Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Vern Lovic
Location: Surat, Thailand
Profession: Internet marketing, writing, web development
What is your Thai level?
It ranges from comfortable to very uncomfortable. It’s all in how the conversation goes really. There are many topics I know how to talk about, and many more that I’m clueless about. There are places in Thailand where I seem to understand and be understood much better than others. Southern Thailand and Bangkok are good places for me to speak Thai. In the northeast my success rate takes a serious hit.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
I learned Thai in Isaan but told everyone that helped me pronounce that I want to learn Bangkok Thai, not Isaan flavor. The result was that I don’t do all that well in Isaan or Patong Beach, but overall I think it was the right way to go since I wasn’t going to spend my whole life in Isaan.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
At first, necessity. There are very few good English speakers among native Thais in Ubon. Over the years I’ve added to what I know slowly, and not out of necessity but more of a general need to connect with the many amazing Thai people I meet almost daily.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
Yes, late 2004.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
Ever since. I made a focused effort at learning Thai over the first 1.5 years, and though I knew a lot of vocabulary at that point, actually pulling off a conversation that didn’t end prematurely with those famous Thai smiles from those I was speaking with was… rare.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
I guess I went about it my way, which is my usual hard-headed style. I knew from graduate school that I learned best visually so I created over a thousand notecards with definitions on one side and Thai words on the other. I’d drill myself with hundreds at a time until I knew them all. With that first sustained effort I knew 1400+ Thai words.
I took a break after that and practiced using the words in conversation and listening to Thai conversations often to see what I could pick out of them. I think I’m functionally learning disabled, so it’s taken me a long time to get to where I am now!
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
At first I did – during breakfast, during lunch, and in the evenings I’d be rattling off the notecards. I haven’t formally sat down to study Thai since 2006.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
Notecards, as noted. I also hired a girl in Isaan for 100 THB per hour to help me with pronunciation three times per week. I guess we did about 25 sessions. It was a great help… she’d pronounce the word and I’d write it phonetically and sometimes record the sessions with my Nokia phone.
I studied a Thai dictionary that was very helpful and I have it here on my bookshelf, it’s the “Robertson’s Practical English-Thai Dictionary”, by Richard G. Robertson. The phonetic pronunciation tips in the book made the most sense to me, and though there were some errors, it’s the best resource I found for helping me find new vocabulary I should use. It’s a small book too – highly recommended.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why I’d need to read or write Thai over the first two years. I wasn’t interested at all. After two years I thought I must be missing something and so I figured out the pronunciation of the letters, learned to form some words. Bought the childrens’ books and traced the letters and learned as a child does for a couple of months. Then I just got so busy with my real work, web development and internet projects that it all took a backseat. It’s still all in the backseat and I cannot fathom why I need to learn to read or write Thai at this stage.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Yes, not because of the alphabet being so large or so strangely different from English, but because the sentence structure and reading backwards sometimes is a bit hard to get over. No breaks for words or sentences is also something that takes getting used to. As I insinuated, it was going to take a lot more effort than I realized it would – and I just didn’t have the time or motivation to keep pushing to learn it.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
I was talking to a guy I’d just met at a nearby tourist attraction. We were talking back and forth and there was a silence for a few seconds as we both were looking at the view… I realized that I had been talking and thinking in Thai, not translating it to English to respond. A very cool moment!
How do you learn languages?
First visually, then practice with speaking to other natives. I cannot, will not, or should not speak Thai with other foreigners trying to practice. It just doesn’t work for me – the context just isn’t there and I end up looking at them like I’m tripping on Red Bull or something. It just doesn’t add up. My brain goes into freeze-mode and I cannot form a conversation anymore!
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I seem to be good at getting my own message across! I can speak about what I want to speak about pretty well. I can direct the conversation well. My vocabulary is pretty good, I know a wide range of words.
Due to the variability in the way Thais speak across the country, and even between any two Thais – it can become difficult to understand some people at all and they get the tripping Red Bull look. Add to that the rate of speech that someone uses, and I can get lost easily with a fast speaker.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
Maybe it’s that, “If I learn Thai – I know Thai.”
What I mean is, there are so many different dialects in Thai that you might know Thai and move 100km away and have a difficult time. When my wife moved from Isaan to the south – she was as dumbfounded as I was. That made me feel a lot better. Southern dialect is very different. Very little tonal expression and a whole lot of vowel sounds. I joke with the monks at the temple when they speak southern with me by repeating back what it sounds like to me that they just said… It goes something like, “Aweeooweeeweeee Oh Wa?”
Can you make your way around any other languages?
No. Hence my self-label, language learning disabled. I took 5 years of Spanish and 2 years of French and I’ve got only vocabulary to show for it. Putting it all together in conversation just hasn’t been that much of a priority that I forced myself to do it.
However, now that I have learned Thai to some degree I have a lot of confidence that Spanish would click in a year of trying, in a place like Miami.
Learning Thai is probably in the top 10 for most difficult languages to master for a native English speaker.That’s my guess anyway!
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
Some Laos as a result of living in Isaan!
Do you have a passion for music?
I have very eclectic tastes. I can listen to the simple drumbeat of a Morlam song for an hour at a time… and have! Traditional Thai music is really lovely and I miss Isaan for the music and the amazing, friendly people.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Patience is indicated. I don’t know many people that picked up Thai immediately. Actually I know one girl that really picked up conversational Thai in 18 months to a very high degree. For the rest of us it takes a few years of sustained effort. Speaking Thai everyday is the best thing you can do to progress faster.
There is a great ebook I just became aware of because he decided to let me help him sell it on one of my sites. Learning the Thai Alphabet in 60 Minutes is that ebook. Have a look, you won’t be disappointed – as crazy as it sounds, it really delivers. I’d call it maybe 2 hours though
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.