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Learn Thai by Reading Your Language

Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

Speak Your Language…

It is no secret that I advocate a method of language acquisition called Speak Your Language (after writing 3 posts about it you would kind of get the hint, right?) I encourage all language learners to try SYL, especially when you aren’t ready to speak in full sentences. Start using what you know now, even if all you know is อยากไป (want to go). When you want to go to the store say, ” I อยากไป to the store!”

It may feel corny, but it’s amazingly powerful how SYL creates intuitive links in your mind. And as an added bonus SYL lets you know what words you to learn next. So you won’t be wasting your time on learning how to say octopus when you could be learning more useful words and grammar.

Learn Thai by Reading Your Language…

Someone from useallfive.com must have read my posts, because they recently created a free extension to the Google Chrome browser that follows that same concept of Speak Your Language, except it is used for reading instead. After installing the extension, the program will translate varying amounts of a web page, in the languages supported by Google Translates. Thai included.

The amount of the page translated depends on the level you set. The novice level will translate hardly any words and phrase parts. Each level adds more until you get to fluent, which translates the entire page.

I know what you are about to say, because it was what I thought at first too. Google Translate’s ability to translate whole sentences into Thai is hit or miss. Compound that with trying to translate a whole web page and you have some pretty useless Thai. Read Catherine’s post, The Fourth Google Translate Challenge to see what I mean.

For beginning Thai learners, GT translates fractions of sentences. The benefit is that the context remains, but you still learn while reinforcing your Thai.

This is a single paragraph I took from the Bangkok Post. I set the tool between intermediate and fluent, the highest you can go with out translating the whole page. This is what I got:

The Taliban said the เหมือนกัน evil ชาวต่างชาติที่ helping to เช็ดออก one of the world’s worst ในวัยเด็ก diseases ยังเป็นresponsible for โจมตีทางอากาศ killing ผู้นำของพวกเขา It is unclear just วิธีที่พวกเขา draw a การเชื่อมโยงระหว่าง helping เด็กand ของพวกเขา battlefield losses, but they do.

And here is the original:

The Taliban said the same evil foreigners helping to wipe out one of the world’s worst childhood diseases were also responsible for air strikes killing their leaders. It is unclear just how they draw a link between helping children and their battlefield losses, but they do.

It doesn’t show it here, but each of the Thai words are highlighted to allow you to instantly translate back into English. As you can see, even at this high level there is enough of the English maintained that Google translate doesn’t mangle the context, making it incomprehensible. At the same time, you get to practice using Thai that mostly stays true.

Is it perfect? No. It doesn’t move sentence parts around, such as ‘ของพวกเขา battlefield losses’. And it doesn’t always understand context. That said, it can still be useful for language learners of all levels.

Using the Speak Your Language approach by reading your language isn’t about getting things right all the time. It’s about using as much Thai as you can. The more you use a language, the more confident you will be. And the more confident you are, the more you will use it. And ultimately, the better you will be.

Justin Travis Mair
I Want To Speak Thai
Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

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Even More Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language…

When I learned Thai, I was a missionary. It was a fantastic experience, but a bunch of 19-21 year-olds running around Thailand could have turned out pretty bad if we didn’t have direction. To help keep us in line, we had strict rules as well as a mission president to oversee our stay in Thailand. My mission president was President Slater. The man was a giant; physically and spiritually.

President Slater taught me many things during my two years in Thailand. But the phrase “ask a better question” stuck with me the most.

Let me explain. Sometimes we complained that the rules were too strict to do what we needed to do as missionaries. To which he replied, “ask a better question”. As it turns out a better question was, “how can we do what’s required AND follow the rules?”

“Ask a better question” is a powerful phrase. It forces you think about what you CAN do instead of what you CAN’T.

How does this help you learn Thai?…

Some of you, or maybe even most of you, are not in a situation where you can speak Thai all day. And even if you do live in Thailand, maybe work obligations, church, community, and/or family responsibilities keep you in an English-speaking environment for most of that time. So you might ask, “how can I learn Thai when my many responsibilities keep me from using Thai in my daily life?” And to that I say, “ask a better question.”

A better question might be “how can I learn to speak Thai, even though I have few opportunities to do so?” Thats better, but not quite there. The best question is “how can I incorporate Thai into my English-speaking life?” And the answer? Use the Speak Your Language approach.

How can I integrate Thai into my English life?…

All of us have more free time than we realize. What did you do during lunch today? What did you do while standing in line for groceries? What were you doing while waiting to fall asleep? Probably daydreaming, right? Thinking about this or that?

Now, I am not saying that it’s necessarily bad to to daydream. What I am suggesting is to daydream in a mixture of Thai and English. Use what you know in Thai, and fill in the rest with English.

Do you ever have to go to meetings? The most tedious meetings are when you are not an active participant. Suggestion. Instead of struggling to stay awake, try translating what is being said into Thai. Again, use the Speak Your Language approach. Use what you know and fill in the gaps with English.

Ask better question. Don’t worry about what you can’t do, worry about what you can. And when you use the Speak Your Language approach, it makes it even easier to do just that.

Justin Travis Mair
I Want To Speak Thai
Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

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More Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language…

Over a decade ago I learned Thai by using a method called Speak Your Language. I wrote a post on what Speak Your Language is, but to summarize: I learned to speak Thai by starting with what I knew about English, slowly converting it into Thai one word and one grammar point at a time. By using the Thai I knew, filling in any gaps with English, I was able to communicate right away, and at the same time focus on what I needed to know next.

Times have changed over the last 10 years and so have I. I am now a father of four children living on the opposite side of the world (at least as far as time zones go). I am not living in a fully immersed atmosphere of Thai language 24/7. Despite that, I can still perfect my Thai. And I do that by using the Speak Your Language method.

Don’t you already know Thai?…

Let me ask that question another way. Despite being a native English speaker, do I know all there is to know about the English language? The answer is no. I have gaps in the lingo of lawyers, doctors, politics, cars, and the list goes on. My ability to talk incomprehensibly about any of those subjects vary considerably. And while I might be able to hold conversations in Thai, depending on the subject they are talking about, keeping up on the news is hit and miss. So there is always room for improvement.

When I learned Thai, I was a missionary. As missionaries we sacrifice many outside pleasures. One of those pleasures is watching TV or reading anything that is not related to the church. We got to go to an Internet Cafe once a week to send an email home and that was it. Now speed up 10 years and I am no longer living as a missionary. I have the new challenges of being a full-time working father with four children.

Ten years ago high-speed internet in the home was a novelty. It was the swimming pool in the back yard. We all know someone who had one, but never had one ourselves. There are now many advances in technology that I would never have dreamed possible when I first learned to speak Thai. Logically, to take advantage of these useful tools, I upgraded how I use Speaking Your Language.

Record yourself speaking to the wall…

The wall is such a nice conversational partner. It never talks back. It will listen to you ramble on and on. I’ve been told that steering wheels have a similar personality. Don’t just talk to the wall, record yourself while you talk. Digital recorders are fantastic upgrades from the tape recorders of old. They are not only smaller, but let you separate the recordings into individual files that can be kept independent from each other.

With digital recorders, you can record yourself talking about any subject you want. And as you fill in the gaps with English, you can figure out more words and phrases you want to learn. You can also record yourself translating TV, Radio, or whatever.

Use Anki to practice the words you need to learn…

Now that you have these words and phrases you need to learn, what do you do with them? Back in the day I would have made a list or flash cards. It’s not a bad method but flash cards are so old-fashioned. If you want to be hip and with the times you use a spaced repetition system, known as SRS. There are many on the web for free; the one I like the best is Anki.

Why is SRS better? It’s like flash cards on steroids. SRS gives you a new list of words to review every day based upon how successful you were in the past. Words you need to work on more come up more frequently. On the flip side, those you know better appear less often, but are not taken out entirely, so you still get a chance for a review. It’s like having a tutor pick which words and phrases you should review that day.

Post your Thai online using social media…

Just because you are not sitting in a street vendor’s fold up chair waiting for a plate of kài jieow mŏo sàp, doesn’t mean you can’t have the benefit of having a native correct you. There are many websites like lang-8.com or thai-language.com that let you post something online for others to correct. Twitter and Facebook have also proven to be useful tools. The great part is that you can continue to use English to fill in the gaps, while getting instant feedback from native speakers on how to say what you want to say.

The point I’m making is that it’s not the tools that improve your Thai, it’s how you use them. The point is that with Speaking Your Language, you need to speak as much Thai as possible, while using English to bridge the gap. And the more you speak Thai, the better you will become.

Justin Travis Mair
I Want To Speak Thai
Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

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Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language…

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (insert laughs) I know this is a corny joke; however this joke holds the key to great success in language learning and in life. No one becomes an expert overnight and no one can become fluent by tomorrow. Just as the character, Bob Wiley, learned in the movie ‘What about Bob?’, we need to take baby steps to get where we want in life. Anything that seems beyond our ability to accomplish is possible as long as we take it one step at a time.

I first learned how this can be applied to language learning when I studied Thai as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As many young men of my church do, I volunteered to serve a two year mission, to wherever my church had need of me. Luckily, I was called to serve in Thailand. And that’s when my love affair with the Thai language began.

Two Months of Thai…

Funny enough this Thai language love affair didn’t start in Thailand. It started in the college town of Provo, Utah. Provo is where the Missionary Training Center is located and where my two months of 8-9 hour days of language study began. It was intense! The first day we were given a huge orange bound book, the textbook created by the church to teach missionaries Thai. I later called it ‘The Orange Book of Death.’

After getting this and a few other important things I would need, including a vaccination shot for Japanese encephalitis, I eventually made it to my classroom, my home away from home for the next two months. My teachers introduced themselves, shared why they were chosen to teach us Thai, and then the main teacher turned to the black board and wrote the phrase that changed my life.

Speak Your Language…

Speak Your Language? What does that mean? I’ve been told to watch my language, is that what it means? They quickly answered: “We are phasing out your English. From now on, once you learn something in Thai, you can no longer use English.”

They can’t be serious! I’m not ready to start speaking Thai! I haven’t even learned to say “Hello” yet! How can I start speaking Thai?!?

They weren’t joking. As soon as we learned a Thai word, our teachers no longer understood the English equivalent. And once we learned a Thai grammar pattern, we couldn’t use the English grammar pattern.

After a few weeks this is what our sentences were like: ผมไป get a drink, can ไหม? ห้องน้ำ is where?

As weird as that seems, it ended up being one of the best language learning tools on my journey to learning Thai.

How does speaking Thaiglish help?…

Firstly, this method allowed us to continue speaking without as many pauses.

New language learners pause because they try to think of words to say what they want to say, while at the same time trying to remember the grammar they need to say it with. This constant pausing is made worse by the fact that learners sometimes forget what they wanted to say in the first place. With ‘Speak Your Language’ we were speaking what we knew and didn’t have to worry about what we didn’t, so we didn’t have as many frustrating pauses typical of new language learners.

Secondly, the method showed us what we needed to know.

So much of our time in learning a language is often wasted learning words we don’t need right away. I had friends in high school who could name every animal known to God in Spanish, but couldn’t say “I would like that pencil please.” I learned how to say ‘even though’ in Thai, before I learned how to say ‘pineapple’. This wasn’t because the ‘Orange book of Death’ was so well written. It was because I heard myself saying ‘even though’ in English a lot so finally looked it up, and then started saying it in Thai.

The joke that changed everything…

The third thing that helped me was something the teachers didn’t intended on happening. As a joke, students in my class would speak English using Thai grammar. To give you an idea, here is an example:

“I think the following language Thai hard to enter heart, but I still excited that was called the church to go to Thailand. You eat already or still?”

This was when I realized that vocabulary and grammar are two separate skills. It’s what makes learning to speak Thai, or any language, so hard. You are trying to do two things at once and your brain is having a difficult time keeping up. I liken it to learning to play the piano with two hands. To think about two hands playing different rhythms and different notes at the same time can be overwhelming.

This variation of ‘Speak Your Language’, which started as a joke, unlocked a key to language learning for me. I would take Thai grammar structures foreign to English, like the noun+quantity+classifier, and practice using English vocabulary. Later on I would learn any needed Thai vocabulary. Once I was confident with both the sentence structure and the vocabulary, I would put the two together, in Thai.

The method is similar to how some piano players practice using one hand at a time, and then once he/she is more confident, combine both hands.

And eventually, just like a piano player, I didn’t have to separate the grammar from the vocabulary; I could just speak it.

In a flash two months went by and I stepped into the terminal at Don Muang Airport! No, I wasn’t fluent yet, but I was much stronger and capable at speaking Thai than I ever thought I possibly could be in a mere 2 months.

So, to paraphrase my earlier joke, how do you learn Thai? One word at a time.

Justin Travis Mair
I Want To Speak Thai
Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

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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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