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Successful Thai Language Learner: Stickman

Stickman

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Stickman
Nationality: New Zealander
Age range: 30-40
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Webmaster
Website: StickmanBangkok.com

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.

Stickman
StickmanBangkok.com

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.

12 Comments

  1. Another great interview Cat and with the famous Stickman no less.

    I am playing with the Thai alphabet and reading a little now. I think Stickman is dead on about learning to read and write Thai. It will make the language process so much easier.

    I look forward to these interviews because each one gives a little more insight into discovering ways that I can easily put to use.

  2. After you read Stickman’s interview, be sure to read his Benjawan Poomsan Becker (Paiboon Publishing) interview: Benjawan Becker, Looks And Brains Too

    And if you haven’t already, please stop by my interview with Benjawan: Interview: Benjawan Poomsan Becker

  3. Talen, Unlike Stickman, I’m not gregarious. But I do learn better going the accuracy route he mentions in his interview.

    It took awhile for me to understand that breaking the language down to see how it works is how I learn best (and trust me, I tried all sorts of methods).

    Some language learners can jump right in, others need to reason it out. The way I’m going at it might be slower, but it is sure.

  4. Cat, I’ve had a few aha moments in the past month while learning Thai and they have all come from seeing the words and understanding how they are spoken through the written word. Little by little I am understanding things better and I really do think in order to grasp the language well that learning to read and write is the best way.

  5. Talen, when you are ready (if willing) I will pass over my working files for reading Thai. I’ve fine-tuned the method and it does make learning easier. It has been time-consuming getting the files ready, but worth the wait for how I learn.

  6. Great interview! I found some of his articles interesting – but since they mostly pertained to the smutty side of Bangkok, it didn’t interest me much. But his story of learning Thai IS interesting and your interview with him is well done.

    I’m also taking more of an avid interest in learning Thai. I just went to the library today and checked out Plimseur method and Teach Yourself Thai and downloaded the files into my iPod to practice during the time I make dinner, walk with Aidan in the stroller, and other opportunities.

    Oh, and speaking of Benjawan, we all just recorded the newest Speak Like a Thai yesterday. It’s Volume 7 Thai Abbreviations and Formal Thai. The next volumes she will be producing will be aimed at advanced learners.

  7. Hi Amy. I too read Stickman before moving to Thailand. I’m a gal who does not go clubbing (anymore) so I knew that it would not pertain to my real life in Bangkok. But it was interesting reading, regardless.

    And there was more than one, ‘oh my goodness gracious me!’ when scanning through the advice columns. Heh.

    Stickman’s interview brings up good points about the different learning styles. Since the very beginning, I have been searching for an easy breakdown of how we learn. So his comments are a help (as well as a reminder).

    Thanks for the heads up about Benjawan’s Volume 7. I’m especially looking forward to her advanced materials. As you know, there are not enough intermediate to advanced products available for learning Thai.

    Good luck with your new Thai learning push! Mine is still going strong, and I continue to adjust as I go.

  8. A couple of years ago, I started learning the alphabet and found it quite fun. But, like so many other attempts, I fell out of the habit of learning. But I’m fired up now, thanks to your 30-day challenge. Today will be my seventh straight day of doing my Thai lessons. Haven’t done that, in well, many a year.

    What I’ve been doing is listening to K. Benjawan’s pronunciation beginner CDs. I wanted to deal with this first because I really want to nail the pronunciations, i.e., tones of a bunch of words. Also I like the sound of the Thai language.

    I can see, however, what Stickman means about learning to read the language because I found it frustrating reading the transliterations. Not that they’re “wrong” but not always right for me. I think transliterations are useful at the start to help you “see” the sounds of simple and compound vowels, for example. But I want to learn Thai properly and the only way I can see that happening is to read Thai. That’s my next phase.

    Great interview, BTW. If you haven’t read any recent Stick, you’ll see a change, I think. He’s questioning everything he’s done and written before about BKK nightlife. If it challenges his readers about their activities, it’s a good and brave thing for an author of an extremely popular website.

  9. Catherine a great interview with the great man himself. Stickman comes across as a really intelligent man who has gone about his learning and life in a planned and methodical manner.

    My mind keeps changing with each interview on the best way to tackle Thai, I’m convinced after reading this that learning to read and write is the best way once again. Have you got a good link for downloading and printing some Thai alphabet flashcards because my efforts so far keep leading me nowhere on that score.

  10. Rick – You’ve reached day seven of the 30 day language trial. Congrats! I was surprised at how quickly studying every day gets into the blood. I’m still going strong too.

    Benjawan’s pronunciation CD is one of my favourites. And I believe that is is the only product that deals with Thai pronunciation. I too couldn’t read by transliteration. One, there were too many styles. Two, how I pronounced words didn’t seem the same each time. Frustrating.

    I was poking around Stickman yesterday and landed on his photography section: Myanmar/Burma Orphans. It’s an extremely interesting read so please check it out if you have the time.

    Martyn – Stickman’s advice on sitting in on a class had me wondering if I should try it. Eventually. I’m not a group person, but a semester with other Thai students wouldn’t kill me.

    For flashcards, the best around can be downloaded and printed from Chris’ sliceofthai.com: Thai flashcards

    If you are having a difficult time getting the Thai alphabet into your head, then consider using Damian’s 60 Min Thai Alphabet first.

  11. One of the things that struck me was the fact that Stickman said he didn’t think learning Thai one-on-one was the best way to go and yet that is how he was introduced to pasa Thai. I think his intro at the temple was a really nice way into the language and probably helped form a foundation that is missing in a classroom setting.

    It is though all about finding what works for you and to his credit, Stickman studied his brain off. Great interview w/ a infamous web personality ;)

  12. Lani, I agree that finding what works for you is important. I also believe that mixing and matching is the way to go too. I guess because it keeps the interest/excitement fresh?

    Thanks for the kudos on Stickman’s interview. Before I moved to Bangkok, I not only read his site, but printed off pages and pages to read in the hotel while waiting to find accommodation (I still have them somewhere in a thick envelope). For someone coming from nine years in a Muslim country sans alcohol, Stickman shared a different lifestyle. For sure. Not much shocks me (heel-kicking in California in my early twenties fixed that), but I do admit to a few ‘oh me oh my’s’ ;-)

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