Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Nationality: New Zealander
Age range: 30-40
What is your Thai level?
I guess I would say I am Advanced. I don’t consider myself fluent because to me that means you can talk about absolutely anything in great detail with anyone. There are a few technical subjects for which my vocabulary would be not allow me to do that without saying things like, “the long round thing that looks like a….” type descriptions!
Do you speak more street Thai, Isaan Thai, or professional Thai?
I consider myself lucky to have learned Thai “properly”, having learned to read and write right from the start in a very supportive classroom environment. This means that today my Thai is more formal than what you would hear from those who have learned in other “environments”.
I speak proper Thai or professional Thai as you call it, can understand a fair chunk of Isaan as well as some street Thai although my street Thai is actually not that good – but with that said, it is not something I am particularly concerned about.
My desire has always been to be able to speak proper Thai although there from time to time it might be advantageous to speak street Thai, or at the very least, understand it. Isaan Thai is probably more useful to me than street Thai per se as I have a lot of interaction with people from that region, especially those from less privileged, rural backgrounds for whom Isaan Thai is what they speak at home and with their friends.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I have always wanted to learn a second language to a high level. I reached a reasonable level in German way back when I was still at school but eventually gave it away when I realised that no matter how good my German got, the average German would always be able to speak more than passable English and so making my German redundant. Also, German starts to get quite complicated as you get to the higher levels and the grammar becomes a bit of a nightmare!
When I decided that I would be moving to Thailand – and the original plan was only to stay for a year or two – it presented an opportunity to learn a second language in the country where that language was spoken. Back then I thought I would actually need to have Thai skills just to survive in Thailand, something which really isn’t true at all.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I have lived in Bangkok since the late ‘90s and have travelled to most corners of the Kingdom over the last decade.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I guess you could say that I was a student of the Thai language from late 1997 until late 2000, so a period of about three years, although really, from early ’98 to early 2000 there was little actual study done, other than engaging Thais in conversation and improving my language skills through conversation and use of the language on a daily basis. That was a period of very slow development for me.
I speak Thais as often as I do English these days and I am sure I still pick up new words and colloquialisms without realising. But with that said, I have not studied the language formally since I stopped studying at Union Language School back at the end of 2000.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
My introduction to the Thai language was at the Thai temple on the Te Atatu Peninsula in West Auckland, way back in 1997. I was invited there by a Thai woman who ran a small Thai food stall. I had befriended her and told her that I hoped to spend a year or two in Thailand and she invited me to the Thai temple. She explained there was a New Zealander who had lived in Phuket for 8 years, John Batt, who gave lessons for free on Sunday afternoons to all who had a genuine interest in learning the language.
In addition to studying at the temple, I went through the Linguaphone course at the same time.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Along with studying at the local temple every Sunday, I also worked my way through the Linguaphone course. It’s a really well-structured course which builds vocabulary, gives basic grammar instruction, develops listening skills and helps with pronunciation and even reading and writing although I did not work through that part of the course as I had already learned to read and write at the temple.
I was disciplined and would study for an hour a day after work, Monday to Friday. I never missed an hour! I cleared a desk in a spare room, set it up, and studied there. I had meticulous study habits and making it a routine worked well for me. Missing a day would be like a gym freak missing a day of exercise.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
I started at the Thai temple in West Auckland using some homemade – but excellent – materials.
The Linguaphone course was the only self-study course I used. It was very good, but so it should be for it was very expensive. Still, as a language teacher myself, I appreciated the structure and a lot of thought clearly went into the way it was put together and the methodology.
I spent seven months at Union Language School in 2000 which was when I made the best progress. Prior to studying there, my Thai language skills had plateaued and I needed the formal environment of what is actually a very strict school to progress.
Did one method stand out over all others?
I firmly believe that most Westerners learn better – and make more progress – in a classroom environment where you learn from both the teacher and other students. Too many Westerners either elect to study with a teacher one on one or are misled into thinking that one on in instruction is the best approach. It isn’t! One on one teaching is not easy and requires a different skill set from the teacher. I have yet to even hear of a really effective one on one teacher. It also requires the student to be highly motivated, which may or may not be the case with foreigners learning Thai.
I would implore anyone who really wants to develop their Thai language skills to study at one of the better language institutes in Bangkok in a classroom setting and Union and Unity both come to mind. I truly believe that learning at one of these schools in a classroom environment is so much more effective than any other method – and the costs are very reasonable with a one-month course, meaning 80 odd hours instruction, for under 7,000 baht. You cannot complain at that!
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
I learned to read and write from the very first lesson and I firmly believe that this was the key in being able to reach such a high level. I never used to think in terms of transliteration as those who do not read and write are forced to. And because I learned the tone rules when I learned to read and write I knew how a word was supposed to be pronounced, even if I had problems pronouncing it exactly that way!
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
It is ridiculously easy! I learned to read and write the entire alphabet over 6 x 1.5 hour lessons and about the same amount of time at home practicing. So let’s call it 18 hours all up. The tone rules followed but they were not that hard.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
One of my memories is from mid 2000. I was sitting at a food vendor at lunch time waiting for whatever it was I had ordered and it was taking forever to come. Next to me were a bunch of pretty office girls chatting away the whole time. The arrival of my food coincided with them leaving. It didn’t dawn on me until they left that I had understood everything they had been talking about and had not had to translate anything into English. That was a real breakthrough moment.
How do you learn languages?
We all have our own learning style and I think that it is important that we understand how we learn. I think we can loosely say there are two main learning styles, accuracy and fluency.
Those who prefer fluency tend to hear the language and then repeat it. They are more concerned about being able to communicate and be understood than necessarily being that accurate in their use of the language.
The other style is accuracy. People who prefer this method tend to want to see things written and break them down and then slowly reproduce what they see and then make variants of those sentences and check them for accuracy as they learn. They are most concerned about getting it right.
For me, I tend to be someone who goes down the accuracy path so especially in the early days I needed to see things written and then I would form my own versions of them, sort of like pattern building.
If you learn formally in Thailand the teachers are most concerned about accuracy – especially Thai teachers who really don’t seem to care for the idea of fluency based learning. That suited me perfectly.
If you learn from conversing with the locals, perhaps in the bars as many Western men do, then that is a much more fluency-based approach.
As I have often said, back in 2000 when I really went all out to get my Thai to as high a level as possible, I learned good Thai by day and bad Thai by night. I guess that was the best of both worlds!
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I think one’s strengths and weaknesses when using a foreign language and inextricably related to their personality.
Probably my biggest strength is that I am gregarious. I talk a lot and am happy to talk with pretty much anyone about anything.
I can be a little impatient and when asking more modestly educated Thais for explanations of things related to language, I find their lack of knowledge frustrating – but with that said I learned a long time ago who to ask such questions to and who not to!
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That the language is difficult because of the tones. It isn’t!
Thai is actually a remarkably easy language to get to a basic level and like all languages it takes practice, good teaching and a lot of drilling. I think one of the big problems is that Thais, despite being wonderful at many things, aren’t the world’s best teachers. So many just stand in a classroom and talk. Being engaging doesn’t seem to have much importance in Thailand when it comes to teaching technique.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
I can speak basic German, but have lost a lot of what I once had. I had basic French and Maori skills once but now they have been lost in deepest corners of my brain. I can understand more written in these languages than I can speak.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
No, and I think it would be a mistake to do so!
Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?
I am not a programmer. 25 years ago I could write some code in BASIC, but that is about it.
Do you have a passion for music?
Nope, not at all.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Learn to read and write before you do anything – at least if you have any notions of reaching a decent level.
Consider studying at a language school in a classroom environment. You will be amazed at how much progress you will make in a short time.
I learned more in one month in a language school studying full-time – which meant 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, than I did in my first two years in Thailand conversing with the locals in various environments.
Given that many Westerners in Thailand are retired or taking time out – and so have a lot of time on their hands – studying the language formally really is a great way to spend your time, progress with the language and of course, make some new friends.
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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