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Pale and Exhausted: Accounts of Thai Language Acquisition

Pale and Exhausted: Accounts of Thai Language Acquisition

Pale and Exhausted: Accounts of Thai Language Acquisition…

In examining interviews of Thai language learners archived on Women Learn Thai (henceforth referred to as WLT), it is apparent that the experiences they report largely corroborate a number (but perhaps not all) of the theoretical claims in the literature on second language acquisition (SLA) and learning.

In this paper I will examine aspects of the learners’ accounts in relation to a large number of factors traditionally considered to impact on the acquisition of a second language. In order to provide a framework for the assessment of these experiences, I will borrow Sapolsky’s model of second language learning (with the implicit assumption that while not flawless, it serves as a functionally valid model). Thus I will begin by addressing the general ‘social context’ common to most of the learners.

I will move on to discuss factors relating to their attitudes, especially those relating to language learning, both general and specific, and towards Thai culture and acculturation. These attitudes in turn shed light on their various (but often quite similar) motivations for learning Thai.

From there, I will examine the ways in which learners’ attitudes and motivation interact with individual factors such as their age, personality, and previous knowledge (including prior second language knowledge and the role of cross linguistic influence).

Finally, I will consider the types of opportunities learners availed themselves of, as evidenced by their comments on the relative importance of the four skills, the role of formal instruction, preferred methods of study, learning strategies and use of learning resources. (Sapolsky, 1989: 28)

Because learners profiled on WLT were not interviewed with these specific categories in mind, there will be some overlap and redundancy across different ‘factors.’  Nonetheless, I will endeavor to create a comprehensive and cohesive, yet detailed overview of learner profiles as they relate to SLA literature.

Social Context…

The vast majority of learners interviewed have had significant (ten or more years) living experience in Thailand, and many are still living in Thailand at this time. Some were Peace Corp volunteers, while others have had a compelling experience in Thailand which motivated their return, such as Grace Robinson, who says “I felt I had left a piece of my heart in Thailand and had big dreams to live in the country.” (Grace Robinson, WTL). For others, their social context provided an immediate need to learn Thai.

Aaron Handel states “I learned Thai because it was necessary. If I were to ask in English for “fried rice with chicken,” Thai people would show me to the toilet or bring me their baby pictures. This just would not do. I had to learn Thai.” (Aaron Handel, WLT)  Another learner, who works in Thailand and must use Thai in a professional context states: “Helping as a translator at the Local Police Station was the wake up call. There you sink and die if your Thai is not up to speed and the added embarrassment of looking silly in front of a group of tourists and police is enough incentive to study harder.” (Aaron LeBoutillier, WLT)

Attitudes towards language learning…

Learners profiled on WLT had many things to say regarding their attitude towards language learning, especially regarding Thai. Aaron Handel reflects the attitude of many learners regarding the discipline required to learn Thai, especially concerning the mastery of tones, in saying “I firmly believe that to learn a tonal language like Thai, you need a drill sergeant!” (Aaron Handel, WLT) While most learners agreed that learning Thai requires discipline and perseverance, most also felt that a common misconception regarding the learning of Thai is that it is difficult. David Long states: “I believe that the thing that makes it difficult is mostly centered on how we try to do it! It seems to me that if a 2 year old can do it, then so can I and it doesn’t have to be hard!” (David Long, WLT

Another key attitude expressed by many learners was one regarding the importance of making mistakes. Jonas Anderson states this clearly in saying: “These 2 methods helped me more than anything else—1. Speaking the language with native Thai speakers as often and as much as possible, and 2. Being willing to make mistakes and not be discouraged by them or daunted by the frequency with which I initially made them.” (Jonas Anderson, WLT) Jonas also comments that he (as did many other learners) actively requested correction from his Thai friends when he did make mistakes in conversation.

This attitude regarding the usefulness of mistakes and feedback fits well with the ‘comprehensible output hypothesis,’ in which “The act of speaking forces us to try out our ideas about how the target grammar [and phonemic system] actually works, and of course gives us the chance of getting some feedback from interlocutors who may fail to understand our efforts.” (Mitchell & Meyers, 1998: 15)

Attitudes towards acculturation…

It has often been noted that more typically successful language learners display an integrative disposition – “a positive interpersonal / affective disposition towards the L2 group and the desire to interact with and even become similar to valued members of that community.” (Dörnyei, 5) In this sense the very act of speaking or learning the language equates to the process of becoming a member of a community, the process of acculturation. 

Nearly every learner interviewed has something to say which weaves together their language learning and acculturation process, thus validating the claim that “social realities are linguistically/discursively constructed”.

Christy Gibson states this well: “Thai Language and Culture go hand in hand. So true. Learning about and being immersed in the culture and understanding has helped me a lot in my usage of the Thai language and my understanding of the things that Thai people say and what they mean when they say it, etc. I think it’s difficult to know how to use the language, at least on a deeper level, if you don’t really understand the culture and/or Thai mentality and way of life.” (Christy Gibson, WLT) Tom Parker also comments: “I believe language is the key to understanding culture and aids integration which is one factor contributing to contented, successful living in Thailand.” (Tom Parker, WLT) Finally, Grace Robinson comments on the integrated aspect of language and culture in saying “Personally, I have benefitted from getting to know the culture at the same time, this is really crucial, as the two cannot be separated. You will find many connections between language and culture and this will really raise interest and pleasure from learning.” (Grace Robinson, WLT)

Motivation…

For many, the social context and immediate need stimulated further motivation for study.  For some, this motivation was integrative. David Long states “I moved to Thailand in 1987 and wanted very much to be integrated into Thai society.” (David Long, WLT) Garreth Marshall, in a comment typical of the implicit attitude of many learners profiled on WLT, says “I couldn’t imagine living in a country where I can’t communicate with people or interact with the local culture/lifestyle.” (Gareth Marshall, WLT)  For Paul Garrigan, integrative motivation was more particular: “I have been interested in Buddhist philosophy since my teens and wanted to be able to communicate with monks in Thai and read some of the Buddhist resources that are only available in Thai.” (Paul Garrigan, WLT

These accounts, which all come from intermediate and advanced learners, seem to support Nikolov’s propostition that “successful language learners …have very strong integrative motivation to become bona fide residents of the target language society” and “try to feel at home in the culture as well as in the language.” (Nikolov, 2000: 5)

Many of the learners, such as Aaron Le Boutillier and Marcel Barang, as well as those who came to Thailand with the Peace Corps, also have or had a professional reason to learn Thai. In addition to integrative motivation, their reasons for learning Thai were instrumental. Because of this further motivation, achievement of a positive learning outcome became even more certain. As Hinenoya and Gatbonton have stated:  “the higher the learners’ desire … to find employment, seek advancement, and so on (instrumental motivation), the better their performance … and the higher their proficiency levels” (Hinenoya and Gatbonton, 2000: 1)

For others, the motivation stemmed from the challenge and fun of learning. Aaron Handel defines Thai in relation to European languages he had previously studied with little interest “Thai is different. Thai is a tonal language. This makes it fascinating and challenging for a native English speaker.” (Aaron Handel, WLT) Another Thai language learner (not profiled on WLT), Luke Grimes, describes the enjoyment he gets from the challenge of learning Thai as a kind of intellectual pursuit, a puzzle to be solved, like a sudoku, but on a far more gratifying level. This type of gratification may relate motivationally as a sort of converse to Ringbom’s observation that “similarities may obscure for the learner the fact that there is something to learn.” (Gass & Selinker, 2008: 146) Because there are so few similarities between European languages and Thai, it becomes thoroughly evident that there is everything to be learned anew and thus doubly challenging and doubly rewarding.

Many others, such as Chris Pirazzi, commented on the ‘fun’ they had in learning Thai as being a primary motivating factor. It is surprising that in so much of the literature on language acquisition and learning, the word ‘fun’ never comes into use. It would seem that further research into the factor of ‘fun’ and what comprises a fun experience in language learning is long overdue. 

What is common to almost all the learners interviewed is their degree of commitment and the enjoyment they obtain from learning and using Thai. Tom Parker offers a statement typical of the level of commitment seen in learners on WLT:  “In the first year of studying Thai I was absolutely determined to master the language and studied it obsessively, that helped give me a good foundation in Thai which I think still pays off today.” (Tom Parker, WLT) And Aaron Le Boutillier sums up well the level of enjoyment obtained in saying “Absolute passion. I am never happier than when I have learnt a new word in the morning and then use it with ease in the afternoon. Magic!” (Aaron LeBoutillier, WLT)

Age, Personality, and Previous Knowledge…

With regards to age, Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson comment that “Younger learners acquire second languages automatically from mere exposure, while older learners have to make conscious and labored efforts.” (Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2000: 152, in Singleton 2003: 10) This seems to be reflected in comments by learners on WLT who began their learning as adults (referred to above) on the necessity for discipline and perseverance in the learning of Thai. Nonetheless, the discipline and perseverance do pay off, and most of the learners profiled have achieved a high level of proficiency. Thus, Nikolov’s observation that “it has been shown that the strong version of CHP cannot be maintained” (Nikolov, M.) holds true. 

One of the few individuals who started his Thai learning as a child comments “I think that the reason Thais compliment my Thai pronunciation … is that I am fortunate to have arrived in Thailand when quite young so picking up the Thai accent was easier than if I had moved here as an adult.”  (Jonas Anderson, WLT)

One feature that stands out as essential for nearly all learners is the importance of mastering Thai tones and the importance of doing this early on. This is generally expressed (and also personally corroborated by this author) as a very difficult pursuit for an adult learner. Here, the literature on language acquisition seems to provide a solid understanding of the underlying reasons for this. Bavin states that “the ability to discriminate the earlier sounds weakens if these sounds are not part of the language being acquired.” (Bavin, 1995: 3) Also, “children acquire the system they are exposed to. Children encode notions only if they are categorized in their language” (Bavin, 1995:  10)

So, adults learning Thai for the first time arrive at their pursuit with an encoded system which does not include a large number of notions which are critical to comprehension and production of correct Thai. Furthermore, our capacity for discriminating such sounds (notions) has been impoverished by an L1 acquisition process which did not make use of them. This phenomenon can also be seen through the stance of connectionism, in which “links become stronger as these associations keep recurring, and they also become part of larger networks as connections between elements become more numerous.” (Mitchell & Meyers, 1998: 79) Adult learners of Thai arrive at their pursuit with a paucity of neural connections necessary for determining tones and short and long vowels. However, through discipline and perseverance those connections are created.

Concerning personality, I venture to extrapolate on the notion that “The classroom culture is constrained by ethnolinguistic norms of society at large.” (Leather & Van Dam, 2002:17) If this can be taken as true, it may also be apparent that an individual’s learning culture at large is both positively and negatively defined by the norms of their society in general. Thus, we can explain (somewhat ethnocentrically) the preponderance of British and American learners not by those societies’ typical lack of polyglots, but by their purported tendency to produce individuals who thrive in going against the grain and in the face of challenge. Having said that, it should not go unnoticed that a far greater number of Thai and other Asian nationals have persevered and strived beyond the constraints of their particular classroom situations to achieve sufficiently high levels of English proficiency as to study at Master’s and Doctorate level coursework.

With regards to previous knowledge, in particular, knowledge of other languages, it is striking that most learners profiled had little or no previous successful language learning experience or interest. Tom Parker states “I had no interest in French and German at school and as far as I was concerned learning a second language (especially Thai) was beyond me. Luckily my tutors encouraged me to take the plunge and I’ve never looked back. … “ (Tom Parker, WLT) Aaron Handel’s experience also reflects this state of affairs: “I was never particularly good at learning languages in school. I was a ‘C’ student in German. Frankly, I did not have much interest in learning.” (Aaron Handel, WLT) These findings would seem to fly in the face of those of Klein, as reviewed in Gass and Selinker (2008), “that multilinguals out-performed monolinguals in both [lexical and syntactic] types of learning.” (Gass and Selinker, 2008: 153) However, those who did have other successful (and mostly subsequent) language learning experiences, did so with similar languages – Issan Thai, Lao, or for a few Vietnamese or Mandarin.  This seems to fit well with Gass and Selinker’s observation that “Similarities[between previously learned languages and the TL], both cross-linguistic and interlinguistic, function as pegs on which the learner can hang new information by making use of already existing knowledge, thereby facilitating learning.” (Gass and Selinker, 2008: 137) 

Some comments regarding the role of cross-linguistic influence are interesting, and corroborate both this author’s experience as well as the SLA literature. Chris Pirazzi says “I used to know French but if I try to speak French now, Thai words and grammar come out.”  (Chris Pirazzi, WLT)  Grace Robinson comments “I learnt Spanish at school although was never really in to it. I feel like the language learning part of my brain is like a sponge, which will only soak up one language at a time, when I try to remember Spanish now Thai just comes out!” (Grace Robinson, WLT) Mitchell and Meyers explain the action of cross-linguistic interference in connectionism in a way which makes sense of these comments: “L2 learners come to the task with some pre-existing pattern of connectivity which interferes with the task in hand.” (Mitchell & Meyers, 1998: 83) In this case, it is the more recently acquired, and therefore more active L2 which interferes with the task of producing a previously learned L2.

Learning Opportunities…

Finally, as a result of all of the abovementioned factors, learners availed themselves of a number of different learning opportunities:  these are reflected in their comments on the relative importance of the four skills, the role of formal instruction, preferred methods of study, learning strategies and use of learning resources, including textbooks, web resources, or informal use of their environment.

Many of the learners profiled on WLT are largely self-taught, and describe themselves as not being ‘classroom learners.’ However, most began their learning in a classroom situation, and almost every one of them stresses the importance of the drilling of Thai sounds. This word, drilling, comes up so frequently in regards to the sounds of Thai language that it could almost be considered mandatory from a unanimous perspective. Perhaps, again, this can best be seen from a connectionist framework, as explained above. Additionally, almost all learners stress the importance of learning to read Thai script, not only for the sake of reading, but also for the achievement of correct pronunciation and overall learning. Grace Robinson states “Being able to read and write with the Thai alphabet system is key to getting the correct pronunciation.” (Grace Robinson, WLT)  Most learners claim that they did not find learning to read difficult, but one of the few who did also claims “In my view learning to read Thai is the principal factor contributing to successful Thai language learning.” (Tom Parker, WLT)

One of the few keen classroom learners states: “At school I had studied French and German to university entrance standard in an atmosphere of fear and trepidation, where mistakes were regarded as evidence of laziness, stupidity or moral turpitude. To then find teachers who were patient, encouraging and eager to share their knowledge was a radically new experience; I shall always feel grateful to them.” (David Smyth, WLT) This resonates clearly with Dörnyei’s contention that “the classroom environment – and, more generally, the contextual surroundings of action” have a strong motivational influence. (Dörnyei, 11)

So, in regards to learning of the four skills, it can be said that overall learners place a strong emphasis on the importance of reading and the mastery of correct pronunciation in speech. The part played by listening in pronunciation also should not be overlooked. RiKker Dockum states: “ I’d say a strength of mine is that I have a good ear for mimicry. One “secret” to my success has been to carefully observe and internalize how and what native speakers say. This includes tones, stress patterns, vocabulary, idioms. And then reproduce what I hear.” (Rikker Dockum, WLT) Another learner, David Long, emphasizes the importance of listening in saying “I would advise students to spend as much time looking and listening, and as little time speaking as possible. It makes sense to me that the more we’re talking, the less we’re able to hear, and if we want to understand Thai, we need to be listening to Thais as much as we can.” (David Long, WLT)

Strategies…

Despite some of the above mentioned consistencies, one learner says “Each person learns in his or her own way so there is really no one method that stands out above any others.” (Hugh Leong, WTL) The variety of preferences with regard to learning methods and strategies seen across the interviews seems to support this. Aaron Handel’s first strategy was to travel around Thailand with a tape recorder and record “various Thai speakers as they read from a text book.” (Aaron Handel, WLT) He later used these recordings to drill pronunciation. Interestingly, he states: “Initially, I was not really learning Thai, but learning how to learn. I was collecting information,” and “I find it difficult to separate the idea of ‘learning how to learn’ from actually learning to speak Thai. (Aaron Handel, WLT) This bridging of learning and communication strategies seems to support observations made by Griffiths that “learners may have a dual motivation to both learn and communicate …learners may learn language even when the basic motivation was to communicate.”  (Griffiths, 2004: 3)

Learners also assessed their strengths and weaknesses in ways which can be related to strategies.  David Long says “My strength in Thai is being able to use it without forethought- I simply use it like I do English. My weakness is in translation. When someone asks me what a phrase or word means, it’s often the case that I’ve never thought about what it might mean in any other language, so it’s very difficult sometimes.” (David Long, WLT) Jonas Anderson states: “After a certain amount of exposure to the language it is good to go back and try to put labels on some of the things you have learned through language books and courses and then you can progress a lot more quickly, but if you start out trying to dissect the language with theory and terminology it could be much more frustrating.” (Jonas Anderson, WLT) These comments reflect both the cognitive and metacognitive elements of language learning and use strategies.  (Cohen, 1996: 4) 

Many of the social aspects of strategies are reflected in some quotes from the above sections on acculturation and motivation. The affective element of the learning process can be seen in comments such as “Thais are so complimentary about even the most elementary efforts to speak Thai, so it can be hard to assess oneself properly.” (Jonas Anderson, WLT) While this would point towards interference with valid self-assessment, such experiences, frequently reported, are no doubt affectively motivating.

In regards to learning resources, interviewees mention a number of different texts, the use of flash cards, recordings and other devices (including Facebook and Twitter), and of course, as detailed above, the resources provided by the immersion experience itself. Furthermore, many learners have gone on to create resources for others, in the form of books or websites. It should be noted that there is a great learning value in teaching others, and this is something that can be brought into use in the classroom by the L2 teacher. But the one account which stood out most and which again illustrates the degree of sheer effort and perseverance required comes from Aaron Handel. 

“I had the Thai tapes that Nók and I had made. And I had motivation. I was inspired by the friendliness and generosity of Thai people. I was intrigued by the language and the culture. I told myself, “I’m going to try this. I’m going to learn to speak Thai.” I locked myself in the room for 30 days, going out only for food and water. I drilled the tapes as I read the text. Drill! Say it again. No, that’s not right. Do it again! Drill again, with better pronunciation. Focus on the tone. Even if it is only one syllable, drill that tone again and again… After 30 days, I emerged from my room, pale and exhausted. Had I learned anything? Yes. Although I didn’t realize it yet, I had broken the tonal barrier. I learned most of the Thai that I now speak, during those 30 days.” (Aaron Handel, WLT)
               

Concluding remarks…

As can be seen through so many of the above mentioned accounts, the learning patterns detailed here, with very few exceptions, support the validity of the body of literature on second language learning and acquisition. There are two factors evident in learners’ accounts, yet conspicuously absent from SLA literature: one is that of the role of rote learning, hard work, and intense dedication to the learning process; the other is the importance of fun.

Sources:

  • Bavin, E. L. (1995). Language Acquisition in Cross linguistic Perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 373-396.
  • Churchill, Eton. A Case Study of a JSL Learner and a Word: A Dynamic Systems Account of the Path from Ecology to Form-relations. To appear in: Applied Linguistics.
  • Cohen, A. (1996). Second Language Learning and Use Strategies: Clarifying the Issues.  Minneapolis: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota.
  • Dörnyei, Z. (no date). Attitudes, Orientations, and Motivations in Language Learning: Advances in Theory, Research, and Applications. Nottingham: University of Nottingham.
  • Gass, S. & Selinker, L. (2008). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course (3rd edition). New York: Routledge.
  • Griffiths, C. (2004). Language Learning Strategies: Theory and Research. Auckland: School of Foundation Studies.
  • Hinenoya, K. & Gatbonton, E. (2000). ‘Ethnocentrism, Cultural Traits, Beliefs, and Proficiency: A Japanese Sample.’ The Modern Language Journal 84 no2, 225 – 40.
  • Leather, J. and Van Dam, J. (2002). Ecology of Language Acquisition. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Mitchell, R. and Myles, F. (1998). Second Language Learning Theories. London: Arnold.
  • Nikolov, M. (2000). ‘The Critical Period Hypothesis Reconsidered: Successful adult learners of Hungarian and English’ IRAL 38 (2), 109 – 24.
  • Successful Thai language learners
  • University of Hawaii: Discursive Practice: Specialization

Note 1: in every case, WTL refers to files archived at: WLT’s Archives

Christopher Stern,
tesolstudentonline

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Successful Thai Language Learner: Don Sena

Successful Thai Language Learner: Don Sena

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Don Sena
Nationality: American
Age range: 68 
Sex: Male
Location: Phoenix, AZ, USA
Profession: Translation (Thai – English), Editing (English); semi-retired

What is your Thai level?

Intermediate – Advanced (I think).

Do you speak more street Thai, Isan Thai, or professional Thai?

Standard Thai (Central Plains dialect).

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

Was stationed in Thailand during late sixties; general passion for languages led to inquiry into language spoken and written officially in Thailand.

Do you live in Thailand? If not, now much time have you spent in Thailand?  

Do not reside in Thailand; have not returned since leaving in 1969. Was stationed in Thailand for twenty-one months.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

Have been a student of Thai – on again, off again – since June of 1967.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

It was a very gradual approach, starting in June of 1967. Study was persistent throughout the period of twenty-one months ending in 1969. It continued when I returned to the US. I had my books that I had brought from Thailand and acquired more here in the US.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

It wasn’t very regular, as I could only do it when not assigned duty. Even now, my study isn’t really very regular.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I am entirely self-taught. I obtained the best books I could find — those with the most information and generally written in the old style of explicit rule descriptions. Linguistically-oriented books were especially helpful.

Did one method stand out over all others?

The linguistic orientation of Richard B. Noss of the Foreign Service Institute (1964) with its rigorous analysis proved to be prominent.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I actually found a book shortly after arriving in Thailand that explained completely the orthography, including “tone rules.” I scrutinized it in its entirety.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

It would have been difficult if hadn’t been so fascinating. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn more. I developed a handwriting that won the admiration of the Thais who saw it.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

It was probably when I found that I could handwrite a letter (in Thai) and receive back a type-written letter (also in Thai) in response.

How do you learn languages?

I prefer scholastically-written books – those that are meant for the college classroom, even though I may intend to learn on my own. After absorbing a good description of the language, reading printed articles and other such items follows. The same block of text needs to be read and reread multiple times until it can be oralized with ease. Contact with native speakers is a further aid in learning to be understood and – hardest of all – to understand the spoken language.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

An analytical mind has been for me very useful. I still receive (the spoken language) with great difficulty.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

It is possibly the greatest misconception concerning any foreign tongue: an unawareness of the phenomenon of polysemy – the array of related meanings associated with almost every vocabulary item in any language. Because of polysemy, there are no one-to-one correspondences between the meanings of a word in one language and the meanings of any one word in some other language.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I can. I’ve studied numerous other languages, though I’ve made the most progress in Thai.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

I have recently completed a BSE program in computer-systems engineering. It involved quite a bit of programming. One program I wrote on the side was an early Thai word program – useful before the development of the 16-bit Unicode system of character representation. The program runs on either UNIX or LINUX. It combines standard ASCII characters into a form of “ASCII art” resulting in readable Thai. It has editing features, as well. It has no practical application, though.

Do you have a passion for music?

I do. Late Renaissance and Baroque-period music consumes my passion almost entirely. Its deeply euphoric appeal to the emotions and very light intricacy in its melodic interweaving render it instinctively beautiful to almost any listener. This period came to an end in the year 1750.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

Once I began Thai while stationed in Thailand, I studied no other language until some time after returning to the US a year and nine months later. I did later study (through university classes) Japanese and Russian.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Do not use transliteration. It is grossly inadequate to the features of Thai. Do use transcription – IPA style – as it is (at least) capable of revealing certain important features not visible in the Thai orthography. Use detailed written accounts of the language – the kind that require a lot of study. Make sure that when using a teacher, that the teacher is not offering some quick-fix approach. Reject any teacher that uses transliteration. Understand that learning a language is a major task, and that there is nothing more complex that human language – whether humanly devised or natural. Human language, unlike animal language, is capable of an infinite number of utterances. Machine translation from language to language is far short of perfection and may possibly be inherently incapable of ever achieving complete reliability.

regards,
Don Sena

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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Successful Thai Language Learner: Scott Earle

Successful Thai Language Learner: Scott Earle

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Scott Earle
Nationality: British
Age: 46
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: General Manager of a local software development company with a very large US parent company.
Blog: Scott Earle

What is your Thai level?

Intermediate/advanced.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

More ‘street’ Thai, although I also tend to speak Thai almost exclusively in the office. Partially to try to speak more politely! I also speak some Isaan, but it’s pretty much the same as regular Thai with the tones shifted and a few basic words changed.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I came to live in Bangkok as part of my job, and felt that it would be rude not to at least try.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

Yes, I arrived in Bangkok at the beginning of January 2004.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

I would not call myself a student so much – I am mostly self-taught. But I have had an interest since mid-2003, when I first met a group of Thai software developers.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

Initially I was working in an office full of Thai people, and tried picking up a few phrases. It was a risky business, though! Some of the guys enjoyed mis-teaching me, with hilarious consequences …

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Not even close. I never really have, I am afraid to say.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

When I first came here, I used a website (no longer in existence, sadly) to learn the basic letters, and that allowed me to read some basic things like road signs and the provinces on car registration plates. After that, I started to read menus at restaurants – they have a limited vocabulary, and tend to have similar contents. I took a course of 40 hours at a Thai school in late 2005, initially learning to speak, but then switched teachers and learned the alphabet. After that, I started to chat with people online, which is a very good way of meeting Thai people willing to chat.

Did one method stand out over all others?

I think getting familiar with the letters and then learning the alphabet, is a very good way to start. However, casually chatting with people (online, and talking to people you meet everywhere) is the best way to build confidence in both writing and speaking.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Immediately – I could read/write basic phrases long before I could make myself understood by talking.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Not particularly. I imagine it’s several orders of magnitude easier than learning Chinese or Japanese, for example.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

When I was able to order something from a menu for the first time – and answer the questions asked as a result. It was about a year and a half after I first came here, so it really did take a long time!

How do you learn languages?

When I was 15 I lived in France, after learning French in school. I was almost fluent within 3 months. But when I first came to Thailand, it was almost a year and a half before I could make myself understood. Learning languages is *definitely* easier when you’re younger!

I started out by learning to read and ‘hear’ Thai. I listened as much as I could, read as much as I could. Read car number plate provinces, read road signs, read advertising boards, got used to the range of fonts used. Listened to Thai-language radio stations, even the ones that play ‘international’ music, for the inane chatter and ads. Just immersed myself.

Seriously, all that stuff is what I did until I got the hang of the basics and could distinguish what a tone was and how words sounded. Almost two years in, circumstances around me dictated that I needed to decide where I was going to live (UK or Thailand – I lost the contract I had had, and so would be living here without a job unless I could find one, or going ‘home’). That’s when I booked 40 hours at a Thai language school, and struggled with one teacher, then moved to another whose strength was in teaching to read/write.

I already had a bit of vocab by then (mostly food and provinces!), and so some of the words she was teaching me how they ‘worked’ already made sense, and I was just learning the mechanics of the alphabet. After that everything was quite a bit clearer, because I had never learned the ‘rules’ before.

I learned basic phrases, and learned the alphabet. Started putting the two together, and created a crib sheet to use while chatting with friends. Realised that the crib sheet could be the start of actually learning a few more phrases and expanded it, found out about online chat, and chatted with people using the crib sheet initially and then free text later. Eventually forced myself to type everything and not use the crib sheet at all.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths: I can pronounce the tones pretty well, and can make myself understood pretty much anywhere.
Weaknesses: I am hopeless at ‘formal’ Thai – it’s like a whole nother language!

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

1. That the tones are not important (they really are!)
2. That you need not bother to learn to read and write. It makes a difficult job a lot easier!

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I can still speak a little French, and know a little German from School.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No – I think my brain would have been fried. I did notice that my French started to drop off when I started to get more proficient in Thai.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

I have been a programmer for 25 years.

Do you have a passion for music and/or do you play an instrument?

Not even close! I used to play guitar with my brothers 30 years ago, but have not touched one since.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Do not give up. I know it sounds silly (and obvious), but the more you can practise, the better. Most importantly, do not get put off when people don’t understand a single word you say – Thai is a strictly tonal language, and people who are not used to speaking with foreigners will not understand anything you say if you aren’t using the exact right tones and intonation at exactly the right time. It’s not your ‘fault’ that you speak using the wrong tone, because you are not used to speaking a language where it is relevant – and it’s not their ‘fault’ for not understanding you, because their brain is not tuned to listen to their language spoken with the wrong tones. Remember that people brought up speaking Central Thai will usually not understand a thing that someone in Isaan is saying (because the tones are all shifted).

So whatever you do, try and try again to speak. As much as you can. Most Thais are very keen to help you speak their language, because so few foreigners can, and so many give up before their brain has had a chance to adjust to speaking a tonal language. (Also, remember that English is also a slightly tonal language, kind of – the words PROject and proJECT have two entirely different meanings).

When you go to the local noodle shop, try ordering in Thai. Try speaking to people you meet in shops. Whenever you have the chance to speak to someone, do.

Also be aware that if you hold a conversation with someone and they say how well you speak Thai, it means they can understand you but it’s still pretty terrible! When nobody comments on it, that’s when you know you’re doing well. And no, I am not quite there yet!

regards,
Scott Earle

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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Successful Thai Language Learner: John Boegehold

Successful Thai Language Learner: John Boegehold

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: John Boegehold
Nationality: American
Age: 55
Sex: Male
Location: Los Angeles, CA USA
Profession: Property management / songwriter-composer
Facebook: John Boegehold

What is your Thai level?

Not fluent. A combo of intermediate and advanced.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

Probably somewhere in the middle of professional and street. I know a bit of Isaan, but not enough to throw in more than an occasional word or phrase.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I didn’t really have a specific reason when I started. Los Angeles has a very large Thai population. A few years ago, I discovered that Wat Thai Los Angeles was only a few miles from where I live and that there was great, cheap food available there in an open-air market setting on the weekends. A couple of my friends and I started going there occasionally to eat and hang out since it was a really great atmosphere.

One day I noticed a sign about Thai language classes being held there on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I had been toying with the idea of learning a second language at the time and figured that since I was already coming there regularly, I’d check it out.

I’d never been to Thailand and besides a Thai ex-girlfriend trying (unsuccessfully) to teach me a word or two a year earlier, I knew nothing about the language. I went to the class and was deeply confused pretty much immediately.

Maybe I have a bit of a masochistic streak, but the idea of starting from zero on a language so radically different from English really appealed to me. So, I took the plunge.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

No, but I started visiting a few years ago, two or three weeks a year.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

About 3-1/2 years.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

I definitely jumped right in! I was pretty much obsessed immediately.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Yes and no. I still go to both the Saturday and Sunday classes at Wat Thai every weekend which helps keep me disciplined. The first 90 minutes is mostly for beginners so I just put my ear buds in and study on my own by reading various books, Thai newspapers, watching Thai YouTube videos on my iPad, etc. until the intermediate / advanced class starts. Outside of that I don’t really have a set schedule because my workload varies so much from day to day. I do try to study every day, even if it’s only a few minutes.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

When I started, the classes at Wat Thai L.A. were the predominate method, although I tried a few others along the way. On my own I went through the Benjawan Poomsan Becker / Paiboon Publishing beginner, intermediate and advanced books as well as the Speak Like A Thai series. All very helpful. Their Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary for iPhone and iPad is great. I read a lot of other books I bought on Amazon, at a Thai bookstore in L.A. or when I visited Thailand. I’m always snooping around the internet and pick up little bits and pieces of a lot of different websites. I found the vocabulary and grammar lessons at ITS4Thai to be really useful.

One thing that’s been helpful for me is watching Thai TV and trying to follow along. I have a satellite service with a large number of Thai channels and usually have some program on a few hours a day, even if it’s only in the background. Right now, my favorite shows are กินอยู่คือ, which is a cooking show on Thai PBS and วันวานยังหวานอยู่, a talk/entertainment show on Channel 7. I try to watch Thai soap operas, but those can be tough to take.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Not really. They’re all pieces of the puzzle.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

From day one, right along with basic vocabulary.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I learned the mechanics of reading and writing consonants, vowels, tone rules, where words begin and end, etc., for the most part in about 10-12 months. I really didn’t find it difficult, just very, very time-consuming and tedious. For me, it was all in the repetition. I know there are a lot of mnemonic devices and tricks for learning all of that, but it seemed easiest to just plough through it. The part of reading for me that’s a bit more difficult at this point is the vocabulary, especially in newspapers and books where you come across a lot of technical, political words and phrases, proper names, religious terms, etc. The difficulty for me in writing Thai isn’t physically writing or typing the characters, it’s forming a thought and writing it the way a Thai person would.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

That pronouncing “mai” with different tones and vowel lengths was actually several different words rather than the same word pronounced several different ways. That realization made a lot of things fall into place for me.

How do you learn languages?

I’m probably not a good person to ask. Thai is only the second language I’ve tried and I was too young to remember much about learning English!

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I think my biggest strength is reading. My pronunciation of consonants, vowels, words, tones, etc. is usually pretty good. I can follow conversations fairly well, but I still have trouble following rapid-fire dialogue in TV shows, newscasts, etc. Again, my biggest weakness is thinking in English while trying to construct a sentence in Thai. My conversation is definitely not up-to-speed with my reading. A lot of that has to do with not living in Thailand and not being able to practice speaking Thai in everyday situations. Same with vocabulary. Words I don’t use consistently I tend to forget. It seems in my case that quantity time would be more beneficial than quality time at this point.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That’s tough from my perspective because I had no conceptions at all when I started! I have noticed a fairly common one in other students has been thinking (or hoping, anyway) that tone is a secondary component in pronouncing a Thai word when in reality it’s as important as consonants and vowels in being understood clearly when speaking.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

No.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

No.

Do you have a passion for music?

Yes. I’m a songwriter and composer and have done it professionally on and off for 20 + years.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

A few things. I know it can seem tedious, but back off on trying to learn a lot of vocabulary at the start and focus on reading and writing. Once you have a grasp on the consonants, vowels, tone marks, etc. learning vocabulary becomes a lot easier and you have a much better shot of nailing the pronunciations.

Also, wean yourself off of using English transliterations as soon as possible. While they may seem helpful in the beginning, they quickly become a crutch and will ultimately slow you down. Once you learn how to read Thai, you’ll realize how inadequate English transliterations are in capturing the actual pronunciation of many Thai words. Don’t get me started on the supremely annoying (to American English speakers, anyway) of using “r” in transliterations like larb, Sathorn, gor-gai, etc…

I know there are some notable exceptions, but when you start to learn Thai as an adult, I don’t believe you can be fluent and speak clearly without knowing how to read the language.

regards,
John Boegehold

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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Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Justin Travis Mair
Nationality: American
Age range: 30
Sex: Male
Location: New Zealand
Profession: Student/Father/Receptionist
Website/blog: I Want To Speak Thai

What is your Thai level?

I say I am fluent, but I let my vocabulary fall to an intermediate level. I am currently bringing my Thai back up to an advanced level.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

Mostly street Thai with a bit of professional mixed in.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I was a missionary for my Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). I didn’t choose where I was sent, but I am lucky I got called to where I did. We were expected to talk and teach about our church to those who were interested. We also taught English classes for free at our local churches. To do this we had to learn Thai.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

I don’t currently live in Thailand, but I lived there from February of 2001 to December 2002. While I was there the Sept 11 attacked occurred in New York. Coming home was such a drastic change in Airport security it felt like a different country.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

During the 2 years of living in Thailand I was studying all the time. Any 5 mins I found available I would be doing something to improve my Thai. When I came home, I tried to keep that intensity. Unfortunately, life happens and I eventually stopped.

Recently I started a blog to help me learn Spanish and I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I had let my Thai deteriorate so much. So I am now looking to bring my Thai, not just back to its former glory, but also to a higher level than I ever had it before.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

I learned Thai right away. We had no other choice as missionaries other than to just jump in and embrace this new language and culture.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

As a missionary I had a 2 months intensive course(8 hours or more a day) all in Thai. After that I would would study Thai 30 mins every morning. Then I would spend the rest of my day full immersed in Thai, talking to Thais or just studying in the 5 mins I found I was free. Basically, my life was a constant language study.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I mentioned the 2 months course already, this was created by my church specifically for teaching missionaries Thai. It is surprisingly similar to the FSI Thai Basic course and since they were both created around the same time period, I have a feeling that there may be some common authors in there. Though I have no way of knowing.

During the 2 months we were encouraged to S.Y.L. or Speak Your Language. Meaning as soon as you learn the word in Thai, we have to stop using the English word. This meant we spoke a lot of Thaiglish, but it was surprisingly helpful. We got used to using Thai grammar and patterns. A common joke we would do as missionaries was to speak English using Thai grammar. It was funny, but it actually solidified the Thai grammar in our head even though it was a joke.

Other than that, it was pretty much the sink or swim method. I had to go and communicate in Thai all day everyday. I did have the help from other missionaries, but for the most part they would only help you to save you from drowning. We all knew the best way to learn was to go and do.

Did one method stand out over all others?

The sink or swim method and the SYL were the biggest things that helped me I think.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

One of the last days in the 2 month course, we were given a one hour primer on how to read Thai. They basically showed us how to sound out the words. After that I kinda waited a month or two before starting to really try and read Thai.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I did find it hard to differentiate the words, due to the fact that Thai script is written with very few spaces. Eventually it just became normal. It’s kinda like having a conversation in a noisy room, at first it is hard to talk to your neighbors, but after awhile you adjust and it seems normal.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

There was just one day I talked to a man and we had a good 10 minute conversation. Afterwards, I realized that I didn’t have to ask him to repeat anything and he never once asked me to repeat myself. We just talked. I was on cloud 9 the rest of that day!

How do you learn languages?

I am a systematic person. I like to follow recipes and create plans. Right now I developed a system for me to learn Spanish, mostly to satisfy my desire to follow formulas.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My strengths are that I love to learn new things and I am totally willing to admit I am not good at something. It does me no good to learn things if I think I already know everything.

I think a weakness would have to be follow through. I get so excited to do things that unless I have a responsibility partner or some sort, I would easily get distracted and start 10 projects and finish none.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That it is TOO hard. Learning any language is difficult and Thai can seem even harder since there is little in common with English. That said, It is very attainable and I don’t think it is beyond anyone who is willing to try to be able to become fluent in Thai.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I started learning Spanish about 5 months ago and I am now capable of getting myself in trouble. Still have a ways to go before I consider myself fluent in Spanish.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

I took a computer science class in High school and we learned to program in Basic. I got an A+ since I created an very simple animation of a dragon breathing fire all while having Baby Elephant Walk by Henry Mancini playing in the background. I was also part of the first Internet class in my High school. This may make me sound dated, but until my Junior year, we had dial-up internet access and it was so unreliable that they couldn’t teach a class around it. That class taught us to make webpages using HTML code and notepad. It was fun, but I haven’t done anything like that since.

Do you have a passion for music?

I definitely have a passion for music. I was in Choir, band, marching band, orchestra, and Jazz band in High school. I received the Louis Armstrong Jazz award in High school as well. When I came back from Thailand, my Brothers and I started an a cappella group, like the Warblers on Glee though not as good. I was the Vocal percussionist for the group. I can also play the Bass guitar so I am often asked to join bands. I learned the piano as a kid from my mom, but I wouldn’t put me at a high level of piano playing. Recently I have taken up playing the Ukulele.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

I have never learned another language before learning Thai and I don’t know who I would have learned Thai if I was trying to learn another one at the same time. I am sure there are those out there that can, but I doubt I could have done it.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Don’t be afraid to fall on your face. The first day in Thailand I had a guy laugh at me every moment I talked. Every time I felt cocky about my Thai I would be reminded that I still have much to learn. Thai people can be very direct sometimes. You just need to brush it off and keep trying.

Justin Travis Mair
I Want To Speak Thai

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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Successful Thai Language Learner: Stephen Thomas

Successful Thai Language Learner: James Higbie

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Stephen Thomas “ไกร”
Nationality: British
Age range: 40-50
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Actor
Web presence: Facebook: Stephen Thomas | Stephen Thomas and People On Wheels

What is your Thai level?

Intermediate.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

Probably more street Thai. Professional Thai has a lot more complicated and redundant grammar, though it can be useful if I am having trouble getting my point across. It’s important to know the proper rules of any language I think. I see and hear grammatical catastrophes in English all the time which people have just come to accept and don’t even know they are wrong. I don’t really want to sound like that in Thai but of course I’m late out of the gate and racing to catch up.

I do use some Isaan language. I have several Isaan friends and a lot of the vendors I go to regularly are Isaan or Lao. It’s also a good way to show that I’m not just a tourist who learned a few phrases, especially when going into touristy areas. It’s a fun and friendly dialect, and whenever people call me “Farang” I tell them I’m “Bak Seeda.”

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

At first, communication, obviously. The first time I visited Thailand in 2006 I was going to be staying with a friend who I knew couldn’t speak English, though she could read and write English. We’d been friends for a few years through instant messaging and e-mail and she offered me a place to stay. I picked up a book and CD set from Teach Yourself and began getting a basic foundation. Good thing, too! It turned out she lived in Ormnoi in Samut Sakhon where practically nobody spoke English. That was a great way to really learn the Thai way of life and to quickly hone language skills.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

Yes, I came here in September 2009, ostensibly for another holiday after a particularly hard year. I’d been wanting to return since spending 3 months in Thailand in 2006, and I finally decided I wasn’t going to wait any longer. I planned to be here for 3 – 5 months, and a year later I realised I was still here!

I’d met and become friends with an up-and-coming film director named Pakphum Wongjinda in 2006, and when I came back I got in touch with him. He was starting work on a film for Baa-Ram-Ewe and invited me to visit the set. One day he called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing one scene for the film. I said yes and it turned out to be a scene with one of Thailand’s top actresses Sinjai Plengphanich. He then asked me to play in a short film for Channel 3 with Bank Pavarit that would be shown on Boxing Day 2006.

In February the first film reached #1 opening week and my scene was well received by audiences and critics. He then invited me to be in the first movie in a new series of Sunday afternoon films for Channel 3. It wasn’t until I showed photos of the shoot to a friend of mine that I realised how big this production was. It was a huge hit and we’ve done a sequel already and a third one is planned. I’ve continued to do films for him in the series as well as branch out into other films, a huge stage musical (Rak Ther Samer) and even opera!

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

Officially for 14 months. Before that I was picking it up in the street and off of friends, that started in 2006, but when I returned to New York I didn’t really continue until over a year later when I began to meet a group of Thai friends who were working in the states. I was still chatting with friends in Thailand over the internet and meeting more and more through Myspace which I was using to promote my music. Once I began blogging about my experiences in Thailand I became friends with more Thais who were interested in what I was saying. I probably picked up a few more words during that time as well, but it wasn’t until I came back that I really started learning again.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

Many prongs, many starts… The very first Thai words I learned were from a guy I used to work with in an office in Hackensack. I actually had no idea Thailand would play a part in my future at that time, though my cousins had told me I should visit. I learned hello, goodbye, thank you and monkey which I always think are important words to know in any language.

The next was start was in preparation for my first trip to Thailand in February 2006. That was with the book and CD set from Teach Yourself which I got less than half-way through. A great advantage to that lesson set is that it taught you how to read and write Thai as well. When I arrived in Bangkok my friend wanted to show off my skill. She’d point at a sign and say, “Read!” and I’d stumble through it. Then another one, a little harder. Finally she pointed at a sign with a simplified font and I simply could not make head or tail of it. Every day I would watch store signs and billboards with various fonts go by on the bus, and after about 3 weeks I was finally able to decipher them. It made me aware of how varied the same set of letters can really be. And if you consider the Latin alphabet has uppercase, lowercase, and both cursive and block writing, then all the various fonts… It’s quite amazing how our brains recognise letters.

During that trip my friend arranged for another friend to stay with us as well. She was studying English and would show me around Bangkok while my other friend was at work. I learned a lot of Thai words from her, probably asking for the same word more than once on some occasions, but every day my vocabulary built up bit by bit. I tried to speak as much Thai as I could and use words I’d learned to make them stick. The way a child babbles when they’re learning to speak, I’m sure!

By the evening I would usually be exhausted by the time my friend got off work so I would barely be able to communicate with her. I did, however listen to them talking and started picking up repeated words and phrases.

We would also watch Ching Roy Ching Lan and Mum Show on TV and I can remember suddenly be able to understand something being said, so I used to tell people I learned Thai from watching Mum Jokmok!

I began exploring Thailand on my own and anywhere I stayed I would talk to the staff. I don’t mean the people at the desk, I mean the cleaners, the gardeners… It was during the emergency elections when protesters were gathering in Sanam Luang so everyone was discussing politics. I couldn’t get into deep conversation, but people enjoyed telling me their opinions and asking me what I felt about it, and each day I think I learned another word.

As soon as I got back to New York I knew I would return to Thailand and meant to study Thai language. That didn’t happen, and for about a year I really didn’t expand at all on the small foundation I had.

In 2008 I became friends with a group of Thais working in Westchester County in New York and soon began spending considerable time with them. Most of them were Isaan and I began picking up a couple of Lao words. I would try to speak Thai when I could, and other than the cold weather I would often forget what continent we were actually on. That was when I realised that my heart really wasn’t where I was. I was working in video and film production and as soon as the projects I was working on were finished I came back to Thailand.

Right away I began talking with the vendors and people in my neighbourhood and picking up language from them. I also began visiting the set of a film my friend was making for Baa-Ram-Ewe Studio. A film set being like a second home to me I was able to connect what people were saying to a meaning I already knew. I also began acting for this director and with each script I would learn more words.

I was given one script with very formal dialogue, not like I’d had to speak before. I spent a lot of time learning it, reading it over and over, getting the meaning of each word. Unfortunately when I got in front of the camera I realised that my brain knew the words, but my tongue did not. Reading and speaking are two very different tricks. It was miserable. Afterwards I vowed to never let that happen again.

I enrolled at Walen School in Times Square near Asok. While it’s not an intensive course, its schedule is such that I can have time to go off and do films or plays, though when I’m not working I do wish I could spend more time studying.

I’ve also resumed the Teach Yourself book, though I find I’ve since learnt most of the words that were remaining. It is good to get a mix of grammar though as one book may teach this way to say something and another book will teach another way. There’s also the tried and true method that we all hated as school kids, writing down vocabulary words 10 or 20 times. I’ve been doing that recently for the words that just haven’t been sticking, and it actually does work.

There’s a fun and informative series on Youtube by BonOnstage called Learn Thai The Bon Way. I found out about her from friends watching her character based comedy bits, but she created a series of short Thai language lessons that’s really quite helpful.

Another method was working as an acting coach. Sometimes we had classes or else were performing workshops in schools, where the students didn’t speak English. We had an interpreter with us and I learned just as much from that as anything else. And of course continued total immersion. It is the ONLY way to develop listening skills and is important for pronunciation.

14 months after that disastrous day on the film set I got a phone call from Grammy, completely in Thai, asking me to go in and meet with them about playing a small part in a lakorn on Channel 5. I went down there and they gave me a script with 2 scenes to read, and I passed the audition. That really made me feel like I’d accomplished something.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Once I started classes, yes, I have a regular schedule of 2 nights a week, which really isn’t enough, but it allows me to go off and do films or plays, then come back. The class continues through the book until you’re ready to move onto the next level.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

The first method I used was the book and CD set Teach Yourself which I think does a very good job, though I’ve been told some of what I learned is “old fashioned”. One thing I think is invaluable in that book is that it teaches you to read and write Thai which is vital for correct pronunciation.

The next method was picking it up in the streets or at work which will give you listening skills, teach you which words people actually use, rather than the overly formal words you often find in phrase books, and you’ll learn words they wouldn’t necessarily print in language books. :) However, a pitfall here is that you can pick up the wrong pronunciation or else use a rude word in the wrong setting.

Finally I went to Walen School which uses Thai script and teaches vocabulary with question and answer exercises. The teachers are entertaining and will stray from the book to show other uses of the word or to teach other words that could mean the same thing. Conversation is best way to learn a language, and I often converse with the teachers outside of class also.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Once I started taking classes at Walen my friends told me my Thai was improving drastically.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Right away. The Teach Yourself system has it’s own Romanisation (which actually makes more sense than most) but encourages you to learn to read Thai and prints the dialogues side by side in both formats.

The reading/writing lessons in Teach Yourself broke the alphabet down into about 10 characters per lesson, between consonants and vowels. The method was to write each character while saying the sound, “Dor… Dor… Dor…” over and over. Once they’d taught enough letters they began building up short sentences one word at a time to get you used to the lack of spaces between words. Then the book showed you some of the more complicated spelling rules, like those for words borrowed from Khmer.

The two things I didn’t like about Teach Yourself’s method is that it didn’t give you the names of the letters, which I have since learned at Walen, and it didn’t teach the alphabetical order, which I still don’t know and would really like to. Walen has an alphabet class that all students start out in, but I went straight into Book 2 when I enrolled.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I seem to remember it being fairly quick to learn, though I’ve always been fond of alphabets anyway. It took me a few weeks before I started recognising Thai letters in different fonts and longer before I could read handwritten Thai.

I’ve built up my reading speed by trying to read the signs on buses to see where they go. Now sometimes when I’m at the movies my eyes will pick up the Thai subtitles. On a slower song I can sometimes read along the Thai words on a karaoke machine, but I wouldn’t put bets on it!

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

There have been a few. The first I recall was when I was watching Mum on TV and understood something he said. I don’t remember what it was now, but that was definitely a moment comparable to waving a bone in front of The Monolith.

I also recall going into the Omyai market to buy some fruit one morning and the vendor eyeing me with trepidation. When I asked for papaya in Thai she called out to someone, “Hey, this farang speaks Thai!” I responded and she said even more surprised, “He understands Thai too!”

More recently and on a higher level we were rehearsing a show to perform in front of hundreds of very young school kids. We came up with the idea of a kind of choose-it-yourself adventure where we’d let the kids decide between 2 possible routes during each scene. One outcome led to a wizard who would then transform us into animals of the children’s choosing. During rehearsal someone called out, “Maa” which depending on the tone could mean horse or dog. My partner in this endeavour was luk kreung and has much more experience with Thai than I do, so when I saw him act like a dog I thought, “Damn, I was sure he said horse.” The actor playing the wizard watched us prancing about, barking an yapping, and said casually, “Actually, I said horse.” That was a breakthrough moment for me.

How do you learn languages?

In English we have different words that mean the same thing which you might use in different circumstances. Learning a language is just learning another word for the same thing. Though I know that’s not physically true. I think they’ve done EEGs that show multi-linguists use different parts of their brains for different languages, unless I’m mistaken about that.

I know a little Burmese girl about 2 or 3 years old in the market and she has been picking up Thai language by imitating people around. Sometimes she’ll say things and this one Burmese friend of mine says she doesn’t know what language she’s speaking, but I can hear that she’s mixing the two languages. I think that’s normal at that age for children growing up around multiple languages, but at some point they do separate them and speak wholly in one or the other. I had a friend in the states whose wife was French and he’d learnt French as well. His son wouldn’t speak English to him, though if anyone came to visit he would speak English fluently.

Language is very complex because it’s an important part of human evolution. Our brains are largely built for that purpose and we use so much of our senses and utilities in order to communicate. How often do we have miscommunication on the telephone because we can’t see the person who is talking. And how often do you see people gesturing and nodding their head when talking on the telephone? We use our eyes and ears and then process that through deep analytical functions to make sense of it all at an alarmingly fast pace!

I saw a programme about 3 different species of monkeys who lived in the same area. Not only did they have their own calls for different types of threats, they knew the calls of the other monkeys as well. They also discovered grammar syntax in the calls so that by stringing calls together in a different order they would convey a different meaning.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I used to dread having to speak Thai on the telephone. It’s still more difficult, though not as bad as before. I have a hard time with telephones in general. After all this time you’d think they would improve the sound. I know it’s possible because when people talk on Viber it’s 1,000 times clearer. Even in English you can’t discern between S and Th or V and F on the telephone. You only know because of you know what the words are supposed to be, same as speaking to someone with a lisp or speaking in spoonerisms.

The lackadaisical habit of substituting ล for ร or dropping ล after ก has led to my confusion on more than one occasion. I love Joey Cheuancheun’s routine about Ror Reua is Ror Reua and Lor Ling is Lor Ling. But it’s the same as americans substituting D for T or the New York and London use of glottal stops or substituting N for Ng at the end of verbs. That’s why learning in the street is so important.

I hate forgetting vocabulary that I don’t use as often, but again this happens in English too, only you usually have another word to fall back on in that case.

As for strengths, the only strength I can really say is that I’m not afraid to make mistakes. I’ll try out a new way to say something or make a joke, and if it works great, if not then I learn from that.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That you can get by using Romanisation. There are consonant and vowel sounds that appear in Thai that we simply don’t have in English. Plus the vowels we use pull double and triple duty. In Thai a vowel is that vowel sound only, with the exception of a few vowel combinations which are considered separate diphthongs in their own right. The letter A on its own is used to represent 4 different Thai vowels. In English I can substitute one A sound for another in a word and you recognise that it’s the same letter, but to a Thai person you’ve completely changed the spelling. Also some vowels in Thai are held longer than others but we don’t have a way of noting that in The Latin Alphabet which leads to putting the stress on the wrong syllable which again results in a completely different spelling.

Whenever I see a name or a place written in Roman letters I look for the Thai in order to see how it’s really pronounced. Some assistant directors have offered me “karaoke” scripts and I tell them no.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Not to the extent that I can Thai. I took Latin in high school and that along with having a large English vocabulary to begin with, I can often make some sense out of reading bits of French. Our languages are so closely related. Probably Italians and Spaniards make jokes about English and French being one and the same!

I began to learn Cantonese in the mid-1990s but didn’t have anyone to practice with so I gave up on it. That wound up being helpful to Thai because it introduced me to tones and also some of the vowel and consonant sounds, in particular the initial Ng sound which westerners have such a hard time with.

I’ve always enjoyed learning words in other languages and have made it a point to be able to say hello and thank you. Growing up around New York City you naturally know a few words of Spanish, but not enough to have conversation.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

I used to do Basic computer programming in the 1980s. During the Myspace era I was using css to customise my page. I started using the internet back when you had to type some Unix in order to get anywhere, this was before graphical browsers, but I never got deeply into coding.

Do you have a passion for music?

“Absolutely. I have 2 albums on iTunes and various other online outlets,” he said taking the opportunity to shamelessly promote himself. “Stephen Thomas and People On Wheels: The Story So Far, and Stephen Thomas & The Reptiles: INANUTSHELL. I also co-produced an album with Incomplete Denial called Our Existence Is An Accident and used to have a band with my brother Paul Damon Thomas and friend Doug Freed, called Sigmund Boo. I’ve been talking to some people in Thailand about recording songs in Thai which could become the next very exciting project for me.”

I’ve performed with Opera Siam, and last September we took our production of Mae Naak to London. I have friends ranging from pop singers to jazz musicians to classical Thai musicians. One of the things I love about living in Bangkok is the great cultural diversity. There really is a lot going on in this city, though it’s not always easy to find out about.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No, not really. Some Lao/Isaan words, but not to the point that I would say I’m studying Lao. One comedian I’ve worked with wanted me to learn Northern Thai, but I told him one language at a time!

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Find people who don’t speak English and talk to them. I hear foreigners say in Bangkok they don’t have to use Thai. I’m not sure where they go, but I can easily go outside and find many people who can’t speak a word of English. Start out by buying your morning coffee from a street vendor instead of Starbucks. Strike up a simple conversation. It will be slow at first but after a month you’ll realise how much you improved and you will have met other people in the neighbourhood who will want to talk to you too.

Learning songs is also a great way to learn, and one that I haven’t been doing to be honest. The couple of times I have learned a song I’ve seen how much faster it sinks in. Again I think it’s to do with the evolutionary mechanisms of our brain. That’s why songs are so important to us and why you can still remember songs from your childhood from historical lessons to toy commercials!

Stephen Thomas “ไกร”
Facebook: Stephen Thomas | Stephen Thomas and People On Wheels

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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Successful Thai Language Learner: James Higbie

Successful Thai Language Learner: James Higbie

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: James Higbie
Nationality: American
Age range: 60+
Sex: Male
Location: Sierra Leone
Profession: Work for NGO in Education Development
Thai level: Intermediate to Advanced
Website: Thai Language / Lao Language
Books: From Orchid Press: Thai Reference Grammar, Essential Thai, Let’s Speak Thai, Let’s Speak Lao; From Hippocrene Books: Dictionary and Phrasebooks for Thai and Lao

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

I try to speak both street and professional Thai depending on the situation. I lived in Laos for eight years and also speak Lao which is basically the same as Issan. At this point, though, I’ve been working in Africa for seven years so I’m not as fluent as I was when I lived in Thailand and Laos. I can still speak both languages when I go back but it would take some time to be as fluent in Thai as when I was writing Thai Reference Grammar.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I wanted to get into the culture. I’d been in the Peace Corps in Africa and liked the ideal of getting to know another culture through learning the language. Of course Thailand is a really nice place to live and you can enjoy it a lot more if you can speak Thai.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

I came in 1980 and worked in a refugee camp in Chonburi Province, living in a town called Phanat Nikhom. It’s a very nice town and there was a big staff of Thais and foreigners. A lot of the foreigners could speak Thai and the Thai staff were very helpful so it was a good situation for learning Thai. I lived in Thailand for 16 years, the whole time in Phanat Nikhom.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

I wasn’t serious about learning Thai the first three years but then a friend who worked in the camp (an Australian) one day told me how terrible my Thai sounded when I tried to speak it. That made me think I’d better start working on it. I’d been thinking about writing a book on English as a Second Language (I have an MA in ESL from the University of Hawaii and worked in English teaching and curriculum development in the camp) but at that point I decided to write a book on Thai.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

I would say that through writing the books I learned to speak Thai. I worked closely with Snea Thinsan, my co-author, and over seven or eight years got a good understanding of grammar and vocabulary. Living in a rural area gave me the chance to speak Thai all the time. I’m not a quick language learner. Some people I knew could speak Thai fluently in a year.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

I used to study Thai in the morning and spent free time and weekends reading. That was before the internet, so there weren’t so many distractions.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

At first I went through all the books written up to the early 80s, which were mostly “Fundamentals” and Gordon Allison’s books. They were interesting books but I felt they didn’t have the real language in them – some of it was old-fashioned formal Thai which wasn’t what I was hearing people speak. (Interestingly I heard some of those old fashioned constructions in Laos.) I thought Thai was difficult because of the lack of materials, which was one reason why I wrote the books. I’m sure it would have helped going to a language school but I was living in the country.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Keeping notebooks of vocabulary and phrases was the best method for me. I used to spend weekends at Ko Samet talking to people and writing down new things I heard them say.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I started right away.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I thought writing Thai was difficult because of the spelling and I only got to the point where I could write a short letter. I thought reading was easier and I read mostly magazines – music and movie star magazines, love advice magazines and all the things they sell which are great for learning about Thai culture.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

I was in the North and a bus went by going to Phan. On the front were just three letters – “p, ah, n” and I thought “wow, I can read Thai”.

How do you learn languages?

I need to learn how to say sentences in a very front brain manner. I can’t pick up a language by letting it wash over me.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I’m better at analyzing than at remembering vocabulary. Especially at first, I thought Thai words were hard to remember because they were mostly a single syllable and they all sounded the same to me. My ear wasn’t good enough to pick up tones just by hearing other people speak. I developed the visual transliteration system in my books at first to help myself visualize the sound of the words. It helped me learn to speak with the correct tones and vowel lengths.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

Some people say the tones aren’t important but your Thai will sound pretty ragged if you don’t learn them.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

The only experience I have is developing the tone/vowel length markers used in the transliteration system in my books. We used a program called Fontographer to do that.

Do you have a passion for music?

Yes, I played drums in rock bands with refugee camp workers and in Laos. We played covers of Rolling Stones, etc for parties, and some Thai and Lao songs. We had both foreign and Thai or Lao musicians which was a lot of fun. They were good rock musicians.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

My high school French isn’t very good.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No. I concentrated on Thai.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

I would say it’s important to learn how to say things exactly the way Thais say them. Don’t try to learn a lot of vocabulary then make up your own sentences. Also, don’t feel that using ka or krup is demeaning. Use it a lot, especially with older people and even at first when you talk to people your own age. People in Thailand really appreciate politeness. Don’t hang out with foreigners all the time.

James Higbie
Thai Language / Lao Language

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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Successful Thai Language Learner: Mark Hollow

Successful Thai Language Learner: Mark Hollow

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Mark Hollow
Nationality: British
Age: mid-30’s
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Formerly an IT project manager, currently just studying.
Twitter: @hmmbug

What is your Thai level?

I can speak reasonably well, although my ability and confidence varies according to the subject but can usually find my way around most conversation topics. I’m a better reader than speaker, regularly practising with reading newspaper articles, short novels and modern poetry. I don’t practice writing often enough, what I do write is mostly just short notes, or SMS/facebook messages.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

Professional/textbook Thai, I guess. I probably sound a bit “stiff” to locals as I’m likely missing some of the idioms and common sayings that a native speaker uses to make their speech sound truly natural.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I had been working in Singapore and in late 2009 decided I wanted to take a break from work because it was stressful and was going nowhere career-wise. However, I was fortunately made redundant due to a corporate takeover before I had chance to resign.

While not working I wanted to do something to keep my brain ticking over and learning a language seemed like a good choice. Thailand was the first Asian country I’d ever travelled to and I was fascinated by the language, in particular the writing system. So, learning Thai it was – and my plan to study for six months has turned in 1½ years so far!

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

Yes, in Bangkok. I first lived here for about 5-6 months during 2009. When my work in Singapore ended in mid-January 2010 I took just a few weeks to pack up my life in Singapore, then flew to Bangkok.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language? Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach? Did you stick to a regular study schedule? What Thai language learning methods did you try?

Since 2010. Prior to that, very little study with tangible results.

Initially I learnt some tourist Thai during holidays in Thailand between 2004-2008 – the usual stuff like numbers, food, please/thank you, “where’s the toilet?” and other essentials. At the time I was using Pimsleur’s Thai CDs and Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s Thai for Beginners.

During 2009 I tried learning more seriously but still largely on my own. That year I also met my now-fiancée who helped whenever I had questions but I was on my own and somewhat lost for structuring my learning: she’s a nurse, not a teacher and I was a project manager, not a student! I didn’t have a set learning schedule and work often took priority. I thought learning basic grammar (from David Smyth’s Thai: An Essential Grammar) would help with putting vocabulary together correctly. However, I didn’t really know much vocabulary to put together so that attempt died. I think it’s fair to say 2009 was a failure as far as language-learning was concerned.

It was only since leaving work that I was able to start learning seriously. On returning to Bangkok I immediately signed up with a private language school. I decided on Baan Aksorn because I’d read positive reviews about them and they gave a good impression when I visited. The building itself was different too – a cosy converted house, rather than a dull office in a tower block. It turned out to be a good choice for me.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Well, I can only really comment on my studies at school as my prior attempts weren’t successful.

Except for one month, I’ve only had one-on-one tuition which I’ve enjoyed. The teachers were rotated periodically which gave variety to both the lessons and the learning approach. For the one month that I studied with another student I felt like I was holding him back – he was a Singaporean and, like many of his fellow countrymen, already a polyglot from growing up in a multicultural & multilingual society so I returned to one-to-one lessons.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai? Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I began learning reading and writing as soon as I started school and in parallel with the speaking lessons so learned from phonetic spellings for about four months until my Thai reading was at an adequate standard to swap over to Thai-only course materials.

I found learning the alphabet very difficult. Learning by rote and with no context is almost impossible for me so I made a story out of the alphabet to provide the context eg. ท thor tahaan (soldier) is a patriotic chap likes to stand next to ธ thor thong (flag), next to him is… etc.. it’s all silly stuff but through the story I could remember.

The tone rules were difficult too at first but I found similar ways to link them together as an aide to my memory. Applying them while reading was a slow progress too but over time it becomes more natural.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

I don’t really think I’ve had any big ‘ah hah’ moments, just a gradual progression. I remember a “ขายยา” sign outside a pharmacy was probably the first multi-word sign that I read in the wild. Being able to do that put a smile on my face. Getting through the Ministry of Education’s Thai Language Competency Exam was a milestone too.

I do find that I go through a cycles of optimism and then pessimism about my studies and abilities. Usually the pessimism arises if I try to push myself too hard, eg. reading about a specialised topic when I know very little of the vocabulary. Documents about religious or royal subjects can easily do this. I think it’s important to understand your limits and not push yourself too hard.

How do you learn languages?

For the first month or two I was very quiet and said little at school. I would learn vocabulary and language patterns but didn’t start speaking much Thai until I had more vocabulary (and confidence). I saw no benefit in speaking in the classroom unless it was mostly in Thai.

For the first six months I kept a notebook on me and wrote down new vocabulary, at first it would only be words I saw frequently as there were so many words I didn’t know. The notebook was later replaced by a smart phone flashcard application which I found more convenient and sometimes quicker (eg. the ability to take a photo of an advert, sign etc).

Most of my time at home was spent reading reference and course materials. This was very intensive, sometimes up to 10 hours a day. I’d often have the TV or radio on in the background for a few hours too just to let the sounds sink in, regardless of whether I understand or not.

As my reading ability grew I started buying Thai books and reading Thai websites. I’ve found modern poetry to be a fun way to learn as it often evokes an emotional reaction and therefore (for me at least) makes it easier to remember the vocabulary. Contemporary poems are also often quite short – perfect for a quick read on the skytrain.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My enthusiasm for learning is probably my greatest strength. Weaknesses? Vocabulary retention especially those with irregular spellings such as loanwords.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That learning to read/write is too difficult or not necessary. Yes, it takes a long time and regular practice but it’s not too difficult. The benefits from being able to read are immense.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Not now – I did learn some French and German at secondary school but they were the lowest-graded subjects of my school exams. Languages just weren’t important to me at that time.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No, one’s enough!

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience? Do you have a passion for music and/or do you play an instrument?

Computers and music are both very much intertwined for me. I started learning to program computers when I was very young, perhaps eight or nine years old. Over the years I’ve learned a range of computer languages (C, java, python, PHP, and even some SPARC assembly). In my opinion though they’ve nothing in common with human languages.

During my early teens I learned the piano and continued learning music through to university, studying both classical music and music technology. After graduation I worked for the university’s IT department while starting a PhD researching user interface design for music software but quit that to develop the IT career that I’ve now left behind for language studies.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Persist.

Mark Hollow,
Twitter: @hmmbug

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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Successful Thai Language Learner: Marc Spiegel

Successful Thai Language Learner: Marc Spiegel

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Marc Spiegel
Nationality: American
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Management

What is your Thai level?

Intermediate.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

Professional Thai.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I believe that if you are going to live and work permanently in a country where your language is not the native language of the country then it is important to learn the language of the country in which you reside. Especially in Thailand where many people do not speak English in order to truly integrate to society here I believe it is critical to learn the language.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

September 2008.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

I studied approximately 600 hours (reading, writing and speaking).

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

I studied 4 hours per day, 5 days per week.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Yes

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I studied at Baan Aksorn.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Immediately.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Reading was not so difficult to learn once you master the alphabet, but writing is another story, especially when it comes to tone marks.

How do you learn languages?

I’ve always learned languages by studying in school and then reinforcing and expanding my capabilities through practice and use.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I have a natural knack for languages; however, as I am not the most patient person I am sometimes challenged by the speed in which I become conversant in a foreign language. I have a tendency to try and move too fast sometimes.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

Thinking you can get by learning transliteration. Of course you can learn the language, and I do have friends who are fluent; however, their pronunciation is quite poor and there are many instances where Thai people do not understand what they are saying until they hear most of the conversation and can understand the topic they are trying to speak about. In order to truly master Thai I strongly believe you must learn to read Thai properly.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I speak French proficiently (business vocabulary as well), and I know some German, Italian and Spanish.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

No.

Do you have a passion for music and/or do you play an instrument?

I have always had a passion for music and I did play the drums for a short period of my life.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Stick with it! It’s difficult in the beginning, but the more you practice and use the language the easier it gets.

Marc Spiegel

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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Successful Thai Language Learner: Daniel B Fraser

Successful Thai Language Learner: Daniel B Fraser

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Daniel B Fraser
Nationality: Canadian
Age range: 30-40
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Profession: Travel Company Owner, TV Host
Web: Smiling Albino, Facebook: Daniel B Fraser , YouTube: Smiling Albino

Interview: Bangkok Podcast Thai Language Series: Daniel Fraser

What is your Thai level?

Combo of Intermediate and Advanced, with occasional moments of fluency and utter confusion.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

Street Thai.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

Survival – I knew that starting a travel company was going to require intensive ground-level logistics, and I wanted to know what was going on.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?

First arrived in 1995 for a short project at Chitralada Palace, then returned just before 2000. I’ve lived in BKK since.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

Since arrival, but have never learned formally.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

Long approach – a few phrases at a time.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

No – I’ve never had one but can certainly appreciate the benefits of one.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

The way I learned was by mimicking others, using a dictionary daily, and writing words down in a little black book.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Mimicking others for sure was best.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I learned to read before I could speak as I understood it was the key to the tones and pitch. So, I learned to read very soon after arrival.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Writing yes, as it is a slow process for me (and often incorrect). Reading less difficult, but the lack of character/word spacing was and still is a challenge.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

I landed a movie role speaking Thai in 2003 after only being here 2.5 years. My script was all in Thai, and despite being somewhat terrified at the prospects of learning it, I found that by practicing and practicing, it became more natural and then I could actually envision myself speaking like that all the time. Ah hah!

How do you learn languages?

Constantly asking questions and seeking to understand what is being said. Then mimicking the right way to say it.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths are a good memory for difficult words or phrases. My tones are also quite good (for a Canadian!). But general structure and grammar is all very home-made for me, so I tend to not be so precise or clear with complicated dialogue.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I think it is that you have to sound perfect before you can be accepted as a Thai speaker. But Thai has so many styles and accents, that one shouldn’t let the sounds and tones intimidate you. Just go out there and make an effort.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I can pick up parts of Vietnamese fairly quickly when doing business there. Lao of course as it is similar to Thai. Now I find western languages so easy and straightforward by comparison.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

No – I don’t bond well with computers (or programmers).

Do you have a passion for music?

Absolutely – a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of various styles and influences.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Don’t be intimidated – just get the basics and make a daily (thrice daily) effort to get out and engage with people at street level.

Daniel B Fraser,
Smiling Albino

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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