Successful Thai Language Learner: David Smyth

David Smyth

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: David Smyth
Nationality: British
Age range: 50-60
Sex: Male
Location: UK
Profession: University lecturer

Books/Products: Thai: An Essential Grammar, Teach Yourself Thai, Linguaphone Thai Course (with Manas Chitakasem) + translations of a number of Thai novels and short stories.

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

Bangkok Thai.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

A youthful infatuation with a Thai girl, which led me to apply to study Thai as part of a BA South East Asian Studies at SOAS.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?


Not now, but l lived in the country from the mid 1970s until the early 1980s, teaching English at Thammasat University and later at Srinakharinwirot University.

If you live elsewhere, how often are you in Thailand?

In recent years, every 12-24 months.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

More than 30 years.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Yes. It was part of my degree course, the class was small and I was highly motivated. Like most language degree courses at the time, there was much more emphasis on reading, writing and translating than on speaking, although I did spend a good few hours in a language lab, doing drills like those in Marvin Brown’s AUA Thai Course and listening to comprehension passages.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

Beyond the unpublished materials provided, I also worked through Stuart Campbell’s Fundamentals of the Thai Language on my own in my first year.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.

Did one method stand out over all others?

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.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

From the very beginning.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

No. The script was presented in manageable chunks and progress was quick. We began by learning the most common low class consonants, and followed a similar order to that presented in Marvin Brown’s AUA Thai Course: Reading, Teach Yourself Thai and the Linguaphone Thai Course. Credit for first recognizing that learning consonants by class, rather than traditional alphabetic order, would enable the foreigner to learn to read more quickly, goes to Basil Osborn Cartwright, a teacher of English at the Royal Civil Service College in Bangkok, who introduced his system in his Elementary Handbook of the Siamese language, published in 1906. Yet 100 years later there are still teachers of Thai and authors of Thai language books for foreigners who expect their students to spend early lessons memorizing letters they will hardly ever encounter.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

I’m afraid that I tend to remember only the ‘how-could-I-have-possibly- said/mispronounced/misunderstood-that-and why-wouldn’t-the-earth-swallow-me-up-moments?’

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

At first my hearing was not good. If I asked a Thai, ‘What was that word you just said?’ and they repeated the word in isolation, I had no idea what tone they had produced and therefore mispronounced it when I tried to repeat it. I had a farang friend who could not read Thai but could always repeat what he heard perfectly, much to the admiration of Thais. He made me feel inadequate. I eventually got round the problem by asking Thais to write the word down for me, and once I could see it on paper, I knew what the tone should be. Suddenly the roles were reversed. Thais saw that I could not only pronounce Thai correctly, but could read, too. Victory was mine! Happily, over time, my ears gradually got more attuned to what to listen out for; and I learned how to pass the blame – a bad telephone line, going slightly deaf, so-and-so not expressing themselves clearly.

In the end I think it is important to recognize that we each have our own strengths and weaknesses in language learning and that by working on the weaknesses we can always improve – if we want to.

How do you learn languages?

One of my Thai teachers very diplomatically described me as a ‘visual learner’; I think my previous answer explains why. When I started learning Thai, audio materials were not readily available and Thais were a bit thin on the ground in London (perhaps they were avoiding me) so my efforts were focused mainly on reading. At first, I used to copy out reading passages – several times – which helped my reading, handwriting, spelling, understanding of grammar and retention of vocabulary. As I progressed to longer passages, I would just copy odd sentences or phrases that appealed to me or which I thought I could inflict upon some unsuspecting Thai.

Learning Thai made me aware how important it is to be able to ask questions. When I was at school the French and German teachers asked the questions and we answered; we never asked a thing. And if you were lucky and kept your head down, you could go for several weeks without even answering a question. A good classroom survival technique, maybe, but not very good preparation for real life. One of my former students, who seemed to have also got it into his head that, as a foreign-language speaker, his role, too, was to answer questions, complained one day, ‘Thais don’t want to talk to me.’ I think he expected that if he just stood somewhere, Thais would gravitate towards him, bombarding him with questions and that way he would learn to speak Thai fluently. It never occurred to him to ask Thais questions, whether out of feigned interest to improve his linguistic skills, or genuine interest in order to gain greater insight into another world and in the process, his own world.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

One misconception is that if you get a tone wrong, Thais will not understand you. Another is that if you can’t immediately ‘hear’ or distinguish tones, you might as well not waste any further time trying to learn the language. Some learners can hear and reproduce tones accurately almost from the outset, while others take longer … yet still get there.

Another misconception is that it is good enough just to speak and there is no need to write. Back in 1906 Basil Osborn Cartwright cautioned ‘those who imagine they can ‘pick up’ a smattering of the language in a few weeks by trying to learn words in a parrot-like fashion from romanized versions which are invariably misleading’ and which is an ‘absolute waste of time, money and frequently of temper also.’

Can you make your way around any other languages?

At a push!

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


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

Become literate. Being able to read Thai makes it much easier to take responsibility for your own learning. It also shows Thais that you are serious about learning the language so they are more likely to want to help you to achieve your goals. Not being literate imposes severe limitations on your opportunities to make progress.

  • Make friends with Thais.
  • Use tv/radio/internet etc.
  • Accept mistakes as a natural part of language learning.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Everyone has good and bad days.

David Smyth
Thai: An Essential Grammar | Teach Yourself Thai | Linguaphone Thai Course

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Getting advice from experienced Thai language learners is important. If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your knowledge with those coming up, please contact me to make it so.

13 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: David Smyth”

  1. I read this comment on a Thai language forum and received permission to post it here:

    Have you tried Smyth’s ‘Teach Yourself Thai’? This is the one that cracked tone for me. I’d failed to really get my head round it from a couple of previous attempts with other materials, but after putting in some concentrated study (not more than a couple of weeks) with Smyth, I never even think of the rule anymore; I just ‘see’ the tone automatically when I read the word.

    (Of all the many things that I am bad at with Thai, the one that I feel good about is that, almost like a native, when I read I know the tone of a word without consciously knowing what class the consonant is and if you asked me I’d probably have to stop and think about it. that skill I attribute directly to Smyth, because before his book, I was hopeless at it and figured I always would be.)

    Oh, I should add that just because I know the tone of a word when I read, it doesn’t mean when I try to speak that word that it sounds anything like what it should!!

  2. Hi Rick, crazy busy over here too… I finally made time to search out the top 300/500/1000 words in Thai and it’s proving to be a lot of work. Stay tuned…

    I have a huge respect for David Smyth. I couldn’t sleep right away last night, so I cracked his book open again and listened to his lessons in my iPod to review. I like.

    Thank you so much for sending my site to Boo. I’ve been a member of TV for awhile (5 years or so) but I mostly lurk. Boo and the other gals have made TV a sweeter place to visit, that’s for sure.

  3. Pardon for the late arrival on topic (crazy busy) . . .

    Wonderful interview, Cat. I was really curious about Smyth’s background and language approach. I’ve found his Teach Yourself Thai very rewarding and easy to work through. I just need to get farther into the book 😉 Hmmm, I think we talked about this before . . .

    BTW, a Thaivisa mod recently asked about Thai language teacher in Khon Kaen. I chipped in with a link to your site and she called it a “brilliant link.” I’m not making this up.
    Go here

  4. Talen – I hear chunking is a good idea for learning a language. Just little chunks, not great swaths of time. But like mentioned, everyone is different. I’m now looking for someone with a big enough whip to keep me in line!

    Jeff – When he mentioned the ‘Elementary Handbook of the Siamese Language’, I was quite surprised to find it for free online. It is totally new to me (even if it is 100 years old). I haven’t made my way all the way through, but I plan to this weekend.

  5. I love that he refers to a 100 year old book that still provides useful advice. I’ve just read the start of the book – the author has a lovely writing style. It is very clear & easy to read.

    Another great interview in the series!

  6. Looks like another book I will be getting. %00 words sounds like it might be manageable which might be the best way to learn in chunks.

  7. At a push: I believe that it means that he will do his best to speak the other languages he’s studied, but it won’t be easy. It will be a push (an effort).

  8. Welcome to WLT Ashley! I’m glad to hear that you are getting something out of the series. I know I am 🙂

    One of my favourites of David’s is his ‘Thai: An Essential Grammar’. When I was in my search for Thai grammar books, David’s was deemed most accurate. I have the others, but with his good reputation, ‘An Essential Grammar’ will have the final say.

    It’s a pity you cannot attend either school. I can only imagine that the UK government has clamped down on student loans/grants due to the present financial crisis? The same is happening all over.

  9. An excellent interview!

    I very nearly applied to study the SOAS Thai course but applied to Leeds instead, financial restraints however means I will not go there either.

    Surely David you can find your way around Cambodian? You did author Colloquial Cambodian, didn’t you?

    I’d like to thank Catherine for the interview (this series is very informative) and David for publishing some vital materials assisting me in learning Thai.

  10. David – I think one thing that people like myself tend to forget when learning Thai is that experts like yourself have spent many years mastering the language. You have studied Thai as part of a BA and now have over 30 years as a Thai language student. Myself and many others have a tendency to give up or lose heart when after a few months everything still seems rather ‘foreign.’ I think we need to learn to lose a few battles before we win the war.

  11. I agree that everyone needs to find their comfort zone when learning Thai (remember, I’m a particular case too 🙂

    But even so, I do lean heavily on the ‘ole hindsight theory. That if we can find what other Thai learners did to be successful (and what didn’t work), it might just save us some time and frustration.

    Anyway, I’m sitting here with David’s ‘Teach Yourself Thai’ at the moment (it’s Mother’s Day… a holiday… so I’m taking it easy).

    And you just might be interested to know that his book focuses on roughly 500 words (not counting numbers and a few others). Give or take your lot and interest in life, they are pretty much the top words you should know when starting out learning Thai.

    And just this week I was googling around and came up with an interesting comment:

    ‘…the clearest outline of tone rules is in David Smyth’s little ‘Teach Yourself Thai’ book…’

    Not too shabby of a compliment.

    500+ vocab
    Sound (can put in iPod or iPhone)
    Teaches reading and writing
    Has both lessons and exercises

    And David even suggests to skip the learning how to read part (if you so wish)… he does go on after that, but you’ll have to buy the book to see just what he says about it 😉

    Anyway, if you are looking for an entry level program to try out, this could be it.

  12. I can attest to the fact that Thai’s will still know what you are saying when you get the tone wrong…I’m living proof.

    And another mark in the read Thai column…these interviews are great Cat but they are seriously making me mental! They all give great advice but I think the best approach ultimately is what the learner feels most comfortable with that way they will continue to learn.


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