Studying Foreign Languages…
In the hopes that my journey will help those of you learning Thai, I’m sharing tips on studying foreign languages. Btw – If you’ve missed the first two installments you can get them here: The Interpreter’s Journal: How it Started and Mistakes and Misinterpretations.
My leap into learning languages…
In languages I’ve been lucky to have found an interest that satisfies my intellectual curiosity, gives great pleasure, and also provides me with a very nice way of making a career. People are willing to pay me to help them with something that I regard as fun. Early on, I was attracted to English, then French, Japanese, and Spanish. I’m looking forward to new travel experiences and friendships when I learn to speak Mandarin Chinese and Arabic.
I was in Grade 5 when I first learned my ABCs in English. I recall the first lesson from my Oxford textbook, which contained the five sentences that all Thai school kids recited and memorized by rote: “This is a chair. That is a chair. This is a book. This is a pen. That is a door.” Our English teacher was Thai, so we copied her English pronunciation with a thick Thai accent. I was excited to learn these sentences because I was on my way to understanding those foreign English letters that started appearing on the TV and on road signs, spelling out the names of products and places. I learned to read and write English in school, but didn’t get to talk to a native English speaker until my encounter with Mike, the American Peace Corps volunteer, when I was fourteen.
There were very few English-language materials available in Yasothon when I started English studies. The textbooks were all based on British English. My first English dictionary contained only a limited number of words. As I started reading short stories and novels in English, and also learned English from pop songs, I couldn’t find many of the words in my pocket dictionary. I had to go to the school library, which had the one large dictionary in town. A few years later, when I was in senior high school, there were more dictionaries with a wider range of English words, which made me quite pleased. Whenever new dictionaries were available, I always bought the biggest one that included the most words, and I listened to English- language audio tapes to become familiar with the proper pronunciation by native speakers.
Around 1980, the English-language materials available in Thailand started to be based on American English rather than British English. “American imperialism” was influencing Thailand economically and culturally, even changing the style of English we learned. Hollywood movies and American pop songs were becoming more popular. Pirated tape cassettes could be had, and juke boxes all over Thailand played the current hits on 45 rpm vinyl records for one baht per song.
I started playing word games in English, like Scrabble, and practiced filling in crossword puzzles, but progress was slow due to the lack of reference materials to check for answers. I improvised by making flashcards with English vocabulary that I studied while waiting for the bus or at the wat before the monks started their chanting. I was lucky to have my dad to question when I got stuck on a word. Any foreigner who crossed my path was fair game to be pestered for conversation or a free lesson.
With all the limitations I faced in learning English, I really envy kids these days. My nieces and nephews in Thailand have many gadgets and communication tools that they could use to learn to speak English, but instead they use them to play video games, text, or chat with their friends in Thai on social networking websites. I had made-up flashcards, but they have TVs, CDs, DVDs, iPods, smart phones, and computers. There are an overwhelming number of books available that would allow them to learn any aspect of any language. There are free lessons and free dictionaries available on the Internet.
Anyone serious about learning a foreign language now has the materials readily available and has the opportunity to learn at a faster pace and more efficiently than when I started.
Tips for learning a foreign language…
If you decide that you’re interested in learning a new language, your first step is to determine the level of competence you’re looking to achieve and what you intend to do with your newly acquired language skills. A few simple phrases for a one-week trip to Paris, or does your interest in Italian cinema motivate you to be able to engage in casual conversations? Do you intend to become a serious student of the language or maybe secure a position as a tour guide or work for a multi-national company overseas? Each of these goals requires a certain amount of time and effort to achieve.
To become proficient in any language takes effort, determination, and years of serious study. It never really ends, and there are no real shortcuts. If you see a language book that has “fast,” “easy,” or “simple,” in the title or blurb, beware. It’s just a ploy for you to buy the book.
If you want to advance in any language to a high degree, you have to be able to listen, speak, read and write in that language. A court interpreter has to develop these four skills to a very high degree.
Listening also means comprehending. To become a good listener, pay attention to native speakers and mimic their pronunciation. Try to understand every word they say. When you don’t understand the meaning of a word, check the dictionary or make a mental note to look it up later, or ask somebody who will know the meaning. When looking up a definition in a comprehensive dictionary, also check the pronunciation and etymology, because this helps verify that your pronunciation is correct. It also helps with memorizing the word.
Speaking goes hand-in-hand with listening. Comprehension is necessary, but if you want to make yourself understood, you have to be able to speak. To develop speaking skills it’s necessary to practice as often as you can, especially when you’re starting out. Select someone to practice with who is a native speaker or who knows the language well. Don’t be shy about making mistakes. Mistakes are normal. People make mistakes when they speak all the time, even in their own language. Some people are hesitant to start speaking a foreign language because they’re embarrassed that people will laugh at them. They’d rather practice until they can say a phrase perfectly before they open their mouth. That’s not a good way to learn to speak. Just keep doing it every chance you can. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And native speakers are usually happy to see that you’re at least trying.
Reading becomes important when you want to achieve a higher level of comprehension. When you can read, you’ll be able to advance in any language quickly. Reading helps expand your vocabulary and can help you delve deeper into the thoughts and culture of the native people. When you only speak the language, you’re limited to the knowledge of the people you speak to. But if you can read, you’ll be able to know the thoughts of the Shakespeare or Einstein of that culture. Reading new words ultimately helps improve vocabulary, pronunciation, and long-term memory.
Writing is the most difficult of all the four skills to develop, especially for non-Romanized languages. But this is true even for native speakers of any language. Many students struggle to acquire this skill when they learn a foreign language, since it intimidates them. It requires devotion, patience, and discipline. Most people set their goal to just be able to speak and understand a language; they don’t necessarily want to learn how to read and write, especially when the new language is not Romanized, such as Thai. If you learn how to write in your new language, it will force you to concentrate on each letter, which should improve your pronunciation and help you to retain your vocabulary longer. If you determine that learning to write is more effort than you are willing to put in, at least try to learn how to read the language. The rewards are exceedingly beneficial.
To successfully learn and use a new language, it’s necessary to recognize and memorize lots of new words. With a limited vocabulary, you can’t adequately express your needs or intentions. You need to know about 2,000 words to be able to hold a decent conversation in a new language. You have to keep adding new words to increase your vocabulary, and they have to stick somewhere in your memory. Without a good method to remember new words and expressions, you’re not going to go far in learning any language. Also, your recognition skills will need to be enhanced. You’ll need to recognize new sentence structure, grammar, and exceptions to rules. Just as with exercising any of your muscles, the more you exercise your memory and recognition skills, the more you’ll bulk up on your language abilities.
Another consideration when learning a language is what materials to use. If you want to speak a tonal language like Thai, it’s impossible to learn without having audio examples of the spoken sounds. No matter what language you want to study, make sure that the materials you plan on using are functional and provide sufficient information for you to learn to the level that you’d like. Even if you only want to learn a few phrases of Thai for a two-week trip to Thailand, you’re wasting your money on a phrasebook without an accompanying audio CD.
Raising bilingual children…
One of the greatest gifts you can give to your children is to instill in them an interest in languages. Like it or not, we all now live in a global economy, and the ability to speak a second language might be considered superior to, and possibly more useful than, a college education – and is considerably cheaper to obtain. Being able to speak two or more languages will open up new opportunities for young people.
You might think that the kids of Thai-Western couples would naturally have the advantage of speaking two languages, but regrettably this is not so. For the most part, children of Thai-Western couples growing up in the US end up speaking English only. Everywhere the children turn, they hear English spoken – on the street, in school, on TV, and from their parents if the Western parent is the more dominant one in the relationship.
To reinforce the Thai language, for example, parents must make a conscious decision to speak Thai within the household, but it’s not easy. I’ve seen many Thai mothers speaking to their children in Thai, but their children reply back only in English. After a while the mothers give up because, after all, they mainly want to communicate with the kids to get them to clean up their room or get their homework done before dinner. Trying to teach them Thai becomes too much work. Eventually the Thai mothers end up speaking broken English to their kids, and then later their kids laugh at them for not being able to pronounce or use words correctly.
The options available to Thai-Western couples are to send their children to the local Thai temple for language lessons each week, and maybe take them to Thailand every year to stay with Thai relatives, and also continuing to speak Thai to the children while they are in the US. If both parents are Thai and living in America, they still have to be conscious to speak Thai in the home, since their kids will pick up English easily on their own.
Another advantage of teaching Thai to their children is that through language it’s possible to teach Thai values and culture. Thais use specific words that are tied to the Thai value system. If you want to teach your children the Thai concept of kreeng-jai (having consideration for others), ka-tan-yu (being grateful to those who have done good to you), or nam-jai (a genuine act of kindness), it’s difficult to explain these concepts in English. Learning to speak Thai provides a gateway into the Thai culture. Just as learning any foreign language will open the door to the soul of its people.
Although it may be more advantageous to begin learning another language at a young age, you can really learn a foreign language and excel in it at any age. The determining factor, I believe, has to do with motivation.
Finding the motivation to learn a foreign language…
I’ve seen religious missionaries with only a few years of Thai-language classes who can speak, read, write, and understand Thai well enough to convert Thai Buddhists into Christians. And I’ve seen firsthand Peace Corps volunteers, trained to speak Thai, performing their duties in remote Thai provinces where very few people spoke English. These adults learned Thai well enough not to just ask for directions as a tourist, but to master it well enough to speak it fluently. These missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers were motivated to learn because it was necessary in order for them to accomplish their tasks or goals. It was a means to an end.
Determining what will motivate you enough to learn a new language is an important first step to actually learning. Vast numbers of people are motivated to learn Asian languages such as Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, or Tagalog. In many cases the advantage in speaking these languages is due to potential business opportunities. Other typical incentives for learning would be cultural, education, or religious interests.
From my unscientific observations, I’ve found that a strong motivating factor for people to learn the Thai language is sexual attraction to a Thai person. Many students in Thai-language classes are Western males who want to communicate with their Thai girlfriends and future wives. Even if their girlfriends speak English, some men still want to be able to speak to her family in Thailand. Love can be a strong motivator. It was my motivation when I was dating Jose, my Mexican boyfriend, and I wanted to learn Spanish.
Finding your own powerful motivation will get you excited to start your language studies and keep you going.
The benefits of learning a foreign language…
And once you’ve decided to take up another language, there are many positive benefits when you can speak that new language. Studies have shown that when a student knows a foreign language, it also increases abilities in their native language. It can enhance the aptitude to learn, and the function in other areas of the brain, which can improve test scores. Speaking different languages can be a benefit at social gatherings, too.
Another positive aspect of speaking other languages is an increased awareness of the world around us. If you can read a number of languages, you can appreciate the literature, music, and movies of other cultures. When I see movies in Thai with English subtitles, I’m aware of the misinterpretation that the American audience is getting when the subtitles don’t convey the actual meaning and intensity of the spoken words in the story.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the advantages of learning another language. Not everyone will make a career this way, but you still can enjoy tremendous benefits, satisfying your intellectual curiosity by speaking other languages. It is a joyful and invigorating moment when you can communicate what you want to say in a different language. It makes life much more fun.
Benjawan Poomsan Becker on WLT…
Interview: Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Learn Thai with Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Review: Three-Way Talking Thai Dictionary: Mac and PC
iPhone App: Talking Thai–English–Thai Dictionary
Thai for Beginners iPhone App