Interview: Dan Ogilvie is Getting by in Thai

Interview Dan Ogilvie is Getting by in Thai

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Dan Ogilvie is getting by in Thai…

Name: Dan Ogilvie
Nationality: British
Age range: 53
Sex: Male
Location: Saraburi, Thailand
Profession: Electronic Engineer

What is your Thai level? Intermediate / Intermediate + / Intermediate ++

I don’t think I would class myself as intermediate yet. The trouble is being self taught I have a strange eclectic collection of vocabulary that is missing some key elements of sentence construction. I can nearly read Thai, (without comprehension), yet get thrown by a question from our postman.

What percentage of conversational Thai do you understand?

Depending on the subject, about 30% when they are talking slowly and directly at me, about 20% at normal speed, 5% when they are in gossip mode and 0% on the telephone.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, professional Thai, or a mix?

My Thai comes from books so I guess professional Thai, but what I listen to everyday is street Thai of course.

What were your reasons for learning the Thai language?


I live here! But also, being useless at languages all my life, Thai is a real challenge and I think it is a lovely language with some great poets and artists that I would like to understand more. I would love, one day, to read a Thai novel or poem. That said, listening to a lot of Thai, the speakers sounds like the aliens from Mars Attacks.

When did you become a student of the Thai language?

When I first came to Thailand, I think in about 1980 I bought a book on Thai that I still have and use. But, living in the UK it stayed as a talking point on my bookshelf. When I married my wife, Ploy, I started to try and learn it again but we were not living here and she is a natural at languages, speaking about 4 fluently, so I took the easy route. Now I live here, and having got over the ‘getting established’ here bit I decided I really need to learn this language properly.

How much time do you currently spend learning Thai?

It is erratic and that is a lot of the problem. I tried to set aside 30 minutes a day but then found I went a week without doing anything formally and I found I had forgotten the last few things. So I am trying to force myself to thirty minutes a day, at the end of work with a cold beer as incentive for doing so.

Do you stick to a regular study schedule?

No, but see above.

What Thai language learning methods are you using (resources needed)?

When I was in Singapore I went to some formal lessons for a few weeks but, I don’t know why, it didn’t seem to work for me; (in hindsight the other students were Singaporean who usually already speak 3 or 4 languages and two of them are tonal – I didn’t stand a chance). I find the tones very difficult to master and still can’t pronounce ‘ng’ reliably at the beginning of words. So I have decided to concentrate on reading Thai as I find that easier than just memorising sentences and words and I also find that the vocabulary sticks better. I use the children’s books for the alphabet which Ploy bought me and my bible is still The Fundamental of the Thai Language by Campbell and Shaweevongs although I also use Easy Thai by Gordon Allison. Both of these books teach reading at the same time as grammar and vocabulary. I also paid for the excellent dictionary Thai2English which includes some grammar and other incidental information. I find I work best with books when I can scribble notes on the pages rather than in front of a computer. CDs and DVDs don’t work for me at all.

Does one method stand out over all others?

Yes, the method in Campbell book which is to introduce a couple of consonants and vowels, introduce vocabulary using them and then some general notes about their usage. At the end of the chapter you find you can read a little Thai and that feels like a great achievement. I find that more satisfying than learning some sentence I probably will never use in real life and, as I mentioned, I find the vocabulary sticks better when I can read it in Thai script. It is more fun, for me too.

Have you started reading and writing Thai yet?

Yes, as above. Just learning transliterations of Thai words en-masse I found didn’t work for me. Maybe I have a pictorial memory so remembering the characters allows me to pronounce the word and sometimes triggers me to remember their meaning too.

If so, do you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Actually I find reading Thai not so bad until you get to all the inherent vowels and grammar rules, like ‘hor hip’ popping up all over the place to just to change the class of a following consonant. Also I find the informal script difficult to read and also anything written by my wife. Actually anything not formal like a newspaper headline I find tricky at the moment.

How long did it take you to pluck up the courage to actually try using your Thai skills?

Actually ordering a beer came naturally to me. And the reaction of Thais is so friendly and encouraging it is impossible not to try. Until, three words into my fractured Thai they start a 200 word a minute discussion on the state of politics in Angola and then I run and hide under the stairs faking an old war injury.

How soon was it before you could make yourself understood in Thai (even just a little bit)?

Big barriers with some words, (like snake and work and money and turkey because of the ng pronunciation), but OK if I avoid that. Then I was in a restaurant with my wife and feeling overly confident I said to the waitress ‘kep satang duay khap’. She looked at me as if I was speaking Klingon. I repeated it. Still that look of fear and incomprehension. I looked at Ploy. Say it again, she said, encouragingly. So I did so and again and again trying various combinations of emphasis and tone. I looked at Ploy again and she said ‘kep satang duey ka’ to which the waitress obediently went off to get the bill. I understood you, said Ploy. I just sighed.

What are your most embarrassing moments when speaking Thai?

I avoid ordering a bananas, luckily I drink my coffee black, so to date, nothing knowingly. But a big reason for the frequent Thai smiles around here is probably my Thai.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

Thai is number 4 (out of 5) in the language learning difficulty measurements. Japanese and Korean are 5. English is a 2. Don’t think the language is easy just because the script is not as impenetrable as Chinese. That means you really have to work at it to learn it, especially if you are a linguistically challenged like me.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

We were in a restaurant and Ploy was talking to owner, as she has a want to do. After she finished the conversation I gestured toward the restaurant sign and told her the name of the restaurant,(Lan aharn Baan Gluay Seafood). Yes, said Ploy, matter-of-factly. It had taken me all of ten minutes including some very strange face gestures but to me it was the equivalent of scaling Everest in your pyjamas carry a small pregnant hippo on your back.

How do you learn languages?

You mean how did I ascend, after five years studying Spanish at Grammar school, to an unclassified ‘O’ level pass in my exam. It is just a talent I have.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My strengths are I am I good electronic engineer. Bleeding useless when it comes to languages though.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Strangely, I am quite good at English. I know it is my native tongue but I mean I don’t find any difficulty with English at all and completed the write a 50,000 word novel in a month competition and an 18000 word dissertation on art history without breaking a sweat. But other than English, attempts at Spanish, German and now Thai have always ended (so far) in abject failure.

Has learning Thai affected your knowledge of the other languages you speak?

Do you mean has it somehow opened a door in my mind such that I just absorb other languages. No.

How many foreign languages have you attempted to use?

I did once learn in a bar in Taiwan to say in Mandarin, ‘You are beautiful’ and ‘I love you’and I still remember how to say that. I can say ‘synchrotron radiation’ and apple in German which is great at Teutonic dinner parties.

Are you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

Have you been listening to me?

Do you currently live in Thailand, or have you ever lived in Thailand? If so, how long for?

Yes. Of and on for many years with stays of up to three weeks but now, my final resting place. I have been here 18 months so far.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

Although I am engineer I am also a technophobe and proud of it. I can program if forced to as part of my job but I would rather garrotte myself over the frozen meat counter of Tesco Lotus if given a choice.

Do you have a passion for music and or you play an instrument?

Yes, I love music, from turn of 20th century Italian opera to Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. For playing a musical instrument replace language with music in all the above.

What learning advice would you give to other students of the Thai language?

I am hardly one to give advice. I have found something that works for me which is the challenge of reading Thai which I find keeps me interested. They say you should make learning a language fun. I don’t see how that can be. Sometimes (most times) it is a chore; I always have something better to do like bath the dog, prune the mango tree or dance topless on top of a car in Bangkok. But what it is a challenge and to be able to read a newspaper or a book in Thai would, for me, be a great achievement and that is what spurs me on. I think you need to find your motivation for learning the language and it has to be more than just a ‘nice thing to do’ or you will fail.

What is your Thai language study plan for the next six months? The next year?

There is a local man who is partially deaf and dumb but I assume can read Thai well as he used to be a teacher. That, I hope, will be me in a year or two’s time. Maybe before I die I will be able to hold a conversation about where snake’s work or keep their money.

And the clincher: Do you agree to report back with your progress in six months?

I’ll still be here.

Dan Ogilvie,
Dan and Ploy’s website

Getting by in Thai…

Thank you Dan, Tod, Snap, Talen and Greg. And for others out there – if you’d like be involved in the Getting by in Thai series, contact me. And please remember the clincher: the idea for the series is interview those getting by as well as regenerate an interest in learning Thai.

5 thoughts on “Interview: Dan Ogilvie is Getting by in Thai”

  1. Dan, I can relate to the 0% on the telephone, I am constantly asking Thai’s to repeat themselves slowly.

    Another great interview filled with tidbits we all can learn from…Keep it up Dan and maybe, just maybe that deaf and mute teacher will be surpassed 😛

  2. Martyn, I especially enjoyed reading Dan’s interview too. And when I got to “I avoid ordering a bananas” I smiled wide. Bananas can be stumbling block in Thai 😀

  3. Dan and Catherine

    A lot of the answers could very well have been written by myself. I find learning Thai very challenging and quite a chore at times, make that most of the time. I also want to go the route of learning to read Thai as I think that would be a great achievement for me. I have plenty of Thai words in my vocabulary but I lack the little words which string them all together.

    Like Keith I find Dan’s answers very encouraging and it’s good to see they were delivered with three spoons of modesty and a huge dollop of humour.

    Excellent interview.


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