This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?…
Collecting Thai language learning materials and language learning methods is a hobby of mine. The upside is that I know what’s going on with the Thai language learning industry. The downside? I have way too much fun Thai stuff to play with.
Scrolling through the materials mentioned below, a few resources stick out: The Fundamentals of the Thai Language, anything by Benjawan Poomsan Becker, AUA’s text books, Hibgie’s Thai Reference Grammar, Smyth’s Thai: An Essential Grammar, and Smyth’s Teach Yourself Thai. For schools, AUA came out on top.
There’s only one mention of learning Thai on a smart phone or iPad (my favourite method). But, it’s still early days yet. New Thai language apps are appearing monthly (I presently have around 120 apps to review) so I do expect coming interviews to note the trend.
If you are looking for a good resource to learn Thai online, check out Learn Thai from a White Guy. Upon entering your email, you'll get five free lessons to help you start learning to read Thai.
Aaron: Her name was Nók (pronounced with a high tone, it means “Bird”). She was neither a school nor a product, but rather a quiet young woman from a Vietnamese family. She lived in Nong Khai, near the MaeKong River. Her parents spoke very little Thai, but Nok’s Thai was perfect. She was university educated in Bangkok and understood that if you want to fully integrate into Thai society, you have to speak Thai like a Thai. She also seemed to have an instinct for teaching. She spoke slowly and clearly, but with a natural conversational sound.
Nók and I produced our own tapes using the AUA text book, by Marvin J. Brown, 1969. After all these years, I still believe it is the best book for learning Thai, although AUA’s own tapes sound like they were produced under water and there are no CDs. Unfortunately, AUA no longer uses this text book and its drilling methodology in the classroom.
Aaron Le Boutillier
Andrew: I started off by learning how to read and write the language, and I think this is the way to do it. The tone rules gave me lots of headaches but once I understood them I felt as though I’d made a major breakthrough. I went to a school very early on but they laughed at me when I told them I wanted to do the Education Ministry’s Grade 6 exam in three months time. They said if I didn’t take their five-day-a-week expensive course I’d fail it for sure. I walked out of that school and got to work by myself with the help of a lovely Thai teacher. I ended up coming first in that exam three months later.
Celia: I learned the alphabet on my own. I tried transliteration but I didn’t begin speaking clearly until I took a University class.
Chris Pirazzi: Mostly tutoring from Thai-American teachers in California (mostly volunteer, some paid). Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s Thai for Beginners was useful. Also really liked Higbie and Thinsan’s Thai Reference Grammar. Made lots of stacks of flashcards of consonants, vowels, and words.
Christy: I used a private teacher for a short time and it was helpful to a point as she gave me tests and assignments and homework. The actual teaching didn’t benefit me as much (though I know many people say that a private tutor has been very helpful for them), but the assignments did me a world of good and forced me to buckle down and do some of the “grunt-work” that I otherwise would not have done on my own.
Some of the resources that I used in my Thai learning experience were the textbooks The Fundamentals of the Thai Language (by Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs), and Thai for Advanced Readers (by Khun Benjawan Poomsan Becker). Nowadays I also often use thai2english.com to check my spelling, etc., as I’m trying to work on learning to type in Thai. Wish me luck!:)
Colin: I started off with a doorstep of a book called Fundamentals of the Thai Language. It looked like a rather ominous bible but, unlike the actual bible I found it really useful. I haven’t seen it around for a long time. I also learned to read from that book. But the bible was my backup. Most of my real learning came from hanging out with Thais and writing vocab in my little everywhere notebook. I am quite thick skinned when it comes to being laughed at for making linguistic mistakes, but it gets annoying after a while. So you learn to get it right.
Daniel B Fraser
Daniel: The way I learned was by mimicking others, using a dictionary daily, and writing words down in a little black book.
David: When I arrived, I knew already that I wasn’t a very good student of traditional language programs. For this reason, I sought out what programs might be different and found the AUA Thai Program.
David: Beyond the unpublished materials provided, I also worked through Stuart Campbell’s Fundamentals of the Thai Language on my own in my first year. It was not a book that my teachers had any great fondness for, but I found it very useful as an additional reinforcement. Later, I began to read books in Thai. I found novels were good for dialogue (but the descriptive passages were sometimes best saved for a rainy day) while biographies and autobiographies often had a strong human-interest angle that made it possible to forget the linguistic obstacles.
Don: I am entirely self-taught. I obtained the best books I could find — those with the most information and generally written in the old style of explicit rule descriptions. Linguistically-oriented books were especially helpful.
Gareth: I did try a school around Ploenchit – the building is no longer there and I can’t remember the name. It started well, although I had to research and provide most of the materials and advise the teacher on how to best to ‘teach’ me – I was a teacher at the time and I knew how I learned best so just needed someone to take me through things and add extra vocab, explain rules, etc. The teacher moved on to use her own materials but they were irrelevant and usually not pitched at anywhere near my level at all – either too simple or totally impossible. In the end I gave up.
Grace: I studied Thai at the University of Leeds, UK, on a BA course; Thai and Southeast Asian Studies. The course teaches Thai from beginners’ level and progresses to studying Thai at an academic level. We started learning the alphabet and how to formulate the correct tone using a ‘magic key’, which is a kind of mathematical equation the involving consonants and vowels of words. We went on to reading conversations and used role-play. After this we concentrated on reading newspaper articles and listening to news reports, in the final year we studied academic articles and books and did our own presentations in Thai on current world affairs. We constantly learnt new vocabulary and were tested on this weekly. Whilst language learning, we took in depth modules on Thai culture, history and politics, which enhanced and illuminated the language learning process. At home I listen to Thai music and watch films to practice my Thai, I believe that successful language learning should be fun and varied.
Hamish: I bought a lot of study aids. My very first was the Lonely Planet Phrase Book. Colloquial Thai by John Moore and Saowalak Rodchue saw me start in earnest, then David Smyth’s Teach Yourself Thai and the Rosetta Stone helped me along the way once I was in the country. I got about a quarter of the way through each of them before losing interest in them all. All were useful in their own ways; however they never matched my language needs at any given time. That’s the thing about language learning, it doesn’t follow some nice, preordained structure – you learn what’s important at the time. While was trying to explain that a tourist had fallen over while trekking and fractured her wrist, the Rosetta Stone was telling me that ‘the boy is under the table’ and ‘the airplane is next to the man’.
Herb: As mentioned, my Thai study began with phonograph records, then with a tutor using the U.S. Army Thai course book Spoken Thai along with some lower level Thai children’s school books, and then on my own with reading and speaking. Plus the time with a tutor in Bangkok and finally the specialized intensive course at a language school. Everything else has been learned through lots of listening to news and talk shows on the radio, speaking when I had the opportunity, and reading books.
My Northern Thai study was helped by having a few lessons that a foreign friend had written just before I began. I revised these lessons, added some new lessons, and collected a word file that later became a small dictionary for foreign learners. At first these materials were just to help myself and my wife in our own language study. I used Thai right at the first as a bridge to Northern Thai, but then switched to using only Northern. Living in a Northern Thai farming village was great for motivation. I always carried a small notebook and spent time talking with villagers in their work and home situations, being sure to jot down words and cultural information. I was very motivated because this was a language that I really wanted to learn.
I learned Mien to an intermediate level while living in a Mien village, starting with Northern Thai as a bridge but then switching to Mien. There were even fewer materials for learning Mien so it was independent learning right from the start. I was fortunate to have two Mien men my own age (all in our 20s at the time) who enjoyed using and talking about their language. My notebooks rapidly filled up.
There is little written in Northern Thai (not counting the old Lanna script) that would help a learner, except for small wordlists published years ago, and then several regular dictionaries, leading up to two recent major dictionaries. But only one Northern dictionary (other than my own small one) was specifically compiled to help people learn Northern (by Meth Ratanaprasith, long out of print). Later on, for the most part I kept up by periodically getting back into a Northern Thai situation and speaking. Personally, Thai is a language for my mind and my academic work, but Northern is a language for my heart and “down home” interaction with people.
Progressing in Mien was a little easier because of the influx of Mien refugees from Laos into the States starting in the late 1970s. Moving to California in 1982, I was able to be in touch with several Mien communities for conversation. And once a new Romanized alphabet for Mien became established in the mid-1980s, material written by Mien started to become available. So speaking and reading helped my progress. For quite a few years, however, I have lived further from Mien locations and only occasionally get to be with them. But working on a Mien dictionary, corresponding with Mien, and those occasional times I have been able to visit Mien communities have been the means for my holding steady in Mien, though without the progress I would like to make.
Hugh: I started using the old audio-lingual method. That basically means listen and repeat. That is the basis of the J. Marvin Brown books from A.U.A. that many people started with. I knew Marvin Brown and towards the end of his life he changed his teaching philosophy away from the audio lingual method. We had some interesting discussions since I agreed with the beginning Marvin Brown and disagreed with the later one. But his books are still very useful when just beginning to study Thai. Lots of listen and repeat.
I am a very audio-centric person, have always been able to hear something and repeat it naturally. That doesn’t mean that I remembered it for very long, I still have trouble with that, but it did help greatly with my learning tones.
I own 7 dictionaries and use 3 online ones. If I hear a new word, or I have a concept that I want to say but don’t know the Thai word yet, I write it down and then look it up later.
Ian: Only the Ministry of Education produced series during classes with Patong Language School. The books are still available but have been heavily revised since I used them and have lost direction a little. I don’t think the editor/revisor fully understood the intended method, and consequently spoiled some great books.
I have bought and perused many Thai language books and CD’s over the years to get ideas for my own books. To be brutally honest, most of them are rubbish and some are just phrasebooks. The only two I can recommend are Thai System of Writing and Fundamentals of the Thai Language. These books are from the 50′s or 60′s, so some of the words and constructions are now archaic, but they are clearly laid out, easy to follow and very accurate. It’s surprising that nobody has managed to do a better job after all these years (including me!). The internet wasn’t around when I started learning, but I am sure there is a wealth of information out there now.
James (Jim) Higbie
Jim: At first I went through all the books written up to the early 80s, which were mostly Fundamentals and Gordon Allison’s books. They were interesting books but I felt they didn’t have the real language in them – some of it was old-fashioned formal Thai which wasn’t what I was hearing people speak. (Interestingly I heard some of those old fashioned constructions in Laos.) I thought Thai was difficult because of the lack of materials, which was one reason why I wrote the books. I’m sure it would have helped going to a language school but I was living in the country.
Joe: The Peace Corps language training used Caleb Gattegno’s Silent Way, where you physically manipulate colored wooden rods (Cuisenaire rods) of various lengths, using them to represent people and things, and also as syntax markers for sentence structure. For reading and pronunciation practice, we used the Silent Way charts where the different letters of the Thai alphabet were colored according to differing sounds and consonant class. At least 15 minutes of every hour of instruction would be spent on pronunciation.
The Silent Way is based on the basic theory that:
- Learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates rather than remembers and repeats what is to be learned.
- Learning is facilitated by accompanying (mediating) physical objects.
- Learning is facilitated by problem solving involving the material to be learned.
At Berkeley we used the grammar-translation method, which is pretty much the complete opposite of the Silent Way! After a short period doing grammar exercises followed by sentence-by-sentence translation, I went straight into translating Thai newspaper stories (I spent nine months translating nearly all of Kukrit Pramoj’s Siam Rath columns) and moved from there to Thai epic verse, eg, Phra Aphaimani, Traiphum. After that I could read well enough that I would choose my own material, based on topics I was interested in (politics and Buddhism), and then work on those until my professor was satisfied with the translations.
John: When I started, the classes at Wat Thai L.A. were the predominate method, although I tried a few others along the way. On my own I went through the Benjawan Poomsan Becker / Paiboon Publishing beginner, intermediate and advanced books as well as the Speak Like A Thai series. All very helpful. Their Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary for iPhone and iPad is great. I read a lot of other books I bought on Amazon, at a Thai bookstore in L.A. or when I visited Thailand. I’m always snooping around the internet and pick up little bits and pieces of a lot of different websites. I found the vocabulary and grammar lessons at ITS4Thai to be really useful.
One thing that’s been helpful for me is watching Thai TV and trying to follow along. I have a satellite service with a large number of Thai channels and usually have some program on a few hours a day, even if it’s only in the background. Right now, my favorite shows are กินอยู่คือ, which is a cooking show on Thai PBS and วันวานยังหวานอยู่, a talk/entertainment show on Channel 7. I try to watch Thai soap operas, but those can be tough to take.
Jonas: Mainly just “the school of life”. I have had very little formal study of Thai except what I have learned personally with books—primarily for reading and writing.
Jonathan: I have used: the Teach Yourself Thai book and CDs; a textbook authored by Dr. Wiworn Kesavatana-Dohrs (University of Washington – Seattle, USA); a textbook/reader authored by Dr. Thomas Gething (University of Hawai’I – Manoa); and various materials/readings provided by AUA and CMU instructors. From my first class I was also given basic newspaper articles to read, as well – although newspapers can still be fairly challenging.
Justin Travis Mair
Justin: I mentioned the 2 months course already, this was created by my church specifically for teaching missionaries Thai. It is surprisingly similar to the FSI Thai Basic course and since they were both created around the same time period, I have a feeling that there may be some common authors in there. Though I have no way of knowing.
During the 2 months we were encouraged to S.Y.L. or Speak Your Language. Meaning as soon as you learn the word in Thai, we have to stop using the English word. This meant we spoke a lot of Thaiglish, but it was surprisingly helpful. We got used to using Thai grammar and patterns. A common joke we would do as missionaries was to speak English using Thai grammar. It was funny, but it actually solidified the Thai grammar in our head even though it was a joke.
Other than that, it was pretty much the sink or swim method. I had to go and communicate in Thai all day everyday. I did have the help from other missionaries, but for the most part they would only help you to save you from drowning. We all knew the best way to learn was to go and do.
Larry: I can’t remember the conversation text we used during our Peace Corps training and which I continued to use in Thailand. However, certain phrases still stand out in my mind, such as สถานีรถไฟอยู่ที่ไหน (where is the railway station), สมบูรณาญาสิทธิราชย์ (absolute monarchy, which I can never forget because the phrase was very long and required extra effort) and ดูโน้น มี เมฆ สอง ก้อน กำลัง ลอย มา (“Look there, two clouds are floating by” which I incorrectly pronounced so it turned “Look there two mothers are floating by”. All of this amused the Thai tutor I hired when I reached Bangkok, which I suppose is why she married me, so she could have a never ending source of amusement.
I taught myself how to read by using A programmed course in reading Thai Syllables by Edward M. Anthony.
Marcel: Wasted one month in a small school in Sathorn Rd that insisted on the oral method (nothing written down) then hired one of their teachers to teach me how to write, read and speak at home the old-fashioned way, three lessons per week initially (with homework), then two, then one, each lesson lasting one hour and a half – until dear Khun Buaphan decided I was proficient enough to be left to cope with dictionaries all by myself.
Mark: During 2009 I tried learning more seriously but still largely on my own. That year I also met my now-fiancée who helped whenever I had questions but I was on my own and somewhat lost for structuring my learning: she’s a nurse, not a teacher and I was a project manager, not a student!
I thought learning basic grammar (from David Smyth’s Thai: An Essential Grammar) would help with putting vocabulary together correctly. However, I didn’t really know much vocabulary to put together so that attempt died. I think it’s fair to say 2009 was a failure as far as language-learning was concerned.
It was only since leaving work that I was able to start learning seriously. On returning to Bangkok I immediately signed up with a private language school. I decided on Baan Aksorn because I’d read positive reviews about them and they gave a good impression when I visited. The building itself was different too – a cosy converted house, rather than a dull office in a tower block. It turned out to be a good choice for me.
Martin: I looked at some of the NISA and AUA course books, and was quite impressed with them, but didn’t attend their courses. At that time, mostly because I was broke!
Nils: I have tried books, CDs, practical conversation and even private lessons. As many others, I found that studying on my own by using books or computers was challenging. Having worked with a few outside institutions when at Bumrungrad, I have realized that what makes computer based learning at places like Wall Street Institute relatively successful is that they are good at helping their students study regularly and stick to it. However, based on the students I had at Bumrungrad, it seems that improvement is slower with even the best of programs than with a real-life teacher. I do feel that working with a person is always better than any other approach, though the person you learn from should be chosen with care. Combining personal tutoring with computer-based learning and/or books may offer the best of all words, but practical application – speaking with another person – must take the most prominent place. Without practical application and real-life responses, language training loses its most vital dimension.
Paul: I used the internet from day one. Places like Speaking Thai the Easy Way and some other I forget. I used to buy every Thai text book I could find including the Benjawan Becker series; I suppose these are the ones that stand out as being really useful. These days I don’t buy any more textbooks but use real texts. I do subscribe to the Learn Thai Podcast and these have been helpful.
Peter: Peace Corps did a great job, four hours a day, small classes, rotating teachers. Within three months I was able to get around pretty well, and when I hit the ground in Isaan there was nothing else to speak, so conversational Thai came in pretty fast. That said, my Thai back then was much more limited than I knew. I wish I had paid more attention to learning to read then.
When I decided to get serious, I dug into the reading side, and learned how to “touch-type” by sending e-mails. Good thing there was unicode and the internet to help! But that still wasn’t enough. I audited a graduate course at U.C. Berkeley with Susan Kepner, perhaps the best translator of Thai women’s literature, and in class we read stuff, including selections from Kukrit’s สี่แผ่นดิน (Four Reigns), maybe Thailand’s best modern novel. Did translations of a couple of short stories for Susan which she is still threatening to use if she ever publishes an anthology, anyhow I loved doing that, want to do more.
In 2002 I started writing my own dictionary. I was tired of looking up words like “till” and finding Thai telling me it only meant a drawer that held money, or “see” and finding that it meant only an administrative region defined by the Vatican. So I have been adding to my own dictionary and using at as a study guide ever since.
This year I tested into Chula’s (Chulalongkorn University) intensive Thai for foreigners program and have done 2 five-week modules, have two to go. Instead of going straight through like most people, I am doing five weeks at a time, then breaking for several months till the next level comes around again, because it eats one’s entire life when doing it! But worth it. Short answer? Many-pronged, but sharp prongs!
Rick: My core daily practice is my flashcard (Supermemo) learning, now up to 4500 elements of which I am tasked to remember about 100 each day. I went to a school and quickly realised that was the time of the week when I learnt the least Thai. I began reading the newspapers, watched the TV news, listened to the radio (100.5FM) and to other audio-visual resources in the MOAFTR.
Rikker: I was low tech. I carried around little pocket notebooks which I constantly wrote in. Most any office or stationery store in Thailand sells them for about 8 baht — a little bigger than a business card, with ruled paper and a rugged plastic cover.
At first a lot of the things I jotted down were in roman script, but that was soon replaced by Thai script as my ear got better and I became more comfortable reading and writing Thai. Whenever I came across a noteworthy or interesting word, I wrote it down. Often this was dozens of words per day. Names of people I met, food I ate, random objects that I had asked someone the name of.
This habit was helpful in improving my listening comprehension, too, because whenever I heard some word repeatedly, but I didn’t know it, I’d write down what I thought it sounded like, and then ask a friend what that word I kept hearing was, explaining the general context. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I got it wrong, but my ear kept getting better.
Ryan: At the University of Wisconsin we used a set of textbooks put out by AUA. Then when I did a year of study abroad at Chiang Mai University I had private Thai lessons with one of the professors, who catered the lessons towards my interest by using articles about Buddhism. Some years later, to refreshen up my reading, I studied on my own using Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s books and also Thai Reference Grammar by James Higbie & Snea Thinsan.
Scott: When I first came here, I used a website (no longer in existence, sadly) to learn the basic letters, and that allowed me to read some basic things like road signs and the provinces on car registration plates. After that, I started to read menus at restaurants – they have a limited vocabulary, and tend to have similar contents. I took a course of 40 hours at a Thai school in late 2005, initially learning to speak, but then switched teachers and learned the alphabet. After that, I started to chat with people online, which is a very good way of meeting Thai people willing to chat.
Stephen: The first method I used was the book and CD set Teach Yourself which I think does a very good job, though I’ve been told some of what I learned is “old fashioned”. One thing I think is invaluable in that book is that it teaches you to read and write Thai which is vital for correct pronunciation.
The next method was picking it up in the streets or at work which will give you listening skills, teach you which words people actually use, rather than the overly formal words you often find in phrase books, and you’ll learn words they wouldn’t necessarily print in language books. 🙂 However, a pitfall here is that you can pick up the wrong pronunciation or else use a rude word in the wrong setting.
Finally I went to Walen School which uses Thai script and teaches vocabulary with question and answer exercises. The teachers are entertaining and will stray from the book to show other uses of the word or to teach other words that could mean the same thing. Conversation is best way to learn a language, and I often converse with the teachers outside of class also.
Stickman: I started at the Thai temple in West Auckland using some homemade – but excellent – materials. The Linguaphone course was the only self-study course I used. It was very good, but so it should be for it was very expensive. Still, as a language teacher myself, I appreciated the structure and a lot of thought clearly went into the way it was put together and the methodology.
I spent seven months at Union Language School in 2000 which was when I made the best progress. Prior to studying there, my Thai language skills had plateaued and I needed the formal environment of what is actually a very strict school to progress.
Terry: Our training [Peace Corps] was quite old-fashioned — memorizing dialogues and lots of repetition. I made it a point of talking to our teachers constantly, which was easy since we lived together.
Thomas: AUA language Bangkok-Immersion program, BEC language Pattaya-Sentence structure and Thai alphabet, Ajarn Pat Sukatiparote Roseville Minnesota-Private tutoring on Thai characters, vowels, reading, writing and spelling, Long Paw Pai Sit Wat Thai Minnesota-Sanskrit, Benawan Poosan Beckers Thai for Beginners…Thai characters and vowels, Chulalongorn University PhD Program on Thai culture and language, Individual studies/field research
Tod: Heck, I’ve got more Thai language learning resources than I’m willing to admit. Benjawan Becker’s books &, C/D’s , Mathew Courage’s DVD, Rosetta Stone, many ‘borrowed’ copies of private Thai language schools material, countless books by other authors about learning Thai, etc.
I’m using an unconventional method for learning insofar as I taught myself to read/understand Thai before I could speak or understand spoken Thai all that well. I could recognize written Thai words, know their meanings, even if I couldn’t accurately reproduce the toning of them when I spoke Thai.
Tom: At my first university we used the Thai ‘Linguaphone’ by Dr David Smyth, in addition to worksheets provided by the teacher. In the second year we also used Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s course which at the time had just been published. In Thailand we used a language course written by the tutor which has not been published. At MA level we read and studied popular Thai novels.
Many varied techniques were used throughout this learning process, notably flashcards, conversation, lots of reading – starting with children’s books, watching Thai TV, listening to Thai songs etc.
Vern: Notecards, as noted. I also hired a girl in Isaan for 100 THB per hour to help me with pronunciation three times per week. I guess we did about 25 sessions. It was a great help… she’d pronounce the word and I’d write it phonetically and sometimes record the sessions with my Nokia phone.
I studied a Thai dictionary that was very helpful and I have it here on my bookshelf, it’s the Robertson’s Practical English-Thai Dictionary, by Richard G. Robertson. The phonetic pronunciation tips in the book made the most sense to me, and though there were some errors, it’s the best resource I found for helping me find new vocabulary I should use. It’s a small book too – highly recommended.
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?