Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: Glenn Slayden
Age range: 40-50
Location: Seattle, WA, USA
Profession: Author of www.thai-language.com
What is your Thai level?
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
It is still an ongoing process but I would say that the more I learned about the country and culture the more resonant it felt with me.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
No, I have traveled frequently in Thailand since 1996.
If you live elsewhere, how often are you in Thailand?
I have not been to Thailand in some years but plan to return later this year.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
I began studying in 1992 here in Seattle when I enrolled in some evening classes at an excellent local language school here. I guess part of the reason I decided to enroll was that my boss at the time had a Thai wife and so he egged me on. Maybe he just wanted to carpool! My teacher back then was Pikun Leong, the wife of Hugh, who is putting out some instructional books on Thai this month–they live in Chiang Mai now. After a few terms at the language school, I finally went to Asia for the first time in 1996, spending 3 months in Thailand while based in Tokyo.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
Thai-language.com started in 1997 when I wanted to organize my notes from the Thai class. I did this in HTML format and then, as a lark, made them public on the web. People found them useful and a snowball started rolling. My involvement with the Thai language has, over the years, led me back to graduate school, where I am currently seeking a degree in computational linguistics at the University of Washington.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Khru Pikun’s class used the J. Marvin Brown AUA series which I found dry but very effective. The class was conversational and I remember a healthy amount of speaking–repeating back until Khru Pikun was satisfied. I made flash cards and used a micro-recorder to listen back to parts of the class. We also didn’t forget to have fun, with group dinners at local Thai restaurants and socializing.
What Thai language learning methods did you try? Did one method stand out over all others? How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
I remember listening to a Lonely Planet CD at one point. I made the most progress by reformulating material from numerous sources in my own way, which turned out to be the website. A turning point was when I traveled alone in Thailand for several months in 1997. Along with me I had a thin book “Reading and Writing Thai” by Marie-Hélène Brown (DK Books, out of print) that I studied each night wherever I was. This, combined with being spontaneously invited into homes to live with Thais throughout my trip—not speaking English for days at a time—led to the most dramatic increases in my Thai skills.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Not particularly. Maybe as a computer programmer I’m used to working with symbols. I always tend to think about thinks spatially and related to the fact that, like English (and unlike, say, Chinese), Thai uses a phonemic alphabet. In fact, my fascination with reading and writing, combined with the nature of my work on thai-language.com, has put me in the unusual position for a student of knowing how to read and write Thai better than I can speak it. I have not had enough opportunity to practice and correct speaking with correct tone.
Any stories from your learning journey?
I do remember during that trip in 1997 that—after a week or so of not speaking English—a strange sort of alarm went off in my head, a warning “not to forget English.” Although there was no danger of that happening, the importance of one’s first language is such that even the slightest threat to its hegemony unexpectedly brought about this gentle nudge.
How do you learn languages?
I’ll let you know when I finish one.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
A common response to this question is to “not sweat the tones.” Perhaps they are intimidating and if this is an excuse to not learn the language then maybe their importance can be minimized at first. However, in my experience, being a poor tone user, they are actually important. And the tone rules (determining the spoken tone from the spelling) are hard. I discussed this last week with my language-exchange student, a native Thai woman studying for the TOEFL here in Seattle. It was frustrating for me because she did not know what I was talking about: native Thai speakers have learned the tone system so innately as small children that they often aren’t even aware that there are rules that adult learners must master. While some Thais that you may communicate with in Thailand have the ability to imagine the different possibilities for your incorrect tones and chuckle but understand you, others seem to be hearing something like the difference between “cat” and “dog,” and are completely mystified by your utterance.
Can you make your way around any other languages? Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
I spoke Spanish as a small child, but this language became frozen at a 5-year-old’s level of competency when we left Colombia. Later I took French, culminating in an upper-level literature class in college and was pleased to find that it came back pretty well when I was in Paris in 2001. When I started studying Thai, I had not studied any other language in 15 years. I’m still not sure my Thai is nearly as good as my French!
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
It’s probably been said before, and may fall on deaf ears, but: learn to read and write!
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.