Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Ian Fereday
Age: 50 next month (oh dear!)
Location: Phuket Town, Phuket
Profession: Semi-retired owner of Patong Language School
Website: phuket-languageschool.com | study-thai-online.com | teflplus.com
Products: Commenced studies at Patong Language School using the Ministry of Education series produced for Thai children studying in primary school (12 books in all). These have a great cumulative teaching method, but the vocabulary is obviously mostly useless. I think they are great for learning the alphabet and tones, and I eventually incorporated the method into our own books for adults.
What is your Thai level?
Fluent. I read Thai at a glance, make notes in Thai, type Thai, watch TV, listen to the radio, can sing Thai songs and tell jokes, and have even done a TV interview in Thai. I have attended seminars and training sessions conducted in Thai. My vocabulary covers legal terms, building and construction, car repair, politics, birdwatching and many other strange corners of the language. When I answer the phone to Thai speakers they are surprised to find out I am a farang!
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Professional Thai and a bit of street Thai. I live in Phuket and we don’t get much Isaan Thai down here.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
Having decided to move here and married the owner of a language school it was a necessity!
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I studied hard for most of the first year, and have used Thai every day since and even now still learn the occasional new word.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Yes, I studied for the first several months and haven’t done any serious study since.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Yes, daily classes of 2-3 hours with an experienced teacher, practice and review in the evening with my wife (a very patient teacher), and used Thai at every opportunity. Drove my wife crazy reading every signpost, menu, business card and leaflet I found.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
Only the Ministry of Education produced series during classes with Patong Language School. The books are still available but have been heavily revised since I used them and have lost direction a little. I don’t think the editor/revisor fully understood the intended method, and consequently spoiled some great books.
I have bought and perused many Thai language books and CD’s over the years to get ideas for my own books. To be brutally honest, most of them are rubbish and some are just phrasebooks. The only two I can recommend are Thai System of Writing and Fundamentals of the Thai Language. These books are from the 50’s or 60’s, so some of the words and constructions are now archaic, but they are clearly laid out, easy to follow and very accurate. It’s surprising that nobody has managed to do a better job after all these years (including me!). The internet wasn’t around when I started learning, but I am sure there is a wealth of information out there now.
Did one method stand out over all others?
Yes, cumulative lessons gradually adding to my repertoire of letters and tones, words and rules, and practice, practice, practice. Group study was better over one-on-one or self-study because I could learn from the other students’ mistakes and successes as well as the teacher.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Immediately. I recommend to anyone that if they have the time they should learn to read first. It makes it much easier to learn to speak if you can read written Thai. Trying to understand Thai speakers is not always easy – they don’t speak the best Thai! If you can read, your grammar will also be better and you will have no slang or dialect. Your speech and tones will be clearer and sentence structure accurate. Learning conversational Thai using phonetics will only get you so far, and you’ll never have good pronunciation.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
I found reading Thai very easy. Writing is not hard, but spelling is a bitch. Frankly, being able to write Thai is not a useful skill. If you need something written in Thai you ought to get a Thai person to write it – it will always be better than your own effort. The only useful thing about writing is to aid memory in learning the alphabet and vocabulary.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
After weeks of struggling over obscure squiggles masquerading as letters, they all suddenly ‘clicked’ one day. It was as if I could suddenly read, when the day before I couldn’t. I have heard many people say they have experienced the same thing when it all just comes together.
How do you learn languages?
By listening, practicing and correcting as I go while immersed in a language with speakers of that language. I also need to see a written, structured method, but I know this doesn’t work for everyone. Drilling doesn’t work for me – I feel stupid repeating myself.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I am extremely determined and will never give up. My theory at the outset was that if Thais could read that crazy script, there was no good reason I couldn’t too. My weakness is I get bored if something doesn’t hold my interest. That’s really why I stopped regular classes, because they had become reading magazines, watching videos and doing translation.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That it is any more difficult than any other language. Clearly, Europeans learning a language that uses the ABC alphabet is always going to be easier because they can already read it (mostly). That’s why I think learners should get reading out of the way first. Then it is not a hindrance to speaking and understanding.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
English obviously! Not bad in Italian and Spanish, and a little bit of Indonesian/Malay (enough to go shopping and order a meal).
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
No, I wouldn’t try that! I studied Italian in Italy, then moved to Spain. The similarities in the languages were too great and I got hopelessly confused. Even now I can say a sentence in Italian and include a Thai or Spanish word by mistake. I think this is something the brain does automatically, inserting a known foreign word into a foreign sentence when it can’t find the right one. My wife does it too, but fortunately we understand one another!
Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?
I write CSS and X/HTML for websites, that’s about it. Would like to learn PHP, but too old and too little free time.
Do you have a passion for music? Do you play an instrument?
Not musical at all – probably tone deaf.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
- Never give up. If you feel you aren’t moving forwards, try a different approach or switch to something else (from conversation to reading or vice versa).
- Don’t confuse learning to read with speaking or understanding. You learn to read to gain the tools you need for conversation. When you learn to read, you needn’t even worry about what the words mean – just as long as you can read them and know the sounds.
- If the vocabulary is useful and relevant, by all means learn it. If it’s not, don’t bother because it will only slow you down.
- Some people learn faster than others, so don’t be disheartened if classmates seem to be getting there faster than you. It’s not a race and it doesn’t matter how long it takes.
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.