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Interview: Francesco is Getting By in Thai

Getting By in Thai

Getting by in Thai…

Name: Francesco
Nationality: Italian
Age range: 30
Sex: Male
Location: London, UK
Profession: Supermarket assistant

What is your Thai level?


What percentage of conversational Thai do you understand?


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

I’d say quite formal.

What were your reasons for learning the Thai language?

I wanted to learn Japanese in my teen years as I was in love with mangas and animes, but I was never applied myself. When I moved to London I met many people that were able to speak 3 or 4 languages and I always find it fascinating; that made me want to learn languages again.

However, it wasn’t until I started training in Muay Thai and organised a trip to Thailand with some of my friends that I decided to pick up Thai. I loved it, and I continued to study it.

When did you become a student of the Thai language?

September 2013, a couple of months before my first trip to Thailand.

How much time do you currently spend learning Thai?

About 20 to 30 minutes a day.

Do you stick to a regular study schedule?

I try to. Having a regular schedule is one of the most important practice to do when study a language.

What Thai language learning methods are you using (resources needed)?

I tried many methods. Originally I had a private teacher, then I moved to some iPhone Apps and flashcards, and recently spaced repetition sentences in audio format.

Does one method stand out over all others?

Yes and no. Languages are too complex and one method cannot cover all the various aspects. There are all sorts of skills that are needed to be trained: listening, speaking, reading. However, I’d say spaced repetitions of both vocabulary and sentences is the most helpful.

Have you started reading and writing Thai yet?

I made a choice to focus on reading and writing from the beginning. In fact I can read and write better than I can converse. I thought that would be extremely helpful to chat on the internet and look up words on the dictionary.

If so, do you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Thai is particularly difficult when comes to their writing system. There are a lot of rules and a lot of exceptions, but reading per se is not about remembering all these rules, is about recognising words and remember its pronunciation. It’s a memory game.

How long did it take you to pluck up the courage to actually try using your Thai skills?

Although I’m quite shy when I try speak Thai, when I went to Thailand I was quite eager to take my Thai for a spin, and having friends that do not speak English helps a lot!

How soon was it before you could make yourself understood in Thai (even just a little bit)?

Not too long really. Common phrases such as “did you eat yet?” are not too difficult to learn and you can use them every day.

What are your most embarrassing moments when speaking Thai?

I don’t recall any, but I’m sure I made a fool of myself at times.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I suppose for westerners would be the writing system, but probably tones even more.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

When I was reading signs around Thailand.

How do you learn languages?

I learn vocabulary and phrases with flashcards and audio material.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

  • My weakness is that I still thinking English before I speak Thai.
  • Reading is definitely my strength.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Considering that I’m Italian and now I’m fluent in English I think I can. :)

Has learning Thai affected your knowledge of the other languages you speak?

Yes, because languages evolved in different ways especially between Asia and Europe and you can notice similarities and differences. Sometimes you can see how culture is tied in with the language.

How many foreign languages have you attempted to use?

Unfortunately I don’t travel a lot. Thailand was my first experience.

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

I recently started with Mandarin Chinese.

Do you currently live in Thailand, or have you ever lived in Thailand? If so, how long for?

I lived there only for two months, but it was really a long holiday.

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

I’m not a programmer by profession although I majored in Software Engineering. Yes I have programming experience.

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

I used to play the bass guitar back in Italy, but after I moved to London in 2007 I stopped completely.

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

Set some goals. Make a realistic daily/weekly schedule to learn vocabulary. It doesn’t matter if you can’t stick to it at times, just do your best.

What is your Thai language study plan for the next six months? The next year?

Increase vocabulary and converse more.


Getting by in Thai…

If you’d like be involved in the Getting by in Thai series, contact me. And please remember: the whole idea for this series is interview those who are either new to studying Thai or renewing their interest in learning Thai. It’s all good!

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We Have ALL Five Thai Tones in English Too!

Hitting the Second Wall of Learning Thai

Thai tones are in English too…

I’m always running into foreigners learning Thai (or giving excuses on why they can’t learn Thai) who say, “I can’t hear the tones. English doesn’t have tones”.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble or take away yet another excuse about why you can’t learn Thai… BUT…

In English we have ALL of the five tones used in Thai. We just use them for different things. Plain and simple, in Thai the tones are used to delineate words, use a different tone, get a different word. However, in English we use tones to carry emotive value. No one, not even Stephen Hawking (who speaks thru a computer generated voice), speaks English without using tones. It’d be a very robotic and flat language if we did.

Here’s my take on how we use the five Thai tones in our every day spoken English. And we do it totally without thinking.

Mid Tone: This is a normal tone and pitch in spoken English. Not much more needs to be said, other than it’s how we speak most of the time. You would think this might be the easiest tone for non-native speakers to replicate in Thai, seeing as it’s said in the normal tone of your voice. Sadly, this is not the case. Without thinking, native English speakers tend to inflect word endings with subtle changes in tone. Most people hafta really work at saying a mid tone Thai word with a long vowel and a live ending correctly, because in English we automatically change the ending sound.

Low Tone: This tone is used in English typically for non-committal types of single word answers. You wife asks you to take out the garbage while you’re watching football. You answer “sure”, but in a lower tone than your normal voice. It conveys that you got what she said but you’re not gonna jump up and take out the trash this second. This tone is used a lot in English for statements where there’s an understanding of what was being said, but the reply shows no commitment either for or against. In Thai, this is a tone you can pretty much give a pass to as I’ve found it can sound a lot like a middle tone in spoken Thai without loss in understanding.

Falling Tone: This is a tone we use in English to express regret, or sympathy with something that’s said to us. A friend says his dog was hit by a car and the reply is, “Ohhh, is it okay?” That first word, “Ohhh” is said with a falling tone and conveys your sympathy to the speaker in just that single falling toned word. This tone in Thai is a critical one to wrap your head around. You should practice the falling toned Thai words used in daily dialogs.

High Tone: This tone is a little trickier to explain on how we use it in English, but we most definitely do. The reason it’s trickier is that the high tone in Thai starts at a pitch higher than your normal spoken voice and then goes up even higher from there. In English it’s used to express surprise, shock, mild outrage or a degree of incredulity when speaking. Someone says, “hey man your car just got backed into in the parking lot”. Your response is, “what!?” The word starts high and goes even higher on the ending. It’s my experience that this and the low tone are possibly the least critical of the tones to master in Thai, and they can be blurred in spoken Thai with little loss of comprehension.

Rising Tone: This tone is used when asking questions in English. It is especially evident on single word questions, “what?” or “right?”. I’m sure this is why most foreigners don’t have problems replicating this tone when using the question word ไหม seeing as it’s also (by blind luck) a rising tone. You must use this tone correctly when you’re speakin’ Thai to Thais as they exhibit very little forgiveness in foreigners getting this tone wrong. Again, I suggest you go thru words in daily dialogs that use this tone. Work on getting it to sound right. Speaking rising tone Thai words with another tone is something which can send you off script faster than you would even believe possible.

As you can see, just from the few examples I gave – and I’m sure any native English speaker can think up a lot more – we most certainly do routinely replicate ALL five of the Thai tones without much thought.

The huge stumbling block we have as native English speakers tryin’ to speak Thai is that we vary the intonation of Thai words like we do when we speak English. It’s a deal-breaker from word one because you can’t vary how a Thai word is toned and still have it be the same word. That’s the reason Thais have ending particles (I think there’re more than 50). They are the tag words Thais use to add emotive value to what’s being said. They can change the meaning from speculative, interrogative, urging, questioning, etc.

However, ending particles are a horse of another color, and a topic I am not qualified to write about. I use maybe 8-10 out of the 50. I also often use them at the wrong time and place in sentence constructs. If you interested in how ending particles (codaphrases) are used in the Thai language, read the excellent (and in-depth) paper compiled by Don Sena: Codaphrases.

I hope you found this of interest. If it takes another lame excuse away from foreigners who say ,“I can’t learn Thai”, then I’m happy to have helped.

As I have said many times, I am far from the sharpest tool in the shed. If I can speak something which resembles Thai enough for Thais to understand, than ANYONE who puts their mind to it can too.

Good Luck.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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Hitting the Second Wall of Learning Thai

Hitting the Second Wall of Learning Thai

Hitting the wall when learning Thai…

There are more than enough articles out there about second language acquisition where they allude to “the wall”. This is where you know enough to meet your basic needs, yet can’t keep up with conversations spoken at speed by native speakers.

Sadly, I’ve got news for you. There’s a “second wall” and it’s a tough nut to crack.

This one happens after you’ve attained a good solid foundation in the language. By that, I mean your daily needs can be met, you can listen to most conversations, keep up, and can interject or add to conversations in a meaningful way.

People go thru phases learning another language. In the beginning you’re so happy to be able to say anything in the target language that you just blurt it out. Right, wrong, horrifically mangled, it doesn’t matter. You’re at a point where you want so badly to communicate that you say whatever comes to mind!

Then there’s the “silent phase”, where you stop spitting out the mangled version of the language and start listening to how native speakers really talk to one another. It’s not the over-pronounced, spoon-fed version you’re taught in language schools, but the real deal. This is when you really start to hone your listening skills (which, btw, hafta go hand-in-hand with speaking).

I mentioned before that Christopher Wright does a standup routine about once a year. He’s coarse, blunt and to the point about why Thais suck at English. Honestly, if a foreigner made these same observations they’d be ridiculed, castigated, or worse. But because Chris is half Thai he can get away with it.

In his routine Chris outlines the four reasons Thais don’t speak English. Surprisingly, they’re the same four reasons I stopped speaking Thai for a LONG time! They are:

  1. Thais are afraid the listener won’t understand what they’re saying.
  2. Thais are afraid IF the listener understands what they said, they (the Thai) won’t understand the answer.
  3. Before a Thai speaks English they hafta go thru every grammer rule they ever learned about English in their heads.
  4. And the 4th reason Thais are afraid to speak English is tied to “face”. Thais are afraid if they speak English incorrectly, that they’ll somehow lose face.

Anyone who’s spent time in Thailand knows that the Thai people are 100% caught up in the “gain face”, “save face”, “don’t lose face” game. It’s so much a part of their lives they almost operate on auto-pilot where face is concerned.

Not coincidentally, face is the exact same reason I stopped speaking Thai and went thru my extended silent period! Now, it wasn’t so much that I would lose face. I mean, I’m a foreigner and all, and by Thai definition I don’t have “face” to gain, save or lose. But even so, I didn’t want to look like an idiot when making my attempts at speaking Thai. I guess that could be roughly translated into “I didn’t want to lose face”. But however you want to parse it out, I stopped speaking Thai for a LONG while and listened to how Thais spoke to each other instead. I listened to the cadence, the rhythm, and the conversations. Then I’d review what I’d heard.

Due to this, I dropped a LOT of the overly polite, oh-so sugary sweet version of Thai taught in Thai language schools. That’s because I came to the conclusion that they try to teach a version of Thai they wish they spoke, but in reality don’t.

However, I digress. This article is about hitting the “second wall”. Nowadays I can hold my own with about any Thai conversation, except ones where I walk in half way thru. That’s because pronouns and designations are omitted after the first go round, so walkin’ in on an on-going conversation can give you information about someone or something, but if you missed the first part you don’t know exactly who or what they’re really talking about.

This second wall is, in my opinion, a bigger hurdle to climb. It comes about when conversations take a turn to a topic you’re not versed in, don’t know the vocab for, or are just plain out of your element.

I recently started overseeing a group of super skilled Thai tradesmen on renovation projects for foreign clientele. What I didn’t have was the vocab to talk with meaningful construction terms. Heck, I didn’t even know that there was a “plus” (ไขควงบวก) and “minus” (ไขควงลบ) screwdriver or screws until they told me. I also didn’t know that while in English we “pull wire” (be it LAN, power, telephone) in Thai they “walk wire” (เดินสาย). Another thing in the trades is that a tape measure isn’t called a ตลับเมตร like I learned in Thai school. In casual talk with tradesmen it’s called a “meter box” (กล่องเมตร).

Vocab specific conversations are much harder to grasp, and way harder to interact with in a meaningful way. Trust me, I know this from overseeing the first big contract we got. I was on thin ice over deep water tryin’ to talk to these guys (who all knew their specific trade very well) in a semi-coherent fashion, trying to avoid sounding like a compete idiot. Thankfully, I’ve known them for five years so we already had a solid relationship.

In occasions such at these, without saying เอา in all its tonal incantations (which can work in a pinch), or resorting to mime, you’re pretty much way over your head. I don’t know if I have a solution as I still struggle with it. But on this subject in particular, I now have a page or two of construction-based lingo to depend on when I get stuck.

What I’m wanting to convey to you is this: be aware that there’s another “wall” out there (or depending on how many trade specific things you interact with Thais on, several). And you’re gonna hit it someday, come hell or high water. Whether it’s like me with renovation projects, or getting your car or motorbike worked on, or talking to the True Visions guy about your cable, these things are out there. Surprisingly, IT stuff is some of the easiest stuff to talk about because almost all the words are English.

Don’t let situations like these get you down even for a second! By the time you hit the second wall, to understand what’s being said you’ll already have enough Thai under your belt to ask questions. You can ask for the meanings of words you don’t know, and you can expand your vocab and knowledge of how the language goes together in situations where it’s vocab specific.

While I’d rather quote KISS, it’s pretty much like Pink Floyd says. It’s “just another brick in the wall”. As you add bricks you’ll build a platform to climb over, and more and more “walls” in which to face.

Good luck, hope it helps.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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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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Successful Thai Language Learner: Peter Montalbano

Peter Montalbano

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Peter Montalbano
Nationality: World citizen with a U.S. passport
Age range: 60+
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Profession: Musician/writer

What is your Thai level?

I have problems with using the word “fluency” linking me and the Thai language. I am extremely facile on some levels, but quite dorky and clumsy on others. So, even though I’ve been applying myself to the language for many years, I feel uncomfortable saying that I’m fluent. That said, I generally speak fast, have very few problems in any kind of conversation one-on-one, and have a good accent, except when I surprise myself by blurting out wrong tones. But I still read too slowly, and though after all this time it amazes me, my vocabulary sometimes feels vastly inadequate.

I can’t agree with a non-native calling himself truly fluent in Thai unless he can read and write well, and can understand Thai TV programs without concentrating, and so far I am not up to my own standards in those last departments.

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

I do them all with equal abandon. I spent two years in Isaan, and can get around in generic Lao, or northeastern dialect. I suppose “professional Thai” means “really good standard Thai,” and that’s what I work hardest on, although I like knowing and appropriately using slang as much as possible.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I was in the Peace Corps here from 1965-67, teaching English and living in places where no one spoke any English to speak of, so it was a necessity. But it wasn’t a hardship. I love learning languages, and it has been a great adventure to learn Thai.

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

Of course, I was here for two years over forty years ago. Now I have lived continuously in Thailand since June, 2008. In between I stayed or lived here off and on, or visited, a month or so at a time, for decades. Spent 6 months in 2005 doing Tsunami relief out of a Thai government office in Phangaa Province, also courtesy of the Peace Corps, they called it “Crisis Corps” at the time.

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

Since those great lessons the Peace Corps gave us in 1965. But after returning to the U.S. in ’67, I neglected it completely till returning for my first visit in 1984, seventeen years! But at that point I picked up a book and some tapes, and by the time I’d spent 3 weeks in-country, I was speaking better than I had when I’d first left. Still, I was pretty lackadaisical about it until about 10 years ago, when I developed a firm plan for coming back for good, and since then it’s been a steady “onward and upward.”

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

Peace Corps did a great job, four hours a day, small classes, rotating teachers. Within three months I was able to get around pretty well, and when I hit the ground in Isaan there was nothing else to speak, so conversational Thai came in pretty fast. That said, my Thai back then was much more limited than I knew. I wish I had paid more attention to learning to read then.

When I decided to get serious, I dug into the reading side, and learned how to “touch-type” by sending e-mails. Good thing there was unicode and the internet to help! But that still wasn’t enough. I audited a graduate course at U.C. Berkeley with Susan Kepner, perhaps the best translator of Thai women’s literature, and in class we read stuff, including selections from Kukrit’s สี่แผ่นดิน (Four Reigns), maybe Thailand’s best modern novel. Did translations of a couple of short stories for Susan which she is still threatening to use if she ever publishes an anthology, anyhow I loved doing that, want to do more.

In 2002 I started writing my own dictionary. I was tired of looking up words like “till” and finding Thai telling me it only meant a drawer that held money, or “see” and finding that it meant only an administrative region defined by the Vatican. So I have been adding to my own dictionary and using at as a study guide ever since.

This year I tested into Chula’s (Chulalongkorn University’s) intensive Thai for foreigners program and have done 2 five-week modules, have two to go. Instead of going straight through like most people, I am doing five weeks at a time, then breaking for several months till the next level comes around again, because it eats one’s entire life when doing it! But worth it. Short answer? Many-pronged, but sharp prongs!

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Generally, I do, even when not studying formally. I review vocabulary and try to memorize everything, like everything, completely, spelling and all. And I do some reading aloud from the many books I have, and some reading of newspapers. I generally spend at least an hour per day on this. Why am I not เก่งกว่าที่เห็นตัวเองเป็นนะ ก็ไม่เข้าใจ? Just that this language is really hard to completely master for a Westerner, even one with an ear and experience learning languages.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I’ve looked at the Benjawan Becker material, which it seems just about everyone praises highly, and must say I have problems with it. I do find her material on Isaan dialect very useful, that’s true. I’m using it, thank you, Khun Benjawan! But some of the fundamentals are flat out wrong, from my perspective. If you can separate the wheat from the chaff there, there is quite a bit of useful stuff, but some of the pronunciation guides are quite misleading, and some of the spellings are not conventional spellings. Let’s just say that I think a student should not be required to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I would recommend the U.S. Foreign Service Institute courses, which our Peace Corps training was modeled on. A lot of the phrases are old-fashioned, but they are dead-on accurate, you can download them as pdf files, and the pronunciation guides are perfect. There are sound files for the lessons, too! Cat, I noticed that you are involved in a project to revitalize this right now onthailanguagewiki.com. Not complete yet in that form, but a worthy project. Memorize that stuff, do the pattern practices, and you’ve got a great foundation. If you have a teacher to take you through it, but it can be done on one’s own if needed.

There are several English/Thai dictionaries in electronic format that I have found indispensable. Besides Glenn Slayden’s wonderful work on thai-language.com, you can download a multi-university academic project called Lexitron (the English page). It’s free, but you’ll have to create an account in order to download it to your own machine. Download both the program and the data file. When installing or opening it on a Windows machine you’ll have to set your computer’s regional and language settings to Thai, or you won’t be able to see it properly. Once it’s open, you can switch back to whatever other setting you use, and it will work fine.

I also use So Sethaputra’s Thai Software Dictionary, which has a lot of inaccuracies, but a tremendous amount of useful information. You can buy the cd for a ridiculously low price at DCO. The advantage of having the electronic format is that you can just type in a word, and it will come right up, not nearly as hard as looking through the pages of a thick book.

When I was in Peace Corps we had a great Thai writing workbook—can’t remember the name—which is obviously now out of print. It took you through all the rules, high, low, mid consonants, live and dead syllables, tone marks used with which, how and when, exceptions, etc., and step-by-step exercises until you finally got it. You can find these rules all in Mary Haas’ The Thai System of Writing, and it’s amazing to me that this was written over 60 years ago and yet still remains the clearest description I can find in English of the rules you need to understand.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Look at, immediately. Tackle, relatively recently. Ten years of typing e-mails has been a big help (learning to type in Thai is easier than you might think), but when I got in the Chula classes this year, for which I had to take a reading/writing test, I found that they were right to ask me to write everything by hand. At first the old hand cramped up a lot, but it has gotten easier.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Yes, it is a monster. 44 consonants and 33 vowels, depending on how you count, plus all those tone marks and other miscellaneous signs, a lot of duplication, so that it’s usually impossible to tell how something is written from how it’s spoken, and then there are the exceptions! And the ambiguous spellings! And the alternate spellings, they’re like opinions, everybody has one! It takes a lot of memorization. Also, the words are all run-on together, you have to parse them out with your eye, and sometimes that gives ambiguous readings, too. Only after a lot of experience can you start to discern the patterns which begin to make things easier. Reading Thai subtitles in English-language movies is a challenge, if they’re more than five or six words long. Thais can read them in the time they show on the screen. Reading karaoke doesn’t count, that’s slow and easy, even though it’s good practice. When I can read ninety percent of the subtitles as they come up we’ll break out the champagne—but I’m not there yet. And love that Chula course: writing essays, making a few presentations in class on news stories. T’ain’t easy, but there’s no giving up.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

When I was 21, it was the first time I walked into the class in Hawaii all those years ago and heard the language: love at first listen, I was hooked. The tones, the lack of tenses, cases, singulars and plurals, it was like having the door opened on a new, beautiful, and mysterious universe.

How do you learn languages?

For me, at least, it’s got to be a combination of academic study, pattern practice, memorization work, reading and writing in the language, and near-total immersion in a place where that’s the only language spoken. Unless you’re a freak of nature, you’ll have to really put your heart into it (เอาใจใส่จริงจัง): for an adult foreigner, no matter how clever or talented, no language will come just by osmosis. I believe in classroom study and lots of homework, but that can’t be all, either.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I’m good at producing the sounds accurately, and have a pretty good memory. At this point I’m finding, though, that when speaking fast I sometimes unwittingly use the wrong tones. I usually correct myself, but the mistake has been made. Also it’s surprising how hard it still is to catch fast conversation between other people. Final consonants p, t, k, are often hard to tell apart. In English we’ll pronounce those fully, with a release at the end, but in Thai the syllable will just end without a clear final sound, and there are other problems like that. Usually I have no problems one-on-one. But watching TV and catching most of the words is a big challenge. And I need a lot more vocabulary: working on that pretty hard now.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I think different people have different misconceptions. Some think the tones aren’t important, and that’s about as wrong as could be. Some don’t notice the difference between long and short vowels. Some don’t get the difference between aspirated and unaspirated unvoiced stops (p, t, k, ph, th, kh).

And I’ve heard quite a few people claim fluency when they have only enough vocabulary for basic conversation. This may stem from the misconception I’ve heard from many speakers of Indo-European languages that this language is as easy to learn as another European language. At the basic spoken level, it may be as easy as those, or easier. But in the end, it comes from the other side of the world, and learning to speak it is like growing a second soul. There are almost no linguistic cognates, so the vocabulary you have to learn from scratch is immense. The grammar at first glance seems incredibly simple, but that’s deceptive. You will at almost every level of learning run into sentences that are nearly impossible to decipher without help. If you’re like me, the learning process is a lot of fun, but much harder than your third-year Spanish class, or whatever.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I used to have a good enough grasp of Latin to read and write papers on Ovid and Virgil in grad school, but for some reason—probably lack of interest— that’s pretty much slipped away. But to get my M.A. in comparative literature I also had to read and write a lot of German and French, and I have a pretty good fluency in German, which used to be maybe more than pretty good. I can still read middle-high German, middle Dutch, and old French. I did study French literature at the Sorbonne for a summer way back when I was 19, but while I can still read French pretty well, my listening and speaking needs quite a bit of practice. Still love French and hope to work it up to a high level someday. Studied a little Chinese before and during a trip there twenty-five years ago, and had fun bumbling around with the people and making them laugh, remember a little of that. Also made a stab at Japanese for awhile, since I worked there off and on for a few years. I found Japanese the hardest of all the languages I’ve tried, and remember next to nothing.

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

No, fortunately there were no linguistic distractions at the time.

Do you have a passion for music?

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have lasted all these years (well over 30) as a professional musician! Most of the music I did back in the States (and around the world, on cruise ships and such) was pretty mind-numbing, but in spite of that, it deepened my musical knowledge and feeling. Now it’s great, I can afford to just take the jobs I want, which are pretty much only jazz jobs.

But does that have anything to do with my language learning? I don’t think so, not much, anyhow. Thai is a tonal language, and I suppose musicians can hear the tones better than others, but I’m not sure. Language is so different from music, the meaning expressed in music is the kind you really can’t express in words. And, of course, the other languages I studied were not tonal, and they came faster. And there’s the reading thing. I read music all right, I suppose, but I’m much more likely to get a complex sentence in a foreign language right the first time than a complicated musical phrase.

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

Ya wanta know the way to Carnegie Hall, kid? Practice, practice, practice. Oh, and get a Thai girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, whatever your flavor, but don’t speak any English with ‘em. Take some classes, do all the things I suggested before. For about 10 years, then you’ll have a good start. Go for it. Don’t give up. Be humble and realize this isn’t for sissies.

If you only want to learn enough to get around by yourself, that shouldn’t be that hard, but in all cases, be clear about what your goal is, and how close you actually are to it.

And if you’re in Bangkok, seriously ambitious to learn, and can afford the time and money, you probably can’t do better than the Chula intensive Thai course, check it out.

Peter Montalbano

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

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

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Successful Thai Language Learner: Daniel T. Murphy, Ph.D.

 Daniel T. Murphy

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Daniel T. Murphy, Ph.D.
Nationality: American
Age range: 40-50
Sex: Male
Location: Berkeley, California, USA & Bangkok, Thailand
Profession: Educational & School Psychologist, Licensed Educational Psychologist

What is your Thai level?

I am fluent in conversational Thai at a high level. I have taught undergraduates graduate students in Thai. I have participated and led meetings in Thai… I ask for clarification when I am not sure of a word. I fit the question immediately into the conversation or I look it up immediately as needed…

I speak acceptable “professional Thai” and I do fine on the street too. I do well with “passa glang” – middle Thai or Bangkok Thai… I understand Isaan and Northern Thai and Lao pretty well but I do not yet consider myself fluent in passa Isaan, Lao, Dai or Nuea – instead, I am a continual learner… I consider myself to be a learner in ALL conversations… It helps me to keep an open mind because something new is always coming up… “Beginner’s mind” is worth cultivating they say… ☺

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I love to communicate, chat, and learn – and Thai people are a great motivation…

Do you live in Thailand?

I am very lucky to have lived in Thailand for about 3 years out of the last 7.5 years. For two of those years I have worked professionally in Thailand as a teacher and an ajarn… The other total time of one year is combined travel thorough different parts of Thailand – mostly in Bangkok and Chiang Mai areas but also in many other provinces, too…

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

I have studied Thai off and on for the last seven (7) years. And of course, my most intense study is when I am in Thailand… I usually speak some Thai every day with Thai friends – even when I am not physically in Thailand. Even when I am not speaking Thai with Thai friends, I often talk to myself in Thai – which I find interesting and stimulating as a kind of mental exercise… ☺

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

It has been a many-pronged approach – but I learned basic spoken Thai very quickly – so that I could use it in basic conversation.

In my first trip to Thailand (March 2002), I learned the numbers and giving thanks and learning where the toilet was, etc… After my first trip, I took a short course on Sunday afternoons at the Berkeley Thai Temple for about 3 months of Sundays for 3 hours a Sunday… Soon thereafter I started listening to Thai language tapes in the car while commuting…

On my second trip to Thailand (July 2002), I became friends with someone who invited me into her family community and I saw her and her family every day for nearly a month… After that first month of immersion, I had my first (AHA!) moment when I realized I could have a conversation (slowly but surely) with the grandmother of a friend of mine… My Thai responses were not very fast, but they were accurate enough to be understood… This was a great experience for me – to realize how quickly I was learning Thai at that point in time…

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Commuting was a good discipline for listening to language tapes… Later, having a multitude of Thai friends and a Thai GF helped to make all of my studies much more regular…

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

Making friends and socializing… Talking in person (much easier), talking on the phone (more challenging but also interesting). For the first year or so, I kept my dictionary with me all the time… I wore out two copies of Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s Thai-English / English-Thai dictionaries and I am now using my third copy of the new and improved version (which has a MUCH larger and more READABLE font typeset – YIPPEE!!!)

Did one method stand out over all others?

As you will see in-depth below, I completely recommend making friends and socializing… To me, that is the “name of the game” in language learning… The social aspect is #1. Being diligent in paying attention to new words is essential. My general rule of thumb is that if I hear a word 3 times already I MUST check for word in the dictionary immediately…

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

From the beginning…

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Of course! Reading and writing Thai is not “easy” at all… I know that I am auditory (sound-based) learner much more than I am a visual learner… So, for me, my reading and writing skills lag behind my listening and speaking skills… But that is also developmentally appropriate – we must “walk” (and talk) before we can “run” (read and write)…

How do you learn languages?

Basically, I listen and repeat with increasing complexity… I also tend to ask a lot of questions – and tend to steer the conversation around my interests and then swing back to my friends’ interests, too…

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My greatest strength is that I have intensely strong and focused listening skills for subjects that I am interested in… On the flipside, if I am bored by the topic (or the speaker), I am not as focused and my memory and interest in the conversation is less…

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I think the biggest misconception is that you need to learn Thai from books and “certified” Thai teachers first… Books and teachers are needed, of course, but keep it in context as an adult learner… Find a friend who you want to talk with and start there… Language learning is a social activity and it should be that from the beginning. For me, overly academic treatments are boring and mind-numbing…

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I can speak, read and write fairly well for: English, Spanish, German, Swedish, and Norwegian along with my increasing fluencies in Thai…

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

I like to think that I am learning “HUMAN” all the time… 555 – ☺ – that is not as “silly” an observation as you might think at first… Professionally, I earned a Ph.D. in Human Development from U.C. Berkeley back in 1994 – so I sincerely think that I am trying to understand all aspects of human development (worldwide) with the tools that I have…

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

Have great fun with all aspects of learning Thai… If it is not FUN – then change your approach – right away! Tah mai sanug, dtong blien witee khun reo reo nae nawn na krab!

Daniel T. Murphy, Ph.D.
Facebook: Daniel Murphy

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Here’s a heads-up: Daniel has two posts on the way: Seven Tips for Thai Learning, and Linguistic and Developmental Underpinnings of Language Acquisition. Thanks Daniel.

Getting advice from experienced Thai language learners is important. If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your knowledge with those coming up, please contact me to make it so.

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Free Download: The Ultimate Survival Guide to Thailand

Survival Guide to Thailands

Alan Brewis: The Ultimate Survival Guide to Thailand…

The true generosity of Thai language learners never ceases to amaze me. Last year, Alan Brewis put a highly polished draft of his book, The Ultimate Survival Guide to Thailand, online for anyone to read. For free. When I contacted him about adding it to WLT’s growing list of free, he was more than happy to agree.

This book is not intended to be an all-knowing encyclopaedia on Thailand. There are many publications that already do that job quite admirably. Rather, this book is designed to provide the short-term holiday-maker with some essential basic information, and a few of the more common Thai phrases in a way that will hopefully help in understanding a little of the Thai culture – and encourage people to try to speak some Thai on their holiday. Hopefully this will add a sense of achievement and fun which would otherwise not be experienced.

The Ultimate Guide to Thailand, in its full form, is now available through Amazon.com, has actually sold a few copies, and I even got asked to sign one for a German visitor to Samui last year! (Fame at last! lol)

If you are coming to Thailand, I really only have 2 pieces of advice to give…

  1. Learn a little about the country and its culture (by reading this book – obviously!)… and …
  2. Learn a little Thai, and/or a few Thai phrases!

Although there is no doubt that the Thai language is far from being one of the easiest languages to learn, your Thai hosts (and the Thai people you meet) will adore you for making the effort!

Oh! … one more thing… (actually, 2!)… smile and have fun!

The Ultimate Survival Guide to Thailand: Download PDF format 2.7 MB

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