Successful Thai Language Learner: Chris Baker

Chris Baker

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Presenting… Chris Baker…

Disclaimer: I don’t advise anyone to replicate this method.

I’ve never had a single Thai lesson. By the time I started to learn Thai, I was already 30. I was conscious of having been trained by the British schooling system to learn languages (French, German, Russian) which I could never really use. I had learnt Tamil with a teacher in south India for my doctoral work, and read it quite well but spoke it badly. I moved to Thailand in 1979-80, already married to Pasuk, and in flight from Margaret Thatcher, and thus unlikely to return. I decided to approach learning Thai without teachers, a bit like learning as a child. This was partly laziness, and partly a conscious desire to escape my earlier experience with language learning.

In 1979, I walked into AUA (then virtually the only institutionalized Thai teaching center), and persuaded them to let me photocopy their introductory learning materials, and copy several tapes. I donated these to the Cambridge University Language Lab, their first Thai course, and used them for about six months to learn the sounds. I bought Campbell, Fundamentals of the Thai Language, and used that to learn the script (helped by knowing Tamil which has a similar alphabetic structure). I also looked around for a translated novel, and found only Botan’s Letters From Thailand. I’d read a page in English, and then the same page in Thai. This did not work so well because Susan Kepner’s translation is very loose, but I got used to reading.

I came to Thailand in 1980 and worked in a company with two Farang and about thirty Thai. I later moved to a company with 300 Thai where for most of the time I was the only Farang. So I learned to understand Thai by just listening to what was going on around me all day. I also watched a lot of Thai television, and even resisted getting English-language cable when it came available. At some point I stopped translating what I was hearing and began listening in Thai. I can’t remember when that was but it took a long time. More slowly, I got confident about speaking. I was fine at everyday conversation and business uses. I’m still not much good at formal presentation. The first time I gave an academic presentation off the cuff, someone came up afterwards and asked Pasuk why I had to speak like a peasant. I was just using everyday language, without the gear-shift needed for a formal presentation.

At that time I read enough for business uses, and a bit of newspapers, but I did not practice properly, and my reading speed remained very low. I had no need to write in Thai, so I lost that completely, but I can use a keyboard, hunt-and-peck style.


In 1997, I stopped working in business. By this time, there were lots of things that I wanted to read in Thai. I decided to work at improving my reading by spending several hours a day on reading Nidhi, Chatthip, Chai-Anan, Kachon, Sombat, etc, etc. After a couple of months, my speed had improved a lot, but I twigged that I was cheating: if a word was familiar I would pretend to myself I understood it. To enforce some discipline, I decided to translate formally. I chose Chatthip’s Thai Village Economy in the Past because I’d read it and knew it was easy, and because it’s a book many foreigners had commented about without actually knowing what it said. Also, Chatthip is a friend. I discovered I enjoyed doing translation so I also did bits by Nidhi, King Rama V, the Communist Party of Thailand, Pridi, etc, etc. I can now read quite quickly. Only recently I’ve acquired the important ability to scan a text without having to read every word.

The fascination with Khun chang khun phaen goes back some time. When we were writing Thailand: Economy and Politics in the early 1990s, I had just read E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common and I wanted to use some literary sources. I found out about KCKP, and we used it in a small way in the prologue. Some time around then I read William Gedney’s enthusiastic comments on the poem. Then I decided to translate Nidhi’s Pen and Sail, which uses KCKP a lot. We tried to get literature specialists, both Thai and Farang, to help translate the literary extracts in Pen and Sail, but nobody would cooperate. Eventually, Pasuk and I did them ourselves. As a result, I got more interested in KCKP, and also realized that I could probably handle old poetic Thai with a bit of effort.

Why translate KCKP? There’s not one major piece of old Thai literature in translation. Much of the canon is adapted from elsewhere (from Java, India, China), but KCKP is a local original. Lots of old Thai works consists of fantastic tales about gods and kings, while the core of KCKP is a wrenching tragedy probably based on a true story. It’s also a wonderful social panorama. Gedney wrote, with a bit of exaggeration, ‘If all other information on traditional Thai culture were to be lost, the whole complex could be reconstructed from this marvelous text.’ Most of all, it’s just a great story, and deserves a wider hearing.

It’s also fascinating on gender grounds. It has been lambasted by feminists. One of our good friends wrote Thailand’s first feminist tract 35 years ago as a blast against KCKP. Some friends are seriously perplexed why we should want to translate it. But you can also read the text as a serious and sympathetic study of women in a male-oriented society. The female lead, Wanthong, is by far the most complex character and has all the best lines.

When we started, I could not read it at all. Pasuk translated word for word; I transcribed; and then I reconstructed as English prose. But by a third of the way through, I could do it solo—with a lot of bloopers. I’ve since been back and read the whole original at least twice.

At the beginning, there were many things we could not understand—words whose meaning has been lost, concepts and metaphors that belong to a culture now in the past. Astrology, supernaturalism, food, dress, weaponry, architecture, etc. We have had to consult lots of people and lots of book. In rendering to English, the main difficulties have been over curses and endearments. เนื้อเย็น works wonderfully in Thai as a compliment to an intimate partner, but how do you capture both the idea and the gentle sound in English? Also, the original poem is in a wonderful, headlong meter which is impossible to replicate. We are rendering it into prose, but we are conscious that it began in oral tradition and we are trying to make it read aloud well. The sea at Hua Hin has heard a lot of it.

We plan to publish it late next year (2010). I’m not sure there’s another old literary work I’m interested in translating but I’m open to suggestion. Lilit phra lo is wonderful, but Robert Bickner’s translation is rumored to appear real soon now. What else? I’d like to do some more work on the old KCKP manuscripts. I’m thinking of translating some late Ayutthaya historical documents. I also have a draft of a book on Ayutthaya written almost a decade ago which I really should finish.

Chris Baker

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Note: Chris Baker, with his wife Pasuk Phongpaichit, wrote: A History of Thailand, Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand, Thailand’s Boom and Bust, and Thailand’s Crisis… and much more.

If you would like to share how you successfully attained the ability to communicate in Thai, please contact me to make it so.

15 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Chris Baker”

  1. When Mr. Baker says, “There’s not one major piece of old Thai literature in translation,” would he not consider Thomas John Hudak’s translation of “The Tale of Prince Samuttakote”(1993, Ohio University, Monographs in International Studies) to be just that?

  2. Hi Marc, thanks for sharing the link to the Thai songs. I missed that when researching for a coming interview with Jonas and Christy (expat Luk Thung singers). Their video of Ramwong Dao Dao stuck with me as it is quite fun.

    As for having cool bodies… Thailand gets pretty hot so I can see how it would be desirable 🙂

  3. Nice story, Chris. I was 44 when I began learning Thai, and I’ve been pretty comfortable with it for the last 15 years, but เนื้อเย็น as a term of endearment? … Took me a while to suss that one out, as neither I nor my Thai wife of 17 years had ever heard it. Google found mention as far back as สุนทรภู่ so I’d guess it’s really much older than that. Lovely idiom, and one I’m very glad to add to my colloquial vocab! With thanks to Chris and Catherine and

    เนื้อเย็น (the cool body) for women — since Thailand is a tropical country, “cool bodies” are more desirable for hugging than “warm” bodies, hence the term “cool bodies” refers to a beloved girl.

    (Please note there’s a small typo in your post: เนึ้อเย็น should be เนื้อเย็น)

  4. Ah, I see what you mean. I have no doubts about Chris being clever. I have two of his books. And just this week I stood over another for the longest time (do I rip the plastic off, or no?)

  5. Several hundred dollars for the tapes…they must be the cream of learning Thai. By the ‘cave man’ bit I meant that Chris hadn’t gone the same route has other interviewees and had self taught himself Thai. That makes him one clever man. Best wishes.

  6. Martyn, nubile Thai ladies in basements and pizza? 🙂 What Chris did do was study the AUA books, which are highly thought of. I don’t have the tapes (they are several hundred dollars even now) but I do have the books.

    The method is excellent (each lesson builds upon the other) but I was put off the transliteration and the (for a beginner) too small Thai. Several people have professed a desire to retype the books (I’m one), but AUA did not seem interested.

    You can get all of the AUA books at The AUA tapes can be purchased at Cornell University.

  7. Chris and Catherine I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this interview and it’s encouraging to know that Chris didn’t start learning Thai until he was thirty. What amazing success he has had ever since.

    I hope Chris won’t mind me saying that his initial route to learning was a real ‘cave man’ type process. He admits to not having had one single Thai lesson. I’m surprised he hasn’t owned up to having held a young nubile Thai lady hostage in a deep pit in the basement of his house and only feeding her Thai pizza after she had taught him one more word perfect sentence. Not one single lesson and now he’s translating KCKP. One amazing and very clever man.

    Chris and his method should give a lot of hope to people like myself who nowadays have so many wonderful resources such as WLT at our disposal. I don’t know whether Chris will be answering any of the comments posted but if he does then I would like to ask him that if he was thirty again right now would he still take the same route to learning Thai and also I would like to wish him good luck with his publication next year.

  8. Andrew, Julie and Betti, Thanks! I do believe that I am enjoying this series as much as everyone else. With each interview, I understand a little more about how languages are learned.

    Betti, does this mean that you’ll be learning Lanna soon? 🙂

  9. Thank you so much for this interview. 🙂 It is most encouraging that eventually one can get somewhere with this method. I work about 9.5 hours a day and I would literally cry if I had to sit down and learn “properly”. I do read bilingual children’s storybooks but that’s about all, besides just listening all the time and asking questions. My colleagues now switch to Lanna if they don’t want me to pick up what they are gossiping about 🙁

  10. Hi, thanks for this interview! This was really itneresting to read, and what a great idea to profile successful language learners.

  11. It’s been said already but I’ll echo those above and say what a wonderful series. Wonderful and, for me at least, the kick-start I need to improve on my own woeful understanding of Thai.

  12. Rikker, what a great find (Chris and Pasuk’s Khun Chang Khun Phaen). I’ll add it to the resources to read later.

    I have ARN Thai & English OCR Vrs 2.5, but it’s still plastic wrapped. I guess it’s time to start playing around…

    Ah. And please thank that Rikker fellow for his help with the questions 🙂

  13. A very excellent interview. Chris Baker is someone I look up to (from afar), to it’s great to read about his experiences with the language.

    It was discovering Chris and Pasuk’s draft translation of Khun Chang Khun Phaen that inspired me to scan the standard (1917 Prince Damrong version) of the Thai text. It’s a shame that the original Thai text isn’t freely available online. Yet.

    Unfortunately it’s just one of many similar projects sitting on my shelf. I ran the scans through ABBYY’s quite good Thai OCR software, but it still needs manual correction against the page image. So far I’ve corrected the Table of Contents and part of Chapter 1. 🙂

    Keep the interviews coming, Catherine. Always a pleasure to read (except for that Rikker fellow).

  14. When Chris sent his interview, I had the same reaction. Wow.

    So far I have two of his books: Thaksin and the History of Thailand. And I’m waiting to see how many more I can get delivered before I have to go out hunting.

    As you know, I’m fiddling to discover where I fit in the Thai world, so I was especially interested in this statement…

    The first time I gave an academic presentation off the cuff, someone came up afterwards and asked Pasuk why I had to speak like a peasant. I was just using everyday language, without the gear-shift needed for a formal presentation.

    The ‘gear-shift needed’ is a great way of putting it. I was chatting with Hugh Leong over this very same subject and he broke it all down for me. It was quite interesting the way he presented it, so I’m hoping to share it on WLT at some point.

  15. Wow…I hate to sound like a broken record but this was another excellent interview Cat. I’d love to read some of these translations Chris has in mind and the poem sounds intoxicating.

    I think as far as reading and translating Thai Chris gives a great example by finding something so interesting and engaging. In that regard it would keep you very interested in learning more.


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