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Stuck in a Thai Language Rote Rut? Try Eavesdropping

Are you stuck in a Thai Language Rote Rut? Try Eavesdropping

Eavesdropping and the Thai language rote rut…

While touring Thai language schools in Bangkok I’ve met some fairly adept parrots of Thai. By the term “parrots” I mean someone who’s memorized (or been taught) conversational dialog by rote.

And if you remember, in The “I’m Good Enough at Thai to Know I Suck” Stage I mentioned a foreigner who speaks super clear Thai. Yet the minute Thais didn’t respond on script, his ability to comprehend what was said back to him failed. That’s rote learning.

Here’s an example almost every English speaker in Thailand has experienced. If you say, “how are you today?” to a Thai, there’s a 99.9999% chance they will respond back with, “I am fine thank you, and you?” That’s rote learning.

I admit I too was stuck in a rote rut for a while, back when I learned outta Benjawan’s Thai language materials. I couldn’t understand what was said the minute they didn’t answer back with what I’d been programmed to believe the response would be. I finally pushed thru by going into what I call my “second silent phase”. This is where I stopped speaking Thai completely. Instead, I started listening to Thais talk to each other. In fact, it was almost a year before I started speaking to Thais in their language again.

During my silent phase I hung around groups of Thais, eavesdropping on their conversations, trying to work out how they spoke to each other in everyday situations. In most cases I just listened. I wasn’t a part of the conversation or even of the group. I was the proverbial farang… err… fly on the wall.

Passive listening increased my comprehension of Thai spoken by native speakers at top speed. It wasn’t the slow, over enunciated, over toned, carefully couched version of Thai taught at Thai language schools. Instead, it was real, honest-to-goodness Thai, spoken by Thais.

In the real world that’s the version of Thai you’re gonna be exposed to when out and about in Thailand. Well, unless you can get a Thai to understand that your grasp of the language is tenuous at best. But then they oftentimes speak to you like you’re a retard. At one point I got tired of asking Thais to speak slower, that I finally resorted to saying “เฮ้ย พูดช้า ๆซี่ เราเป็นคนปัญญาอ่อน” (hey, speak slowly, I’m a retard).

I recently read an article from The Mezzofanti Guild where Donovan is learning Korean. He too advocates passive listening, although for a much shorter time than I managed. It is possible that I’m slow learner (which is probably why my Thai teachers call me a ‘special needs’ student).

Seeing as there’re close to 65+ million native speakers to eavesdrop on, anyone studying the Thai language while actually in Thailand has a giant advantage. Now, before someone points out that only about 25 million have Central Thai as their native tongue, believe me, I’ve been from Chiang Rai to Hat Yai, Kanchanaburi to Chantaburi, Trat to Trang, Surin to Songkla, yet never came across a single Thai who, if push came to shove, couldn’t speak and understand Central Thai.

Here are a few eavesdropping suggestions for those living in Thailand:

  • On the BTS or MRT, listen to Thais talking on the phone, etc.
  • In 7/11 listen to Thais interact with each other and the sales staff.
  • At a Thai food court listen to the banter of the sellers and buyers.
  • Pick a table near a group of Thais and just listen, listen, listen.

No surprise, in Thailand there are hundreds of opportunities to listen to Thais speaking Thai. The trick is to see this opportunity as a free learning Thai resource rather than background noise.

The added bonus is that some Thais believe we can’t understand them, so they don’t alter how they speak. Or at least, Thais don’t seem to be that dialed into changing registers of spoken Thai when I get near ‘em. This is almost directly opposite compared to Thai teens getting within earshot of older Thais. The teens immediately alter how they speak, just in case they are overheard by the older generation.

Oh. One other thing I don’t do is play the “I can speak and understand Thai card” too soon. I rarely bust out with Thai when I meet Thais for the first time. Instead, l speak English in a slow, clear manner. It lets me gauge their English comprehension and I get hear what they say to each other first.

Now, if they get over the top in their observations – Thais can make some of the most blunt, downright hurtful observations about people – you can always throw in a snarky “เฮ้ย พูดยังนี้ทำไม บักสีดานี้ มันเข้าใจไทยได้ ” (hey, why are you speaking like this? This guava understands Thai!) That reins them in (while using the Isaan word for guava too). That phrase is a real ice breaker and conversation starter as well. Okay, maybe not for you, but it works for me…

The other thing passive listening does is get your ears dialed into hearing the subtle intonation differences in real spoken Thai (as opposed to that over toned sugar-coated stuff they speak in language schools). It gets you familiar with the cadence and rhythm of spoken Thai.

To me Thai doesn’t have a musical quality but it does have a distinct cadence when it’s spoken. So when you do start speaking Thai, try to dial back the over toned version you were taught in class. And to sound more Thai, leave out the ผม’s ดิฉัน’s and ชั้น‘s when speaking in the first person. Put your eavedropping to good use. Focus on getting the cadence of what you’re saying to sound just like Thais do in the real world. And don’t forget to use what I call “pause and think words”: ก็, แล้วก็, ว่า and แบบ <- if you're a teenager (seeing as that's the Thai version of "like" when they speak; it's like = มันแบบ, lol). It's not nearly as hard being understood by Thais as it’s made it out to be. It just takes time, patience, and the willingness to practice, develop, and then hone your Thai language skills. Please note that I’m not trying to tell people how to learn or speak Thai. I’ll leave that for the those more learned. I’m only sharing what works for me. As I always say, I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed. But, if I can get Thais to listen to my American accented, poorly pronounced Thai, anyone who really tries can do it too. Good luck in your learning Thai endeavors. Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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Thairecordings.com: Audio Clips for Intermediate Learners


A New Audio Resource…

I’ve been learning Thai for a bit more than three years now, some of you might remember my guest post here on WLT. I’ve been trying to learn Thai without using translation, text-book study or explicit vocabulary work, and I’m quite happy with the results so far. The resource I want to present in this post, however, is compatible with any learning style.

Thairecordings.com is a new project of mine, one that I hope to grow and maintain for some time into the future. Similar recordings to the ones I publish were quite useful in my own learning of Thai, and I thought, why not set up a website and see whether others like the idea. The website went live in July 2012, and as of now (Aug 2012) the content is still limited, but I hope to add to it on a regular basis.

Thairecordings.com is a free website for intermediate learners who already understand spoken Thai and are able to read. It is basically an archive of audio clips and corresponding transcripts. The audio clips are around 5 minutes each and contain unscripted, natural speech, 100% in Thai. Each recording has a topic, and there are usually 2-3 recordings per topic. Each recording comes with a short synopsis in English. The topics are intended to be accessible and useful, or at least interesting, for intermediate learners, and cover a wide range of issues, for example:

  • going to the dentist
  • ghosts
  • having diarrhea, or
  • beach vacation.

The recordings are not designed to teach anything in particular, and they don’t systematically cover vocabulary related to the respective topic. The intention is rather to provide examples of story telling and talking about experiences. Nonetheless, the vocabulary and structures covered are quite varied and should be useful to intermediate learners. New recordings are added on a regular basis.

The transcripts are done after recording the audio and are (so far) pretty accurate. They contain all spoken function words, which are rarely found in written texts.

How to use the recordings…

The recordings can be used in various ways: you can just listen to the recordings, maybe repeatedly, trying to understand what’s going on. You can practice guessing at unknown words. You can listen with the goal to pick up specific vocabulary or ways to say things, or you can use the recordings to supplement other Thai learning activities on those same topics. If it helps, you can read the transcripts before, during or after listening to the recordings, either assisting or verifying your comprehension. You can also use the audio and the transcripts for shadowing, or for dictation practice. Finally, you can upload the material to LWT (a reading-listening software).

All material is free and subject to a Creative Commons license. I hope the material proves useful to some learners, and I would be happy to get feedback on whether and how it’s used, or what I could do to make it more useful.


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Review: A Guide to Thai Grammar Books

A Guide to Thai Grammar Books

A Guide to Thai Grammar Books…

Presented here are short introductions to Thai grammar books, both in the English language for foreign learners and Thai language books for Thai school and university students which are also useful for foreign learners with a good Thai reading ability. As these are reference books, not tutorials, they are not intended to be read from cover-to-cover, but instead used to support continued studies.

Each book overview here covers the general structure and content together with comments about any specific, notable features. However, no opinion or rating is given about their suitability for any particular learning approach which is, of course, very subjective to each learner.

The books listed here are not the only books available. I welcome comments and further suggestions on this topic which would assist us all with our continued studies.

English Language Grammar Books…

The in-print books listed here can usually be found at all large book shops in Thailand which stock foreign language books. Many online shops (both Thai and foreign) sell them too. Google Books has free previews of some and, where relevant, a link is provided.

The Fundamentals of the Thai LanguageThe Fundamentals of the Thai Language (5th edition)
Author: Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs
Format: out-of-print but available online (free)
Language: English with examples in Thai script and transliteration.
Website: Fundamentals of the Thai Language

While this is more of a language course than a grammar book, it does have a strong emphasis on basic grammar and outlines some key differences from English which is useful for beginners. Each topic is presented with basic vocabulary lists and example conversations. The first edition was printed in 1956 so some of the vocabulary is showing its age but the clear explanations and well structured content make this a useful book.

Thai: Essential GrammarThai: An Essential Grammar
Author: David Smyth
Formats: paperback, hardback, eBook (Kindle, PDF, ePub, Microsoft Reader)
ISBN: 978-0415226134 (paperback)
Language: English with examples in Thai script and transliteration.

Thai Reference Grammar: The Structure of Spoken ThaiThai Reference Grammar: The Structure of Spoken Thai
Authors: James Higbie and Snea Thinsan
Format: paperback
ISBN: 978-9748304960
Language: English with examples in Thai script and transliteration.

These two books are perhaps the most commonly available grammar books for foreign learners. They’re good introductions to Thai grammar and language patterns and useful for beginners as well as advanced learners. Both are written for general learners and only use basic grammatical terminology (eg. nouns, verbs, conjunctions etc) and therefore are straight forward to read and very approachable.

Different styles of transliteration are used in each book. Smyth’s system is not too different from that developed by Mary Haas and is easy to learn for readers familiar with Haas’ works or the system used in the Thai for Beginners book. Higbie’s transliteration style is unique, using under- and over-scoring representing tones, but after the initial “what is that?” reaction, it’s quick to learn and intuitive.

Given the rising popularity of eBook readers and tablet computers, Smyth’s publisher (Routledge) deserves praise for making his work available in digital formats. However, the Kindle and ePub editions use miniature graphics files for the Thai text and some transliteration symbols so resizing the layout doesn’t work properly on all readers (the graphic files don’t resize along with the normal text). The PDF version does not have this problem. (I’ve not seen the Microsoft Reader version so can’t comment about it.)

Thai Reference GrammarThai Reference Grammar
Author: Richard B. Noss
Formats: PDF (free online), paperback
ISBN: 978-1456503307 (paperback)
Language: English with transliteration (no Thai script)
Website: FSI: Thai Reference Grammar PDF download.

Obviously written at a time when people didn’t worry about the health effects of smoking, this book introduces the topic of classifiers with a demonstration of how to buy cigarettes as “the yellow pack”, “those five packs”, “the big pack” etc. – not something found in modern books! Printed in 1964, this is an updated version of the author’s PhD dissertation so academic linguistic terminology is heavily used throughout eg. nouns are defined as “any substantive which occurs as the head of an endocentric expression”, but there are plenty of examples which help if the lingo is hard to understand. It’s perhaps unfortunate that only transliteration is used – no Thai script at all – but this is a book about spoken Thai.

One feature that stands out is the focus on stress, rhythm and intonation in spoken Thai and the transliteration (also based on Mary Haas’ system) includes symbols to represent these features. Other grammar books generally give less focus on this topic so its inclusion here is welcome.

The PDF version at the above website is free and is a scan of the original print edition. It’s mostly of good quality although there are a few faint or illegible words to be found. There are “new” editions of this book being sold online, but they seem to be identical to this PDF except for the front cover.

A Reference Grammar of ThaiThai Reference Grammar A Reference Grammar of Thai
Authors: Shoichi Iwasaki and Preeya Ingkaphirom
Formats: paperback, hardback
ISBN: 978-0521108676 (paperback)
Language: English with examples in Thai script, transliteration and part-of-speech analysis.
Google Preview: A Reference Grammar of Thai

This book is also for a more academic audience. The terminology used is somewhat difficult at first if the reader is not familiar with technical linguistic terms (eg. chapter titles such as “Deontic Modal Auxiliaries”, “The Periphrastic Causative” etc), although each chapter has a short, less-technical introduction but not totally jargon free. Reading the chapter summaries first will give a clearer overview of the content and the terminology is arguably easier to understand than that used in Noss’ book.

The academic approach used to compile this book is clear from the conversational data: transcriptions of real conversations between teachers & parents, parents & children, business meetings etc. Even hesitations and repetition of words are transcribed, transliterated and analysed into parts of speech as spoken. Top marks for the analysis of real-life speech as this is something that’s not evident in the other books presented here.

The part-of-speech analysis is a feature not found in the other books in this article, although it’s common in many academic papers. For example:

nát khoŋ mây maa lɛ́ɛw
(name) may NEG come ASP
“Nat may not come any more.”

Lines 1, 2 and 4 are the Thai script, transliteration and translation respectively. Line 3 is the part-of-speech analysis showing how each word fits in the sentence: (name) denotes a persons name, NEG is a “negative marker” (“not”) and ASP is an “aspect auxiliary” (for time/tense).

However, there are a few mistakes: a few transliterations and translations are incomplete, and some incorrect spellings can be found too. But don’t let these minor negatives put you off though as this is otherwise a detailed, insightful (albeit expensive) book. The Smyth and Higbie books are great quick references for learning language structures but this one is more detailed and will often better answer the question “how does that word really work?”

Thai Language Grammar Books…

These grammar books are primarily for native Thai speakers so the focus is very different from those above. The foreign language books are about second language acquisition and understanding whereas books for native speakers explain the workings of the reader’s own native language which they already use fluently in daily life.

The first two books can be found in Thai university bookshops and larger general bookshops. The บรรทัดฐานภาษาไทย books are limited in availability and details are provided separately below.

หลักภาษาไทยหลักภาษาไทย [The Fundamentals of the Thai Language]
Author: กำชัย ทองหล่อ
Formats: paperback, hardback
ISBN: 978-9742466350
Language: Thai

Previews: Two chapters with partial translations can be found on the thai-language.com website:

Parts of Speech

This book is the standard reference book of the Thai language, first printed about 60 years ago. It’s a very detailed, academic tome (540 pages) covering the evolution of the Thai script, alphabet, tones, types of words, their use (including royal vocabulary or “ratchasap”), clauses, sentences, loan words (mainly Pali and Sanskrit with limited discussion of Khmer, Chinese and English), prose and poetry.

This book has no index but the table of contents is very detailed (spanning 11 pages) and lists all chapters, sections and subsections making it quick and easy to find the right page.

This reference manual is the definitive reference book for the Thai language.

ไวยากรณ์ไทยไวยากรณ์ไทย [Thai Grammar]
Author: นววรรณ พันธุเมธา
Formats: paperback, hardback
ISBN: 974-9993276
Language: Thai

This book covers all the essentials and isn’t overly technical. It’s less detailed than หลักภาษาไทย and perhaps easier to understand while being organised in a similar manner. It starts with chapters covering word types (verbs, nouns, conjunctions etc) and then phrase and sentence construction. The book only discusses the modern Thai language as used in normal daily life so there’s limited discussion of royal vocabulary, and nothing on the language history or traditional forms of verse that are covered in หลักภาษาไทย. Plenty of examples are given throughout and there are also exercises at the end of each chapter.

Unfortunately, finding information in this book can be slow as there’s no index and the table of contents is short (one page) which lists only the chapter titles, not subsections. Also, the page headers only contain the author’s name, book title and page numbers (no chapter or section titles) so the reader must scan the pages for section headings instead.

However, this book does have a logical organisation and its non-technical approach makes it useful as both a tutorial and reference guide.

บรรทัดฐานภาษาไทย เล่ม ๑-๖บรรทัดฐานภาษาไทย เล่ม ๑-๖ [Standard Thai, Books 1-6]
Author: Thai Language Institute, Office of Academic and Educational Standards, Office of the Basic Education Commission, Ministry of Education
Format: paperback
Language: Thai

Availability generally limited to ศึกษาภัณฑ์พาณิชย์ (Suksapan Phaanit) shops.
Branch locations can be found at suksapan.or.th and an online ordering service is available.

เล่ม ๑ ระบบเสียง อักษรไทย การอ่านคำและการเขียนสะกดคำ
Book 1 Phonology, Thai alphabet, Reading and Spelling Words

เล่ม ๒ คำ การสร้างคำและการยืมคำ
Book 2 Words, Word Construction and Loan Words

เล่ม ๓ ชนิดของคำ วลี ประโยคและสัมพันธสาร
Book 3 Types of Words, Clauses, Sentences and Discourse

เล่ม ๔ วัฒนธรรมการใช้ภาษาไทย
Book 4 Cultural use of the Thai Language

เล่ม ๕ กระบวนการคิดและการเขียนร้อยแก้ว
Book 5 The Art of Writing Prose

เล่ม ๖ ฉันทลักษณ์และขนบการเขียนร้อยกรอง
Book 6 Prosody and Patterns for Writing Verse

1. Book 1 of the current print-run has sold out (as of November 2011)
2. Books 5 and 6 have not yet been published (as of November 2011)
3. This review is based on books 2, 3 and 4

These recent books, published in 2009 and 2010, present a modern approach to understanding Thai for “teachers of Thai, students at secondary school level or higher and anyone interested in the Thai language”. They are written by “contemporary academic researchers and experts in the Thai language” which is evident from the bibliographies referencing many modern academic papers (from both Thai and foreign universities). By using a modern, broad base of linguistic research, the authors have developed a series of books that explain the Thai language clearly and concisely.

The vocabulary in these books is relatively straightforward and good use is made of charts and tables where appropriate. Some technical terminology has come from English and translated into Thai (eg. “socio-cultural information” translated to “ข้อมูลด้านสังคมและวัฒนธรรม”) but the English terms/phrases are also given on first use, which is helpful for foreign readers.

Footnotes are used to highlight where deviations have been made from older books such as หลักภาษาไทย (above) and its predecessor, the almost century-old work of พระยาอุปกิตศิลปสาร (not included here because it’s out-of-print). Such deviations are primarily where different terminology is used eg. the new books use คำนามวิสามัญ (proper noun) instead of วิสามานยนาม as used in the older books.

The up-to-date nature of these texts can be clearly seen in the second book (Words, Word Construction and Loan Words). The loan words chapters in the older books focus on Pali, Sanskrit and Khmer with a little Chinese and English but these newer books have extensive chapters for Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, Chinese, Java-Malaya, and English. Likewise, in book 4 (Cultural use of the Thai Language) there are chapters on regional dialects in Thailand and modern language use in business, advertising, media, legal, religion, ceremonies, and word play/humour too.

In summary, these are well-thought out, up-to-date books with clear explanations, ample examples and a broad scope. They are likely to satisfy the most inquisitive students of the Thai language.

The in-print books listed here can usually be found at all large book shops in Thailand which stock foreign language books. Many online shops (both Thai and foreign) sell them too. Google Books has free previews of some and, where relevant, a link is provided.

Mark Hollow

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