything in Thai. I’d always be a long way from writing in Thai the way I’d hope to. Didn’t want to launch into a project I felt was doomed to failure.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
Not many of those I’m afraid. Perhaps it was the first time I had a ‘friend’ with whom our only communication was in Thai. You wake up one day and you realize that, but for the language you’re learning, you wouldn’t know that person at all. Or, perhaps it was the first time I gave a public address. It wasn’t exactly Obama but at least the Lion’s Club feigned comprehension long enough to make me proud of myself. A few beers helped there.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My greatest weakness is that I’m not prepared enough to admit when I don’t understand. I still bluff my way through conversations hoping that I pick up the facts I’ve misheard along the way. There are a lot of situations where it just doesn’t matter and it really isn’t worth going through the ‘Could you repeat that’, routine. But losing face really isn’t nearly as bad as grasping the wrong end of the stick and making dumb mistakes as a result. My strength is a sense of humour. People respond to humour in any language and there’s far less stress in a happy conversation than in a serious one.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
One is certainly the belief that you can get through life without tones. I’ve met a lot of foreigners who pump out their Thai in monotone and are bemused when they aren’t understood. This is particularly common in long-term expats. They get away with it in a relationship with a partner whose ear is attuned to farang-speak but then can’t get the simplest point across to the waitress or the petrol pump attendant. Thai’s a tonal language. Learning the tones is half the battle. And learning tone and vocab at the same time is the most sensible way to go about it. You can either do this by learning to read before you pick up vocabulary, or you can go the Cotterill route and learn vocab in tone groups. Again in mnemonics, one set of vocab that lives on top of a mountain for high tone, one set falling out of an airplane for falling tone, etc.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
My Japanese was pretty good but it’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to use it. I used to chat with Japanese backpackers just to keep my language fresh but my wife put her foot down. Honestly sweetheart, I was just asking her vital statistics to keep my hand in.
Do you have a passion for music?
I’m a jazz fan. That’s the only genre that’s kept me hooked over the years. At college it was all Soul and Motown but I guess I grew out of it. You can still catch me grunting out Stevie Wonder songs on long car drives. Of course I have to be alone in the car.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Language is a living thing. Learning it in a lab in a foreign country is like putting gas in the car but not going anywhere. It needs Thai input from living people. If you can’t come here, find a Thai. Offer language exchange to foreign students. Find a Skypemate. You can’t speak Thai until you feel it breathe.
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.