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Chula’s Thai Test for Foreigners: CU-TFL

Chula’s Thai Test for Foreigners: CU-TFL

Chula’s Thai Test for Foreigners…

I’m here to tell you, right now in no uncertain terms, IF you wanna know where your Thai chops are at, go to the Sirindhorn Thai Language Institute at Chulalongkorn University and take their CU-TFL. That’s the Chulalongkorn University Proficiency Test of Thai as a Foreign Language. They offer Thai testing in 4 areas; Reading, Listening, Writing & Speaking.

I hear so many terms bandied about by foreigners learning Thai. I hear people say they’re low-intermediate, hi-intermediate, low-advanced, hi–advanced, fluent all the way up to near native. Even worse they throw out the CEFL ratings like they have ANY meaning in relationship to Thai. Seeing as no one in Thai officialdom thought it necessary to test a foreigner’s Thai ability and rate it the same way as they test English, using those ratings rarely yields good results. I’ve heard someone rate their own Thai at B1, B2 or C1 etc. Those self-ratings are subjective at best and at worst you’re grading yourself on a curve. I’ve said before, it is my personal experience that foreigners overestimate their actual ability in Thai by a large margin.

Now be prepared; the CU-TFL ain’t no MOE low-level ‘hold-ur-hand’, ‘walk-u-thru-it’ test of Thai for foreigners looking to get an extension to their ED visa. The test does bear striking similarities to the Thai test of proficiency for foreigners given by the MOE at the end of every year which replaced the old ป.๖ test. In talking to the Chula people about it they said they didn’t work with the MOE and weren’t aware the tests were similar. What you really need to know is the CU-TFL is a full-blown hard core proficiency test. They offer Thai testing in Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking. Unlike the MOE test where you must take all 4 modules, this one you can pick which parts you want to test in. I opted not to do the writing because while I can write Thai, I mostly only type and my handwritten Thai looks a lot like ไก่เขีย (chicken scratching).

On October 9th I sat three of the four; Reading, Listening & Speaking. I’ve NEVER seen anything as well thought out, as well put together or as incrementally harder as the testing progresses than these tests. Even though the reading/listening tests are multiple choice (giving you a 25% chance to blind guess correctly) you won’t get more than a question or three past your actual ability in Thai. You’ll wash out right at your level.

The upside is you can take the CU-TFL pretty much anytime you want to take them versus waiting until the end of the year for the MOE test. Plus unlike the MOE ‘year-end cattle-call’ where you’re taking the test with a couple hundred people, with the CU-TFL you’re taking it by yourself. The way it works is you apply online, select which of the four areas you wanna test in, print your receipt, transfer the money, email your confirmation of transfer and they email you with available slots to schedule the test(s). I paid on Tuesday and they immediately emailed back saying they had openings for testing on Thurs/Fri.

On the Thai version of their website the grading system for these tests is compared to several language proficiency rating systems, like; ACTFL, IFR, FSI & CEFR. The CU-TFL has Novice (ฝึกพูด), Intermediate (กลาง), Advanced (ดี), Superior (ดีมาก) and Distinguished (ดีเด่น) as the ‘score’ you get in each area. While I am loathe to compare those results to the CEFR language proficiency, on the website it has it rated like this: Novice=A1-A2, Intermediate=B1, Advanced=B2, Superior=C1 and Distinguished=C2.

It easily was the most stressful three hours I’ve spent during my entire learning Thai journey, which at last count has spanned close to 9 years! I walked into this test cold, not knowing what to expect other than having read what’s written on their website where it says each test is an hour long. The information of exactly how the tests work and are given is spotty at best. If I’d have had an idea of what they were gonna be like I would have gone in better prepared. That doesn’t mean my Thai would have been any better, just that I would have had an idea of how they were going about testing my Thai ability.

Here’s an overview of how the CU-TFL testing works:

You show up at the appointed time, check in. FWIW: everyone in that office speaks and understands English just fine. When I showed up I walked in, said in English, “Hi, I’m Tod and am here to take the Thai tests.” It didn’t particularly seem to throw anyone off I was speaking English showing up for a Thai test either. Unlike the MOE test, there is also no apparent ‘dress code’ as I showed up in Levi’s and a black KISS band t-shirt and baseball cap. They take you to a locker to secure your cell phone, lap top, books etc. and then you and the person watching you test go into a small classroom. In the classroom is a table & chair, a loudly clicking wall clock (which makes you oh-so conscious of the precious seconds ticking away!) and a small video camera in the top corner of the room. (When you sign up, you agree that they can record you and use it for training purposes). If you want to you can bring bottled water into the room too.

Reading: You are given an answer sheet with 50 questions written on them. They are broken into “topics” (1 thru 6, if I remember correctly). You are also given the reading material sheets. The teacher outlines that you have an hour, and that you’re to make an X on the appropriate box with ก ข ค ง in it for each question. Then you start. At first the reading is simple, small adverts, a flight schedule of new airline destinations, etc. The first couple of reading exercises had only 3 or 4 questions. Then it gets harder! The reading gets longer, it’s a half-page article, then it’s a page, then a page and a half and by the end I think I was reading something like 2 ¼ pages of pretty in depth stuff! From what I remember (because it’s a little fuzzy) I think the last topic I read was by a psychiatrist writing about the stress in Thai people with underlying causes. I mean WTF?

Remember you only have one hour to get thru all 50 questions, so you either better be able to read pretty fast, or be able to look at the questions and refer back to the article looking for keywords in the text to find the answers. I managed (just) to get thru all 50 questions on the reading. Now without tooting my drum or beating my horn, I’m able to read pretty darned fast with fairly high comprehension. Even so, I still had to take a stab at some of the answers. Also they try to trip you up by asking questions like which one of these things is NOT related to the topic. When they write not in those ‘trip you up questions’ they underline it so watch for it!

You get a short break, or maybe not. I just told ‘em I needed to go to the restroom, smoke a cigarette, got up and went and did it. Perhaps because I was the only one testing that day, or the fact that I’m pretty hard core, they didn’t say word one to me. I don’t know if you take it with a group that they do that.

Listening: You go into the same classroom with the teacher and she explains how to do the multiple choice again, and then she starts a tape playing. It also explains the directions for marking correct answers again and how to invalidate an answer too. Then it starts in with about 15 seconds of a Thai speaking. You listen (obviously) and then it reads the questions to you along with the choices. Next is about 30 seconds of speaking and they get progressively longer as you continue the testing. Now you’re given a piece of paper where you can take notes, but this isn’t spoon fed retard speed Thai. It’s spoken at regular speed and I just couldn’t write notes AND listen to what was being said too. They topics range from opinions, statements, information, advertisement about stuff, and I think at the end you’re listening to almost 90 seconds to 2 minutes of spoken Thai. What I finally resorted to was looking at the questions as the tape was playing, listening for key-words or phrases which were in the answers to the questions and making a small mark next to it on my sheet. When it got to where they read the question I’d see how the phrase I’d marked applied. Again, I just managed to get thru all 50 questions, but it was a struggle.

After another bathroom/smoke break and I went in for the last test for me.

Speaking: You’re given a sheet which outlines how the test will proceed. It’s give in sections which are pass/fail. You need to pass one to get to take the next part. You go into an interview room. There are two Thai teachers in there; mine were either uni-kids or just outta uni young adults. They outline how the test will be given and it’s like this. The first two parts are basically a 10 minute interview and 5 minutes of free speaking. If you fail those you’re done I think. If you pass them to the satisfaction of the teachers you get to do the next section. This is where they give you a sheet with 5 topics on it in both English and Thai. You select one, they give you 5 minutes to make some notes about it and then you talk for about 10 minutes on the topic. Now some of those topics I couldn’t talk about in frickin’ English, I mean they were obscure! Funny enough one of the topics was “Non-Formal Education” or การศึกษานอกระบบ. I mean how lucky was that? It’s what every private Thai language school that teaches foreigners is! It was just blind luck that topic was on there and right up my alley! I had 5 minutes to make some bullet point notes (which I did in English), then they turn on a timer and I gave them my presentation. I went over how the Thai language is taught to foreigners versus to Thai nationals, the pros and cons of the systems, the prevalence of “Union Clone” methodology and the trials and tribulations with foreigners getting ED visa extensions at Immigration for studying Thai. Actually, the timer went off while I was talking, but both teachers seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying and said, “Keep going, finish your presentation!” I thought that was great and very accommodating of them. After that they said I qualified for the last module of the speaking test.

The final part was where I was to interview one of the teachers giving the test, take 5 minutes write a crib notes and then give a 10 minute presentation about her/him. I decided to pass on it, much to the chagrin of the two teachers. They both urged me to do it, saying I wouldn’t have a problem. I declined saying my แรง was หมด’d. They tried once more to get me to do it, even saying if I needed a break to smoke beforehand that was fine. Unfortunately by that time, I was totally spent, my legs felt like Jell-O, and my shirt was soaked completely thru with sweat. There was no way, after the three hours I’d just went thru where I could find the energy to do that last part. In hindsight, I should have taken a smoke bathroom break, collected myself, manned up and done it. Now I really regret not doing it. I’m sure I could have got their name, age, members of the family, where they were from, if they were still studying in uni, what they did for work, what they would like to do for work, etc. and be able to make a fairly coherent presentation out it.

As I said earlier I didn’t take the writing portion of the exam, so guys I can’t help you with that. Maybe someone who also took this exam and tested on the written part could weigh in with some pointers on how it’s conducted.

Oh I should add, because my spoken Thai is quite coarse and umm ‘colorful’, when I went into the speaking portion of the test, I apologized to the teachers beforehand. I told them I พูดตรงไปตรงมา, พูดแรง, sometimes พูดหยาบคาย, ประชด, ทะลึ่ง and because I am 100% American, I didn’t เลียนแบบ Thai speech mannerisms like Thais do because of their culture. I told them it was a สันดาน (a negative inborn trait) and we’d both have to make the best of it. They seemed okay with it and in my interview with them, I believe I managed to ‘tick all the boxes’ of the previous caveats I’d given them!

Okay, that’s all I got! You guys got a way better idea of what’s what than I did when I showed up there. I can’t recommend highly enough that ANYONE who really wants to know their actual level in Thai go sit these tests. It might be stressful (or it certainly was for me), but you’ll come out the other side with a much better idea of where you really are in regards to the language.

Good Luck, do good. . .

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Data Survey Part Two: Thai Schools on the Studentz-From-Hell

Say it Like a Thai Would

Thai Schools on the Studentz-From-Hell…

This is part two discussing the survey data I compiled about Thai Studentz-From-Hell. If you haven’t read the first post, go to Data Survey Part One: Thai Schools on the Studentz-From-Hell.

Below, where I talk about the data I’ve mined, I’m going to use some specific terms. I’ll use Westerners for people from the west and Asians for people from the east, okay? If I use the word students or foreigners, I’m talking about everyone learning Thai. Also, in an effort to be a kinder-gentler (not so blatantly racist) Tod Daniels, I’m not gonna use the term white people like I usually do. Honestly, I don’t like the hate mail it garners!

Btw: I’ve included a What can you do? section at the end of each category. That’s where I offer wisdom and information to hopefully help you overcome possible limitations in your learning Thai experience.

But before I get to the survey compilation, I just want to say this one thing.

The teaching Thai language to Westerners system is broken…

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers, but the system (method, text books, etc.) used in the teach Thai to non-native speakers (and Westerners especially) is badly broken. It has stagnated for years with schools popping up all over the city using nothing more than copied textbooks from the original Union Thai Language School. Sometimes the only difference is the cover of the book!

I’m not saying the Union Method doesn’t work. Time and time again I’ve pointed out that their methodology turns out more proficient foreign speakers of Thai than any other method out there, period, end of story. Even the illustrious uni known as Chula teaches Thai that way. Sadly (for us learners of Thai) there’s been no total overhaul of the materials for years. The vocabulary is antiquated, the lessons don’t build on each other, and the advanced materials come from the Stone Age.

In saying that … I will speak up in the defence of several schools: Rak Thai Language and Duke Language especially. They took the tired material and re-worked it, putting it head and shoulders above the old stuff. But, it’s only a matter of time before contemporary Thai study material appears on the market. The new method will use the technology of today, in a way that revolutionises how Thai is taught. It’s coming soon. I know that for a fact. I’ve personally seen some of the material in the development stage.

What can you do? Unfortunately what’s out there is what’s out there and that’s that. So you’re either gonna use what’s available or you’re gonna come up with your own way to learn Thai. And that’s what some of the advice in this post is all about: Using what’s available in this day and time.

Finally, here we go!

Age and sex of students…

One of the most interesting things found in the data was that neither age nor sex seemed to play any role in a student’s ability to learn Thai. There was a good make-up of males and females and a broad age range of people from their early 20’s to their late 60’s (even older) of both Westerners and Asians. From what the teachers told me, age doesn’t affect anyone’s ability to learn the language at all. That at every school included in this data review, old people seemed to learn as easily as the younger students.

My personal experience: The b/s excuses you read on every forum concerning learning Thai where Westerners parrot out “I’m too old”, “I’m not good at languages”, “I can’t hear the tones”, blah-blah-blah were just plain and simple not represented in the feedback from teachers at ANY school.

What can you do? Stop using your advanced age and (supposed) inability to learn languages as excuses and start learning Thai already! And of course, if you are deaf, there’s obviously going to be a problem. But for the rest of you, get off your butts and ramp up your listening time!

Hemispherical origin (a polite way of saying ethnicity!)…

What started to come to light was, hands down, Asians (Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc) learned the Thai language far better than Westerners. ANY Westerners!

On further reflection of this conundrum, in the data I did come to a conclusion of sorts. Asians as a rule are less question driven in their education systems and lean more towards rote learning. Also, Asians accept any teaching methodology without question. But, due to our question driven education system, Westerners sometimes try to buck the methods (especially rote) that are often used here to teach Thai.

What can you do? Face it. If you aren’t Asian, you’re unlikely to be able to change your learning mindset overnight. So when you do go to take in the material presented, be as open-minded as you can. Try and adopt a less question driven strategy and go for rote. Go with the flow. If just for now.

Speaking multiple languages…

Another interesting point made was that the more languages a Westerner knows that use a Latin based alphabet, the harder it is for them to get Thai to click. Now, I know some of you will come out in force against this, but again, that’s what I got from talking to the teachers. I don’t know why the data shows this but it clearly did.

I do think it’s possible that studying a multitude of Latin languages gets in the way with learning Thai somehow. It’s not so bad in the early speak via karaoke part of learning Thai (like is taught in 99.99% of the schools) because they use transliteration (karaoke), which is mostly legible to English speakers. It only becomes an impediment when a Westerner makes the leap from learning to speak Thai via karaoke, to actually reading the Thai script. The teachers mentioned that at this point Westerners come off the rails, learning far slower than their Asian counterparts.

From my study, the best Western learners are those who only speak their mother tongue, or at most another language closely related to English. The best Asian learners mostly know their mother tongue, although they oftentimes possess fairly proficient English language skills too. Compared to Westerners knowing more than one Western language, Asians who knew other Asian languages didn’t have a problem.

What can you do? Perhaps you speak more than one language that uses the Latin alphabet, and good on you if you do. BUT, do note that learning the Thai script will take a slightly different mindset than what is needed for French, Spanish, Polish, etc. So when you do enter a classroom to learn Thai, be prepared ahead of time for differences. Don’t fight it.

Impediments to learning…

The anecdotal data I gleaned in the meetings with teachers hands down showed that there were two big impediments to Westerners learning Thai. One is that Westerners often over-sold or completely overestimated their ability in Thai. Meaning, they went into the school saying, “I’m not a beginner!” “I can read Thai already!” “I want Thai script only textbooks!” Yet when the teachers tested these students, turns out the students couldn’t speak or read Thai to the level needed to keep up in their chosen class. Asians, on the other hand, had no trouble admitting they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

Also, some Westerners were adamant that they weren’t beginner level students, to the point they became confrontational, even when they could see from the informal interview they were basic Thai speakers (and that, only when under spoon-fed conditions).

The Thai teachers said that even when they tried to sell beginner courses as a refresher/review, few Westerners would go for it. Conversely, Asian beginners of Thai bought right into the premise that you start learning things at the beginning, not partway thru. When Westerners forced schools to let them into the intermediate classes, they were left in the dust because they just didn’t have the foundation they should have. Rather than suck it up and admit the truth, more than a few Western students turned the blame away from themselves by putting down the methodology, the school, the teacher, and even other students.

What can you do? Obviously, don’t overestimate your ability in Thai, period. If you can’t keep up, face the truth. Instead of pretending, start on book one page one and don’t progress into the next level until you really get it. Because believe you me, you ain’t fooling anyone!

The second really big impediment was that Westerners, to a person, thought they knew how Thai should be taught to Westerners. It is true that as adults we are fairly locked into the way we acquire new information. Some people are visual learners, some are tactile learners, some are aural learners, and some use all those avenues to learn new stuff. And equally important, rote learning goes against the Western grain.

What can you do? Sometimes the rules just plain don’t apply and this is one of those times. Attempt to be open to how the information is being presented, even if you think it’s not the right way. Give it a chance, a real chance.

I’m NOT saying to sign up at the first Thai language school you wander into. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the teaching Thai as a second language system is broken, or at least in a terrible state of disrepair and neglect. What I am saying is be open to the methodology used at a particular school and see if it jibes enough with the way you learn things. Do your due diligence, but don’t discount a school’s methodology right outta the gate. Well, you can discount one school’s methodology as total b/s, but at least give the rest of the schools out there a decent chance. Because seriously, until the changes come, that’s all there is.

Education level…

In regards to Westerners and their ability to get Thai to click, education levels seem to play a VERY important role. The reverse doesn’t appear to be true for Asians because no matter what education Asians have acquired, they learn Thai just fine. The data shows that where Westerners are concerned it’s almost an inverse proportion. The more education a person from the West has had, the less they take to Thai as it’s taught in schools. Westerners with a high school education or a bachelor’s degree learn Thai far easier than those with a Master’s or PhD. It also appears that foreigners with a ‘teaching anything’ background have more difficulties with learning Thai via the methodology available in today’s marketplace, than Westerners with degrees in non-teaching fields.

My personal experience: On the topic of education and Westerners learning Thai I have to agree with the teacher’s perceptions. I’ve ran into more than my fair share of Westerners with a high level of edu-ma-cation. In talking to some (not all of course) it’s clear they think they know best on how Thai should be taught to Westerners. And rather than taking personal responsibility for their failures, that it’s possible to be their own worst enemy, they instead blame the school, the teacher, the methodology, other students, or any distraction they can think up on why they can’t learn Thai. They even meet with the teacher or manager of the school between classes to offer suggestions on how teachers can improve how they teach. They also whine and cry about this or that on breaks with other students. Now, it’s fine for students to commiserate with one another on the difficulty of learning Thai, because for one, it can build classroom cohesiveness. It’s just that this particular demographic of student has often tried many schools, all the while not learning Thai. These kinda people are the bouncers I mentioned in Part One of Studentz-From-Hell.

What can you do? As with the discussion about Impediments to Learning listed above, even if you think it’s not the right way to learn, be open to how the information is being presented. Give it a chance. Remember, if you aim to learn Thai in a classroom setting, what other choice do you have?

Group versus private…

I looked at the subject of private versus group lessons using the same methodology, but there just wasn’t a big enough sampling of annoying students in the private section. This is because at most schools, in private classes students can tailor the lessons to the way they learn. While in groups, students are dragged along with the rest of the class and are more likely to kick up a fuss.

What can you do? If you do find yourself failing in a classroom setting, then do give everyone a rest (yourself included) by signing up for one-on-one lessons. The solution can’t get simpler than that.

Thai teachers…

Another complaint from the Thai teachers (ALL of them) was that some foreigners think that the reason they weren’t learning Thai is the teacher’s fault. There certainly are marginal and even extremely poor Thai teachers out there. But clearly, not every single foreigner who fails to learn Thai can point their finger at their teacher’s lack of skills.

What can you do? If you gave it the old college try with a teacher and it just plain ain’t working, switch teachers or schools even! You’ll certainly find out right away if your problem was the teacher, or you. Either way, a change of scenery is better than sitting thru an entire module seething.

Class size…

One thing I tried to pin the teachers down on was class size versus efficacy in their methodology. This was a touchy subject, especially when talking to the owners of the schools. Most schools employ teachers on a fixed monthly salary so whether they’re teaching a handful of foreigners or a group of 15, the hard cost to the school is the same. It was no surprise to me that the owners thought there was nothing wrong with cramming in as many students as there were chairs in every classroom. Because face it, the more students per class, the more their profit margin.

The teachers, on the other hand, totally disagreed with this premise. It had nothing to do with what the teachers are being paid and everything to do with the pride they take having students become proficient in the language. They all said that the best size for a group of students (Westerners and Asians) was between six to eight people at most. Group lessons are conversation or dialog based and they incorporate practice with other students or with teachers, and large classes fall way short of the mark as far as having enough useful practice time for each student.

My personal experience: I have witnessed the detriment a large class size (more than 10 people) can be to students. There’s just not enough of the teacher to go around and they’re pulled six ways from Sunday. In those early levels of learning it is crucial that the teacher has adequate coverage to correct pronunciation and structural errors EVERY time! With too many students in a class they just can’t do it. The teachers also can’t effectively keep that many students on topic either, so it becomes more like herding cats than teaching Thai.

What can you do? If you enrol in a group class (especially an intensive one) and there’s more than seven or eight people in the class, bail out! DON’T waste your money and your time! March right up to the front desk and inform them you’ll wait until either a new class starts or the next term rolls around. Again, stand up for yourself in this regard because it’s way important early on.

In summary…

I’ve tried to present the information from the data and the feedback I got from the teachers as accurately as I could. However, as is my penchant to do, I did ride some of my hobby horses as far as what I think works acquiring the Thai language. I am nothing if not opinionated, and that my opinion differs from yours is fine by me. I had more fun going to the schools, interacting with the staff, getting this information than I’ve had here in Thailand in ages!

Remember, Tod Daniels is NOT affiliated with ANY Thai language school. I’m about learning Thai by whatever means works for you.

Good Luck,
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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Data Survey Part One: Thai Schools on the Studentz-From-Hell

Say it Like a Thai Would

Thai Schools on the Studentz-From-Hell…

Awhile back I went to seven previously reviewed Thai schools. I asked the owners of the schools, the teachers, as well as the front desk staff, if they’d be interested in participating in an informal survey. I explained that I wanted to find out what they thought were the best and worst foreign learners of the Thai language.

Now, before you poo-poo this survey as just another hare-brained idea from Tod Daniels, or try and say my study sample is too limited, please let me explain. In just one of the schools, eight teachers contributing to the survey have taught Thai to non-native adult speakers a combined 128 years! That averages out to about 16 years experience apiece. And that was just at ONE of the schools I queried. The other schools are equally impressive, so if anyone is to be believed, it’s the Thais in the trenches.

Anyway, I set up meetings after school hours because there was no time to hash out this stuff during the short 10 minute breaks between classes. At the meetings I asked what they thought were the best learners of Thai versus what they thought were the worst learners of Thai. Surprisingly, every teacher was more than happy to offer their opinion. And often in a animated, humorous way, with anecdotes and stories of the Studentz-From-Hell. As you can imagine, a good time was had by all. Taking copious notes, I phrased questions in different ways to weed out spurious answers.

Some of the time I spoke in Thai, and some of the time in English. The mountain of information I gleaned was insightful (to me at least).

After I finished with the school owners and Thai teachers I then asked the front desk staff to start obliquely quizzing new students about what education level the students possessed, what other languages they spoke, and how old they were. Now, some of the schools were already doing this so it was just a matter of handing me a pile ‘o paperwork and letting me paw thru and take notes. But some of the schools never did this before, and now many do. So when you enrol in a Thai language school and they bug you for this stuff you can either thank or hate me for getting them to pry into your personal business.

After compiling the data I’d gleaned from the teachers I waited a couple months, then went back and met with the front desk staff to see what other information they’d accrued. I also revisited the teachers to see if they had more to add. We then reviewed my findings.

Thankfully, the fact that I was going to other Thai language schools as well didn’t come up even once. You see, I wanted as much cooperation as I could at each of these schools and I found out early on that the school’s owners didn’t like each other one little bit! Even though some are in the same building, have swapped out teachers on occasion, and the owners know each other, they can be awfully prissy when it comes to mentioning other schools.

Once I had the data I put it in a semblance of order. At first everything just seemed random, almost nonsensical. But after sorting it in different ways several issues appeared over and over. What threw me at first was that the information I gleaned from the various schools was presented in different manners. Once I realised this fact, I started making real progress.

Although I’m just gonna present what I found, you’ll be glad to know the results are based on the empirical data and the feedback I gleaned from the schools. Plus, I came up with a viable criteria to sort through it all.

Trust me. I didn’t make any of this up. And you can totally disagree with my findings, and that’s ok by me.

I gathered the below data on foreigners learning Thai, because plain and simple, I’m nosy about other students. Incredible as it may seem (what with my off-the-wall personality) I have a fairly good relationship with the Thai language schools scattered around Bangkok, that made compiling data not troublesome at all!

If you recognise yourself in this post, hopefully you’ll find my tipz-n-trickz a help in skewing the odds in your favour to learn Thai.


Studentz-from-hell: Plain and simple, students from hell are just that. Hell. They are students who refuse to accept they’re in class to learn. They are somehow unaware that they are in a roomful of other students, with what should be a competent teacher of Thai. These annoying students do whatever they can to make the class time drag out. Other students and the teacher end up miserable as well.

Classroom Commandeer-erz: These are students who monopolise and/or commandeer a class (much to the chagrin of the other students). For every one question asked by other students, they ask five inane and often unrelated questions. They constantly interrupt, interject, and unconsciously or not, become such a detriment to the other students that they are even ostracised during breaks! They make the teacher spend an inordinate amount of time on them and their issues rather than realising the other students deserve an equal share in the teacher’s time as well. This particular student would be better suited to private lessons, and in that way, they could bother a teacher to their heart’s content.

Non-participantz: The exact opposite of the Commandeer-erz, these students do not participate in class either with teachers or students. They often act miserable. I dunno, maybe they are miserable. What I do know is that a negative attitude, especially in something that has the potential of being difficult, is a losing proposition.

Why-erz: No, I’m not talking about mindless foreigners who wander around Thailand wai’ing every limbless beggar, 7/11 worker and Soi Dog! I’m talking about students who insist on asking “why” at every opportunity. In Breaking Down the Wall of Whyz (shameless plug) I pointed out that knowing the why behind the way things are in Thai doesn’t help you become more proficient in the language itself. It does give you tidbits of the background on the language, but unless you’re ever going to be on Jeopardy and the Thai language comes up, the knowledge doesn’t really help you progress.

Laterz & Skipperz: Laterz are people who waltz into class 10-15 minutes after it starts like it’s not a problem. They don’t know what lessons are being taught, and they disrupt the entire flow of the class when trying find the right page, etc. The Skipperz believe they can miss a couple days of class and still keep up. Now, I know once in a while we all have business to attend to and need miss a class or two. That doesn’t mean we can’t study what was covered so we can semi-participate in the next class. Both of these types of students are a detriment to other students who do manage to show up on time, and are doing their best to learn. Some schools have now implemented a policy of locking classroom doors 10 minutes after each class starts, forcing the Laterz to wait until the next hour to rejoin the class.

Teaching Expertz: Not surprisingly these are foreigners who think they are experts in how Thai should be taught in class. It’s true we all develop our own little tricks and tips which make Thai click for us. And there’s nothing wrong with sharing this information with the other students at an appropriate time, like on a break. However, if you were indeed an expert, you’d already speak Thai. Right?

Know-it-allz: This particular demographic of student just flummoxes me. They clearly have taken the level at least once, sometimes several times. They know the material inside, outside, upside down, in a box, with a fox, but they won’t advance themselves to the next level. I think they enjoy making us squirm in our seats as we stumble thru sentences mangling new words. Don’t confuse the Know-it-allz with people who take a level, but want to really make it stick so take it again. They know that each level builds on the previous and bluffing your way thru just ain’t gonna cut it.

Kibitz-erz: These are students who, no matter their nationality, clump together and whisper to each other in their own language during class. This is especially troublesome in lessons at schools which have ‘Thai ONLY’ rules. It is distracting to others trying to learn Thai.

Over Their Head-erz: As you might surmise these students bluffed or blustered their way into a level of Thai which is way beyond their current ability. They drag down a class pretty fast because they don’t have the foundation of material which was supposed to be learned in previous level(s). To accommodate, teachers try to draw a happy medium by teaching to neither the slowest nor the fastest learners, so this type can easily kill the flow of a class.

Technoz: These are students who are glued, and I mean glued, to their mobile devices. They check their dictionary apps for every permutation of a Thai word and get totally lost in their searches. It results in being unable to keep up with what’s going on in class. I’m all for using tech. And there’s certainly no shortage of really good Thai dictionary apps out there. I just suggest that people use their class time wisely by getting the most out of it at the time. There’s plenty of time during break and after class to look deeper into a subject.

Interrupterz: These are not people who interrupt in class with questions. These are students who just will NOT turn off or mute their mobile devices! They’re constantly getting and responding to SMS’s, Facebook updates, and conversing with people on Line. They drive me up a wall. They also take phone calls in the classroom, walking out to chat and then wandering back in again. Now, I know that some of you are in business here, and that’s great, but you have no business learning Thai in a group setting if you can’t go 50 whole minutes without communicating with the outside world. I was sitting a class just the other day and a student got a phone call. He answered it, talked IN the classroom for two or three minutes like it was nothing. That is just plain poor form and I think at the very least the teacher should have called him on it.

Rusherz & Blurerz: These are students who have an adequate command of the vocabulary being covered in a particular module or lesson plan but for some reason spit out what they want to say so fast, so incoherently, that even the teacher has no idea what they just said. I had this particular affliction when just starting to speak Thai. It was almost as if I needed to get out what I wanted to say as fast as I could. I didn’t care if it was right or wrong, I just felt the overpowering need to spit it out. It ended up coming out like a blur of jumbled up syllables. Tip: take a deep breath, slow down and try to enunciate what you’re saying. This will let the teacher hear enough of what you are trying to say to correct you (and that’s a good thing).

Mice or Whisper-erz: These are students you can barely hear. They seem to purposely lower the volume when they’re speaking Thai. It’s frustrating to the other students and to the teacher as well. I know we’re all hesitant about having other people hear us speak Thai, especially when we are at the “I speak sucky Thai” stage. But that’s part of the learning curve. There is no wrong when learning conversational Thai. It isn’t a test. Do the best you can to practice what you’re learning, and speak up so the teacher can correct you.

Bouncerz: These students bounce from one school to another, trying method after method, book after book, and program after program, yet still can’t get Thai to click. I’ve met a LOT of this kind of students and to a person they’re primarily westerners NOT Asians. It’s almost as if the westerners are trying to find the school or the method which works for them instead of realising they have to adapt their learning to the available methods. These students often possess an eclectic vocabulary in Thai, but fall short on good Thai sentence structure.


Realising disruptive in-class behaviour is valuable for those trying to make their way thru the minefield that is the Thai Language. So, what can you do if you have a particular personality trait that lumps you into one or more categories? Do take note of it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step in solving it. The second step is actually doing something about it.

Anyone who’s studied Thai in a group setting has met at least one, perhaps more of the studentz-from-hell that I’ve outlined above. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below – I’d love to hear all about it!

Next I’ll cover the school data in-depth, breaking it down by category.

Good Luck,
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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You Want to Speak Like a Thai?

Say it Like a Thai Would

Say it like a Thai would…

Now before you even begin reading this be forewarned that it might ruffle your feathers some. Truth be told, it’s kinda-sorta meant to. At the same time, what I want to do is get the readers’ heads around a concept about learning Thai as well.

Not surprisingly, as I make the rounds at the Thai language schools in Bangkok, I run into plenty of foreigners wanting to learn Thai. Almost to a person, everyone I meet says to me, “I want to speak Thai with a Thai accent.” First off, I laugh out loud (really more of a guffaw, which could possibly be off-putting) but then I ask “exactly which ‘Thai accent do you want to learn?” They invariably get that dazed expression, hem-n-haw saying something like, “you know a Thai accent.” I go on with as much sincerity as I can muster (which after seven+ years studying this language and touring more Thai language schools than I remember is marginal at best).

Do you want to speak Thai with that over-the-top Bankokian accent which hi-so’s use? Most of the younger Bangkokians use this accent so other Thais don’t confuse them with country Thais in Bangkok. This is known as พูดดัดจริต. Or do you wanna speak Thai with a Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai accent like the north-western Thais? Wait, I know! You want to speak with that singsong choppy southern accented Thai like from Hat Yai or Songkhla? No? Okay, I got it now. You wanna speak with that พูดเหน่อ บ้านนอก accent like the people from Kanchanaburi, Suphanburi or Ratchaburi, right? Or maybe you want one of the many Isaan accents like from Buriram, Ubon, Udon, Nongkhai, or the dog eating province, Sakhon Nakhon? It could even be that you want the edgier, slightly almost Cambodian accent like the Thais from Sa Kaeo or Surin. Or is it the Chantaburi eastern sea side accent, or the one that pegs a Thai speaker as coming from Korat? I dunno. Really.

One thing I do know with 100% certainty is this: there is no such animal as a “Thai accent” because they’re ALL Thai accents! It’s just like I can tell someone from New York, California, Tennessee or Texas from the accent they have when they speak American English or like a Brit can tell immediately where another Brit was born in the UK because of the accent when they speak the Queens English.

Here’s something for foreigners learning Thai to ponder, especially ones who say that they wanna speak with a Thai accent. It is highly unlikely that is EVER gonna happen! I don’t care how much you think you or someone you know sounds Thai, or how much the over praising people around you say that you sound “just like a Thai”, believe you me, to them you really don’t. Full stop, period, end of story. You should just throw the idea into the circular file and not waste another second on it. You’ll learn Thai about a gazillion times faster than either A) – pretending you sound like a native speaker or B) – agonising over the fact you don’t sound like a native speaker. Believe me, to native Thai speakers listening to you, you sound like a non-native speaker!

There are a handful of gifted non-native speakers of Thai doing the ‘Westerner speaks Thai’ circuit. And in no way would I put myself in that illustrious group of people. Yet, they’re never mistaken for native speakers by real honest to goodness born and bred speakers of Thai. The fact that they’re non-native speakers ALWAYS comes out within a few sentences. Maybe it’s that they speak with the wrong cadence or rhythm, or maybe the structure is a little too forced or un-natural, or maybe their pronunciation is slightly squirrelly. But whatever it is, no Thais would confuse them as being native speakers. Honestly, Todd Lavelle is possibly the closest thing I’ve heard to a native speaker when he isn’t speaking in that over accented Thai he uses on his tv program.

Now, don’t mis-read or mis-remember what I’m saying. I’m saying that there’s no doubt in every native Thai speakers mind that those people are foreign speakers of Thai. What I’m NOT saying about those foreign speakers is their Thai isn’t clear, isn’t concise, isn’t understood 100% outta the gate or isn’t responded to by the Thais. I’m just saying that ANY native Thai speaker knows those people aren’t… <-native speakers. I've said time and again you should take ANY compliment thrown you way about your Thai with a grain of salt. There is a Thai idiom for something so insignificant, so trivial that it means less than nothing and that idiom is เท่าขี้ตามด or "equal to the sleep in the eye of an ant”. In all my world travels (and I’ve been to a fair few countries) I've never ran into a demographic of people who were more over complimentary to foreigners speaking their language than the Thais. If a foreigner can manage to spit out "Sweaty Crap" <-(you read that right) for สวัสดีครับ, these people are piling on the accolades. In fact, I’ve found the exact opposite is true where foreigners speaking Thai is concerned. When a Thai doesn't say anything, as in not one word about the fact that you're a foreigner speaking Thai to them, that's when you know your Thai language chops are getting there. Now don’t get confused and start thinking you’re sounding like a native Thai speaker, because you don’t. What you are doing is "saying it like a Thai would”. That is the key to success in speaking this language so that Thais understand what you’re saying to them. I'm not telling you that you shouldn’t learn how to pronounce Thai words to the best of your ability, because you need to pretty much nail the words. I mean if it's a short vowel you can't draw it out, if it's a long vowel you can't shorten it and the same goes with the tones. You can’t add emotion into your spoken Thai by varying the intonation like we do when speaking English. That’s what the myriad of Thai particles are for. You also need to hit the tones pretty darned close (for the most part). What I am telling you, is to invest the time learning how to "say it like a Thai". Don't take an English sentence and translate it into Thai, re-sequence the words, and think these people are gonna understand you, because they won’t (most won’t anyway). Instead, LISTEN to how Thais say things in regards to sentence structure, cadence and rhythm when they speak. Pay close attention to where they pause <- (very important!) when they are speaking, what words they routinely leave out or drop because they’re understood in the context of a conversation and start speaking your version of Thai that way. Benjawan Poomsan Becker has a series of c/d’s and booklets out called Speak Like a Thai. They are plain and simple worth twice their weight in gold. Well, most of them are, some are just fluff, but still, they’re good. The vocab is fairly contemporary, the example sentences are good, and you can get the feel of how a native speaker says things She also has one out called Improve Your Thai Pronunciation and it’s good too.

You will improve your spoken Thai by leaps and bounds if you just forget about trying to sound Thai. I know, every one of you will say, “I have a friend who’s fluent in Thai”. My question to you is this, “how would you know the person you’re referring to is fluent in Thai when you aren’t?” Did you consult your crystal balls? Is it because the Thai they’re talking to understands them or the fact that they didn’t hafta repeat what they said three times? Or is it because your Thai is so poor you only imagine your friend is fluent because they don’t have the problems conversing with Thais that you experience?

I say all the time my Thai is nothing to brag about, not at all. It’s totally un-Thai insofar as it’s coarse, blunt and I don’t ครับ, ขอ or หน่อย much when I talk. As far as the conversational rules of engagement in Thai it’s right on the borderline of being rude and sometimes it’s more than a little over that line. It’s also poorly pronounced, off cadence and not surprising, it has a definite Midwestern American (Ohio in fact) hillbilly accent to it. What is surprising is, nearly 100% of the time, once a Thai knows I can speak something close to Thai, I can get ‘em to understand me and answer in kind on the first go round. I guess by some imaginary criteria, I’m fluent too, even though I always tell people when it comes to speaking Thai I’m effluent.

For non-native speakers’ structure, pronunciation and cadence/rhythm are the linchpins of this language. You got to get them all or you’re out in left field with Thais scratching their heads wondering what you’re trying to say. The only way to say things like a Thai is by investing the time it takes trying to nail the sentence structure and getting as close to the real pronunciation as possible. You can get some of the cadence down by reading aloud. Be forewarned, just sitting in a room and stumbling over reading Thai out loud isn’t going to help your spoken Thai one bit. You got to have a live Thai sitting around carefully listening to you AND correcting you while you read. It is my personal experience that few if any Thais are up for this, mostly because it’s about as exciting for them as watching paint dry. It takes a rare breed ‘o Thai indeed to sit there and endure you mangling Thai out loud and also having them man up to correct you time and again when you mangle words or sentences. They just lose the will to live after a while and go watch Thai soap operas, chat with their friends on Line or play Cookie Run.

The next thing you need to do is listen, listen and LISTEN to Thais talking. It doesn’t matter if it’s the radio, the t/v, you-tube or what. There are TONZ of Thai audio out there in internet land, USE them! The only caveat is you need to make sure whatever you’re listening to is close to your comprehension level in Thai. It doesn’t work if you can only understand one out of five words spoken; you gotta pretty much get what’s being said. Another thing is pick topics you have an interest in to listen to. Nothing will suck the life outta you faster than listening to a sound file in Thai about something you don’t have an interest in. Some people find those Thai ละครน้ำเน่า’s palatable, but I don’t. The acting is campy, the mood music sound track is as bad as the mind-numbing theme song and their production values are not all that good. Still, I know several really competent foreign speakers of Thai who data mine incredibly good sentences and phrases out of them. Another plus for this learning is, as fast as a ละคร comes out it’s on You Tube so you can watch it at your leisure.
The last part of the equation is talking in Thai to Thais almost all the time. Stop falling back on English, mime, hand signals, stick figure drawings, sock puppets or whatever you resort to when Thais can’t understand you. I know most of you aren’t gonna like this one bit, BUT here’s another news flash – there’s no short cut, no magic pill, no secret formula, no best way which will get your Thai to the point it needs to be other than speaking to these people, day in day out, all the time. For most of us (or at least early on for me) that was a bummer. I was so put off by them not understanding something I said (which at the time I was saying to the best of my ability) that I plain and simple stopped talking. Instead I went thru a prolonged “silent phase” of listening.

When we first start speaking Thai to Thais, we’re afraid, in fact we’re scared witless. We’re afraid that the Thai we’re talking to won’t understand what we say. We’re also afraid that if the Thai understands us they’ll answer off script or not use the spoon-fed dialog we were taught in our Thai language classes. That is indeed vexing. But what is even sadder still, is the fact that we aren’t able to receive the information coming back to us from a Thai IF it’s off script. In schools we are not taught alternate answers to those rote dialogs pounded into our heads. Despite the fact that there’re usually a myriad of ways a Thai can answer a question we ask which doesn’t follow the script we were taught in school.

One BIG point I want to touch on to make you sound more Thai is to STOP using first person pronouns when making statements. Especially statements where everyone listening understands it’s you saying something. Nothing makes you sound more un-Thai or tips Thais off faster that you’re a newbie Thai speaker than ผม‘ing or ดิฉัน‘ing every time you open your mouth to say something in the first person. Listen to these people when they talk. They just don’t do it, as in, hardly ever! Younger Thais will sometimes use their nicknames, but most of the time no one says anything and it’s understood in context that they’re making a first person statement, unless they designate in the sentence they’re talking about another person.

As I said in the beginning of this piece this isn’t about you speaking Thai with a Thai accent, because you ain’t ever gonna sound Thai enough to fool a native Thai speaker. This is about you saying things like Thais do. If you do that their ears will auto-correct the off-toned words and the long/short, short/long vowel swaps we all make when we speak Thai. I’ve found if you say things the way a Thai says them you’re universally understood. They just get it.

And thus ends the lesson for today. This may sound like a rant from a nobody who writes about learning Thai and you’re free to throw out the ideas I mentioned if you want to, but, I’m telling you it is my personal experience after adopting some of the techniques I’ve outlined that Thais understand me far better now than they ever did.

Good Luck,
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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To Learn the Thai Language You Gotta Learn Thai Culture!

To Learn the Thai Language You Gotta Learn Thai Culture!

You Gotta Learn Thai Culture!…

I want to state this now and for the record that after studying Thai for 7+ years: If you don’t understand Thai culture, you will NEVER EVER understand the nuances of the the language. Period. End of story.

I know that’s a 180 degree flip-flop from my earlier stance back when I started learning Thai. Believe you me, I’m as stubborn as the day is long, but I’m not too stupid to admit it. As far as my saying that Thai culture isn’t important to learning the language, I was 1000% off the scales!

Cross-cultureIf you can read Thai and want to wrap your head around the restrictions Thais operate within culturally, versus the restrictions most foreigners use, then buy Cross Culture ฝรั่งไม่เข้าใจ คนไทยไม่เก็ท by Christopher Wright (aka Chris Delivery). Out of all the books on Thailand and Thai culture I’ve read, it alone taught me how to realistically interact with Thais. It taught me how to put myself ‘in their noses’.

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
(use someone else’s nose to breathe thru).

When I undertook to learn the Thai language I didn’t put much effort into studying their culture. And needless to say, there were many facets of the language which eluded my understanding. There were a ton of things which were hard for me to work out, that I just plain ไม่เก็ท (didn’t get) about Thai. The first was the rigid and often inflexible way Thais interact in semi-official settings (offices, meetings, with any officialdom) versus the relatively restriction-free interaction they have in informal or intimate social settings.

Another thing that threw me for a loop was the incredibly blunt (and intrusively nosy) questions Thais would ask after first meeting.

“Do you own or rent you room?”
“What do you pay for rent?”
“How much money do you make each month?”
“Do you have a college degree?”
“Where did you go to college?”
“Do you own your own car?”

These questions just plain flabbergasted me. In the US I’da said, “that’s nunya beeswax!” The slang term for none of your business! I couldn’t figure out why it was important for Thais to know all this stuff about me. And needless to say, my Thai spoken language skills stagnated at a mediocre level.

It wasn’t until I started learning about the Thai culture thru reading Cross Culture (ฝรั่งไม่เข้าใจ คนไทยไม่เก็ท) that some of the idiosyncratic things Thais do started to make sense. Better yet, what Thais were doing was making sense in relation to their use of the Thai language.

In regards to an imaginary socio-economic ladder ‘o success, Thais as a rule are far more caught up with the concept of what rung people are standing on than we as westerners are, and that’s why Thais ask blunt questions of people they don’t know. They need to know if you are standing on the same rung as them, or the rung above or below. The answers immediately clues BOTH sides into who’s the superior (พี่) and who’s the subordinate (น้อง). From then on in it’s reflected in the conversation. Effortless (to them) one person then becomes the superior and the other the subordinate.

Thais are also pretty caught up in image, both on how they appear to others and how others appear to them. Now, I’ve met more than my fair share of real honest-to-goodness millionaires in Thailand, foreigners ultra-successful in their own right. It would seem to me that a way lot dress pretty darn casual. So casual in fact, that most Thais wouldn’t give them a second glance and more than a few Thais probably wouldn’t even give them the time of day, if asked. Conversely, EVERY single Thai I’ve met who either has real money or who pretends to have it, dresses to the nines.

I know a Thai guy who lives in a shoe-box Thai apartment and could get to work via the BTS in minutes, yet he drives an entry-level BMW to work. He takes an hour each way, just so he can be seen by his coworkers. It would seem that Thais took that old Canon camera commercial with Andre Agassi using the catch phrase “image is everything” to a new, heretofore unheard of level!

The thing I found interesting was that the more I researched the Thai culture, the more I understood the “whyz” as far as Thaiz behaving in a particular way during the conversations I’d have, and in conversations I’d eavesdrop on when they thought I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I’m now at the point where I think the language and the culture are inextricably woven together. In fact, I believe they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s like you can’t learn language to its full extent without having to stomach a very healthy dose of culture too.

Everyone states that the Thai language has several registers, varying from official speak (ภาษาราชการ, ภาษาราทางการ) and going right down in descending order to market language (ภาษาตลาด). I concur wholeheartedly. There are a multitude of registers available to speak Thai with. However, I am of the mind that as foreign speakers of Thai, we just need a good mid register. You know, one that isn’t so sugary sweet and over the top in politeness that we come off sounding like we’re kowtowing to the Thais, yet not so coarse that it curls a Thais hair.

Disclaimer: I freely admit that Todz-Thai might be a little on the rough side for some. I don’t speak that way to be rude to Thais on porpoise, err on purpose. It’s just that I didn’t want to lose who/what I am about simply because I’m a foreigner who happens to speak Thai with Thais. I am not compelled to embrace, acknowledge or follow the cultural restrictions Thais operate within, but a foreign speaker of Thai I am 100% compelled to understand them.

I speak really blunt, terse, coarse and to the point Thai. I don’t mince words. I don’t dance around the point. And I ask repeatedly if they understand (เก็ทมั้ย). Remember, Thais will feign understanding just to interact politely with someone. It’s almost as if the overriding component in verbal communication is that everyone’s polite, and whether anything gets accomplished or not seems a very distant second place. And I just won’t accept those pat, knee jerk answers Thais give like ไม่มี, ไม่ได้ as valid answers to the questions I pose.

It is my experience that a Thai who says ไม่ได้ or even worse spits out the English “cannot” isn’t saying that it can’t be done. What they’re really saying is they don’t know how to do it. So to understand what’s going on you need to breathe thru the nose of that Thai. You need to understand the invisible cultural restrictions which come into play during these types of interactions.

Example: you ask a Thai if something can be done. Now, the Thai you asked can’t say, “I don’t know”, because they’d lose face. They can’t say, “wow, that’s a good question, let me go check”, because once again, they’d lose face. In fact, due to the overpowering need in the subconscious mind of every Thai to save, give, gain and/or not lose face, the only right answer for them when they don’t know the answer, or don’t know how to go about doing something, is to say “cannot”.

It’s vexing, but there are workarounds to this. But, it takes an understanding of how Thais operate within their cultural restrictions, along with a fair command of Thai, to be able to back a Thai into a corner where the only face-saving option for them is to do what you want or go find someone who knows the answer to your request.

What I’m trying to say is that you, as a foreigner speaking Thai, do not have to adopt to any of the Thai cultural norms to interact with Thais. There is a huge difference between understanding the mythical beast known as Thai culture, and mimicking how Thais interact culturally.

When interacting with Thais, the very fact we are Thai speaking foreigners should be exploited to the n-th degree. Clearly, we don’t fit neatly into their tidy cubby-holes like the other Thais do.

We are free to interact with a CEO of a business just as easily and seamlessly, as we can interact with the lady who’s mopping the floors, or the guy who opens the door for us. It’s something foreigners here ไม่เก็ท (don’t get).

In the way they speak Thai and the way they behave, I see foreigners wandering around trying to mimic the Thais. Honestly, most do a really piss poor job of pulling it off! They act more like an over-the-top caricature than someone who is genuinely embracing the Thai culture. From my perspective, it’s not that they aren’t genuine towards the Thais, it’s just how they are coming across to me.

I am not suggesting to be rude or unkind. As a boy I was taught (had it beaten into my backside with a willow switch) that “courtesy doesn’t take a college degree”. I’m saying to be polite, be firm, stand your ground, and don’t take the first answer a Thai gives you as the real answer to your problem. On so many occasions I’ve had Thais tell me “no” and then after further discourse, I’ve had them either do what I requested, or go and get someone else.

Individual Thais are ultra-afraid to make a wrong decision and thereby bear the brunt of the responsibility. They’re much more collective decision makers than foreigners are. It’s one of the most limiting factors when foreigners work with Thais. A foreign boss gives a Thai a project and it progresses along just fine until the point where the Thai has to make a decision which can affect the outcome. It’s then that they go into a safe mode, afraid to make the wrong decision. So what happens is that the project languishes on their desk until the foreign boss is forced to decide for them. This high uncertainty avoidance trait is a limiting cultural aspect amongst the Thais. And I predict that there’s a very good chance that with the opening of the AEC, it will become even more apparent to everyone.

I’ve said over and over that I’ve never wai’d a single Thai and most likely never will. In fact, I have two t-shirts made up eons ago. One says “Why wai? R U Thai?” and the other one says “Silly foreigner. Wai’z R 4 Thais”. Now, I totally understand the intricacies involved in the various levels of respect that wai’ing in Thailand encompasses. Because I’m not Thai, I just don’t want to wai. In the 10+ years I’ve been here, interacting with Thais on every rung of their ladder ‘o success, I’ve never not wai’ing be an impediment to talkin’ to, doing business with, or getting things done with ANY Thai. Not a single time.

I did finally break down and get a couple sets of those clickers pasted on the inside heels of my shoes, just like the Thai police and military. It was my compromise for never wai’ing. If I feel I owe a Thai acknowledgement for doing their job (which BTW is something I find strange any way you wanna try to explain it) I’ll nod my head and click my shoes. That’s about the best they can expect outta me.

Get that book I recommended – Cross Culture ฝรั่งไม่เข้าใจ คนไทยไม่เก็ท by Christopher Wright – it totally rocks!! It’d be even better translated into English. Because even though it’s written from the perspective of helping Thais understand foreigners, it’d be a bestseller as it’d help foreigners understand Thais too.

Good Luck,
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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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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What Does “Fluent in Thai” Mean to You?

What does “fluent in Thai” mean to you?

What does “fluent” mean anyway? …

When people start talk about learning Thai I often hear the word “fluent” bandied about. A couple of forums are talking about just this sorta thing (google). So what exactly is the definition of “fluent”? Being an American, I’ll use the Merriam Webster dictionary.

flu·ent adjective \ˈflü-ənt\

Definition of FLUENT
a : capable of flowing : fluid
b : capable of moving with ease and grace

a : capable of using a language easily and accurately [fluentin Spanish] [a fluent writer]
b : effortlessly smooth and flowing : polished [a fluentperformance] [spoke in fluent English]
c : having or showing mastery of a subject or skill [fluent in mathematics]

I’ve met more foreigners than I care to count who’ve told me they know someone who’s fluent in Thai. My question to them is, “how do you know if your friend is fluent if you can’t even speak Thai?” I’ve since met some of their friends and when I ask them to “bust out with it”, seems they are anything but fluent.

I’ve also had conversations with a guy who makes no bones about his fluency in Thai, and the fact that every foreigner he’s taught is also fluent in Thai. Now, in his defense, he is a clear, concise foreign speaker of Thai. His rhythm and cadence are what makes him so easily understood by Thais.

I’d learn Thai from him in a second (he’s that good) excepting he’s set a maximum age limit and in his opinion, I’m well past my “sale by date”. And darn it, on top of all that, and for reasons beyond my understanding, I seemed to have rubbed him the wrong way.

Anyone who’s listened to Thai knows it’s spoken with a definite rhythm. For myself, the more I emulate the distinctive tempo of spoken Thai, the better Thais understand even my quirky version of Thai.

Awhile back I started a post asking about comma words in Thai. Written Thai is bereft of commas so comma words are where you pause either before or after a word. I asked about comma words because when it came to my turn in the reading aloud portion of Thai class, the teacher would often be in tears either from tryin’ not to laugh or from the sheer anguish of havin’ to endure my reading. I now know that what I was doing wrong was pausing to take a breath in the middle of compound words, or at the wrong place in a sentence. So unless someone was following along with the written text it was hard to understand what I was saying.

In my own defense I’ve gotten much much better but that’s the direct result of reading books aloud for hours on end while a Thai friend lounged around my house half listening and then yelling corrections whenever I messed up. It hasn’t made it into my spoken Thai (yet) but at least my oral reading skills are doing okay. Not that I do a lot of that, come to think of it…

But let’s get back to the topic of fluency. What is fluency and what makes a person fluent? I read somewhere that being able to ask about the meaning of a word you don’t know in your target language demonstrates fluency. To a degree, I believe this is true because I routinely do the same so experience the value.

I also read somewhere that being fluent is having a conversation in the target language without breaking into your mother tongue. Dunno about that one as it’s a pretty broad interpretation of fluency. I talk to taxi drivers and never have to fall back on English. However, I’m using the same ‘ole predictable taxi driver conversation that anyone who speaks even marginal Thai gets into. Not exactly fluent. And seeing as in taxi situations you are usually just answering questions, or maybe even elaborating on the topics a little, it’s not a big stretch language-wise.

Now, if you were to talk to the taxi drivers about, oh, let’s say the recent law where you can report a taxi driver who declines to take you somewhere. And let’s say you start chatting about your personal feelings, that it’s not a fair law because: 1) taxis are rented and hafta be returned at specific times, 2) taxis run low on petrol and maybe where the customer wants to go will drain the tank, 3) that there’s just nothing but a parking lot where that someone want to go, and 4) the meter for fares haven’t increased in Bangkok for almost 10 years, etc. Well, all of that might constitute being a little more fluent than the run-of-the-mill Thai taxi chatter.

As far as I’m concerned, there is a huge difference in fluency between you driving a conversation topic-wise or participating in one where they are in the driver’s seat. Keeping a conversation in Thai on a topic you’re comfortable with can seem to demonstrate fluency. That is, until it strays off script, leaving you all of a sudden floundering around without a word to say in response.

Fluency can also be broken down into a myriad of subjects: politics, religion, business, or any specialty trade lingo, casual conversation, conversations with superiors/subordinates, giving presentations at meetings, etc.

I recently worked for a Thai company on a consultancy gig and I had NO business Thai vocab to fall back on. I was woefully behind the curve on projections, sales, training, and basic office and managerial lingo Thai. It was vocabulary I’ve never needed to know before. So again, depending on what you need to communicate, fluency can be rated based on different criteria.

On a sidetone: At the beginning of the consultancy gig my casual (and very coarse) direct, no frills way of speaking Thai didn’t really play that well with the people sporting impressive titles. But thankfully, they’re now dialed into Todz-Thai and realize that’s just how I speak.

I think what I’m trying to get at is that for most of us it’s better if we just chuck the idea of fluency out the window. Seems that when it comes to speaking Thai, we put way too much time and effort on attaining this mythical fluent rating. And really, in the big picture it doesn’t always mean that much of anything.

If you’re gonna go for something, go for fluidity instead (another meaning for fluent):

  • Pause where Thais pause.
  • Say things more like Thais do.
  • Speak with the rhythm and cadence Thais use.

And if you live in Thailand these Thai traits can be gleaned just by listening to the Thais around you.

Talking Thai to Thais ain’t a grammar or structure test by any means. No one’s grading your ability to converse. And the Thais I know don’t give two hoots if I make an attempt to speak perfectly constructed Thai or stick with the half-assed version of Thai I speak. What they do care about is being able to understand what I’m saying.

And here’s another thing. You shouldn’t be speaking Thai to impress anyone. And if you are, IMHO, you’re learning Thai for all the wrong reasons. Because at the end of the day, aren’t we merely trying to connect with Thais in their language?

To finalize: Don’t take this language or yourself too seriously. Don’t let other people bring you down. Oh, and if your opinion differs from mine, that’s fine. What I’m not is a Thai language pundit. I’m just someone who’s struggled for over four years to get a working semblance of Thai under my belt in order to communicate with Thais.

Now, because I’m considered “old” by some, I could very well be a slow learner because “old people can’t learn”. But I’m gonna prove that fallacy wrong. Not to impress anyone, but to prove that old dogs can learn new tricks. Because you know what? This old dog still hunts! Yeah.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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The “I’m Good Enough at Thai to Know I Suck” Stage

Good Enough at Thai to Know I Suck

Yeah, I really suck at Thai…

There comes a point in almost everyone’s attempt at learning a language where they gain enough proficiency to know, well… to realize that they pretty much suck at it!

This can be due to a variety of reasons, especially for a tonal language such as Thai, with its rigid vowel lengths.

Usually the main reason is “mother language interference”. This is where you’re speaking Thai and suddenly start using the English sentence order for words, which yields a lotta gibberish. Or you forget to use the question tag (ไหม / มั้ย) and instead use a rising tone on the last word, changing it into another one.

Now, I seemed to have reached a point where not only my spoken ability has come up to speed but also comprehension of what’s said back to me. I outlined this leap in The Magical Tipping Point of Thai.

I want to touch on the comprehension part of it a little. There is no way a person can learn Thai without having both their ability in spoken Thai and comprehension of what’s said back. It’s two sides of the same coin. Saying things without comprehending what’s said back isn’t speaking Thai.

Case in point. The other day I met a foreigner who spoke Thai with such good clarity and enunciation that I was so ashamed of my Thai that I wouldn’t speak Thai around him. He had the phrozen phrasez and rote sentence constructs down perfectly. As an aside, I could tell he was a Union Clone student because they teach two identifying constructs. One is สมมุติว่า (suppose that..) and the other is มีปากมีเสียงกัน (an antiquated construct for argue w/someone that Union schools teach instead of ทะเลาะกัน). But he’d nearly eliminated his thick Aussie accent in his spoken Thai (no small feat seeing as his accent was so thick I had to really concentrate to understand his English).

As I sat there listening to him interact with Thais it became apparent there was a disconnect when Thais didn’t respond with the appropriate pre-programmed response. He then had to ask them to repeat what they’d said, sometimes a coupla times. Now, sometimes the Thais deviation was only slight (and even I could make the leap in logic to what they’d said). However, with other times, the Thais would shorten a phrase or reply in a contemporary slangy way, so it was not the way he was programmed to receive replies.

I found this conundrum quite interesting, seeing as his Thai was really clear and not nearly as muddy (or perhaps “muddled” is a better word) as my spoken Thai.

We talked about his lack of comprehension and he mentioned that the run-o-the-mill Thai on the street didn’t speak as clearly as his Thai language teacher did. Well, I got news for everyone out there studying Thai. Not many Thais speak as clear or slow as your Thai language teacher! Nor will they waste the time it takes to spoon-feed when they’re talkin’ to you.

You can get Thais to slow down by saying พูดช้า ๆ หน่อย or พูดช้า ๆ สิ. But, sometimes it takes a couple of times for it to sink into their heads. Conversely, you can always do what I do and say in Thai, “either slow down or we’re gonna speak in English.” I’ve never had that not work in getting a Thai to slow down their staccato or warp speed Thai EVER! Given that many Thais fear speaking English, it’s effective. And better yet, to have them dial their speed back it only needs to be said once.

Back on track… It also became apparent to me that while this guy had a TON of good usable Thai vocabulary, constructs and phrases, he was unable to use them to build his own sentences. Instead, he relied on rote dialog (the same mind-numbing stuff I hear repeated in many Thai language schools in Bangkok).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not casting dispersions (errr aspersions) at this guy’s Thai. My spoken Thai language ability is NOTHING to write home about and I have more than my fair share of “fox paws” (faux pas) almost every time I converse with Thais in Thai. I’m not denigrating his ability, only pointing out some of my observations.

I always reply to foreigners who ask if I can speak Thai the exact same way: “I speak Thai well enough to know that I suck at it.” It’s the truth. I can converse about anything I have an interest in, and I am wicked good at understanding what Thais say to me, just as long as I’m in the driver’s seat. Also, for the most part, it appears that Thais understand what I’m talking about even if my intonation is muddy and my structure spotty.

Once you reach a level of proficiency as far as high frequency usable vocab and constructs go, the next phase is applying it ALL the time, in every situation, tryin’ to get off the rote dialog and more onto free flowing speech. For myself, I eavesdrop on Thais all the time. I also take notes. I do this to change how I learned Thai to how things are actually said by Thais. I also practice some of the new dialog I’ve overheard with Thai friends in sort of a “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” method. Do they comprehend what I’m saying? Is it appropriate in the context I used it in? Does it make Thais understand me easier? In an effort to morph my Thai into a less foreign sounding Thai I currently speak, these are all things I look for.

This stage in your Thai language acquisition is when books like Thai: An Essential Grammar (by David Smyth), and Thai Reference Grammar (by James Higbie and Snea Thinsan) come in handy. Neither of these books lend themselves to a “sit down and read ‘em cover to cover” sort of endeavor. In fact, early on it’s mostly waste of time when studying the Thai language because there’s simply too much material covered in both. They’re not designed as text books to learn Thai. They are created as reference materials for specific questions about the application of words, phrases, and correct word order in constructs, once you have some Thai under your belt.

When I hear something in Thai that I haven’t used before, I jot it down in a small notebook. Once I get back home I look it up in one or both of those grammar books. Sometimes I hafta Google to find the real way things are spelled or said versus the colloquial way. And I can usually find the base construct even if the Thai version was slang-i-fied. By using Thai: Essential Grammar and Thai Reference Grammar, I can locate the correct words, related phrases, and appropriate usage.

Now, sometimes some of the constructs I come up with just don’t fly. And that’s when Thais look at me like I’ve got a horn growing outta my forehead (believe me, I’ve grown used to that look after 7+ years in Thailand). While other constructs work so well that it seems Thais are surprised a foreigner would spit something out that sounds so very Thai.

It’s moments like those that make me realize that all the time, hard work and effort I’ve put into this language is beginning to bear fruit. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever get past the “I’m good enough at Thai to know I suck at speaking Thai” stage. What I’m not letting it do is get me down or dampen my desire to learn more about the language. I have no problem discarding what doesn’t work, and I try to incorporate what does work into my usable vocabulary. In short, I just keep on trudging forward in my learning.

I think what I’m tryin’ to say is this: you too will reach a point where you’re good enough in Thai to know you’re not really very good at Thai. It’s a natural part of the process and it shouldn’t get you down. Instead, it should give you the satisfaction knowing that you’ve come a long way in your learning experience. And once you can see your own shortcomings in this language, it becomes easier to implement self corrections without someone spoon-feeding you.

Good luck. And keep at it. Remember no one eats an elephant at one sitting. It’s done one mouthful at a time. Bite by bite. Same with learning languages, take one bite at a time and you’ll get there.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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