Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
What is your Thai level?
Fluent, but shy of bilingual
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Early on, I realised that the central dialect of Thai, as used by professionals, was well understood in all parts of the country, in every remote village with a TV. North, Northeast (Isan – why 2 “s”?) and South are the main dialects, I understand them mostly, South the best, having spent some time in Phuket, and each jangwat has its distinctive twang. I have a smattering of Lao, having learned some of the shifts and the Lao alphabet, which is how the Thai alphabet could be reformed in many ways.
Street Thai, well colloquial Thai, even as spoken by the upper echelons, is a huge challenge, but I will not curse, and there are many elephant traps for the unwary, so yeah, I avoid it, unless I’m feeling confident I won’t cause controversy.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
Get around in this country. As I’ve been living here a long time, I’ve acquired the language in depth. As to why I’ve been here a long time, it’s a self generating cycle – being good at Thai has helped me get on in Thailand to a point where I am pretty comfortable.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
Yes: Arrived in 1985, stayed till late 1986. Went back to SOAS in London to do the Thai degree – one summer trip in 1988. Since 1990, more or less permanently resident.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I make that, 25 years.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Yes, I learned Thai, but only by myself with no course, just one main textbook, “The Fundamentals of the Thai language.” This got me to a level where I was able to enter SOAS Thai language courses in the 2nd year.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
I had a period of about 6 months when I was in an English teaching job when I had a Thai person able to help check and feedback on what I was doing.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
Did one method stand out over all others?
“The Fundamentals of the Thai language” is an enigma, because it’s this quaint 1950s thing, doesn’t have any exercises or pictures, yet has a good sequence of pulling you through the language topic by topic, so by the end of it, one has mastered a basic form of the language, and yes, it teaches you to read and write.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Immediately. My first goal was to read bus destination boards. Sadly, now, buses also have boards in English ;)
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Yes, but I consoled myself, firstly with the thought that Thai kids pick it up in a only couple of years when they are very young, and secondly, with the idea that Chinese is a lot harder (44 Thai consonants vs. 40,000 Chinese ideograms to read a newspaper). I had the writing down pretty well in about six months. Compare that to the language – after 25 years, I am still picking up new vocabulary.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
I had at least 2 distinct ‘ah hah!’ moments.
The first was when I realized how the writing system captures the tones and became able to produce that sequence: Ga Ga1 Ga2 Ga3 Ga4, and from then on, had no problem hearing and distinguishing tones.
The second was when I realized that the consonant order follows a phonological pattern established by the script’s Indian ancestors, somewhat like the periodic table of chemistry, which also captures the class of the consonant, and thus helps with the tones, and is a surefire thing for remembering the order, useful if you want to consult a dictionary.
How do you learn languages?
Mainly, by listening, very, very carefully, with an open mind, that is, without bias or colour from any other language I know. At the same time, paradoxically, I listen for similarities with other languages, particularly those of the same family. Both of these are quite hard for most people, particularly if they are unaware of their own accent. I feel lucky, because my parents came from working class cockney families, but learned crystal-clear received pronunciation at grammar school. When I was a kid, and lapsed into “lazy” speech, I was corrected, and although at the time it was annoying, I learned to hear small differences between sounds, which is the key to learning foreign languages.
Good text books and especially dictionaries, also help.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Strengths: Big vocabulary, grammatical insight, depth in general, a good accent when concentrating.
Weaknesses: Sometimes, not bothering to make the correct pronunciation because I’m being lazy. I found, as a non-native speaker of this language, I’m using twice as much brain power to process a Thai text than an English text, so it gets tiring after a while.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That you can learn this language without learning the writing system.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I have reasonable French and small German (from school), and can say “Hello” or “Thank you” in at least 20 languages.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
No, although, as time went on, I have accumulated grammatical knowledge about English, because I am often copy-editing something a Thai person has written, and I like to be able to explain myself. I was interested to learn that the brain has neurological reflexes to bad grammar, and in general my approach to grammar is the descriptive approach of modern linguistics.
Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?
No. A few simple macro routines in Visual Basic, tops. I’m still somewhat of a geek, would describe myself as an advanced user.
Do you have a passion for music?
Yes. I could get very deep on this one. Tonality helps in learning Thai, and reading it is like reading music to an extent.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Learn to read and write.
Get decent dictionaries, including a Thai-Thai dictionary like that of the Royal Institute.
When you have mastered the basics, have a look at the compendiums of grammar called “Lak Phasa Thai”.
Remember, Thai, just like any other language, has correct and polite forms, and guidelines for good, “educated” style. If you are serious about staying in the place, a little depth will go a long way. Most Thais appreciate any effort to learn their language, so do it right and they will love you :)
Siamese Cats: Legends and Reality
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.