Some Thoughts on Learning the Thai Language by Raymond Greenlaw Fulbright Scholar Department of Computer Science Chiang Mai University 2006 1 Introduction The Executive Director of the Thailand Fulbright Foundation, Porntip Kanjananiyot, asked me to write an article where I share some thoughts about learning the Thai language. This article is my response. I should mention that at various times I have learned to speak French, German, Spanish, and 20--30 word subsets of about ten other languages, so I do have some experience learning other languages. Now I speak "some" Thai too. 2 Starting Out in Thai I decided that it would be too difficult for me to learn to read, write, and speak Thai. To me, and most farangs, each symbol in the Thai alphabet looks like a bunch of scribbles. My intention during the Fulbright experience was to focus on learning to speak Thai. Any brainpower used to learn symbols would take away from learning to speak Thai. Of course, I would love to have learned to read and write Thai, but that will have to wait. 3 Pronunciation There are many sounds in Thai that I, and most farangs, will never ever pronounce correctly. Our tongues, cheeks, vocal chords, and general anatomy simply won't allow us to say things in the exact same ways that Thais do. This shortcoming is not a question of willpower. Similarly, Thais will have much difficulty pronouncing certain English words or phrases: "bill" or "face cradle" are two examples. So, what does one do? Farangs must try to speak properly, but if we get bogged down on perfect pronunciation, we will go nowhere. We must speak even if it is not perfect. We must speak even if we are misunderstood. We must not get discouraged. One of the first phrases that I needed to learn was the name of my street--- Tanon Sa Nam Gila Jed Roy Pee. Keep in mind, that I did not know what any of these words meant, and I was not familiar with these sounds. It took me several days to learn to say this phrase. I had no "handle" to grab onto any of these words. I had no way to remember sounds that I had never heard before. I needed to develop my own "games" to remember things, for example, "wai nam", sounded like "why nam" to me, and I thought "why water?" to remember this phrase. I knew that I couldn't simply develop a game for every phrase, as I would run out of storage space in my brain, plus you can't have a conversation, even if you are a quick thinker, by pulling all these memory tricks from your brain. But, how could I learn Thai and how could I learn to pronounce things better? I realized from listening to Thai people that many words have been imported into Thai from English, words such as computer, badminton, pizza, email, and so on. I didn't need to spend time learning these vocabulary words, as I already knew them. Thus, I could focus on learning to pronounce them correctly. This realization helped me make great strides with my Thai. Another thing that was very important for me was that I realized if a Thai speaker greatly exaggerated the length of a word and spoke loudly, I could mimic the sound of the tones that the speaker was making. In some cases I requested taxi drivers to say words for as long as twenty seconds---no kidding, twenty seconds on a single word! I also realized that speaking on the telephone was a great way to learn Thai. Without any visuals, one has to speak clearly and with decent pronunciation to be understood. Of course, speaking on the telephone can be so difficult that both parties must be extremely patient. I often had to say ‘Poot eek tee dai mai krab’, ‘Poot cha cha’, and ‘Poot dung dung’. When you read phonetic Thai, you will see a number of different spellings for the same words. This fact makes it difficult initially, as you are never really sure if you are reading the same word with two different spellings or two different words entirely. Since there is no one-to-one correspondence between the Thai and English alphabets, for example ‘w’ and ‘v’ are represented by the same symbol in Thai, this complication adds to the difficulty of learning Thai. 4 Helping Farangs Most Thais are very kind when meeting farangs who are trying hard to speak Thai. If you meet a farang (such as me), feel free to correct his speech, but also try to imagine what he is trying to say from the given context. Realize that farangs can usually not pronounce tones correctly. If you are talking about parents, realize that the "mae" the farang is trying to say is "mother" not "wood". Help out and speak loudly and clearly. Try exaggerating tones too. Another point is that many temple names in Thai are extremely difficult for farangs to say and remember. To farangs some of the names are overwhelmingly long, and, in general, the names can not be used in casual conversation. In the time I could learn the name of one temple, I could learn five new Thai vocabulary words that I would use in every day speech. Thus, when giving directions, try to use landmarks other than temples, as farangs (without maps) often do not know where temples are located. Also, when speaking with farangs, try to restrict your speech to "small" words and "common" words. If you can speak in the subset of vocabulary that the farang knows, you can still communicate well. Every so often, throw in a new word, but don't use too many new words, or the conversation will not be able to flow. 5 Private Tutor One of the best decisions that I made in trying to learn Thai was to hire a private tutor. My tutor, Toey, and I work well together. Find a tutor like Toey who is flexible and will adapt lesson plans to your needs. I met with Toey about five times per week for two hours each session. Her expert pronunciation, encouragement, and lesson plans really helped me to learn to speak Thai. We are now writing a book together called Essential Conversational Thai. In that book we will cover many things that we discovered together about how to teach and learn Thai effectively. 6 Summary Learning to speak Thai has been immensely rewarding to me. I have enjoyed many great conversations with people from all over Thailand and learned a great deal more about culture than I would have learned if I had not been able to speak Thai. It has been difficult learning Thai, and at times highly frustrating, but both the student and the native speaker must be patient and cooperative. With discipline and hard work, the rewards that can be achieved by learning to speak Thai are immense. In my case many good friends patiently listened to me trying to speak Thai and generously offered their help. Along the way, I helped them to improve their English. My next step will be to learn to read Thai, and eventually, I hope to learn to write Thai.
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