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