Tim Ferris: Thai Sentence Deconstruction

Tim Ferris: Thai Sentence Deconstruction

How to Learn (but not master) any Language in an hour…

Tim Ferris from the 4 Hour Workweek makes bold statements about learning languages. In my early days of learning Thai I came across his post How to Learn (but not master) any Language in an Hour. I loved his idea of deconstructing sentences.

Here’s the reasoning: Before you invest (or waste) hundreds and thousands of hours on a language, you should deconstruct it. During my thesis research at Princeton, which focused on neuroscience and unorthodox acquisition of Japanese by native English speakers, as well as when redesigning curricula for Berlitz, this neglected deconstruction step surfaced as one of the distinguishing habits of the fastest language learners…

He doesn’t say that deconstructing a language on its own is a fast way to learn a language. It’s what he uses to choose the easiest language (for him) to learn.

How is it possible to become conversationally fluent in one of these languages in 2-12 months? It starts with deconstructing them, choosing wisely, and abandoning all but a few of them.

EDIT: Tim now has a video where he mentions that he uses these sentences to learn a language, not choose one. Not matter. It’s still an interesting exercise.

Obviously, I’d already chosen Thai, so Tim’s explanation on how to decide which language stays or goes was a moot point. But if you are curious, please do read his article: How to Learn (but not master) any Language in an Hour.

What did interest me was the exercise of deconstructing Thai. After fiddling with it, showing it to Hugh, then walking through bits with Thai Skype Teacher Khun Narisa, below is the result.

Thai Sentence Deconstruction…

Tip from Khun Narisa: you must first understand the grammar of your own language before you tackle Thai!

What you see here is written Thai. If you want written and spoken Thai side-by-side (and add transliteration if you must), download the pdf: Thai Sentence Deconstruction.

The apple is red.
subject + verb + adjective

แอปเปิ้ล สี แดง
Apple + red colour.
noun + adjective

It is John’s apple.
pron + verb + noun + poss + noun

มัน คือ/เป็น แอปเปิ้ล ของ จอห์น
It + is + apple + of + John.
pron + verb + noun + conj + noun

I give John the apple.
pron + verb + indirect ob + direct ob

ฉัน/ผม เอา แอปเปิ้ล ให้ จอห์น
I + take + apple + to give to + John.
pron + verb + direct ob + v + indirect ob

We give him the apple.
pron + verb + indirect ob + direct ob

เรา เอา แอปเปิ้ล ให้ เขา
We + take + apple + to give to + him.
pron + verb + direct ob + v + indirect ob

He gives it to John.
pron + v + direct ob + conj + indirect ob

เขา เอา มัน ให้ จอห์น
He + take + it + to give + John.
pron + v + direct ob + v + indirect ob

She gives it to him.
pron + v + direct ob + conj + indirect ob

เขา เอา มัน ให้ เขา
She + take + it + to give + him.
pron + v + direct ob + v + indirect ob

I don’t give apples.
pron + negative + v + noun

ฉัน/ผม ไม่ ให้ แอปเปิ้ล
I + not + give + apple      
pron + negative + v + object

They don’t give apples.
pron + negative + verb + noun

(พวก)เขา ไม่ ให้ แอปเปิ้ล
They + not + give + apple
pron + negative + v + object

He doesn’t give apples.
pron + negative + v + noun

เขา ไม่ ให้ แอปเปิ้ล
He + not + give + apple.
pron + negative + v + object

I gave John an apple yesterday.
pron + verb + indirect obj + direct obj + time expression

ฉัน/ผม เอา แอปเปิ้ล ให้ จอห์น เมื่อวานนี้
I + take + apple + to give + John + yesterday.
pron + v + direct obj + v + indirect obj + time expression

She gave John an apple last week.
pron + v + indirect obj + direct obj + time expression

เขา เอา แอปเปิ้ล ให้ จอห์น อาทิตย์ ที่แล้ว
She + take + apple + to give + John + week + last.
pron + v + direct obj + v + indirect obj + time expression

We’ll give John an apple tomorrow.
pron + aux + verb + indirect obj + direct obj + time expression

(พวก)เรา จะ เอา แอปเปิ้ล ให้ จอห์น พรุ่งนี้
We + will + take + apple + to give + John + tomorrow.
pron + aux + v + direct obj + v + indirect obj + time expression

Tomorrow we will give an apple to John.
time exp + pron + aux + v + direct obj + prep + indirect obj

พรุ่งนี้ (พวก)เรา จะ เอา แอปเปิ้ล ให้จอห์น
Tomorrow + we + will + take + apple + to give + John.
time expression + pron + aux + v + direct obj + v + indirect obj

I must give it to him.
pron + aux + v + direct obj + prep + indirect obj

ฉัน/ผม ต้อง เอา มัน ให้ เขา
I + must + take + it + to give + him.
pron + aux + v + direct obj + v + indirect obj

I want to give it to her.
pron + v + v + direct obj + prep + indirect obj

ฉัน/ผม ต้องการ เอา มัน ให้ เขา/เธอ
I + want + to take + it + to give + her.
pron + v + v + direct obj + v + indirect obj

What is Tim looking for? How verbs are conjugated, placement of objects and their pronouns, negatives, tenses, sentence structure (SVO, SOV, etc), possible noun cases, and auxiliary verbs.

With the sentences Tim chose to compare, in Thai you won’t find that much to fuss about. Similar to English, Thai is SVO (subject-verb-object). And verbs? There is no conjugating going on.

The most difficult bits with learning Thai (for me anyway) is keeping up with context, remembering classifiers, getting the tones right, and giving suitable respect to those on the receiving end.

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Do you have questions about the quirks of the Thai language?
Send them over and we’ll do our best.

6 Responses to “ Tim Ferris: Thai Sentence Deconstruction ”

  1. Hello Catherine, hope you are doing well.
    Interesting, but I feel like none of these examples are meaningful for language as Thai.
    None of them depict the thai fondamental use of the classifiers.
    Should be interesting to have a sentence like “I gave him one apple” (instead of “I gave him an apple”)…

    English and French have scarce uses of sort of classifiers : une miche de pain (a loaf of bread ?), une bouteille de lait (a bottle of milk ?)… but is is very idiomatic not not at all as systematic as in Thai (and I guess some other asian languages).

  2. And as the “exercice” is built from an English (or French, or any roman style language) point of view, many idiomatic Thai structures and very specific ways of thinking the expression of reality or feelings are not covered by this deconstruction analyze. What do you think about ?

  3. Bernard, my intention was not to show all variations. My post followed Tim Ferris’ sentences. No more. No less. Ok, I do have spoken phrases in the download…

    Why don’t you come up with one of your own?

  4. I beg to differ. I think this article is useful. It shows the similarities between Thai and English grammar which many beginners often assume are very different. This part-of-speech analysis is common in academic papers, so it can be useful for all audiences – novice or PhD. What is perhaps most important are the small differences between these sentence constructions, eg. where a preposition is used in one language, but a verb is used in the other. I recommend readers look back through it again and take note of them.

    These examples show the top-level subject-verb-object structure in two languages. Each of these three parts can be deconstructed into smaller parts such as the object being a noun phrases where classifiers could be present. But diving straight into classifiers without knowing where they fit in a sentence structure probably isn’t so beneficial as a starting point.

    Continuing this article into a series looking at sentence structures at different levels would no doubt be useful to many. As Catherine alludes to, are there any volunteers? If I can find time, I’m game…

  5. Thanks Mark. I’ll take you up on it – a series is an excellent idea :-) Sifting through the differences side by side does teach us a lot about the language.

  6. Some simple Thai sentences may resemble English ones in their construction, but I think that’s a function of language itself, not any inherent similarity.

    To say that a phrase like “The apple is red” can show similarities between languages is a stretch, I think.

    By contrast, think about how you would say this in Thai: “(I) really shouldn’t say anything (about that)”

    Most intermediate speakers could probably get their meaning across with a word-to-word translation, but it would sound weird.

    The original Thai is: “คงบอกไม่ได้หรอก” i.e. should-speak-cannot- at all.”

    It’s not how an (Indo-)European language would structure it at all.

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