This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Did one method stand out over all others?…
Some get downright religious about their language learning method of choice. Me? Well. With so many fun methods to write about, I need jump from one to another. And whenever I come across a new (to me) method, the idea that “this will be THE magic fix” taunts me (but only for a bit).
Ranging from commercial products to systems dreamed up by polyglots and others, there are all sorts of ways to learn Thai: Assimil Thai, AUA, audio, FSI Thai, grammar translation, immersion, Pimsleur Thai, L-Lingo, LAMP, Learn Thai Podcast, Linguaphone Thai, Luca’s Easy Way, one-on-one, Paiboon, reading, Silent Way, Situational, Rosetta Stone, Skype, Shadowing, smart phone apps, Speak Your Language, SRS, Teach Yourself Thai, Total Physical Response, TPR Storytelling, TV, classroom… whew.
But do you know what? After reading through this series, seems to me the most successful are those who didn’t flaff around. They just got on with their Thai studies.
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Aaron: I find it difficult to separate the idea of “learning how to learn” from actually learning to speak Thai. I stumbled upon the best method (for me) through a process of trial and error. At first, I ‘picked up’ a little bit of Thai just by traveling in Thailand. Occasionally, I listened to the tapes that Nók and I made. After a few months in Thailand, I could only say a few phrases. My pronunciation was not very good.
I think it was on my second or third trip to Thailand that I made my big breakthrough. I was up in Mâe Săi during the rainy season. It rained all day, everyday. I rented a room for one month. I had assembled the tools to learn Thai. I had a good book with tone marks on every syllable. I had the Thai tapes that Nók and I had made. And I had motivation. I was inspired by the friendliness and generosity of Thai people. I was intrigued by the language and the culture. I told myself, “I’m going to try this. I’m going to learn to speak Thai.” I locked myself in the room for 30 days, going out only for food and water. I drilled the tapes as I read the text. Drill! Say it again. No, that’s not right. Do it again! Drill again, with better pronunciation. Focus on the tone. Even if it is only one syllable, drill that tone again and again.
After 30 days, I emerged from my room, pale and exhausted. Had I learned anything? Yes. Although I didn’t realize it yet, I had broken the tonal barrier. I learned most of the Thai that I now speak, during those 30 days.
Aaron Le Boutillier
Aaron: Helping as a translator at the Local Police Station was the wake up call. There you sink and die if your Thai is not up to speed and the added embarrassment of looking silly in front of a group of tourists and police is enough incentive to study harder.
Adam: After learning the basics, I found the best method to move to the next level was simply carrying a little notebook around and writing down words, phrases, and sentences that I heard come out of natives’ mouths. Also, if you ask any of my Thai friends they won’t hesitate to tell you that I would sit and ask them questions about the Thai language for hours sometimes. Having patient Thai friends was of great help to me in progressing my Thai.
Andrew: Immersion, immersion, immersion. Read the newspaper. Watch the hideous Thai soapies. Listen to Thai pop music. Sit quietly with your Thai friends as they open a bottle of whiskey and solve the world’s problems in three hours before passing out. This all helps.
Celia: Reading and writing really helped me speak clearer.
Christy: The main thing that helped me though was just speaking, speaking, speaking, and making mistakes. Thai friends were extremely helpful, and for awhile I just asked them constantly how to say things. Thais also, as Jonas said, are often very complimentary, but I asked Thai friends close to me to please correct my incorrect speech and pronunciation at every possible opportunity, and they did. These 2 methods helped me more than anything else—1. Speaking the language with native Thai speakers as often and as much as possible, and 2. Being willing to make mistakes and not be discouraged by them or daunted by the frequency with which I initially made them.
Chris Pirazzi: Tutoring and flashcards most useful.
Colin: I think language is all about learning acres of vocabulary but I have an awful memory. I learn all my word lists through convoluted mnemonic methods. I did the same thing when I was attempting to learn Japanese ideographs. I had elaborate stories for every stroke of the kanji. Thai was easy by comparison but, as a visual person, I needed to see the words and their meanings. So, for example, the word ‘jeep’ (to flirt) was accompanied in my notebook by the image of an amorous soldier in the back of a jeep attempting to pick up his female companion (in fact my cartoon was a lot dirtier than that but this is a family website). Not all words lend themselves to interpretation but I have a good imagination so I can still see the image of a severed hand on a plate whenever I think of the word ‘ahan’. Being weird helps with this method.
Daniel B Fraser
Daniel: Mimicking others for sure was best.
David: What struck me at the time, was not so much the method of the teaching but rather the attitude of my teachers, Manas Chitakasem, Peter Bee and Stuart Simmonds.
At school I had studied French and German to university entrance standard in an atmosphere of fear and trepidation, where mistakes were regarded as evidence of laziness, stupidity or moral turpitude. To then find teachers who were patient, encouraging and eager to share their knowledge was a radically new experience; I shall always feel grateful to them.
Doug: AAUA approach is most excellent, imho.
Gareth: I prefer learning through reading as it presents vocab and phrases in context, helps get your head around the writing structure, and deals with grammar.
Glenn: A turning point was when I traveled alone in Thailand for several months in 1997. Along with me I had a thin book Reading and Writing Thai by Marie-Hélène Brown (DK Books, out of print) that I studied each night wherever I was. This, combined with being spontaneously invited into homes to live with Thais throughout my trip—not speaking English for days at a time—led to the most dramatic increases in my Thai skills.
Grace: Being able to read and write with the Thai alphabet system is key to getting the correct pronunciation. Word association and drawing pictures also helped me!
Hamish: Criticism notwithstanding, I did find The Rosetta Stone the best for listening and speaking, mainly because it dispenses with transcription and translation. One goes directly from image to sound and back again, with no interference from English, the same way in which we learn our first language. Of course, nothing beats getting out there, talking to Thais, listening to Thais, replicating what you hear and not worrying if you make mistakes, so long as you learn from them. To help my writing I’ve just started experimenting with www.lang-8.com.
Hardie: Reading, then every time you walk down the street you have a lesson embedded in each and every sign, i.e. life is the lesson.
Herb: Most of my learning has been independent self-study, particularly with Northern Thai and Mien. When I had the opportunity for good instruction in Thai, I appreciated it and profited from it. I had a background in phonetics, anthropology, and linguistics which was a great help. I also had the opportunity for working during two summers as a junior staff member at a linguistic institute that taught principles of language and culture learning. So I am comfortable being an independent learner within a language community. However, I wouldn’t call my type of independent learning “picking up the language.” It was a more organized way to approach learning from local speakers, not a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants approach that tends to be more random and sporadic.
Hugh: When a caveman in Cave A wanted to trade his shells with a caveman across the valley in Cave B he probably had to learn to speak Caveman B’s language. I wonder what method he used.
Ian: Yes, cumulative lessons gradually adding to my repertoire of letters and tones, words and rules, and practice, practice, practice. Group study was better over one-on-one or self-study because I could learn from the other students’ mistakes and successes as well as the teacher.
James (Jim) Higbie
Jim: Keeping notebooks of vocabulary and phrases was the best method for me. I used to spend weekends at Ko Samet talking to people and writing down new things I heard them say.
Joe: Each had its strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve come to the conclusion that we learn language in spite the methods chosen, rather than because of them.
John: Not really, they’re all pieces of the puzzle.
Jonas: I have been lucky to be in situations which naturally enrich my Thai due to the requirements of the situation. This can involve a huge amount of pressure at the time—particularly if I have to use very challenging language with a small amount of preparation time, but those times end up being unique learning situations I am privileged to experience.
Jonathan: I would say, as with any language learning in my experience, a combination of several different methods is the most effective. To this end, I have always attempted to create an immersion-like experience when learning, and especially helpful is interaction with fluent speakers. Then again, just the four basic skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) are all important and are ignored only to one’s detriment. I have very much enjoyed my Professional Thai course at MIIS as it has been the most rigorous.
Justin Travis Mair
Justin: The sink or swim method and the SYL were the biggest things that helped me I think.
Larry: Initially, I got the basics through endless repetition through pattern practice and memorization.
Marcel: I need to write things down. Knowing the international phonetic system (learned when I studied English at school in France) helped a lot. I adapted it to Thai in my own way.
Mark: Well, I can only really comment on my studies at school as my prior attempts weren’t successful.
Except for one month, I’ve only had one-on-one tuition which I’ve enjoyed. The teachers were rotated periodically which gave variety to both the lessons and the learning approach. For the one month that I studied with another student I felt like I was holding him back – he was a Singaporean and, like many of his fellow countrymen, already a polyglot from growing up in a multicultural & multilingual society so I returned to one-to-one lessons.
Martin: The Fundamentals of the Thai language is an enigma, because it’s this quaint 1950s thing, doesn’t have any exercises or pictures, yet has a good sequence of pulling you through the language topic by topic, so by the end of it, one has mastered a basic form of the language, and yes, it teaches you to read and write.
Nils: The book Teach Yourself Thai was very useful. It contains sections on different situations, and I found the romanized script they used very intuitive. Before going out on early excursions, I would look up the vocabulary for the task I wanted to do in advance (giving directions to taxi drivers, buying fruit, and so on) and then go out and implement the knowledge.
I had one CD in particular which, though extremely limited, was very helpful for helping with basic vocabulary. I don’t remember the name, but it offered short quizzes on limited topics. Seeing scores like 8/10 stimulated me to re-do the tests and ‘nail them’.
Wanting to get the best in e-learning, I spent a lot of money getting Rosetta Stone, but with an instruction booklet in Thai and starting with phrases such as ‘The plane flies over the clouds’ or ‘The boy is under the table’ instead of ‘Where is the bank’ or even ‘Hello, how are you?’ I have few positive memories of that particular product. Besides, merely showing Thai script without giving explanations on the writing system is … not the best possible approach.
Paul: I think that it has been a mixture of all these methods that have gotten me to where I am today. I think that is how it works, you learn a bit here and a bit there.
Peter: I would recommend the U.S. Foreign Service Institute courses, which our Peace Corps training was modeled on. A lot of the phrases are old-fashioned, but they are dead-on accurate, you can download them as pdf files, and the pronunciation guides are perfect. There are sound files for the lessons, too!
Cat, I noticed that you are involved in a project to revitalize this right now on thailanguagewiki.com. Not complete yet in that form, but a worthy project. Memorize that stuff, do the pattern practices, and you’ve got a great foundation. If you have a teacher to take you through it, but it can be done on one’s own if needed.
There are several English/Thai dictionaries in electronic format that I have found indispensable. Besides Glenn Slayden’s wonderful work on thai-language.com, you can download a multi-university academic project called Lexitron (the English page). It’s free, but you’ll have to create an account in order to download it to your own machine. Download both the program and the data file. When installing or opening it on a Windows machine you’ll have to set your computer’s regional and language settings to Thai, or you won’t be able to see it properly. Once it’s open, you can switch back to whatever other setting you use, and it will work fine.
I also use So Sethaputra’s Thai Software Dictionary, which has a lot of inaccuracies, but a tremendous amount of useful information. You can buy the cd for a ridiculously low price at DCO. The advantage of having the electronic format is that you can just type in a word, and it will come right up, not nearly as hard as looking through the pages of a thick book.
When I was in Peace Corps we had a great Thai writing workbook—can’t remember the name—which is obviously now out of print. It took you through all the rules, high, low, mid consonants, live and dead syllables, tone marks used with which, how and when, exceptions, etc., and step-by-step exercises until you finally got it. You can find these rules all in Mary Haas’ The Thai System of Writing, and it’s amazing to me that this was written over 60 years ago and yet still remains the clearest description I can find in English of the rules you need to understand.
Rick: No. I think it is a mistake to stick to a single method. Apart from the boredom factor, I find myself learning different things through different methods. There’s some cross-fertilization at play if you employ multiple learning strategies.
Rikker: I still carry pocket notebooks sometimes, because I still run into new and interesting words on a regular basis.
Ryan: I had a really great first Thai teacher at the University of Wisconsin, Sidhorn Sangdhanoo. She did a good job of drilling the sounds of the language into our heads. She wouldn’t let us get away with doing something wrong. If our tones, consonants, or vowels weren’t right we had to keep repeating something until we got it. Thai people often tell me that my pronunciation is very clear, and if that’s actually true then I owe it to her.
Scott: I think getting familiar with the letters and then learning the alphabet, is a very good way to start. However, casually chatting with people (online, and talking to people you meet everywhere) is the best way to build confidence in both writing and speaking.
Stickman: I firmly believe that most Westerners learn better – and make more progress – in a classroom environment where you learn from both the teacher and other students. Too many Westerners either elect to study with a teacher one on one or are misled into thinking that one on in instruction is the best approach. It isn’t! One on one teaching is not easy and requires a different skill set from the teacher. I have yet to even hear of a really effective one on one teacher. It also requires the student to be highly motivated, which may or may not be the case with foreigners learning Thai.
I would implore anyone who really wants to develop their Thai language skills to study at one of the better language institutes in Bangkok in a classroom setting and Union and Unity both come to mind. I truly believe that learning at one of these schools in a classroom environment is so much more effective than any other method – and the costs are very reasonable with a one-month course, meaning 80 odd hours instruction, for under 7,000 baht. You cannot complain at that!
Stuart (Stu) Jay Raj
Stu: ‘Method’ was living my life in Thai.
Terry: When I got in country, I immediately started using my tape recorder. That is how I learned to read. Once I mastered the alphabet and the tone rules, I jumped into the old Mary Haas reader, having previously taped students reading the texts. Within days I could look at long lines of text and see words instead of a jumble of letters needing decoding. Listening while reading also allowed me to see how the parts of sentences fit together.
What about writing Thai? I also used listening in learning to write. I would listen to a line of text and then try to write it out, making corrections after looking at the text.
Thomas: Ajarn Pat Sukatiparote, Roseville Minnesota-Private tutoring on Thai characters, vowels, reading, writing and spelling.
One on one tutoring with someone who has a strong background in teaching and has a command of the English language was key.
Tod: I have to say, of all the methods I’ve been exposed to learning the Thai language that ‘situational based’ learning is by far the one which provides me with the most bang-4-the-baht. By situational based I mean you learn sentence constructs based on the needs of a particular situation: post office, food court, doctor’s office, in a taxi, etc. These are things you do every day here, over and over, so getting a grasp on what you need to say and where you’re likely to say it is the ‘key’ to beginning to ‘unlock’ this country for a foreigner. Between that and constantly increasing your vocabulary in high frequency words, a person can do quite well.
Tom: Not really, I think the key is to use a wide variety of methods and to totally immerse yourself in the language and keep the learning process entertaining. I totally agree with Chris Pirazzi’s advice about the importance of ‘drilling’ the tricky sounds and this is exactly what we did in our first few weeks of Thai study at university.
So how about you? How do you learn best? Or… what are you doing to avoid learning Thai?
The series: Successful Thai Language Learners Compilation…
And here you have it, the rest of the series:
- Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners
- Contributors: Successful Thai Language Learners Compilation
- Interview Compilation: What Were Your Reasons for Learning Thai?
- Interview Compilation: Did You Learn Thai Right Away?
- Interview Compilation: What Was Your First Thai ‘Ah Hah!’ Moment?
- Interview Compilation: Did You Stick to a Regular Thai Language Study Schedule?
- Interview Compilation: What Language Learning Methods Did You Try?
- Interview Compilation: Did One Method Stand Out?
- Interview Compilation: How Do You Learn Languages?