Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Herb Purnell
Age range: 70+
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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