IMPORTANT POINTS IN LEARNING THAI
I think one of the important things that we learn in any journey of learning something is simply ‘how to learn’. No, I don’t think I’m stating the obvious here. You may have an IQ level equivalent to Einstein’s and you may have the very best learning resources at your disposal however if you don’t really know what you’re doing nor where you’re headed, you’re either not going to go very far or you’ll go very far all right, but down the wrong path (and get lost in the process). On my journey, I’ve made some observations (eight main ones to be exact, like an eight-fold path of Thai language learning) that I think have really contributed to my learning process and I would like to share them here with you, my fellow journeymen.
IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER ONE
Before even thinking about output, serious learners need to get a lot of quality input. One hundred words learned well will always trump one thousand words badly learned and hastily memorized.
I think that all serious learners should concentrate on getting lots and lots of quality input before even thinking about output. If you start speaking and writing too early, before you have collected and assimilated enough quality input then you will only be developing and reinforcing bad habits. It is more difficult to unlearn bad habits than it is to develop good ones. This concept applies to all languages, not just Thai. This brings me to the point that each of us has a native language. This is a fact and your native language will always be there regardless of whether or not you like it, regardless of whether or not you use it.
In terms of learning Thai, instead of letting your native language (in this blog I’m operating on the basis that your native language is English) be a ‘backseat driver’ interfering and distracting you as the driver, move your native language (English) up front, beside you and be your navigator (think the Dakar Rally). It’s a good idea to always use your native language as a reference point. If you are evaluating an approach or a concept, it is natural to think of whether or not you would do the same thing in your own native language. Use this!
Could you speak and write as soon as you were born? If you answered in the affirmative, you need to go to Area 51 right now. The answer is ‘No’, obviously. Think about how much quality input you absorbed before you started speaking. Wasn’t it like being in a two or three year intensive immersion course with live in native speaking tutors (your parents and/or other family members)? And when you started speaking you literally took ‘baby’ steps, didn’t you? You probably started by making some caveman type sound to show that you’re hungry and that you wanted some chow. Maybe something like ‘Mahm mahm’. It certainly won’t be something like ‘You know what Mother, I think I’m actually beginning to feel a little famished so if you don’t mind, I would like to have lunch served now. Thank you ever so much. You are the most wonderful mother, Mother’. You get the point.
In Thai, context is king and Thais are kings in catching meaning from context.
Yet why do so many foreign learners insist on speaking (and writing) Thai before they are ready to do so? If you only say one Thai word and you get it wrong, it is infinitely easier for Thais around you to correct you compared to your spewing out thirty Thai words in a foreign tone and in a thick foreign accent, right? In Thai, context is king and Thais are kings in catching meaning from context. They need only catch one or two words from out of your thirty and they’d understand you. Now, be honest. Were you really speaking Thai?
If the situation were reversed and a Thai who has just started learning English had just spewed out thirty English words using Thai tones and in a thick Thai accent. There are more words in the English lexicon compared to Thai and in a broad sense English is more ‘precise’. This means that the correct word choice would greatly reduce reliance on context to fill in the blanks should the meaning to be conveyed not be clear. English speakers used to precise sentences are in a sense ‘spoilt’ and do not need to rely on context too much to make out the meaning. The short of it is, it is unlikely that you will understand what the Thai has said. You would not consider that speaking English then, would you? Your natural response would be that the Thai has a lot more to learn and that he or she should just stop speaking until … you get the idea. So the million dollar question is: why can’t we practice what we preach?
Foreigners who speak and write terribly ask me for advice on how to improve their spoken and written Thai. They tell me that they are at a ‘high advanced to fluent’ level because each sentence they speak or write has more than five words in it and all Thais ‘understand’ what they say and write. Yes, to answer your question, it was extremely difficult to suppress a guffaw when I heard that. When I answered in all seriousness, that the first thing they needed to do was to STOP speaking and writing, they got all hot and bothered and thought that I was trying to be a wise guy. It’s never too late to go back to the basics. ‘One hundred words WELL learnt will always trump one thousand words badly learnt and hastily memorized’, is what I always say.
The takeaway here should be, if you can’t speak and write WELL (do go get an honest assessment) then stop (or at least greatly reduce them). Go back to the basics and when you’re ready (do go get an honest assessment), start again. Mistakes are fantastic teachers.
IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER TWO
We need to understand the culture if we are to understand the language. For example, study what Thais of a similar status to you would say or do in any given situation.
It is imperative that we have the right mindset if we want to excel in Thai. I am assuming that as non-beginners you already have a working knowledge of Thai culture. Now, with reference to Important Point Number One, if we were to use English and Western Culture as our reference points, we would think that for a foreign learner (a Thai learning English) to have the right mindset for learning, the Thai should always ask the right questions including:
- What would a westerner do (or not do) in this type of situation?
- What would a westerner say (or not say) in this type of situation?
Due to political, sociological and historical reasons, blah blah blah, there are many ‘dialects’ in each and every country in this world but there is usually one so-called ‘national’ or ‘standard’ language adopted. Say that in your country, at least thirty dialects are spoken and you speak dialect number say fourteen in that list. When you were in school, you were taught and you learnt the ‘standard’ language of your country. If the Thai is your friend, would you want him/her to learn dialect number fourteen on account of it being ‘authentic spoken language’ because you and everybody around you use it in your everyday life or would you want him to learn the ‘standard’ language as it would be more widely understood?
Officially, it is a politically correct notion that all societies are now ‘classless’. Unofficially though, we all know that some form of ‘class’ separation and discrimination still exists. Some argue that this is more evident in Asian societies. Thailand, as part of Asia, is no exception. If you were aware that your Thai friend belongs to what would be considered a higher echelon of Thai society, wouldn’t you want him to learn the type of ‘standard’ language used by the more educated demographic of your society? When you have learnt the ‘higher’ form of a language, it is easier to later dial it back to a ‘lower’ form of the language when you want to do that. This doesn’t really work the other way around. Just think of a well-educated CEO of a Fortune 500 company and an uneducated laborer and you get the idea.
The takeaway here should be that many Thais mean well and will usually want you to learn Central Thai, which is the ‘standard’ Thai used in Thailand. I’d take it as a compliment of the highest order if your Thai friend or close one wants you speaking and writing Thai like อภิสิทธ์ เวชชาชีวะ (commonly spelt by Thais as ‘Abhisit Vejjajiva’). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about politics here, just the language capabilities of the man.
The takeaway here is that a foreigner learning Thai should always ask the right questions including:
- What would a Thai do (or not do) in this type of situation?
- What would a Thai say (or not say) in this type of situation?
It goes without saying that the Thai here should be someone who is quite close to you in status and whose language capabilities you wish to emulate.
IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER THREE
To help you understand why some things are the way they are in the Thai language, study the concept of Thainess. Two important points to consider are 1) being the ideal citizen (even if only superficially) and 2) face.
As first mentioned above in Important Point Number Two, you need to learn the culture if you want to successfully learn and use the language. You do not have to BE a Thai in order to speak like a Thai. If you understand the culture, this will help you understand the people and how they think. This will help you understand why some things are just NOT said and/or done, why some things ARE said and/or done, and why some things are said in a rather ‘open-ended’ way. But just understanding those things is not enough. That is just the beginning. You will then need to find a happy middle ground in bridging the intercultural gap, by adjusting the way you act (or not act), the level of Thai you use and your choice of words.
A general understanding of the concept of ‘Thainess’ will help you understand why some things are the way they are in the language.
While Western and Asian notions of society and politics do share a number of similarities, there are still areas where they are different. To many westerners, Asian society in general is quite hierarchical and normally place way too much emphasis on the community and the concept of the ‘ideal citizen’. So it is like, there is this ideal citizen that everyone should emulate. The ideal citizen knows his place in society, is loyal to God, Ruler and country, is filial, is educated, is always polite, earns an honest living, always tries to give back to the community and is generally to all intents and purposes, a morally good person.
Now most Asian states expect all their citizens to not only BE ideal citizens but to ACT and BEHAVE as such. So in this sense, even if you do not personally think that you are an ideal citizen, you are expected to put on the ‘face’ of an ideal citizen. If every citizen does this then the entire country will have the ‘face’ of an ideal country. So the concept of ‘face’ is extremely important and prominent in Asia. Thailand is part of Asia, and therefore the concept of ‘face’ is important in Thailand. No doubt, you would already be familiar with a number of หน้า words related to this concept. A general understanding of the concepts of the ‘ideal citizen’ and ‘face’ will help you understand a bit about the concept of ‘Thainess’ and ‘face’ in Thailand and this in turn will help you understand why some things are the way they are in the language.
IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER FOUR
To understand the face of Thai education, first learn how to crawl (formal Central Thai) before you learn how to walk (casual Thai).
Many fellow Thai journeymen (who are NOT beginners) have complained that the Thai taught in Thai language schools are too rigid and formal and not at all the same as ‘street’ Thai (or the Thai that Thais use with other Thais, especially those they are close to).
Now that we have covered Important Point Number Three, it is easier to understand why this is the case. Thai language schools (especially those licensed by the Ministry of Education), seeing as they are the ‘face’ of Thai education, is more or less required to teach formal Central Thai. Central Thai is considered as ‘standard’ Thai, the national language of Thailand.
Thais complain about the same thing when it comes to learning English. They are taught ‘it is not’, ‘going to’ and ‘want to’ and then find out the hard way that many native English speakers use ‘it ain’t’, ‘gonna’ and ‘wanna’ instead with other native English speakers, especially those they are close to.
You crawled around before you started to walk. You walked around before you started to run. You get the idea. You learn formal Thai before you learn street Thai.
IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER FIVE
Keeping abreast with groupthink is important (not just what’s popular today, but who you can use it with) because then you’ll be clued into what’s currently a fad in the Thai language.
We have looked at the importance of the concepts of ‘ideal citizen’ and ‘face’ in Asia. Another important concept is ‘groupthink’. In Asia, and again Thailand is no exception, a lot of emphasis is placed on the importance of the community or society as a whole, compared to one individual. The ideal citizen is expected to conform. When such concepts get deeply ingrained, a very broad form of groupthink starts to take hold in society and this applies to the national language as well. Say that the media in Thailand has spread a particular usage of a word or phrase. As soon this usage ‘captures the imagination’ of the people (in Thai we say ติดปากคนไทย), groupthink will apply.
If you know of and can apply this usage, you are one with the crowd. If you try to stretch the boundaries of the usage too much (it also depends on who you are in society) then it is deemed that your usage is wrong and that you are not one with the crowd. Popular usages are like trends. They come and go, so you need to follow the current trends. The important question that we need to ask when learning a new word or phrase is: “is this still current?” If the word or phrase has ตกรุ่นไปแล้ว, then you may want to know it just to be aware of its meaning but not use it.
As non-beginners you’ve now wised up to the fact that most of the praises with เก่ง in them, that Thais hurled your way when you first started speaking Thai, were more for your having taken the effort to speak Thai and not your Thai language skills (or lack thereof). When you speak Thai to Thais and they are เฉย ๆ, no hurling of praises, no shocked looks, then you are doing fine.
On a related point, there is no doubt that you are also aware that Asians love to laugh at everything. So expect lots of laughter when you speak Thai, laugh along and don’t take things too seriously. The goal should be to get Thais to do more laughing WITH you, than at you. 555555
IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER SIX
Loanwords and loan phrases often sound similar, but that does not mean that they will have the exact same essence in Thai. Always be aware that groupthink determines the final outcome.
What is ‘L1 interference with acquisition of L2’?
For those of you who do not already know the answer, please allow me to oversimplify. Think of English as being a horse (let us assume that English is your first language or mother tongue), and Thai as an elephant (Thai is either a second or foreign language for you). Here, English is L1 and Thai is L2.
Do you think that you would be able to use the skeletal structure of the horse, but harvest the organs of the elephant for transplant into the body of the horse?
Take an organ, the heart for example. Sure they may have the same basic function of pumping blood but does this mean that the horse’s heart and the elephant’s heart is EXACTLY the same in every way? No. So sometimes a word or phrase in Thai may look similar to a word or phrase in English, in fact it may even be a loanword. But just because it looks similar, does not mean that it will have the exact same meaning or meanings.
Have you ever stopped to consider that the loaning of words is not a formal process? The governments of two countries agree to the loaning of some words, then the top language scholars of both countries sit down together to thresh out the exact details of said loaning. Say that anenglishword is an English word (see what I’ve done?). Say that the English dictionary meaning of anenglishword is ‘to eat’. Say Somchai’s total exposure to the English language is…zero, but he has just been exposed to anenglishword and he understands it to mean ‘to fornicate’. Say that through a set of unforeseen and miraculous circumstances, maybe a female soap opera star uses anenglishword, the way Somchai did, in her video and the video then goes viral.
Groupthink applies and anenglishword is now a Thai word meaning to fornicate. Granted, this is an extreme example but you get the picture. Imagine scenes of total mayhem as English speakers get hot under the collar at this travesty done to THEIR beloved language and try to convince Thais that anenglishword only means to eat. Meaning that even if anenglishword has been widely used in all forms of media for six months, then all of it must be erased. The whole thing never happened. The huge memory eraser in Men In Black, you know the one in the Statue of Liberty, must be used to erase the word from the minds of all who have misunderstood the true meaning of anenglishword. All of this would be funny but for the sad truth that some form or another of this phenomenon still goes on in the real world.
Compared to Thai, English is the older language. There are of course, languages older than English. There is always a chance that a number of words in a younger language may have been ‘inspired’ by words in an older one. The important thing to understand is that once a word enters the lexicon of a language (it may have been borrowed outright or inspired by a word in an older language whether directly or indirectly), it belongs to that language. As soon as it enters the lexicon of a language, it has a life of its own. It may retain a meaning similar to or even totally different from the ‘source’ word (the anenglishword scenario above is a good example) or have its meaning extended to take on additional meanings. This is natural as it now belongs to another country, another culture. Do not be so quick to say that another country has ‘stolen’ your country’s words before looking at the number of loanwords that are in your country’s lexicon.
IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER SEVEN
Understand that your English ways (accent and grammar) can interfere in the Thai learning process. To head this problem off, spend time studying the porosity of real spoken Thai.
We have looked at how English loanwords may interfere with the Thai learning process of an English native speaker learning Thai as a second or foreign language. ‘English speak’ and English grammar structure will also interfere in the Thai learning process. The English native speaker will usually carry on using ‘English speak’, using the prosody (think melody and rhythm) and intonation of English but substituting Thai words for the English words. It’s as if you are singing an English song but with Thai lyrics. Some call this form of speaking Thai as ‘Farang Thai’, but it is something that applies to all speakers of English and not limited to just Caucasians. So I prefer to call it ‘English Thai’, or just ‘ET’. I call authentic spoken Thai spoken naturally as native Thai speakers would, ‘Thai Thai’, or just ‘TT’.
The way that Thais speak English using the prosody and intonation of Thai, will be called ‘Tinglish’.
It is assumed that you are familiar with the concept of เกรงใจ. You’d probably have found out the hard way by now, that Thais will normally not want to correct your Thai. As you aware, Thai is a language that is quite context dependent to ascertain meaning. So even if you are speaking ‘ET’, your tones are not quite there and/or your word choices are off, Thais will probably still understand you and do not see any pressing need to correct you (and as discussed above, the more words there are, the more difficult it is to correct meaningfully).
Many Thais have also complained to me in private that some intermediate and above level learners get quite defensive when it comes to any attempts to correct their Thai. I understand that some non-beginners have been disillusioned before and maybe had to learn (and re-learn) many things on their own. All of this may very well produce an independent-minded learner who is rather prejudiced towards native speakers. I think that we just need to be more sophisticated in the way that we use Thais close to us and/or around us to help us in our Thai language learning, that is we should learn to use them in the RIGHT way. We may need to be honest, look at our situation and decide whether or not it may have been just a case of รำไม่ดีโทษปี่โทษกลอง.
Style of questioning to avoid: “How do you say [English word] in Thai?” I think that this approach may make Thais feel that they are nothing more than glorified interpreters and/or translators and you would have lost a valuable opportunity to learn something more about Thai culture. You should consider giving them the chance to tell you whether or not Thais would even say something like that. If you were to instead ask, “In the situation where , what would a Thai normally do? What would a Thai usually say?” And you’re willing to take on board what the answers are, you would learn more about Thai culture as it relates to the language. If you really feel the need to ‘test’ your own word or phrase or sentence, then you may want to distance yourself from it by asking something along the lines of “If a dumb foreigner were to say something like this: , it probably wouldn’t go down too well, huh?!”
As a non-beginner you would have found out the hard way that ‘face’ usually prevents many Thais from admitting that they do not know something or to admit they were wrong if they told you something that turned out to be wrong. Add to this the penchant to correct foreigners, and you begin to understand why many non-beginners decide to really get into the Thai language so that this kind of things never happen to them again and they could even take ‘revenge’ in some way against those who have perpetrated the ‘wrongs’ on them. Seriously? I wouldn’t consider this a positive mindset for learning Thai.
I don’t think that I need remind you that Asians may smile a lot, they may laugh a lot, they may be willing to forget once in a while BUT they normally find it extremely difficult to truly forgive. So a deep knowledge of the Thai language and Thai culture, when used properly, is a powerful tool that will enable to you to achieve a lot of things that others are unable to do and along the way forge and preserve many wonderful and lifelong relationships. Such knowledge should not be used as a ‘weapon’ for you to ‘show power’ to Thais.
IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER EIGHT
Try to keep an open mind during this Thai language learning journey. Be prepared to consider surprising and sometimes opposing views.
I love everything Thai and I have such a passion for the Thai language. I do not consider myself an expert and this is why the theme of my blog is to liken the process of learning Thai language and culture as an ongoing journey. I want you to ride along with me and I hope that we will have some fun during our journey.
For a smoother ride, let’s concentrate on enjoying the journey itself and not overly concern ourselves with the issue of destinations.
As well, let’s avoid becoming obsessed with having a definitive conclusion for everything Thai. Be prepared to open your mind to surprising and sometimes opposing views.
An important part of The Approach involves having workable propositions and then ‘testing’ the said propositions as we continue our learning process. So what we’ll each do is take away some different views from each discussion that we can then keep in mind as we continue to learn and use Thai. When we are ready (when we have enough knowledge and experience), we will be able to draw our own conclusions.
And that my fellow journeymen, is a surefire way to learn (and remember) the correct meaning and usage of the Thai language along with the relevant Thai cultural points.