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Successful Thai Language Learner: David Algeo Smith

Tomas Drayton

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: David Algeo Smith
Nationality: American
Age range: 50-60
Sex: Male
Location: Wisconsin, USA
Profession: Violin/fiddle teacher
Website/blog: I have a couple start-stop travel blogs which may have some interesting writing, not exclusively about Thailand, but I’d rather share my music here (there are 2-3 Thai traditional tunes on the album including Khang Khao Kin Kluay–“Bats Eating Bananas”): ค้างคาวกินกล้วย

What is your Thai level?

Intermediate spoken, beginner reading.

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

I’ve always tried to speak polite standard Thai. Although I lived primarily in Chiangmai I didn’t learn “kham muang” or any dialects apart from the odd phrase.

I know some curse words and other “mai phraw” words but even with friends I’d go there only very rarely.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

Necessity! When I first arrived in Thailand in late 1989 I quickly realized I needed to learn the language if I wanted to stay–and I really wanted to stay for awhile.

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

I lived in Chiangmai from December 1989 until about November 1994, then in Bangkok until late 1995. Then I spent about another year in the North in 1997-1998 and another six months in the North and Isaan in early 2001. During those years I often explored the South when on visa runs to Malaysia and I did several runs to Laos in the early ’90s– when it was very different from today.

Sadly, since 2001 I’ve only been able to manage about five 2-month visits up to my most recent in 2014. I feel as if I’ve really been trying to move back toThailand for 20 years now! Without success 😔

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

I started learning almost immediately–within the first month of my arrival in December 1989–and I continued learning for my entire immersion experience through 1995.

Actually I’ve never been a formal student in the academic sense but feel I’ve never stopped learning since I caught the “Thai bug”, and I probably will always be an eager student of this language.

That said, since I’m not the world’s best language student, I find it difficult–even almost pointless–to continue to study the language when I’m not living in Thailand. So since 1998 I haven’t progressed much past the low to mid intermediate level, to my increasing regret today.

But every time I return for a visit the skills come back quickly and within days I’m improving to advanced intermediate levels. That tells me I can reach higher levels–if only I were to apply myself to more disciplined study.

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

It was right for me! But I never took formal lessons. I was very lucky to have a good Thai friend whose mission in life was to pull Westerners into the Thai cultural orbit, and I learned my first words and sounds from her.

I used a notebook to create my own transliteration which eventually made a lot more sense to me than the others available at the time. And I was fascinated by the alphabet early but concluded that I’d be better off focusing on listening and pronouncing words first.

I started with my friend to get to the market (beginner), then I continued with other friends I made in the music world (intermediate beginner), then finally with my girlfriend (advanced beginner).

This was during my early immersion period from 1990-1993. When I returned to the States for a year in 1996 I stopped studying completely and really missed it.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

No, but I was living and playing with Thai musicians on a daily basis then later I had a Thai girlfriend. None of my closest friends at that time had any more than basic English–not even enough for “Thaienglish”, really!

My friends were all Chiangmai or Phrae musicians with very little experience dealing with farang. I learned a lot from them even though they always talked in Chiangmai dialect with each other–very graciously they spoke “Bangkok” with me.

My girlfriend was from Lopburi so her “mother tongue” was the one I was trying to learn: Central Thai. I have her to thank for teaching me in the most patient, empathetic manner imaginable. I was so lucky to meet her, and my years with her were my best in Thailand.

To succeed in love and in music in a totally foreign culture I had to rely on these friends/colleagues/lovers to be my teachers, and they all taught me so much more than just the language. I learned about food and family and phu yai/phu noi and about Thai music and politics, and about jai rawn/jai yen and grengjai, and so much more.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

As a beginner I tried my “teacher/friend’s method–hers was an excellent way to get me quickly comfortable, on my own, in the neighborhood market😀

But seriously it was a total immersion situation and as a young musician on a Thai salary I never had the resources to try school or take AUA classes. I learned from the friends and acquaintances I made.

Did one method stand out over all others?

I grew up as a Suzuki violin student. Suzuki music students can achieve a high level of ability on the instrument with listening, imitation, repetition, review, and delayed music reading. I applied those childhood skills in my Thai learning.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I started basic reading almost immediately but I still can’t write today because I don’t know how to spell and I’m too lazy to work on improving my “five-year old’s” handwriting.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I could see right away that Thai is an alphabet and not an inscrutable “script”. And since I love reading I didn’t find that particularly difficult.

After learning the basics of the consonants and vowels from my first “friend/teacher” I largely taught myself to read. I was familiar with the “black book”–we had one lying around–but as I’ve already mentioned I was rather lazy. So I did not study the tone rules used in word construction ( that’s on my extensive to do list now–thank you Ajaan Smyth and Khun Cat for making some very fine resources available). Instead I used my “Suzuki ear” to learn the correct pronunciation.

Reading for me was all about what I could gain just running around in daily life. I learned to read all the “changwat” on the “thabien rot”, street signs, billboards, any other signs (bus signboards were so much fun to figure out, even if I wasn’t particularly waiting for a bus!), and of course menus.

By this point (maybe 2-3 years in) I completely ditched most transliterations. I simply didn’t need them anymore, and most of them aren’t helpful past the beginner stage. I recommend the beginner create her own if needed.

Oddities like the positioning of the vowels and the many dipthongs/tripthongs never threw me for a loop because I thought it was a fascinating way to construct words–if nothing else, Thai words on the written page are memorable, even if you don’t know what the word means or precisely how to pronounce it.

And off the page, all those weird vowel sounds were a lot of fun to try out loud with friends–lots of laughs there, and lots of successful learning too.

By the end of my initial 5-6 years of immersion I was reading trashy magazines and comic books, but I never really graduated to newspapers–too many abstract concepts for me! And I was too often stubbornly lazy with the dictionary even though I usually had two or three handy. If a friend tried explaining it to me and I still didn’t understand a written word, I’d might look it up. Or, more often, I’d forget to do so if I didn’t have the “dik” with me.

But my instinct during that period told me to delay serious reading study until I could speak somewhat competently, so that’s what I did.

Unfortunately at that point I had to return to the West. Which was a huge culture shock, by the way. In fact I’m still recovering 😂

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

I saved this question for last because I’ve had several and want to relate this to you right.

Thais compliment foreigners way too much so they always say “geng” even when we’re not. But when they start saying (about you) “phud phraw maak” or “phud chat maak” then you can be sure you are making at least some progress. In Khorat I met a shopkeeper who asked me if I worked for “sathan thoot” (the embassy). That bowled me over.

Another moment was when I could read everything in a 20-page menu (no English) and ask the waiter to explain a new (for me) dish and understand everything he said and decide how to order competently–and humorously!

But my first “ah hah” moment was a very beautiful moment one morning in Chiangmai when my girlfriend woke up and said: เมื่อคืนฉันฝัน (Last night I had a dream…) and I understood everything she said to follow. This was my first experience truly grasping abstract concepts in Thai.

How do you learn languages?

I’ve outlined above a little about how I learned Thai. I listen a lot and don’t talk much at first. I’ve been fortunate to have had the time and inclination to get immersed in new cultures and stay awhile.

In Thailand I learned from friends, then colleagues, then intimate partners, and finally from everyone I encountered in dozens of provinces of Thailand.

But to reach the next levels I know I have to stop being lazy with reading and dictionaries and go back to creating vocabulary lists. This is the hard work that everyone must do to advance.

But then there’s the fun stuff: watch TV, the dumber the material the better (don’t be put off by soap operas and reality TV), listen to the radio, watch Thai content with English subtitles and Western content with Thai subtitles, watch the news. Graduate to Thai content with Thai subtitles, if you can get that kind of material now.

I can see from this blog that a whole new world of Thai learning has opened up, and I’m really impressed–and inspired. We didn’t have all those resources in the ’90s.

I recently spent about six months in France and I learned right away what I needed to do: get out of my comfort zones, speak French as much as possible, and watch TV–lots of it. Before long I had the best beginner French I’ve had in 40 years of interest in that beautiful, funny language.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I think my Thai pronunciation is pretty good because of my music background. I can hear and imitate the tones easily. Maybe they’re not even “tones”– just distinct, unique “sounds”.

Taw Tao, Paw Plaa and Ngaw Ngu are very foreign sounds for Western speakers, but they are not impossible–just a nice challenge to get right.

Also, while I’m somewhat shy and not really gregarious, I found in Thailand I really loved engaging verbally with people on a daily basis. Maybe this is why I loved everything about Thailand. It awakened something new in me which gradually turned into a strength that I utilized everyday.

As for weaknesses, there’s no question: reading and my non-existent writing.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I’m not sure, but this is an important question I’d like to answer thoughtfully. Perhaps I’m a good example for some of how not to learn!

I’ve had a lifelong love of languages but I always found the Latin languages and German far too difficult. In Thailand, however, I discovered I can easily reach a level, that with increased, more serious study would lead to certain advancement–even for a B-C student like me.

The tones are conquerable, even for a lackadaisical reader, and the reading itself is really fun, especially if you like reading but aren’t a stellar student.

Learning Thai, as a young adult, was for me like being a five year old again, in only the most positive sense of that universal experience. The entire world is yours once more, a marvelous place of wonder, which is how I’ve always felt about Thailand.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I was a C student in French in high school but gradually gained a beginner level over several visits to France over the years. I have very basic Spanish and even poorer German but only because of my extensive travel in Europe and in Mexico and Central America.

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

When I first arrived in Thailand I was just coming from several months in France.

But no, Thai was all I could wrap my head around once I’d left Europe, “for good”, I thought at the time.

This might be the right place for me to mention that in the ’91-’95 period I did not return to the West for about four years. In that period, life was just Southeast Asia for me–apart from a couple quick trips to Japan and Korea during the latter part of my 5-6 year immersion.

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

Every student is different: just explore a lot and find out the many different methods and resources that work best for you.

What worked best for me was having close Thai friends early in my experience. Get a job with Thais and hang out with people who don’t know English.

Find an intimate partner and meet everyone in her/his family and learn as much as possible about relationships and why they matter in Thai society.

Like everyone the world over, Thais love to gossip about friends, family and workmates. Don’t be afraid to join in! In my years with the band I learned so much about band politics and the internal hierarchy of that small world, and it really helped me to gain wider comprehension of the culture and the language–which are two things we can’t separate anyway​.

Get out of your city and/or schooling bubble, or comfort zones, and travel as much as possible to remote areas or “ban nawk”. That’s where I learned the most.

But even in the towns and cities you can learn a lot by getting out to market or “bai theeo khon deeo”. Go out solo and engage with women in the market and with songthaeo drivers and motorcycle mechanics and the woman who does your laundry. Ultimately I probably learned more from the general public than I did from my many wonderful friends.

Use humor, follow the Thai penchant for sanuk and “law lehn” and don’t be afraid when they laugh at your mistakes. Thais are way too complimentary of foreigners but they appreciate​ us too–and for good reason, I believe. We all have much to offer each other.

I like having a Thai-Thai dictionary and a good three-way, if available. Lately I’ve been carrying Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s brilliant Thai-English/English-Thai dictionary and her Thai for Intermediate Learners in my travels.

regards,
David Algeo Smith

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners.

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

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Successful Thai Language Learner: Tomas Drayton

Tomas Drayton

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Tomas Drayton
Nationality: British
Age range: 26
Sex: Male
Location: London, UK.
Profession: BA South East Asian Studies Student at SOAS, University of London.

What is your Thai level?

Advanced.

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

In the beginning I tried to learn as much slang and ‘Thai-isms’ as possible in some vain hope of speaking exactly like a Thai. However, when I started studying at SOAS the best advice I got was that as foreign Thai speakers, regardless of how good your Thai can be there will always be slight communication barriers, therefore it’s best to accept your role as a foreign Thai speaker, and compensate by veering into the more polite and formal ways of speaking.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

Initially I went to Thailand on holiday, and as a vegetarian I learnt about three phrases. I ended up staying much longer than planned and just slowly built up more and more, so it was more circumstantial than anything else. I then applied to study at SOAS as there was a year abroad programme at Thammasat University, which sounded much more appealing than working!

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

Not currently.

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

I have been a Thai language student at University level since September 2013. Previous to that I had been learning independently for about two years.

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

I was very keen to learn Thai at first and stuck at it for a good six months which built a good foundation of basic spoken Thai. I bought a book and just used to look at it every day while in Thailand, trying to learn and use one new phrase or expression each day.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

More so just as and when I could than a rigid timetable. However once I started learning it at university level of course I had to do much more controlled study in order to pass exams etc.

What Thai language learning methods did you try? Did one method stand out over all others?

I don’t buy into or even understand various language learning ‘methods’, some seem absolutely insane! Perhaps they do work for some people, but getting too deep into scientific language learning technique comparisons seems to me a waste of learning time!

I think for a grammatically uncomplicated language like Thai in which much of the emphasis is in speech and pronunciation, the best bet is to be practising speaking as much as possible. The only way to remember a language for me is to use it!

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Not soon enough! I think the earlier you can start learning to read and write the better, as it makes pronunciation so easy. I started properly being able to read and write at SOAS once I started studying there, as it is absolutely the first thing you do.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Thankfully I had David Smyth to teach me so it was relatively easy. I’d say after a month or so of learning it becomes easy.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

Probably the first time I was ever understood asking for vegetarian food by a Thai person!

How do you learn languages?

Speak ๆๆๆๆ

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I think putting off learning to read and write is a big one, as being able to read just makes everything so much easier. Also, I think the idea that it is very hard is quite a misconception. If you think it’s very hard and you won’t be able to do it, you won’t.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I learnt French to quite a good level in school, but cannot remember any now!

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

No I think I’d find that very hard.

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

I truly believe that the best way to learn is through friendly chit-chat with Thai people. If you are in Thailand, go out and about and try to chat to people. If you aren’t in Thailand but are preparing to go, get practising specific phrases you are going to use. Once you can get a basic framework of Thai conversation and confidence in speaking and using Thai, the rest just follows.

I started by going out and trying to make small talk about the weather, inevitably someone would say something I didn’t understand, so I would go back, check my book to try and work out what they had said, and then would just try again the next day with someone else.

I think getting over the confidence barrier in speaking and getting the belief that you probably can learn Thai is the trick.

regards,
Tomas Drayton

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners.

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

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Successful Thai Language Learner: Karsten Aichholz

Karsten Aichholz

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Karsten Aichholz
Nationality: German
Age range: 35
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Aspiring writer. Actual entrepreneur.
Website: I run a website that provides people with free guides on living, working or starting a business in Thailand: Thailand Starter Kit

What is your Thai level?

Advanced.

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

Professional Thai. I can read and understand the fee structure of a an SET-traded fund, but for the life of it have no idea why the lady with the pancake makeup and the helmet haircut is angry at that other lady on some soap opera.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

My former business partner is a language prodigy. Unless I studied the language extensively I would come across as having learning-disability when sitting next to him in a meeting. I also didn’t want to be the guy who after 10 years in a country still doesn’t speak the language. Initially it was that and some curiosity.

Later on it was mostly for social reasons and some limited business benefits.

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

I have been living in Bangkok since 2006.

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

2006+

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

Back in 2006, the first year I arrived in Thailand, fiddled around with books and websites without making much progress beyond ‘turn right’, ‘vegetarian, please’ and ‘that’s not vegetarian’. I got serious when I first took an intensive Thai class at Chulalongkorn University in 2007. I wrote a review about that experience here: Thai Language School Review – Intensive Thai at Chulalongkorn University. I’ve been studying on and off ever since.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Not as much as I’d like to have. Doing full-time intensive classes forced me to do it for a few weeks each and it helped a lot. In other years it was more of a ‘time permitting’ approach where I’d take up regular classes when my work schedule permitted.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I did some self-study (okay, to maintain current level), an intensive Thai class (very good to overcome roadblocks), and took private lessons (great if you can find a topic that interests you and combine it with dedicated self-study). 

Did one method stand out over all others?

One very labor intensive but effective way of self-study was to put entire sentences from Thai Grammar Books on Anki flash cards. It definitely helped with getting a more intuitive understanding of grammar. I would gladly pay good money for ready-made, sentence-based flash cards that can be purchased by topic. Finding topics that excite me (e.g. finance) was one of the biggest factors in making me more dedicated to self-study.

This said, the biggest improvements came from externally imposed schedules that force you to commit time and thought to learning the language.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

The first word I read in Thai was the transcription on the McDonald’s sign. That was a week after arriving. I picked up enough to ‘make out’ words reasonably quickly, but didn’t learn how to properly read and write until I took an intensive Thai class that taught me about a year after I arrived.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

It didn’t come naturally beyond some newbie gains, but I feel more at ease with written Thai than colloquial Thai.

How do you learn languages?

With dread and reluctance. I wish I was kidding. My work-around is to find a setup that forces me to study or provides a tangible reward in the near future (e.g. signing up for a class, learning the lyrics of a song, reviewing essential information for my business…).

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I have a hard time doing something for which I don’t see rewards in the near future. Though once I believe there’ll be a benefit, I can put up with a lot in order to reach it.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That reading is hard and grammar is easy.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I’m a native German speaker and picked up English on the internet. French I struggled with in school long enough to allow me some rudimentary communication while crossing a French-speaking country.

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

That would be pure horror to me. Nowadays when I try to speak French, Thai comes out. I can’t imagine how confusing it would be to learn two languages at once.

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

Find a very specific benefit you’ll want that requires speaking Thai. It’ll give you a lot of direction, motivation and you’ll have an easier time showing self-discipline. In my humble opinion, motivation alone won’t work: Stop Asking How to Get Motivated.

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners.

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

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Successful Thai Language Learner: Ben Crowder

Ben Crowder

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Ben Crowder
Nationality: American
Age range: 30–40
Sex: Male
Location: Utah, USA
Profession: Web developer/designer
Website: Ben Crowder

What is your Thai level?

Advanced.

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

Professional Thai with a smattering of Isaan, and I’d bet that the street Thai I know is now dated and obsolete.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I was a Mormon missionary in Thailand for two years.

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

I lived in Thailand from 2002 to 2004.

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

2002+, though I haven’t done a great job at continuing my study since returning home in 2004, other than occasional chats with Thai friends on Facebook.

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

I learned it right away, with twelve weeks of intensive Thai training for missionaries followed by moving to Thailand, with the expectation that I would speak Thai daily during my time there.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Yes, an hour a day. And I talked with Thai people all day, every day, which helped a lot, naturally.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

Speaking with Thais every day was the most regular and important method. When words I didn’t know came up in conversation (a frequent occurrence), I wrote them down and studied them later. And I bought dictionaries and grammars and tried to work my way through those, too. Also, I spent six months in the mission office and there learned how to type Thai, which helped a lot as well.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Speaking Thai all the time, without a doubt.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

During the initial twelve weeks I used the Mary Haas romanization scheme, only starting with the script near the end of that time. Once I arrived in Thailand, though, learning to read and write Thai script was one of my top priorities. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to start with the script sooner than I did.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I don’t think so, but it’s been a while and my memory isn’t spectacular. I do remember it taking a little while to get the hang of which script features were significant (the loops seemed so significant at first, but then weren’t), and getting used to reading without spaces between words was tricky. And handwriting can still be hard to decipher, though that’s true of handwriting in most languages.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

My first day in country, I was sitting in an apartment with my missionary companion, teaching a Thai couple about Jesus Christ and eternal families. Most of what the Thais said was unintelligible to me, but there was a point during the discussion where I actually understood what they said. It was amazing! (I didn’t understand the rest of the conversation after that, but within a month or two I was usually able to keep up with the gist of each conversation.)

How do you learn languages (learning styles)?

My language learning experience with Thai has been the outlier; most of the languages I’ve learned (Latin, Greek, Coptic, Middle Egyptian) have been dead, studied in a university setting, with a focus on reading. With all of the languages I’ve studied, there has been a fair amount of rote memorization of vocabulary and forms, though in retrospect I think I do better with inductive methods. Speaking/reading the actual language as soon as possible helps me the most.

I occasionally dip into Duolingo (for a number of different languages — I really need to stick with just one) and for the most part I like the style they use there.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths: I seem to learn languages fairly easily. I can never remember what I did the week before, but grammar and vocab stick in my head for some reason. (I pick up programming languages easily as well, which may or may not be related.)

Weaknesses: my accent, definitely. And my lack of resolve in sticking with a Thai study regimen after I finished my mission back in 2004.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That Thai is spoken in Taiwan. No, but really, probably that it’s insurmountably difficult. It’s not.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I studied Latin, Greek, Middle Egyptian, Coptic, and Welsh at BYU, though Latin is the only one I can still read at all. I can read/write a fair amount of Spanish, some French, and a little German. And I once (very slowly) read the first paragraph of Crime & Punishment in Russian, dictionary in hand, figuring out the grammar as I went along. (Okay, that doesn’t really count. But it was fun!)

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

No, just Thai.

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

Hang in there, and try to speak/read/write as much Thai as you can.

Ben Crowder | Ben Crowder

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners.

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

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Successful Thai Language Learner: Weston Hawkins

Weston Hawkins

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Weston Hawkins
Nationality: American
Age range: 20-30
Sex: Male
Location: Utah, USA
Profession: Operations Manager (Pearls By Laurel) and Interpreter/Translator (Global Translation Team and Asian Translation)
Youtube Channel: Vespa Hockey

What is your Thai level?

Advanced/Fluent: I’d lean toward saying I’m fluent, but I’m hesitant to be too confident since there’s still so much for me to learn. I did score a Superior rating on the ACTFL OPI.

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

My initial language training was focused on very professional, proper Thai. That’s still the Thai that I speak most frequently. I can understand and (awkwardly) use most street Thai, and I can make my way around basic Isaan Thai, but my true fluency is in professional Thai.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

My initial reasons for learning Thai were the same as a few others who have been interviewed for this blog: I was a volunteer missionary that was called to teach in Thailand for two years. However, my reason for continuing to learn Thai after that service ended is (I hope) the same as every person who has been interviewed for this blog: I came to love Thailand and the Thai people. And the Thai language too! It’s a beautiful language. I know it sounds cliché to say that, but Thailand is magical and I fell for its spell.

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

I lived in Thailand in 2005 and 2006 and then again in 2010. I’ve traveled back there every year or two since then. I’d love to live in Thailand again if the opportunity presented itself.

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

Since 2005. Previous to that, I couldn’t even point out Thailand on a map. When I first got to Thailand I was living in Kalasin. I think that was a huge help to me because there are a lot fewer English speakers up there than in Bangkok so I was forced to practice and improve my broken Thai.

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

Learning Thai was pretty much sink-or-swim for me. I spent 12 weeks learning the language at a training center for missionaries before I flew to Thailand and was expected to use it on a daily basis. I left the training center feeling confident that I was an “advanced” beginner but quickly learned that I could only understand some Thai spoken by other Westerners and not a word of Thai from native speakers. It wasn’t until 3-4 months of daily (attempted) speaking and listening with native speakers that I started to feel I had a grasp of the basics.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

My schedule as a missionary afforded me an hour of language study every morning. I mostly used that time to learn new vocabulary and practice my reading. I felt I was most effective at learning the language when I was speaking with or listening to native speakers.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

The method I was taught for learning Thai and that was very successful for me was Speak Your Language (SYL). It emphasized speaking with native speakers as much and as often as possible. This gave me the opportunity to make many, many mistakes, and mistakes almost always turn into learning experiences.

Did one method stand out over all others?

I don’t think I really tried any methods other than SYL. Generally, real-world application was a more effective learning method for me that studying from a book.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

During my 12 weeks of language training, I used a Romanized version of Thai to learn the language. I wouldn’t recommend that for new learners if you can help it. Once I arrived in Thailand, I made the transition to learning the Thai script. This card [pdf download] was a lifesaver when it came to learning the alphabet and tone markers. Once you have the “code” memorized, reading becomes a fun game of putting it all together. That’s not to say that there aren’t any exceptions to the rule with Thai, but there are far fewer than with English.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

It was difficult, but it was also fun in a way because written Thai makes so much sense once you start to get the hang of it. The most difficult part of learning to write Thai is trying to make your handwriting legible. I have a hard enough time with that in English.

What was your first ah-hah! moment?

The first moment I can recall was when I was talking with some native friends in Kalasin after having lived there for 3-4 months. I realized I was both understanding and contributing to the conversation! It was a huge boost of confidence to keep learning so that those conversations could become longer and more in-depth.

How do you learn languages (learning styles)?

I learn languages through practicing speaking. And when practicing, I mostly focus on imitating the correct pronunciation (and in the case of Thai, tones). To me, it’s not worth speaking a language if I can’t speak it as naturally (or as close to possible) as a native speaker. That usually puts me behind my peers in terms of gaining fluency or building my vocabulary, but I’ve seen too many fellow students blow past me in terms of fluency only to be stuck with a crippled accent that can’t be unlearned.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My biggest strength when it comes to learning Thai is my willingness to ask questions when I don’t know the word or how to say something. My biggest weakness is that I get too complacent and comfortable in my language abilities. I need to be more disciplined in my efforts to study and improve if I expect to come close to approaching a mastery of the language.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I’d say the biggest misconception is that Westerners or speakers of non-tonal languages can’t learn how to speak with tones correctly. If you can speak English with inflection that imbues meaning then you can speak Thai with the right tones. Truth be told, it’s not actually Thai if the tones aren’t correct. It’s the same with Thai students of English who speak every word as if it’s a loanword. That’s not actually English.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I took a year of online Latin my sophomore year in high school. My fluency in Latin is nonexistent. I was an exchange student in Norway during my junior year in high school and learned fluent Norwegian. I forgot most of it when I began learning Thai, but the foundation is still there if I ever want to pick it back up again. My college degree is in Middle East Studies/Arabic, and I spent 4 months living in Jordan on a study abroad, but I never gained even close to the same level of fluency with Arabic as I did with Thai. The grammar is so much more complex, and that’s a weak spot for me. I’ve been using the DuoLingo app to try to learn Spanish, but I’m still just a beginner. Oh, and I’m determined to learn proper Lao.

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

No, my full attention was given to learning Thai at the beginning. My brain actually cleared out the Norwegian I’d learned a few years previous to make room for the Thai.

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

Immerse yourself. If you don’t live in Thailand, move there (if possible). If you do live in Thailand, limit your time speaking English as much as possible. In fact, limit your time being around any Westerners to as little as possible. When you’re with Thais, speak Thai, even if their English is far better than your Thai (frequently the case).

ครับ/ค่ะ
Weston Hawkins | Youtube Channel: Vespa Hockey

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners.

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

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Successful Thai Language Learner: Brett Whiteside

Brett Whiteside

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Brett Whiteside
Nationality: American
Sex: Male
Location: All over the place (Uluru when I started writing this and Queenstown, NZ when I finished it.)
Profession: Self Employed
Website: Learn Thai from a White Guy

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

As with any language, the manner in which you speak to a person depends on the situation and who you are talking to. I don’t completely identify with a particular dialect, but I’d guess a spectrum of central with Northern tendencies. I can pretend to know what I’m doing in other dialects and similar languages because I know about the sound changes, but I have never spent a significant amount of time in any of the regions other than Chiang Mai so my knowledge is limited.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I found myself in Thailand quite randomly and figured if I was going to hang out there for a minute, I’d like to be able to talk to other humans on occasion.

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

I arrived in Thailand in early 2003 and lived in Chiang Mai for about 13 years. It’s still a base for me now, but I’m a lot more nomadic these days and don’t usually stay anywhere very long.

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

I started with a Living Language CD, which was awful and a Lonely Planet phrasebook which I bought the same day I got on the plane in March, 2003. I think I managed to learn the numbers, how much and a few greetings before I landed. Naturally, I said them all very wrong.

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

When I started learning Thai, I didn’t know what I was doing. However, I found that double-fisting Chang beers and talking to girls at the night bazaar every night went a long way for making progress in the language and seemed like a great idea at the time. So, in the beginning, it was all restaurants and bars. I’m vegan so a lot of the early days my language learning focussed on figuring out how to stop people from putting fishy things into my food and then later, convincing them it could still taste good without them.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

I didn’t really know how to study at that point in my life. I just went out and tried to talk to people every day. I carried around a notepad and I’d review that when riding in song taews and lifts or when I was eating. I believe that played a huge part in me actually making progress. I probably went through a notepad every two or three months and before I’d start on a new one, I’d skim through and find I’d usually retained about half of what I wrote in there.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I never really tried any actual systems. I just kept trying to talk to people and gradually sounded less and less ridiculous over a long period of time. I briefly tried the “learn from your girlfriend©” method and found that it wasn’t very effective. I did a very brief stint at AUA in Chiang Mai. The “advanced” course was under way when I got there so I paid full price to sit in on the class for maybe a week and a half. It was pretty ridiculous so I swore off schools after that. Towards the end of the first year, a friend and I scouted out some of the schools in town hoping that we could find one willing to teach us “advanced Thai,” but that never panned out. I used Benjawan’s Advanced Thai book a bit in the early days since that’s all there was at the time. I liked the short newspaper articles.

Did one method stand out over all others?

I attribute my modest success in being able to speak a bit of Thai to the magical notepads and me actively using them over a long period of time. One other thing that made a huge difference was that during the first year, I didn’t really hang out with any foreigners. I would just roam around solo, get lost and find myself in pretty crazy (and sometimes scary) situations and I just kept on learning a bit at a time. I’d be among a group of Thai people and I’d try really hard to keep up until I was exhausted then zone out. It felt very much like exercise except for the sitting and drink whiskey part.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I tried right away, but I was just using the LP phrase book at that time and it wasn’t great for learning the alphabet. I definitely didn’t understand the vowel shapes and I ignored all the crazy letters for a while. As soon as I knew a few letters, I was constantly trying to figure out what all the signs around me were saying. I would just skip over anything I didn’t recognize. And, yes, the sign fonts were a pain in the ass at first, but you get used to it.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

At first, definitely, but that was really because I wasn’t sure how to go about learning it. It was all crazy squiggles and I had no idea about the tone rules or how the vowels worked. My phrase book didn’t mention any of that stuff and I didn’t yet understand how crippling romanization was. I know now that it isn’t that hard and the problem was that the average native speaker has no idea how to explain what’s happening and how it all comes together. This is how I ended up developing the system that I use for my online courses.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

The day I had finally internalized all the tone rules and could produce them at will. I actually remember the day when I realized I had it all down. Suddenly, I no longer mixed up similar sounding vowels, I could write down new words I heard phonetically even if I wasn’t sure how they were spelled. I could now start self-correcting all the words I had been saying wrong up until that point. I was pretty horrified to discover how badly I was butchering everything those first 9 months or so, but once you accept that you are pronouncing everything wrong, you can begin to fix it. It all fell into place pretty quickly.

How do you learn languages?

I spend a fair bit of time on the sound system in the beginning and then I jump in to learning full phrases immediately after and then just start talking to people. I usually skip a lot of basic vocabulary that people tend to study so it’s not uncommon for me to be having pretty limited conversations with people before I know how to say all the numbers or basic words like “sister.”

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I’ve gotten quite good at using mnemonics and other memory techniques that allow you to quickly retain things. Years of teaching Thai has given me the magical ability to quickly teach even the most thick-headed, frustrated “I’m not good at languages and I’m tone deaf” farang to actually learn the sounds and be able to speak Thai. This requires much patience, and beer.

I’m really bad at sticking to study routines and I have problems focusing on things for any length of time, but I find that very short bursts of study a few times a day can work fairly well. I’d also say my memory isn’t that great and I either need to be exposed to things many times or actively use mnemonics for them to stick.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That you can just “speak Thai” without learning to read the script.
Basic literacy is such a huge part of learning any language, but it’s particularly important with Thai. It’s extremely difficult to master all the different vowel sounds without some hook to help you separate all the new sounds.

You don’t have to read War and Peace in Russian if you don’t care about literature, but there’s no excuse for not being able to read the sign for the bathroom or know how to properly pronounce the name of the city you live in correctly. It’s not Pat-tai-ya people.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I’m conversational or better in four languages aside from English and I have some limited ability with a bunch more. Thai was the first language that I made real progress with.

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

Yes, I spent a few years taking classes in Japanese, Chinese and Korean. I went a bit language-crazy in the mid-2000s. It’s also worth noting that for all those years of lessons, Thai which I definitely did not learn in a school is the one I became most comfortable with. This really made me rethink the entire process.

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

Learn the script and master the tone rules. It doesn’t take that long and it’ll save you from heaps of frustration later.

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners.

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

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Successful Thai Language Learner: Mirko Martin

Mirko Martin

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Mirko Martin
Nationality: German
Age range: 30-40
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Artist, Photographer
Website: mirkomartin.com

What is your Thai level?

I’d say probably intermediate to advanced.

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

Something in-between, I suppose. No Isaan, though.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

In my first year here, I was not focused on the language at all. Obviously, one can get by without speaking Thai and the initial hurdle is very high. But I became more and more embarrassed when, even after more than a year, I was limited to just a few basic words. I’d understand the culture only superficially. And I wanted to transcend the role of the typical Farang, who, apart from his girlfriend(s), only hangs out in Western circles and has somewhat of a joking-only relationship to Thais. Luckily, I have two Austrian friends here, who are fluent in Thai and who encouraged me to study the language, too. As I found it too hard to do it all by myself from the outset, I started going to school.

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

I currently live here and have been here for over two years.

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

For almost a year.

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

Ever since I started going to school, I stuck with it. What helped was that I had to pay the tuition fee for a year in advance. I wanted to get best results for my money.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

The schedule was determined by school hours and homework. Even though homework and self-study exceeded school hours, the school provided the necessary frame.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

To be honest, I don’t know much about different learning methods. At school, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on vocabulary, which is good, but there obviously can’t always be ample speaking time for every student, so I also focused on pronunciation at home. Other than that, usual things I guess – watching TV, reading texts from various sources, and of course speaking to Thais, which also includes questioning them about language related issues.

Did one method stand out over all others?

As pronunciation seems to be the most difficult thing for most Thai learners in terms of speaking, I focused on this a lot. At first, it felt kind of affected to push and pull the tones up and down, plus I needed (and still need) extra energy to constantly do it, to sort of have a second layer of awareness in the back of my mind while speaking. That’s probably why foreigners tend to speak the tones rather flat. So I do a lot of reading out loud at home. The tones started to feel more natural soon and now they are even kind of a fun aspect for me, too, even though I still get them wrong many times.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I had playfully started reading and writing a bit before I started going to school, so actually before speaking – mostly, because I was intrigued by the meticulousness of the alphabetic characters and the spelling rules.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

No. It took me a while to be able to understand the tone rules, but after that, it became a lot easier. Obviously, Thai has some difficult words with irregular spelling, but overall, I don’t find basic reading and writing difficult. When it comes to academic writing and building complex grammatical structures, however, I find that very difficult.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

When I was about to take the official Thai language test for foreigners, I became sick with a fever. Instead of preparing, I wasn’t able to do anything but sleep in the two weeks or so leading up to the test. It was my first serious break from studying Thai since I had started out eight months before. What a bad timing, I thought. But to my surprise, during the test and since, I was suddenly able to speak out much more freely than before, not always having to deliberately construct the sentences word for word anymore. While I’m still far from being fluent and much depends on the topic of a conversation and my daily form, becoming aware of the fluidity threshold was surprising and exciting.

How do you learn languages?

I’m not an expert. Thai is the first language that I started learning after being out of the school system, so I’m learning it in a much more condensed and speedy way than English, for example.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

When working on something I am fascinated by, I can be quite obsessive. I’m a visual learner and have to see the words written out to be able to remember them, which is strength and weakness at the same time, I guess. What I enjoy most is speaking and reading, so I tend to neglect developing the other skills a bit. Especially listening to long, uninterrupted texts still gives me headaches.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

Maybe that reading actual Thai instead of relying on a transliteration system is overly difficult?

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I’m fluent in English and speak a bit of French. Mixing English and Thai is not a problem, but with French and Thai I get confused, so I try to stay away from French now. No disrespect meant though.

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

No. I imagine that very difficult.

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

Be patient. It seems hard at first but will get easier after crossing some basic hurdles. Obviously, spending time with Thais is key, so to me, it only really makes sense to study Thai if one lives here. Try to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. Don’t get discouraged if your pronunciation creates amusement at first. Have the mindset of on ongoing student; try not to let your ego get in the way. Use the Thais’ readiness to express compliments, appreciation and advice as fuel to stay motivated.

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners.

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

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