Duke Thai Language School: Materials Review

Duke Language School

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Duke Thai Language School’s updated materials…

When I first wrote the review for Duke Thai Language School I mentioned they were a Union Clone version 2.0 type of school. By that I meant they used the Union methodology and format albeit with new re-vamped, re-written text books. That has changed.

After more than a year in the making, Duke Language School’s new conversational Thai material is done and currently being taught. These were the books that Bingo (Arthit Juyaso) poured his blood, sweat and tears into writing from scratch. They are IMHO, the best, most comprehensive and information filled books on Thai conversation I’ve ever seen being taught in any school! They’re broken into three books (modules).

Journey 1: Survival “Practical Thai for everyday life”…

Duke Language School

The essential tools you need to survive in this country and go about your business independently. This coursebook covers the following topics:

  • Understanding the sound system and the numbers of the Thai language.
  • Introducing yourself, greeting and saying goodbye.
  • Getting a taxi and giving simple directions.
  • Buying street food.
  • Asking for directions inside a building.
  • Using public transportation and talking about locations.
  • Ordering food and solving difficult situations at a restaurant.
  • Buying clothes and describing colours, shapes and sizes.
  • Telling time and making appointments.
  • Getting a haircut and expressing degrees.
  • Buying things and using services at convenience stores.
  • Buying medicines and describing symptoms.
  • Solving communication breakdowns.
  • Talking about personal life.
  • Starting and holding a casual chit-chat in Thai.

Total number of unique words: 764
Core vocabulary (essential words): 584

As you can see these first 15 lessons teach you the survival Thai you’ll need. It provides a great foundation vocabulary which you will build on in the subsequent modules. In many ways learning a language is like building a house. IF you don’t start with a good foundation your house will be rickety and unstable. It’s the same with learning Thai, a good solid foundation is needed to build on.

Journey 2: Conversational “The basics of communicative Thai”…

Duke Language School


Develop your understanding of the Thai language and learn to say exactly what you want to say. This coursebook covers the following topics:

  • Expressing frequency, quantity, and number-related concepts.
  • Describing things using adjectives and expressing degrees.
  • Expressing similarities, differences, and comparing things.
  • Understanding the concept of Thai time expression.
  • Talking about people’s appearance and personality.
  • Describing directions of movements and changes of things.
  • Expressing perceptions, emotions, and feelings.
  • Talking about your skills and abilities, and the limit of them.
  • Giving instruction, expressing order or events, and describing purpose of things.
  • Making requests and commands.
  • Offering suggestions and expressing opinions.
  • Describing actions and consequences, causes and effects.
  • Making guesses and talking about probability.
  • Expressing likes and dislikes.
  • Talking about future plans, expectations and hopes.

Total number of unique words: 602
Core vocabulary (essential words): 497

This book is where you take the survival Thai from the previous module and start the building process from basic to more advanced structure. You learn to construct more complex sentences as well as how to sound more like a Thai when you say things. This last point is critical when trying to get Thais to understand you. The more you can say things which Thais are used to hearing, the better their comprehension of what you’re saying is.

Journey 3: Fluency “Real Thai in cultural context”…

Duke Language School

Learn about different aspects of Thai culture to help you speak Thai in a natural way with confidence. This coursebook covers the following topics:

  • Extended family and kinship terms.
  • Social status and its impact on Thai pronouns.
  • Understanding “face” and “greeng jai”.
  • Regions of Thailand and Thai dialects.
  • Thai food and table etiquette.
  • Buddhism in Thailand.
  • Ghosts, spirits, and superstitions.
  • Thai ceremonies and rituals.
  • Thai festivals and national holidays.
  • Thai entertainment, arts, and pop culture.
  • Formal Thai in formal situations.
  • Understanding “sabaai-sabaai” attitude.
  • Thai slangs, idioms, and proverbs.
  • Thai pride, and an introduction to Thai history.
  • Cross-cultural topics and discussions.

Total number of unique words: 607
Core vocabulary (essential words): 402

In reviewing the material in this book I was taken aback at just how many “fox-paws” (faux pas) I’ve made here in regards to the way I speak Thai (which I call “Todz-Thai”). I was shocked at how little I let Thai cultural restrictions during interactions affect how I speak Thai. I almost felt sad (for a second), for some of the Thai people I’ve interacted with over the years. Reading this book certainly gave me a much deeper understanding of language’s cultural aspects. It made me see that in order to really understand how the language works you need to invest a good portion of time understanding Thai culture which impacts how the language is used.

Duke Language School: Journey 1-3…

The books are character and situation driven, which is a trend we’re starting to see by more and more thai language schools. What sets this material apart from the rest is the supplemental material which is interspersed within each lesson. They touch on everything from culture, fun facts and interesting tidbits of how the language goes together. In all the years I’ve been touring Thai language schools, this is some of the best material I’ve ever seen.

It also seems that they’re not resting on their laurels with just these books and have plans for more – Explore 2, 3, and Discover. Explore 3 in particular, is all about learning Thai through media, e.g. Facebook, blogs, ads, emails, letters, articles, songs, video clips, movies, etc. It’s contemporary and shows how Thai is used in a multi-media context today. As far as I know, no other Thai language school has such a course. Explore 3 will be the link that connects the Journey series (speaking) with Explore (reading & writing) before moving on to Discover (the advanced levels).

I’m behind this paradigm shift in how Thai is taught to foreigner 100%. Gone are the pages and pages of straight text and in its place are interesting, relevant, contemporary presentations of the Thai language to non-native learners.

Three thumbs up!

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com
Reviewing Thai Language Schools in Bangkok
(BTW: Tod is NOT affiliated with any Thai language school)

9 thoughts on “Duke Thai Language School: Materials Review”

  1. I am a native English speaker from the United States. I don’t know every single possible word in existence in my own language. It does not mean I am not fluent. 😉

  2. I’ve studied applied linguistics at masters level so I don’t need to search the internet for information on this. The example I gave was to illustrate that someone with a vocabulary of only 2000 words wouldn’t be able understand a fairly basic question. So they’d have to come back with ‘Sorry, I don’t understand the word ‘opinion” and ‘Sorry, what does ‘pollution’ mean?’ Maybe they’d get there in the end but that’s clearly not someone who is fluent. More generally, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that someone would have either the language knowledge or the speaking and listening skills to be fluent after 3 60 hour courses. A ‘fluent speaker’ is at CEFR level C1 which takes on average over 800 hours of guided study.

  3. If a fluent speaker doesn’t know the word ‘opinion’, he may describe it as ‘what I think’. If he doesn’t know the word ‘pollution’, he may describe it as ‘when your city/country has so many dirty things’ which in turn will prompt the native speaker to tell him that the word for that is ‘pollution’, and he will learn a new word and use it next time. And his vocabulary grows.

    I realise now that you’re arguing on the point about what ‘fluency’ is and you may have your own definition. Without wanting to sound facetious (but I’d like to make my point), according to OED, fluency means ‘The ability to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately’ and also ‘The ability to express oneself easily and articulately’, which the person in my examples would be able to do perfectly well without having to know big words beforehand. On the other hand, he is able to utilise the words and grammar that he knows to convey a wide range of thoughts. And with just about 2000 words in Thai, 2000 high-frequency, high-relevance words in Thai with a good grasp of grammar, a fluent person will be able to discuss almost anything he wishes to say. 80% is everything if you’re a resourceful learner.

    However, since this is Tod’s review of our coursebooks and the discussion here should be about them. I don’t wish to debate on the definition of one word we use in the title of one of the books. Besides, there have been numerous debates on what ‘language fluency’ actually is. (Hint: it’s inconclusive). You can find more information on the topic on the Internet.

  4. Well, the clothes seller can sell clothes well because it’s what they do every day. But ask them their opinion on the latest corruption scandal and they’d be stumped because they don’t have the vocabulary to deal with that topic. ‘I think him no good’ isn’t fluency. Fluency is the ability to converse on the full range of topics that form the everyday conversation of native speakers. Of course there’s more to it than vocabulary but a decent vocabulary is a prerequisite.

    The 80% thing you mentioned is meaningless. You can say to someone ‘I’d like to get your opinion on the pollution in Bangkok’ but if they didn’t understand the words ‘opinion’ and ‘pollution’ they wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about, even though they understood 80% of the words in the question.

    Why not just be honest and call it a pre-intermediate course instead of misleading people with claims of fluency?

  5. Hi Matthew,

    Fluency is a reflection of the fluidity of your language usage, the naturality of your speech, how much you can comprehend when spoken to by native speakers, the cultural background knowledge that fills in gaps in your linguistic repertoire. The number of words you know is only a part of the whole. From my experience, a student may know around a 1000 words and be considered quite fluent by Thais if the 1000 words they know are the 1000 most frequently used words which makes up around 80% of the daily communication, and the 20% that they don’t know, they can describe the meaning of what they want to say using the words they know. I know a few educated Thai people who pride themselves in knowing so many big words in English but when it comes to actually speaking it they can’t even string a sentence together half as well as a clothes seller on Silom road.

    Unfortunately, the coursebooks are not sold separately. You will have to study with us, it’s what the books are intended for 😉

  6. NEWS FLASH: Sadly (for everyone who’s asked), these new text books from Duke Thai Language School are NOT sold as a stand-alone learning resource. So, while I hate to be the bearer of bad news, unless you sign up for a class you’re not gonna get your hands on them.

    The reasoning behind this is; the way these books were designed to be used and the way they’re taught in the school make them much more valuable in a classroom setting. It’s not the fact there’re no audio files which make them unsuitable as a self-learning resource. It’s the fact that the teacher (not the student) needs to be trained in how to teach with this material and effectively use all the supplemental tidbits included in every lesson. All of Duke’s teachers go thru quite an extensive training process to learn how teach with these new books. These books are leaps and bounds different from the Union Method 2.0 Duke was teaching before.

    The new books are far more interactive with a lot of information which is supplied by the teachers in every lesson which helps the material be easily understood, be retained and able to be applied and used too!

  7. Matthew – Quantity is not everything. You could memorize 4000 words and still speak like a beginner if you don’t know how to form proper sentences or use the right words based on the situation and context.

    The books are only sold to students enrolled in a course.

  8. Looks very promising. I am happy that there are finally alternatives for the old union books. I hope that someday there will also be alternatives for the higher level books.

  9. 2000 words for fluency? That’s a bit misleading. I already know at least 3000 words but don’t consider myself anywhere near fluent. Why do language schools insist on making these wildly unrealistic claims?

    Having said that I’d like to go through book 3 on my own or with a friend to brush up. Do they sell it separately?


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