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Successful Thai Language Learner: Herb Purnell

Herb Purnell

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Herb Purnell
Nationality: American
Age range: 70+
Sex: Male
Location: Currently in Chiangrai March to mid-April 2010, then Bangkok to the end of August, then to the U.S.
Profession: Retired from university teaching in applied linguistics but still active in field language projects in Thailand. Current projects include producing language lessons for Northern Thai, helping to revise a curriculum for teaching Thai, and finishing a Mien (Yao) – English dictionary

What is your Thai level?

That’s hard to say. There are well-established language proficiency scales for the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) with descriptors for four or five levels, each divided into two or three sections. These would include the scales of FSI (U.S. Foreign Service Institute) and ACTFL (American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages). The problem with self-rating is that it’s very impressionistic. And proficiency tends to be variable depending on the speech domain or context as for work, school, informal chats with friends, and many others. So I would guess that I’m advanced in some areas and upper intermediate in others.

A popular view of being fluent is to be advanced or beyond in all areas of the language, more like what is called a “superior” or “distinguished” level, but in the language teaching profession, a person can be fluent at various degrees of proficiency. I am reasonably fluent in most of the contexts that I am comfortable in.

And even “fluency” itself involves several factors, such as how complex was the speaking, how accurately was it said, how smoothly the talking was done (haltingly? with pauses in places where native speakers would put them?), how appropriate the vocabulary and style used was, and how adequate the interaction and the accomplishment of the communicative task was. This last factor deals with how people feel when the interaction is finished (Learner: Well, I got what I wanted. Thai: Oh I hate talking with that farang! Not a very adequate to interact with Thais.). Thus, technically, fluency can be evaluated at all levels. It’s different from the attainment of high levels of proficiency.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

I speak relatively more professional Thai since that’s been most of my experience. I’m comfortable speaking informally, but I don’t know much street slang. Why specify just Issan? There are a lot of other regional people, such as Northern Thai or Southern Thai, in Bangkok too. I do speak Northern Thai, perhaps not as well as Thai, but it’s a lot of fun to speak it. My Northern Thai is much more informal than my Thai because I learned it in a farming village and use it primarily in informal contexts.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I originally came to Thailand as a missionary, and the language was obviously required. As my experience and proficiency increased, knowing Thai became an asset for my graduate studies, professional contacts with Thai academics and government officials, and getting involved in applied language projects. I became a linguistic consultant and had assignments in different parts of Thailand, so I needed to keep my Thai up.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

I first arrived with my wife and baby in May 1960. Over a 21-year period, I lived in Thailand for 13 years (broken up by grad school and periodic chunks of time back in the U.S.). I have lived in Chiangrai for 7 years, Chiangmai for 4 years, and Bangkok for 3+ years. Including all the little pieces, the total time in the country by now is roughly 15 years.

If you live elsewhere, how often are you in Thailand?

Since moving back to the States in 1981, I have come back to Thailand every two or three years for brief stays. Since retiring in 2005, I have been back for 2-6 months every year. My time has been split between the north and Bangkok.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

I started with about a year and a half of Thai, then nearly two years of Northern Thai, and then a year and a half of Mien. After these nearly five years in Thailand, I returned to the US for six years of graduate study. Returning in 1970, I had to do a lot of catching up to do in all three languages. To keep Thai and Northern Thai separate, I went back and forth from one to the other, speaking Northern in the north and Thai whenever I was in Bangkok or another area of the country as well as when I was speaking in professional situations. Going back and forth between the languages was very important because the main differences between Thai and regional Tai languages are pronunciation (especially the tone system) and vocabulary. Because I’ve had to use Thai professionally, there has always been an emphasis on that. And I still am learning and trying to improve. Learning a language is really a lifelong activity.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

I started right away. Actually, I started in the States before coming to Thailand, while I was just is the first year of my MA program. My wife and I took an evening class with a linguist who knew no Thai. We listened to the very old 78 rpm records for the U.S. Army Thai course by Mary Haas. The prof listened to us as we mimicked the records and corrected our pronunciation as needed. That was a weird way to start, but it gave us a reasonable sense of the pronunciation and some basic vocabulary before we arrived.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

When we got to Thailand, we were sent straight to Chiangrai and were assigned to work one-on-one with a tutor. The whole experience was frustrating since the tutor was neither friendly nor very competent. He had my wife in tears every few days because he insisted she would never learn Thai. And the materials were very old-fashioned. Furthermore, in those days there was far less Thai spoken in the north, so learning Thai was like learning Latin, or so it seemed to me. Most of the time, people spoke Thai on formal occasions or when they had to (like when talking to a foreigner); otherwise, they spoke Northern. When I tried to listen in on people conversing, all I heard was Northern. So I disliked Thai, thought it was a waste of time, and couldn’t wait until I could start learning Northern. It was only later that I returned to Thai and began to enjoy learning it.

After the initial period of having a set schedule with the tutor ended, the rest of my learning Thai was what I got on my own. Except that once, returning from a year in the States and feeling the need for some refresher instruction in Thai, I had three months in Bangkok with a very good tutor. By then I could go at my own pace. And in order to pass the Thai government’s Prathom 4 equivalency exam as it was required in 1980, I took a one-month intensive prep course at a language school.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

As mentioned above, my Thai study began with phonograph records, then with a tutor using the U.S. Army Thai course book Spoken Thai along with some lower level Thai children’s school books, and then on my own with reading and speaking. Plus the time with a tutor in Bangkok and finally the specialized intensive course at a language school. Everything else has been learned through lots of listening to news and talk shows on the radio, speaking when I had the opportunity, and reading books.

My Northern Thai study was helped by having a few lessons that a foreign friend had written just before I began. I revised these lessons, added some new lessons, and collected a word file that later became a small dictionary for foreign learners. At first these materials were just to help myself and my wife in our own language study. I used Thai right at the first as a bridge to Northern Thai, but then switched to using only Northern. Living in a Northern Thai farming village was great for motivation. I always carried a small notebook and spent time talking with villagers in their work and home situations, being sure to jot down words and cultural information. I was very motivated because this was a language that I really wanted to learn.

I learned Mien to an intermediate level while living in a Mien village, starting with Northern Thai as a bridge but then switching to Mien. There were even fewer materials for learning Mien so it was independent learning right from the start. I was fortunate to have two Mien men my own age (all in our 20s at the time) who enjoyed using and talking about their language. My notebooks rapidly filled up.

There is little written in Northern Thai (not counting the old Lanna script) that would help a learner, except for small wordlists published years ago, and then several regular dictionaries, leading up to two recent major dictionaries. But only one Northern dictionary (other than my own small one) was specifically compiled to help people learn Northern (by Meth Ratanaprasith, long out of print). Later on, for the most part I kept up by periodically getting back into a Northern Thai situation and speaking. Personally, Thai is a language for my mind and my academic work, but Northern is a language for my heart and “down home” interaction with people.

Progressing in Mien was a little easier because of the influx of Mien refugees from Laos into the States starting in the late 1970s. Moving to California in 1982, I was able to be in touch with several Mien communities for conversation. And once a new Romanized alphabet for Mien became established in the mid-1980s, material written by Mien started to become available. So speaking and reading helped my progress. For quite a few years, however, I have lived further from Mien locations and only occasionally get to be with them. But working on a Mien dictionary, corresponding with Mien, and those occasional times I have been able to visit Mien communities have been the means for my holding steady in Mien, though without the progress I would like to make.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Most of my learning has been independent self-study, particularly with Northern Thai and Mien. When I had the opportunity for good instruction in Thai, I appreciated it and profited from it. I had a background in phonetics, anthropology, and linguistics which was a great help. I also had the opportunity for working during two summers as a junior staff member at a linguistic institute that taught principles of language and culture learning. So I am comfortable being an independent learner within a language community. However, I wouldn’t call my type of independent learning “picking up the language.” It was a more organized way to approach learning from local speakers, not a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants approach that tends to be more random and sporadic.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

The Army Thai course was written in phonetics. That was the era when linguists advocated learning a language orally at first (listening and speaking) and then later do the reading and writing. The course was in two books. After finishing Book 1, the Thai tutor began teaching the writing system while doing the lessons of Book 2 which were still in phonetics.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

No. Once I had a good grasp of the pronunciation, the consonant and tone rules made a lot of sense, and I could make good progress. I still feel that that is a useful order in which to proceed, at least for me. Otherwise, I think that my pronunciation would have come along much slower. I would have been engrossed in making the lines and squiggles of the script instead of learning how to read clearly and accurately. But the issue of when to begin the Thai script is still a very live one, and the discussion is interesting and varied. I can just relate what worked for me.

For Northern Thai, I strongly feel that returning to a phonetic notation is essential for getting good pronunciation. That’s what worked for me and a few others who learned the language in the past. This may seem like a big step backwards when most learners of Northern will already have learned Thai. The important point is that the Thai script does not fit very well with Northern. And when Northern is written with Thai script, as in three recent major dictionaries, the sixth tone is not always marked regularly. Also, the High-Mid-Low consonants pattern differently in Northern and thus affect how tones are written. Since pronunciation (especially the tone system) is so important, and the sound of the tones and the relationship of tones to each other (in pitch height and direction of movement) is different in the two languages, using Thai script is a major disadvantage. However, once I got good pronunciation, and after I learned Meth’s system for using Thai letters (his dictionary was written specifically to help Central Thai forestry workers learn Northern), I became comfortable using Thai script for Northern, but only in Meth’s very clear and systematic way. The other ways of writing Northern are fine for native-speaking Northern Thais since they already know their mother tongue and can overcome inconsistencies, but learners would be at a disadvantage.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

After living in the north and disliking Thai, considering it sort of like Latin, I went with my wife and son to Chainat to await the birth of our second child. It soon registered with me that people were speaking Thai all the time, and to each other, not just to foreigners like me. Then it hit me that this was a real language that could be learned and even enjoyed. While staying just outside the hospital waiting for our baby to arrive, I was asked to interact with patients and their relatives on some of the wards. Suddenly I had to start using this language that I had so eagerly cast aside up north. That was a challenge, but it forced me to be much more serious about learning and using Thai.

How do you learn languages?

I start with listening and getting used to the sounds and the flow of the language, picking out particular sounds that are different and focusing on them. This is probably due to my phonetics training and also because I find pronunciation to be fun and not very difficult for me. I try to learn basic and useful (for me) vocabulary and begin to try out my hypotheses about how the language goes together in these basic ways. This, too, goes back to my training in practical applied linguistics and my desire to talk with people as soon as I can. My goal is to get a reasonable oral proficiency before I start learning to read when the language (like Thai) is not in Romanized script. Reading is crucial for vocabulary development and for seeing how phrases and sentences get put together to form longer integrated texts. But written style is often different from spoken style, so that’s another reason why I focus on oral development first.

I found that reading folktails and short stories that contain interactive conversations was important for me to learn something about how socially-affected particles and pronouns are used in context. These are still challenging for me because the systems are so different from English. But seeing how the different particles reflect attitudes and emotions in the course of a story helps me to get a feel for their use. Then I try some of them out gradually to see if my use is acceptable and appropriate.

My writing was the slowest to develop, but as I found myself in situations where I had to write in Thai, I gradually got better at it. Taking the Prathom 4 exam was a big challenge. The dictation section contained a lot of formal terms to recognize and spell correctly. Then there was a essay to write on a specified theme, and then a personal letter that needed to be written in proper format. Having been away from having to write Thai for quite a few years, I am rusty in spelling, especially words with karan that cancels out letters. But I’ve always enjoyed being able to spell well, so spelling and writing Thai was a challenge that I wanted to succeed at. And a skill that I could still recover if I put my mind to it.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My strengths are in the areas of pronunciation and (until recent years) spelling. My linguistic background prepared me, through phonetics and a knowledge of how languages work, to get right into Thai sounds and structures. My applied linguistic background helped provide a framework for understanding second language acquisition and practical ways of learning a new language. So the academic background and some success in learning has provided motivation to continue and confidence that given the effort I can be reasonably successful.

One potential weakness is that I am generally more introverted than extroverted. I have two younger brothers who are very outgoing, and I’m not. But I loved learning Northern and Mien by visiting people and talking with them informally. It was low key, but it brought out that while I am naturally reserved, in one-on-one or small group situations I could be relaxed and communicative because I knew how to proceed independently. I have not kept up on reading and writing Thai to the extent that I should, perhaps due to a lapse in motivation now that I’m living in the States most of the time. Still I always pick up a manageable sized book (means relatively thin!) each time I come out here and read at least some of it while I’m in the States.

Perhaps a major weakness at my stage in life is that I either don’t notice the gaps (or differences) between what I’m saying and how Thai are saying similar things, or I notice something that I really should learn, but I forget to write it down or forget to actually take the time to learn it. Not noticing gaps is an indication that I could be on a plateau in my learning of Thai and that I’m not progressing. But trying to make progress in all three languages is becoming more difficult.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

People are really different in their learning styles, motivation for learning Thai, living situations, opportunities to get instruction (if they’re even interested in getting it), and willingness to use the language often and with many different people and, in so doing, become vulnerable. So it’s probably not possible to say anything that will fit everyone. But here are a few thoughts.

  1. For people like me, a misconception would be that written Thai is the “real” language. The real language is oral language with its many styles and levels of speaking. The script is attractive, exotic, and challenging, and reading is very valuable at an intermediate level and beyond, but I consider it to be secondary to spoken Thai.
  2. Another misconception is that the language is really easy, since it doesn’t have the complexity of all those suffixes and prefixes as in Russian. Or, conversely, that Thai is really hard, possibly inscrutable, and maybe unlearnable for non-Thais because of the tones and the looseness of singular/plural, lack of marked tenses, and the like. The first view can lead to overconfidence when the learner gets a quick spurt, especially toward the beginning. The second view can lead to discouragement and a decrease in motivation, then falling back on a mix of Thai and English, or to being content with broken Thai or in despair of ever improving. A middle or balanced way seems to work for most learners: some things are easy to grasp, others are difficult but eventually learnable; one just needs to stay positive, keep working hard, and enjoy the experience of interacting with people in their heart language.
  3. For some people, perhaps for those taking a formal class, a misconception is that if I pay attention and do my homework, maybe looking/listening to snatches of the language on tape, on a CD, or on the Internet, that the language will come. Perhaps it will, but the real payoff in language learning, whether independent or classroom, is interacting with people, getting to know them, and sharing each other’s ideas. In my current work at a language school in Bangkok, revising the curriculum, I am writing very focused and doable assignments that enable students to use what they learned in class in interactions with Thai people outside of class, from very simple assignments at the start to more complex interviewing at the upper intermediate level. These assignments integrate learning in class and learning in the community and, if students are willing to follow them and use them, they can help students to become independent learners with skills they can use long after formal classes are done with.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I studied German and Latin in high school, both of which are long gone, and I took a French reading course to pass my one of my graduate school language requirements (Thai was accepted as the other language), but I have not kept up with French. Learning Thai was my first successful experience. As mentioned above, I can also speak Northern Thai and Mien, and I have almost a survival level proficiency in oral Mandarin (I can read pinyin well but only a few characters).

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No. There was enough stress working with the tutor, especially while having an unfavorable view of the language.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

No, I am just a rather unsophisticated end user.

Do you have a passion for music?

I like a variety of music, mostly classical but some barbershop harmony, ragtime, and dixieland as well. I can read music, have sung in choirs, play several kinds of recorder, and a long time ago I took lessons for a year on a Thai stringed instrument, a saw duang (similar to the Chinese er hu). But at best I’m just an intermediate amateur in music.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Again, people are so varied that it’s hard to say something useful to everyone. But just to throw out a few ideas:

  1. Work on being accurate as well as fluent, particularly at the beginning when you’re laying a foundation for later learning. But live with mistakes. They’re part of life and part of everyone’s language learning. The key is to learn from them, get some feedback, and try to do a little better next time.
  2. Just about everything in Thai is learnable if you stick with it long enough. If you can learn to do something correctly, then take the time to do it right and take satisfaction in it. Don’t be sloppy in pronunciation if you can sound better. Learn to gradually sharpen your vocabulary by learning the finer distinctions between synonyms and other words within a similar range of meaning.
  3. Reading is really valuable for developing a good vocabulary and for getting information. But (for me at least) it can be a distraction early on from the work of learning how to converse well. However, once you have a good foundation in the spoken language, read, read, read.
  4. For me, learning Thai is for interacting with Thai people. If I go to class, I want to use the lesson by talking with a Thai person about the topic so I can use the vocabulary and structure I just learned. If I read something, I want to talk to a Thai person about what I read and get their opinion.
  5. Once proficiency starts to increase or employment requires that Thai be used, pay attention to what you are saying and how you are saying it. Don’t be afraid to back up and try again if you sense there was a mistake or feel that you could have said something in a better or more appropriate way. And sharpen your awareness of what you are saying and what others are saying to you or to one another. The better your awareness and the more you develop sharp listening, the more differences you will notice between your speech and native Thai speech. Take one or two of those noticed differences and work on them, putting them into your own speech. This all takes time and effort, but it provides a good way to continue to improve.
  6. Keep a sense of humor. I have made some hilarious gaffes in learning Thai, as have most of my friends, but I am able to laugh at myself, admit my ignorance and slowness in learning, and ask how I should have said it. I never turn down a correction. Once I was in the middle of giving a talk to a group of Mien people, and a lady interrupted me, calling out, “That’s not the way to say it.” I stopped, thanked her very much, asked what the correct way was, backed up and put the correction in, and then tried to regain my thoughts to go on with the talk. Later I thanked the lady and encouraged her to interrupt me any time I said something wrong. If I had frowned or disregarded her comment, I would not only have lost the opportunity to learn something but she would likely never again have offered another correction.
  7. Finally, in language learning, as in other types of skill development, time-on-task is very important. The more one sticks with the language consistently, talking with Thai people, making an effort to read, learn vocabulary, and learn Thai customs and how one should act in various situations, the greater will be the positive payoff.

regards,
Herb Purnell

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.

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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.

20 Comments

  1. I like Herb Purnell’s method of learning Thai, it would seem to suit a working lifestyle much better. Learn orally first and when your confidence grows start to tackle reading and writing.

    Living outside of Thailand and having a hectic working life makes a multi pronged attack on learning a language a bit frustrating. You (me anyway) feel you are making no great progress in any direction and are often tempted to just give up. Herb’s approach makes sense as progress on one front will lead to the confidence to tackle the next with the knowledge you are making headway at long last.

    My problem is each interviewee I read I become convinced their methods are best. Herb’s convinced me his way is best but then that’s only until I read the next one.

    Catherine perhaps you could get everyone around a table and not let them leave until they’ve all agreed on the perfect way of learning Thai.

  2. When comparing what was available back then to what we have now, it struck me how lucky we are to be learning Thai at this time. Think about it. We have the Internet, computers, iTunes, iPhones, YouTube, Skype…

    We listened to the very old 78 rpm records for the U.S. Army Thai course by Mary Haas.

    But the resources Herb had on hand were not a clutter of choice. And if anything, we are spoilt for choice.

    When I started WLT it was with the loose idea of putting Thai learning resources in one place. And I have, which is great. But I also went flittering around from one course to the other. One method to the other. I’ve learned a lot, sure, but I’ve been spoilt for choice and maybe that is not always a good thing as it’s taken me quite awhile to settle down.

    Luca’s advice keeps coming back to me: Rather than surfing the Internet in search of multiple Thai language courses, concentrate on one set of materials.

    So to answer you Martyn, maybe it’s not about finding the perfect course or the perfect way of learning Thai, but finding out how you learn Thai best, matching your learning style with the materials that suit how you learn, and then sticking with them to the end.

    And where the end is, who knows for sure. I’m a student of the language and will be for a long time. Herb started learning before his arrival in 1960, so we are all in good company…

    …And I still am learning and trying to improve. Learning a language is really a lifelong activity.

    Herb’s interview is loaded down with excellent information and advice, and I know that I’ll reread it often. It also brings up more questions for me, so I would love to know more.

    I had a background in phonetics, anthropology, and linguistics which was a great help… I start with listening and getting used to the sounds and the flow of the language, picking out particular sounds that are different and focusing on them.

    For instance, how does a background in linguistics change the way the Thai language is learned? What are the details? Also, would a working knowledge of linguistics be advisable for someone tackling Thai? Would it make it easier? Less of a mystery? Or even more of a challenge? If I were to study just enough linguistics for it to be useful, where would I start? What in the field of linguistics would I leave out?

    Personally, Thai is a language for my mind and my academic work, but Northern is a language for my heart and “down home” interaction with people.

    Herb’s softspot for Northern over Thai is a story waiting to be told. I personally would enjoy reading about it. That, and more.

  3. Re Martyn’s comment: My problem is each interviewee I read I become convinced their methods are best. Herb’s convinced me his way is best but then that’s only until I read the next one.

    People are so different and their goals and living/work situations so varied that I would not want to prescribe for others. And you’re right; each interviewee tells a different and fascinating story. The academic literature does point out some things that successful language learners tend to do, but the same procedure does not work for everyone.

    Martyn, your situation (living outside Thailand with a hectic work situation) is certainly a challenging one for language learning. If that were my situation, I think I would try to do the best I could with the limited time and opportunity available to learn small bits of Thai, probably bits that go together rather than random bits. That is, pick a topic you’re interested in and then focus on small bits when you can, exploring manageable pieces of the same overall topic, and putting each new piece into the previously learned piece so you are developing in a connected way. That will help memory, since one part of the subject will tend to bring up the other parts with it. Sort of like how sections of a jigsaw puzzle cling together when you lift one piece off the table. I don’t have a magic potion for learning a language. I would just try to be as consistent and organized as I could be within the limited time and energy you have left for learning after work. And by all means try out suggestions from various interviewees. You may find a very valuable treasure.

  4. To Catherine: You raise an interesting point about how linguistics can help in language learning. Rikker could certainly address this, too. Briefly, aspects of linguistics (particularly applied linguistics; I’m not especially interested in theoretical linguistics) can help is several ways. A course in phonetics taught me how to hear the specific qualities of each human speech sound and also how to vary the movements of my jaw, tongue, and vocal apparatus so I could make most sounds. In phonetics each sound has its own symbol and its own descriptive label. So when I hear Thai sounds I can discriminate between them (e.g., t, th, and d; which is higher in pitch–the high tone or the falling tone, etc.) and I know how to make them, or at least how I should make them.

    Learning how languages are structured (i.e., how grammars work) helps me to figure out what the parts of a sentence are and how they go together. And also how sentences get connected to form larger texts of various types, like narratives, recipes, explanations, descriptions, etc. So one value of linguistics is to learn how languages work at all levels. Another value is a heightened awareness of language features that one hears. When I listen to someone speak, I not only listen to what the person is saying, but I also listen to how he/she is saying it. There’s more to linguistics, of course, but this gives you some idea of its value.

  5. Phonetics is not quibbling, it’s compulsory.
    One example : why do we see this stupid mistake in almost 100% of thai-english phrasebooks : the translitteration of ก by g? That’s nonsense, there is no g in thai.
    It takes just a little bit of phonetics to understand this : k in english is like ข or ค in thai, when k is at the beginning of a word, like in killer. But you do have the sound ก in english, it’s like k when it’s the second letter of a consonant cluster like in skunk. But the g sound like gay is not a thai thing.
    Or to put it in a quibbling way : k in killer is an aspirated voiceless velar, it’s ข or ค, k in skunk is an unaspirated voiceless velar like ก, g in gay is a voiced velar like nothing in thai.
    It’s the same for p in winny the pooh : it sounds like พ but p in spy sounds like ป (you don’t have to try to utter a thing like bp or pb!!).
    And for t in tea and t in sty. Like ท and ต.
    Before the 16th or 17th century thai had the velar voiced consonants, but then came the “unvoicing” (not sure for the english word) and ค which used to be voiced became unvoiced. This led to the birth of new tones because ค was now like ข.
    In khmer the unvoicing led to a new set of vocals with the two series of vowels. Khmer doesn’t like tones, as you can hear in Surin. I find it fascinating : the partitioning of tonal and non tonal in bilingual people from Surin or Buriram or Sisaket.

  6. Herb,

    …how to vary the movements of my jaw, tongue, and vocal apparatus so I could make most sounds.

    My jaw and mouth do get an extra workout when speaking Thai. I had similar with French, but in a different way. To create Thai sounds I’m noticing my tongue placement more than usual, as well as how I need to stretch my smile sideways. Whereas when making French sounds, I have to concentrate on manipulating my lips about two feet in front of my nose (I do have fun with languages :-)

    sua noy,

    why do we see this stupid mistake in almost 100% of thai-english phrasebooks : the translitteration of ก by g? That’s nonsense, there is no g in thai.

    I agree with you now, but it took me awhile to get it.

    And if you read back through my comments you will find me objecting to ก being called a k. Why? Because I was not hearing k, I was hearing g.

    It was only when I researched further that I understood that it’s not always about the sound I thought I was hearing with my untrained ears, but where in my mouth the sound was coming from.

    It takes just a little bit of phonetics to understand this.

    But phonetics is not a requirement for learning foreign languages. It should be (especially for those coming into tonal languages fresh), but it’s not. And perhaps that is why we will continue to see ก noted as a g in Thai materials.

  7. To Catherine : It was only when I researched further that I understood that it’s not always about the sound I thought I was hearing with my untrained ears, but where in my mouth the sound was coming from.

    Actually g and k (ก and ค) come from the same place in your mouth (tongue against the velum), the difference is just the vibration of your vocal cords (no vibration in k ก), as you can feel if you touch with your finger your throat while speaking.

    So phonetics is fun, watch people saying “ggggg” with the hand on the throat as if they were out of breathe, or as you say moving their lips forward, kissing the wind to make the rounded vowels of french!

  8. of course “g and k (ก and ค)” means that k is (can be) ก and ค…
    the best translitteration would be k for ก and kh for ค

  9. We can debate ad nauseam about the best translitteration system. The fact is (keeping in mind that Thai language learners have very different backgrounds in terms of level of education, knowledge of other foreign languages, mother tongue, etc.)there is no such thing as a best transliterration system. All you can hope is that enough time is spent on presenting the system and pointing at the differences compare to the learners’native language. After that as long as the system used is consistent enough, learners should be fine.

    as far as i am concerned using “g” and “k” as a transliterration for ก and ค is not more stupid or confusing that using the letter “e”, “i” or “a” in normal english script to represent various sounds.

    Finally, the best proof that there is no such thing as a best transliterration scheme of the Thai language is that even a linguist such as David Smyth alternatively used different systems in his various publications.

  10. I didn’t intend to debate about the problem of transliteration, which I agree with you has no solution, but about the fact to actually PRONOUNCE thai unvoiced unaspirated velar ก like an english voiced velar g, which is a mistake you can easily avoid with just a little bit of phonetics…

  11. sua noy, maybe I have a different idea of location… but for me, ก is coming out from a slightly different place in my mouth than the g sound I was using before my teacher tore her hair out getting me to pronounce ก to her satisfaction.

    Rikker’s post talks about ก in Thai 101 Learners Series: Finding Your Voice.

    The first letter of the Thai alphabet is ก ไก่ (kor kài). It is a “voiceless” sound. In English, g is voiced. It’s a subtle distinction, but it is there.

    The correct sound of ก ไก่ is one of those non-contrasting sounds in English, only found in words such as sky and ski. In that context, our brain groups it with k. In Thai, since there is no English g sound, it’s tempting to just let g fill in that gap, rather than learning to say the ก sound properly.

    If you pronounce ก ไก่ like English g, it’ll sound wrong to Thais, even if they can’t explain why.

    Today I was running around with friends and this subject came up. I asked them what sound they were hearing with ก, and they said G, and that there was no way they’d be convinced that ก is a K.

    The G/K discussion always goes round and around, so perhaps what is needed is a post that includes the actual sounds to compare (G, K, etc), a written explanation, and diagrams for good measure. So if anyone is game to write that post…

    On the subject of transliteration… On WLT I use transliteration from T2E, but it’s nowhere near perfect and has G instead of K for ก. But as transliteration is intended as a temporary crutch only, not a final solution, I’m not fussed. If an better and equally easy solution comes around I might replace what’s here, but until then, it stays.

  12. ก ข ค ง are all velar consonants, they all come from exactly the same location : back of the tongue against the velum.
    Since the back of he tongue (the dorsum) is not very precise in its move, and the velum is soft and extensive, you may have this feeling of “slightly different place” : the location is not as fixed as for dental (the tip of the tongue is more precise than the dorsum), or for labial consonants. The dorsum tends to touch the velum more in the back before a following back vowel โก, more in the front before following front vowels กี.
    And for ง you lower the velum to force the air to escape through the nose (hence the name “nasal consonant”).
    The indians were so so so so ingenious to have created an alphabet were consonants are arranged according to where the sound is produced by your tongue or lips in your mouth : from the back to the front.

    velar ก to ง
    palatal จ to ญ
    dental ด to น
    labial บ to ม

    Note that there is a third row of “etymologic” consonants ฎ to ณ which corresponds to alveolar consonants in sanskrit and pali loanwords : the rearmost point of contact of the tongue is supposed to be more in the back than for dentals, nowadays in thai (and khmer) it is pronounced like dentals.
    This classification is more obvious in khmer where they continue to learn the alphabet by nicely ordered rows of consonants.

    This alphabet was made by genius !

  13. Since the back of the tongue (the dorsum) is not very precise in its move, and the velum is soft and extensive, you may have this feeling of “slightly different place”

    I’m putting my mouth to your โก and กี test (works for me) and the man across the way keeps saying, ‘Pardon? Pardon?’ (It’s been fun)

    This alphabet was made by genius !

    :-)

  14. I think the point of those books which explains that ก is pronounced as the english g is to make the language as easy as possible for those who do not wish to study Thai very long.

    While i agree that it is a mistake, it is probably satisfying enough since most people tends to associate unknown foreign sound to the most similar sound in their own language. So as English speaker tend to hear g instead of ก, Thai people tend to hear ก when foreigners pronounce the english g.

    For example, when i started to speak Thai, i was not very confortable with pronouncing the sound ก (it often sounded like ค to Thai people) and after a few misunderstandings, i often opted to pronounce ก like the english g. It was always perfectly understood by Thai speaker even if it was clearly not the proper ก sound.

  15. It’s a time of insomnia and I am thinking about the devoicing of consonants. As I am alone at home with my cat who doesn’t seem to be interested in the g/k debate, your website will have to put up with my rantings.

    THE DEVOICING OF CONSONANTS (16th or 17th century according to Philip N Jenner, quite recent indeed) :
    First of all remember that “voicing” means that your vocal cords vibrate, “aspirated” means that a little puff of air is blown out while saying the consonant (which you can feel if you put your hand in front of your mouth).
    In an earlier period of thai languages (before the devoicing) ค was corresponding to the voiced counterpart of ก, so it was also unaspirated. After the devoicing came, ค became aspirated in central thai, not in northern thai. It was the same for ท and พ : they were voiced counterpart of ต and ป, so they were unaspirated (don’t read this if you already have a headhache : actually they were counterpart of ด and บ which were unvoiced and became voiced…). After the devoicing, they also became aspirated in central thai, not in northern thai.
    So let’s see this again :
    The new pronounciation of ค has now a twin which is ข in central thai, ก in northern thai.
    For ท has it is ถ in central thai,ต in northern thai.
    For พ it is ผ in central thai, ป in northern thai.
    That’s why in northern thai they pronounce way “ตาง” (tone is not on purpose here), thousand “ปัน” and กำเมือง instead of คำเมือง.

    For those who speak that most wonderful of all languages, khmer, it’s the same, the devoicing didn’t make the devoiced consonants become aspirated.

    But in lao it followed the central thai pattern : devoiced consonants became aspirated. Why in ล้านซ้าง but not in ล้านนา? I find it fascinating, two similar areas, with languages so close to each other, with quite similar historic relationship with central thailand…(16th 17th century, I think NE Thailand was not yet settled by lao deported by Bangkok rulers, it came mostly as a punishment after the delusions of grandeur of Chao Anou). Languages are fascinating.

  16. All writing is an approximation of the spoken word. Therefore, transliteration is an approximation of an approximation. Benjawan Becker in her dictionaries uses a “g” for “ก”, so does Glenn Slayden from thai-language.com, as does thai2english.com and David Smyth. I started out using Mary Hass and Peace Corps materials that used “k” for “ก”. The Lonely Planet Guide and the Thai government also us “k”. I wish I had used “g” when I was just beginning because my “approximations” would have been more approximate.

    Try this as a meditation: Say “ก” and put your mind on where your tongue is, especially the back of the tongue. Then say a “g”. The one small difference is that the “ก” is pressed a little harder to the soft palate than it is when you say a “g”. As the New York saying goes, “Same difference”.

    Even though the “g” is technically voiced and the “ก” is technically voiceless, in actual usage you will not hear a “ก” without a voiced sound just after it, even in the consonant clusters like the name of the southern town of “กระบี่” spelled by the Thai government as “Krabi”, and pronounced by most visitors as “Crabby” when a better approximation is /grà~bi/.

    I’ll stick with the “g”. It’s not a “stupid mistake”. It’s just an “approximation”. But one that works for me, and it would appear, lots of other people.

    Note: The word “gay” is a Thai word, and is spelled in the Thai-English English-Thai software Dictionary as “เกย์” /gee/ and sounds exactly as the English word does (since it is a loan word of course).

    Note 2: How does the Thai word for tiger “เสือ” become “sua” as in “sua noy”? It does because it is the closest “approximation” that the English writing system has for that unbelievably difficult to say (for most westerners) Thai vowel sound in “เสือ”.

    But in the end, use what works for you. they are all the “same difference”.

  17. I love to read all your comments! And wish to add that the approximation of the approximation is again different if you speak French or Spanish like me! So only one conclusion..avoid transliteration if possible!

  18. Michel, “avoid transliteration if possible!” I SO do agree :-)

    Btw – I had a wonderful meeting with Herb and Jim Higbie at the British Club Bangkok today. I’m not much of a social creature but when it comes to languages, I’m all ears. Today was so very special.

  19. The knowledge that sua noy is sharing here is absolutely fascinating, both about the development of the different languages and the political history. I would love to read more about this. Does anyone have some good sources to recommend? (Preferably online, or book titles.)

  20. Peter, if you don’t get your answer here, ask at the Farang Can Learn Thai Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/faranglearnthai/

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