Ten steps to learning Thai…
Note: This is dedicated to people like Catherine Wentworth who are working their patooties off trying to grasp this outlandishly difficult language. Good luck to you all.
When I started learning Thai I was told that it was one of the hardest for an English speaker to learn. That was 40 years ago and you know what? Thai hasn’t gotten any easier. But I didn’t give up, and neither should you. New worlds will open to you the more Thai you know. The Thai culture is especially difficult to navigate through unless you can understand all of the cues and signals available to the person who understands the language. The following are 10 steps to learning Thai that have helped me along the way.
- Get a good textbook. I avoid books with the words like “simple”, “easy”, and “quick”, in the title. Thai is not simple, easy, or quick to learn. All those people who say, “Learning a language is easy.”, “Learning to read and write came to me with no problem.”, “I have no trouble hearing and saying Thai tones.”, are either making it all up or they have a special language-learning lobe in their brain that is missing from mine.
- Get a good dictionary. I own seven. And I use them all. Make sure it shows the Thai tones. There are also lots of good on-line dictionaries as well. It is probably best to do a test run before buying one. Think of a word or phrase that you want to say, or one that you have heard. Then go to a book store or library, or go on line, and look the word up. See which dictionary gives you the clearest meaning; which one shows you best how to pronounce the word; which one describes the word’s tone the best; which uses the word in context. Do that for both Thai and English words. Then choose the one that works best for you.
- Find out what kind of learner you are. Some people are audio-types. They can hear something and repeat it like a myna bird. Others are more visual. They need to see something written down. Audio-types can put off learning to read and write for a while. Visual-types will probably benefit from learning to read earlier. For 25 years I only spoke Thai. I am an audio-type, but at that time I was also illiterate. Reading and writing were just too intimidating. I communicated OK though. But when I decided to buckle down and learn how to read, my Thai ability took a quantum leap forward. I still can’t write because I can’t spell. But I can’t spell in English either (thank god for spell checkers). I think I am also missing the spelling lobe of my brain. So, you can get by without reading, but if you have the ability and aren’t intimidated, try it.
- Carry a notebook with you at all times. Write down all the new Thai words you hear or words you wish you knew in Thai and look them up later. You can write thai words down phonetically. Some dictionaries let you look up a word by its sound. The really ambitious can carry a pocket sized dictionary with them. The notebooks that I have been using since the beginning of last year are almost full with more than 2,000 new entries.
- The three most important things needed to speak Thai comprehensibly are “tones”, “tones”, and “tones”. If you don’t get the tones right no one will understand a word you say. Don’t believe the people who say that they get by just fine without tones. They are probably speaking with their spouses or paramours who are constantly working hard to decipher their “Tinglish”. Get them in front of an audience of strangers and see how they do without correct tones. Reading will help you know a word’s tone. It won’t help you say it though. You just have to listen to how a Thai says a word, and then say it the same way.
- Get a good teacher. Believe me, you cannot learn good Thai through osmosis. Teachers who stress correct tones are the best. Some people do best with an individual teacher while others prefer classes. It is probably best that your teacher is not also romantically involved with you. You are going to want someone who will be relentless in not allowing you to get by with incorrect tones or bad pronunciation. The tougher the teacher the better it will be for you.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The more mistakes you make the better. There is no better way to remember how to say something correctly than to have said it wrong to begin with. I should know. I may have the all-time record for making mistakes, screwing up tones, and committing language faux pas. Just the other day, when I wanted to say that a friend who is far sighted might have trouble reading, I called him “illiterate” (อ่านไม่เป็น /àan mâi bpen/). Just one more faux pas for my list. But at least I finally learn the right word to use (อ่านไม่เห็น /àan mâi hĕn/).
- Learn to listen. We sometimes think we are listening to how people are saying something but quite often, because of preconceptions, we are “hearing” something different. This happens a lot with people who have spent most of their time working on reading. They already have it in their head how something sounds without ever having heard it. One rule that I try to keep is to not say a word or a phrase until I have already heard a native Thai speaker say it first. The latest phrase in my lexicon is คุณเสียหนึ่งแต้ม /kun pôot paa-săa tai gèng mâak/. It means, “You lose one stroke.” I first heard my golf caddie say it after I hit my ball in the water. Since then, I have had the benefit of many repetitions of this phrase. I don’t think I will ever forget it.
- Never stop studying. Too many times one hears, “I tried studying Thai for a while but found it too difficult and gave up.” I myself study all the time. But I’m retired. What else do I have to do with my time? If you plan on living here for a while, any time you put into studying will be well worth it.
- As long as someone tells you คุณพูดภาษาไทยเก่งมาก /kun pôot paa-săa tai gèng mâak/ (You speak Thai very well) then you know you don’t really speak Thai well at all, and your Thai still needs lots of work. Thais love to ปากหวาน /bpàak wăan/ (sweet talk, flatter) people. When you speak Thai really well then no one will compliment you anymore; they’ll just talk with you as if you were a real person. And that should be our goal.
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