Age range: 30-40
Profession: NGO worker (Human rights and refugees)
What is your Thai level?
For most practical purposes, people call me fluent. That’s a fraught term, though, and I’m all too aware of my shortcomings. I tested in July 2014 with the CUTFL offered by Chulalongkorn, and ranked Advanced in all except writing, which I got high elementary if I remember correctly (I think because my spelling was/is horrible). However, after that I did six months of intensive Thai and I have definitely improved since then, with greater understanding of complex vocabulary, including royal language. On the CEFR proficiency scale, I am sure at this point I would rate about B2, pushing into C1 territory on some things. That would be for all except writing, where I might still rate somewhat lower.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Professional Bangkok Thai, for sure. I know a good bit of social media slang and swear words, but my Thai is overall very formal and polite. It doesn’t slip much lower than “business casual”, for better or for worse.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I knew I was going to be here awhile, and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to learn a new language. I love learning languages, and being able to talk to and understand the people around me is very important. I felt like I’d always be left out of something if I couldn’t speak Thai.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
I do live here. I’ve been here since May 2011.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I started the week I arrived, so since May 2011. I’ve always taken classes of some kind at least once a week, but from October 2014-April 2015, I was studying 15 hours a week.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
I did. I took classes right from the beginning, and stuck with it. However, I changed schools about every six months to a year, so sometimes there were interruptions. But I’d say it’s been a consistent dogged effort, even if some months it was more of a limp than a sprint.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
For the first six months, I took classes, and I studied reading and writing by myself for a couple hours a week. After the first six months, outside of classes, I didn’t formally set aside time to study, and barely did any homework (not least because teachers rarely assigned anything). I just didn’t have the time or the motivation, though I’d pursue things that were “fun”, like trying to read a magazine or chat to people around me as the opportunity arose.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
I started with Thai Language House, which used Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s books at the time. They didn’t really work for me for whatever reason, so I asked my teacher to try and teach me using David Smyth’s Teach yourself Thai. I like that book a lot and would recommend it, especially to self-study learners. Meanwhile, I taught myself to read with Rungrat Luanwararat’s Introduction to Thai Reading. I made it through to the end of that book and Teach Yourself, and then switched to Jentana, and worked with two of her teachers for about six to nine months. After that, I went to Language Express, and studied two or three days per week in their highest level for about one year. After I felt I had maxed out on what I could get out of classes at Language Express, I went to Sumaa, which was much more expensive, so I only took 90 minutes a week. Their teachers are top-notch, though. I stayed there for a year, I think.
At about the three-year mark, I changed over to Rak Thai Language school, and took their evening intensive class, Social Problems, at ten hours per week, and then newspaper reading, for two months. That was where I made my quickest strides, and really learned how to write and spell. I continued with them for another month after I quit my job, I think taking newspaper reading again. Then I started at Chulalongkorn, and did their Thai 8 and Thai 9 courses (15 hours/week), which helped a lot with formal vocabulary and listening comprehension. I went back to Rak Thai after that for another two months, doing a course that the head instructor put together especially for myself and some other students who were interested in looking at Thai literature and some special topics in professional writing.
I’ve also had conversation partners, watched series from time to time, and I try to read recreationally at least a few pages a week of a novel I’ve been working on for awhile.
Did one method stand out over all others?
I think Rak Thai language school really has something going for it. My writing skills were going nowhere before I started there. Their trick is making students do written homework everyday. It seems obvious, but it’s rare to find teachers that assign homework and then actually make you feel a little bad if you don’t do it.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
Immediately. I think being able to read has been absolutely key to my progress. The world is my textbook: I read signs and learn words just by walking down the street. I also lock tone and vowel length into my memory by knowing how a word is spelled. Just hearing a word and then recalling all of its elements is, for me, terribly difficult unless I know how it’s written.
Furthermore, many Thai words actually do sound exactly the same, down to tone and vowel length. However, the spelling of the words is often different, and the spelling frequently makes a difference to my understanding of it. If nothing else, though, it helps with vocabulary building just to know, in the case of absolute homophones, that I’m really dealing with two different words.
In sum, I can’t imagine not learning how to read and write Thai. Not only does literacy make you a more sophisticated user of any language, but also, if you’re any kind of language buff at all, Thai is so much more interesting when you start to realize how much other languages have contributed to even its most basic collection of vocabulary words. This foreign influence is only apparent when you know how to read and can then investigate the etymologies of certain spellings.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
Not really. I barely remember that part-it only took a few weeks to get the idea. Proficiency, of course, took much longer, but the basic idea takes no time at all. Several hours of flash-carding to begin with, then lots of practice to familiarize yourself with exceptional words, and that’s really it.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
I can’t remember. I do remember feeling exceptionally proud one day early on when I was able to read a basic sentence out loud to a Thai friend of mine. Or maybe when I figured out what the different BTS announcements were saying in Thai when the train arrived at the station, left the station, had a problem, etc.
How do you learn languages?
I’ve always learned language through formalized study plus immersion. I focus on sentence structure and grammar, usually, and I always work hard on reading, as that’s where I feel my vocabulary grows the quickest. My most successful learning experiences have always come, though, when I have been able to stay with a family and speak my target language 24/7 in a variety of day-to-day experiences.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Speaking, conversation, and reading are my strengths. I’m weaker in listening comprehension, as it is still hard for me to catch all the details in films and TV shows. Writing is my weakest skill, as my spelling is still shaky, meaning I have to have a dictionary at hand when I compose anything at all.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That there is no grammar in Thai. There is; just not as we know it from European languages. A lot of nuanced meaning is communicated with particles and word order, and I would call that grammar. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers and students have this idea there is no grammar in Thai, and therefore nothing to learn or teach in that department. I think most students pick up the structure organically in the end, but it’d be good to focus on sentence structure and call it Thai grammar, so students understand how it relates to grammar as they know it.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
Yes, I speak Spanish (C1), French (B2), and Mandarin (B1 now; though I used to be at B2).
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
At the beginning, for about two years, I was studying Thai while taking lessons to maintain my Mandarin, but I dropped the Mandarin eventually. I picked up French in July 2014, which has been a massively quicker learning experience, no doubt due to its similarity to English and Spanish.
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
Just don’t stop trying. Definitely learn to read. Always look for opportunities to practice all four skills.
It might take longer than you hope to reach a useful proficiency level, but stick with it. It pays off when your friends start telling you you’re not just geng (skillful), not just chat (clear), but khlong (fluent) and don’t always switch to English when they talk to you. It’s also a real boon to be able to navigate any situation at all in Thai, from dealings with authorities to company customer services reps. In fact, by speaking and reading Thai, you can access Thai-market services that are much cheaper than their farang-targeted versions with English websites and customer service reps. Basically, it’s worth it to start right away and keep going, especially if there’s any chance at all you’ll remain in the Kingdom for longer than a year.
NGO worker (Human rights and refugees)
The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: 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.