How I learned Thai by Iwok
Start to Learn the Thai Language
I’ve lived in Thailand for over six years, and at this point I speak Thai more or less fluently, I can read easy things like street signs and annoying SMS advertisements that come to my phone, and in a pinch I can write my nickname. People always ask me how I learned Thai and how long it took, but the real answer is that I’m still improving all the time and there’s a whole lot more out there that I can learn.
As an overview, Thai is a tonal language meaning that the tone in which a word is said carries information just as the consonants and vowels in the word tell us which word it is. To illustrate, kao said with a high tone means ‘him/her’, while kao said with a low tone means ‘knee’. If you want to say a word correctly, you have to have the tone correct, or else you’ll be saying something else – the tone of a word can’t be changed. Thai is a subject-verb-object order language just like English, so that’s easy, but some word types come in different places from English (English ‘red car’ would be rot daeng = ‘car red’ in Thai). Finally, one of the most confusing things about Thai is that the subject can be left out of a sentence. In this way you can say hiu = ‘hungry’ whereas in English you’d have to say ‘I’m hungry’.
Learning a foreign language like Thai can be accomplished in 2 general ways. One way is to study through books, online materials, language teaching programs, and classroom lessons. The other way is to get into a natural situation where you learn by interacting with people who speak that language. There are benefits and detractions to both methods, and they have different levels of efficacy for learning different language skills. Rather than breaking things into the standard 4 skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), a more natural description of language learning might be this: vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, word recognition, spelling, and learning to write pretty curving characters.
In this article, we’ll look at different learning strategies and assess them according to which skills they can help you learn and how effective they can be.
Reading Learn-Thai Books
Learn-Thai books have clear limitations – they leave out the auditory component of language, or at least leave it all up to you. Some books include audio CDs or DVDs to make up for it, but to start, let’s look at what books can do for your Thai.
Most books start you out with basic pleasantries (sawatdee = hello, sabaidii mai = how are you?), then get into basic sentence structures, and then more complex things like using modals (ex. should, want to, etc.) and prepositional phrases (On Saturdays…, Back in Texas, …). Good books will give good explanations of how grammatical structures work and give you translations word for word AND for whole meanings. They show you multiple examples of how some complex words can be used in different ways, or different ways to get the same meaning across. They present vocabulary, sometimes with pictures, and may include reference word lists like dictionaries.
Learn-Thai books use various transliteration systems to write Thai words using Roman letters. Thais call this phasaa karaoke (karaoke language), and it’s incredibly useful for the beginner who can learn the sounds that the letters represent and jump right into learning without having to tackle the tricky Thai writing system. However, there is 1 official system (the Royal Thai General System of transcription or RTGS) and about a hundred other systems used by various authors.
Confusion arises because people who speak different languages and dialects read different Roman letters with different sounds (ex. an English-speaker would read jing as ‘jing’, while a Spaniard would say ‘ying’). In Thailand, signs are written in both Thai and karaoke language, but systems vary wildly making it next to impossible to guess the actual sound you’re supposed to say to pronounce the word you see. I have seen the province Phrae, sounding like ‘pray’, variously written Prae, Phare, Pae, and Phae. When you learn from a book without audio input, you can run into the danger of remembering a lot of word meanings but memorizing the pronunciations wrong.
Some books like the popular Thai for Beginners by Benjawan Poomsan Becker (http://www.amazon.com/Thai-Beginners-Benjawan-Poomsan-Becker/dp/1887521003) make an attempt at providing a comprehensive skill system, teaching you vocabulary, grammar, and spelling all in one book (+ word recognition and pronunciation skills through a supplementary set of CDs). This is a good way to get started learning to read and write early, but requires a lot of discipline. We all know that kids learn to recognize words first, then to speak, and reading and writing comes much later. In the same way, the tricky Thai writing parts of these books take time, while the reader usually wants to hurry ahead to learn more words and sentence structures.
It’s relatively easy to memorize the 44 consonants and 32 vowels used in Thai writing, but learning to spell in Thai is essentially impossible until you have learned enough vocabulary to make things make sense. This is mostly because Thai is tonal, and spelling rules are tied to the tones of words so if you don’t know which tones go with which words, you’ll have a rough time spelling. Remember that Thai kids, like children everywhere, learn to speak Thai long before they are taught to read and write so they meet these challenges carrying an arsenal of words and language knowledge.
Books are great for vocabulary, especially those with pictures or translations. Wall posters are also great for people who love visuals. You can print out the Thai alphabet or pick up posters in markets here which sell them for schoolchildren.
The best book that I have ever come across for learning Thai grammar is Thai Reference Grammar: the Structure of Spoken Thai (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Thai-Reference-Grammar-Structure-Spoken/dp/9748304965). This book gives excellent examples of phrases in Thai, based on a look-up reference of English words. If you want to know how to say ‘always’ in Thai, you look it up and find 5-10 examples on the 4 different words that Thai uses to express the varying meanings of this word. This type of grammar book shows you how to construct sentences and give numerous examples showing different ways to express similar ideas, however it assumes that you have a fair vocabulary to build on.
Audio programs can include CDs or Podcasts that give sound bites of Thai language for you to run your tongue over. Simon and Schuster offer a program following the popular Pimsleur Method (http://www.amazon.com/Thai-Comprehensive-Understand-Pimsleur-Language/dp/0743544927) which uses 30-minute daily lessons to teach you Thai. Language builds in graduated intervals based on increasing complexity and natural repetition, with simple English translation. It’s intended that you do the program in real time without taking notes.
Podcasts are a new way to learn the language and http://learn-thai-podcast.com/ offers a series of programs with structured lessons including teaching portions, practice, and testing. Like more standard tape and CDs, podcast lessons focus heavily on listening exercises which help to build your vocabulary, word recognition, and grammar comprehension skills. This program includes visuals if you have a fancy iPod with a screen for visual input as well.
Audio programs obviously aren’t designed to teach you to read and write, but instead focus on listening skills, vocabulary and grammar building to give you language foundation. If you’re not in Thailand these programs are usually the best way to find a ton of audio input.
Interactive Digital Learning (DVDs + websites)
The future of education is, for better or worse, moving to computers. Interactive systems through websites and DVDs can engage the learner and help you master areas of the language. They can also encourage you to practice and remember by setting up a series of levels that you are encouraged to work through. If you find that you’re working with a book and can’t seem to keep yourself interested, interactive digital learning might be a better strategy for you.
Digital formats are great for showing visuals and building vocabulary. They can show pictures and play sounds to help build up vocabulary, then test you through various activities to promote word recognition. Grammar can also build through steps that go from easy to complicated as you progress through the system. Combining visual and auditory input helps memory, and also helps you to remember the sounds of Thai correctly, rather than letting transliteration spelling confuse things.
A system like Rosetta Stone (http://www.rosettastone.com/learn-thai/level-1) is based on learning through memorization of pictures and contexts. Words are shown in Thai script with letter sounds so that you should be able to learn spelling as well through memorization. The program tests your pronunciation by listening to you speak into a microphone. User reviews suggest, however, that the tone information in Thai is not ever clearly explained by the system and that leads to mispronunciation.
Other systems like its4thai.com give plenty of explanation in English to help you learn words and new sentences. The site also gives slow and nicely outlined writing lessons to help you learn the 20 rules for spelling in Thai and the sounds of the letters. The site has you practice and work through challenges and activities at your own pace, but on the downside there’s no way to give audio input to the site, so you won’t really know if you’re saying things accurately or not.
Online programs incorporate the best of both worlds from audio systems and books, and can even give testing and feedback similar to learning in a classroom environment.
And speaking of the classroom, another very popular way to learn Thai is in real lessons in a classroom. These may be very hard to find abroad, but in Thailand they’re on offer in all major cities and you can probably find a private tutor in smaller towns. Make sure your teacher knows how to teach Thai to foreigners, not Thai or English to Thai kids, as techniques and strategies can vary. Most of all, they need to understand what’s difficult in their language and what’s easy for foreigners, so they know how to progress through lessons and what facets to focus on.
What are the benefits of taking a class? The obvious reason to join lessons is access to a Thai speaker who can answer all of your questions and demonstrate pronunciation that is 100% correct, plus give you lots of audio input. Your teacher can work through all the skills you need to learn, introducing new vocabulary and grammar when you need it, testing your understanding, and showing you how to read and write. Being in a class that you have to pay for and where you’ll meet friends adds reasons to study so that if you lack in self-motivation, you might decide to ‘force yourself’ by signing up to lessons. Once you’ve learned something in the classroom, you’ll be able to head out and try it on Thai people where you live.
One possible downside is that classes, just like self-learning materials listed above, can focus too much on official, formal forms and leave out the phrases you will actually hear when you’re outside that artificial environment. If you learn to say khun ma jak prathet nai krap? for “Where do you come from?”, you might not catch that ma jak nai? or even yoo thii nai? mean the same thing and are more commonly heard. Still there is value in learning full forms and then seeing how these can be reduced in everyday speech.
The ‘Immersion in Thai’ Technique
All of the strategies above can be used alone or in combination to produce real results, but they seem to take a lot of time. The real reason of course is that typically you’d only devote 1-3 hours a day to any learn-Thai program when you have other things to do.
So what’s a faster way? To learn Thai quickly, you can compress 2 hours a day for 10 days into 1 10-hour day by immersing yourself in the language. Learn it by living it. Not only can you learn things in a smaller space of time (maybe not fewer hours of commitment, but fewer calendar dates), you’ll also learn the real social uses of the Thai language, how people really talk and what they actually will say to express their thoughts and feelings. Thai people speak differently than you do, and so translating things from your language into theirs doesn’t always cut it and can lead to misunderstanding.
So how does immersion work? Put yourself in a situation where you are spending large amounts of time each day, most of each day, listening to and speaking Thai. Interacting in Thai with friends and colleagues, ordering your food, shopping, travelling around. Do as much Thai to you. Find a place to live in an up-country town where nobody really speaks your language. Most of all, do things for yourself. So many foreigners find a Thai partner and then give all responsibility for communicating with other Thai people to the person to the point where they don’t bother to order their own food in a restaurant or tell the taxi driver their home address. Instead, you need to make an effort to live with and around Thai people.
Children are great at this, since they have more simple interests than adults and like to play even if you can’t speak too much. They will also teach you Thai without any strategy, just point to things and say their names, or do something and say what they’re doing. They’ll like it if you can repeat after them and will tell you straight-up if your pronunciation is wrong.
Reading and writing is not easy to learn in this way, without a specific strategy to learn how to spell, but you can quickly learn your letters and start reading things in your environment. If you read aloud, people will help you. Most Thai people love hearing foreigners speak their language, even if you can’t say more than a handful of words. They’re enthusiastic (sometimes too enthusiastic!) to help you learn and will repeat things for you until you get them with tremendous patience.
I learned Thai through immersion, as a volunteer in a small town where no one spoke English. I had my grammar book and every day looked up a word or two, then started to hear them all over the place from then on. Spoken language doesn’t actually have physical spaces between words like writing suggests, but instead the divisions of the stream of sound are in your head. What starts as a babble ends up being broken into words as you learn to associate meaning with words and groups of sounds. For me, learning through some books and websites, then going out into the wide world and saying or listening for the things I had learned was the ultimate way to learn Thai, but of course this is a lifestyle commitment that not everyone is in a position to make.
If you really want to learn Thai, what you really need is a purpose that you believe in. Do you want to be able to ask girls out on dates? Do you want to write emails to your partner when you are apart? Are you keen on reading Thai history or literature? Do you love Thai horror movies? Find your real reason for learning the language, because it’s a guarantee that without that motivation, you’ll never stick to your learning and the language will just never stick. Choose a system that works for you, according to your learning style and available time, stick to it, reward yourself for success, and push yourself to learn more. After all, a foreigner who can speak Thai is pretty quickly going to find himself the talk of the town.