Some Thoughts on Learning the Thai Language by thailandlawcenter


									         Some Thoughts on Learning the Thai Language


                             Raymond Greenlaw
                              Fulbright Scholar
                       Department of Computer Science
                           Chiang Mai University

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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