Successful Thai Language Learner: Hugh Leong

Hugh Leong

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Hugh Leong
Nationality: U.S.A.
Age range: 60+
Sex: Male
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Profession: Currently retired and author of the series Professional English for Thailand (Hotel, Office, Hospital, Banking), Silkworm Books; write A Retiring Attitude, a retirement column for Chiang Mai City Life magazine; had careers as a Peace Corps volunteer, psychotherapist, computer consultant, English teacher, director A.U.A Chiang Mai, and free lance writer.


What is your Thai level?

Fluent, on my good days. On others I could just be babbling.

Do you speak more street Thai, or professional Thai?

I speak polite Thai. I can understand a lot of “Khum Muang” or Chiang Mai (Lanna) Thai but usually respond in Central Thai. Thailand is a very stratified country. If all you spoke were street Thai then it would be very difficult to communicate with professionals, academics, HiSos, politicos, monks, etc. You may or may not be interested in hanging out with any of these types but why limit yourself? Polite Thai works in all situations and with people at all levels of society whether they be the girl serving me noodles, the abbot of my local temple, or the governor of my province. Recently I had a nice conversation with the mayor of Chiang Mai. She spoke to me in Khum Muang and I spoke to her in Thai. That could not have happened if I had been speaking street Thai.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?


I initially came to Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer and we had three months intensive Thai training before arriving.

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

I am currently retired in Chiang Mai and first came to Thailand in 1969. I have lived here on and off for a total of about 15 years in country. For 5 years I spent the winters in Chiang Mai and the summers in Seattle, an endless summer. I am now settled down here on a retirement visa.

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

40 years. I still study Thai, mostly reading but sometimes watching Thai soap operas on TV or going to Thai movies. I like reading the Thai subtitles of western TV shows too. I study at least one hour every day, but sometimes lots more.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

I learned Thai before coming to Thailand (3 month, 6 hours a day, 6 days a week Peace Corps training) which gave me a good base, especially with the tones and simple grammar. Then I studied every day for the next 40 years.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

At first I had a regular tutor. Later I worked on my own. I try to read a little Thai every day. Currently I study Thai by writing posts for Women Learn Thai. I find that preparing to explain (or teach) something is a really good way to learn it.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

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.

Did one method stand out over all others?

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. I once met a hill tribe woman in Mae Hongson who spoke 10 languages (Thai, Northern Thai, Shan, Mandarin, Cantonese, Karin, Lahu, Lisu, Hmong, and I was speaking to her in English). She was a tour guide and needed them for her business. I would bet that by now she speaks some German and maybe a Scandinavian language or two. The best way to learn a language is to have a serious need to learn it. The next best way to learn a foreign language is to really like talking to people.

Each person learns in his or her own way so there is really no one method that stands out above any others. But if all you did was study reading and writing you are not really learning communication. Every language in the world started with speaking first. Writing is just an approximation in symbol form of what we say. So, what is the method that stands out? Talk. And listen. Talk and listen to everyone, your spouse, your maid, your caddie, the market lady, the taxi driver, your neighbors, your bartender.

The one exception is if you have children here. Speak to them solely in your native language. That will assure that they become bilingual, one of the great gifts we can give anyone.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I had spoken Thai for 25 years before I learned the alphabet. Many people on these pages stress the importance of learning to read and write. I do not disagree. But I do not have an opinion about how important reading and writing is because language learning is a very individual thing. We each learn in our own way. Some people can learn a word without seeing it written down. Others can’t learn a word’s tone without seeing it written and using the tone rules they have learned. As I said, I am an audio-centric person. Reading came much later.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I find everything about learning Thai difficult. I am not a really good language learner. I need to hear a word 20 times before I can remember it. I can’t spell in Thai. But I can’t really spell very well in English either so I don’t let it bother me. I figure that I was just born without the spelling lobe in my brain. So any achievement I have made is due to really really hard work and the fact that I just won’t give up until I get something right. Also, thank god for spell checkers. One thing I know that is true for me, if a Thai textbook or a Thai learning system has the words “Easy”, “Quick”, or “Simple” in its title then it is not for me. Thai is not easy, quick, or simple to learn.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

A while back I was writing some English pronunciation exercises for an upcoming book and I was working on a chapter on sentence intonation. I realized that English also had its tones. The difference is that they are at the sentence level. If you take the simple sentence “John’s going to the market.” and stress the word “John’s” then the sentence answers the question “Who’s going to the market?” If you stress the word “market” you answer the question “Where is John going?” The sentence takes on additional meaning when the intonation changes.

Both Thai and English are “tone” languages. The tones in English are on the sentence level and the tones in Thai are on the word level. A change in English tones usually adds to a meaning of a sentence. A change in Thai tones changes the meaning of a word.

I started to call this “the music of the language”. Just like songs, languages have words and music, and you must know them both before you can get it right. If you have trouble with tones try this. Listen to what the Thai person is saying and then try to hum it back, without using words, just a hum. The words, with their meanings, consonants, and vowels, won’t get in your way. All you will hear is the “music” of Thai. Those are the tones. After humming the sentence next try adding the words. Don’t forget to use the same music as before. This works whether we are learning Thai or English or any language. All languages have their own music.

How do you learn languages?

With great difficulty and hard work. Languages do not come easily to me. It’s like golf. I may never get it right but it is lots of fun trying.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

The biggest mistake people have is not to stress the importance of Thai tones. In my opinion, if you get the tones wrong, no matter how much they are smiling at you, no matter how much vocabulary you know, no matter how well you read and write, no one will understand a word you say. Let me change that a bit. If you have someone you spend lots of time with, your partner, paramour, maid, golf caddie, they may be able to “decipher” incorrect tones and guess what you mean. That becomes more of an idiolect, your own personal language, which can be understood by only a few.

Here is why tones are so important. The sounds of English can be divided into 3 very important parts, consonants, vowels, and intonation. If you get any of these wrong then the person listening will have trouble understanding you. For instance, let’s say we have trouble with our consonants. You want to say “Your life is fine,” but you confuse the consonants and come out with “Your wife is mine”, only two small consonant changes. But if you say this to the wrong person you will quickly see how important consonants are in English. In this case we say that the change in consonants is “morphemic”, it changes the word’s meaning. I don’t think that anyone would say that it is unimportant to learn the English consonants and vowels. Then why do some people insist that Thai tones are not essential to being able to speak and be understood?

In Thai, tones are just as important as consonants and vowels. Changes in Thai tones cause “morphemic” changes in the words. They mean something different. If one speaks toneless Thai it is the same as saying all English words using only one consonant. “Your life is fine” becomes “Tour Tife is Tine”.

No wonder Thais look at us incomprehensibly at times. I’m not saying learning Thai tones is going to be easy. I still get those looks sometimes. And when I do, I don’t blame the listener for not understanding me. I know I just have to work a little harder at it. In one of my favorite books, Alice in Wonderland, Alice and Humpty Dumpty have a discussion as to whether “Saying what you mean” is the same as “Meaning what you say”. I never could figure out who was right. But I do know that if we don’t use the correct tones when speaking Thai we will always be meaning one thing and saying another.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

No other people languages, but I can code in about 15 computer programming languages. The other day I saw where someone got a utility bill for $23 Quintilian. That is what happens when you get your tones wrong in a programming language.

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

Work hard, every day. Don’t give up. And no matter how old you are you can still learn. If I thought I would go for just one day without learning something new then I would want to leave this life and go on to what ever comes next. Learning new stuff just becomes a little harder as we get older. But we should not get discouraged just because it is hard. In fact, if something were easy, then why do it in the first place? The fun comes when we try something difficult and we succeed. They say keeping your brain active is one way to stave off senility. Well, if you are studying Thai then you’ll have nothing to worry about.

The Thais have a saying “Phak chee loy naa”, literally meaning “the coriander floating on top”. It means that all you see here is the surface of things, the pretty adornments floating on top of the Thai soup. The basic meaning is “We are inscrutable. There is lots about us that we won’t show you.” If you want to know what the soup is really made of then you need to know the language that the recipe is in. When you do, you’ll see that there are lots of goodies in the soup that you would have never been aware of if all you saw was that floating green stuff.

Good luck.

Hugh Leong

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

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11 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Hugh Leong”

  1. Another great interview! Thanks Hugh. As a fellow multi-lingual computer programmer, I can understand what you’re getting at.

    The hint to hum the tones make a lot of sense. The idea of singing when we speak reminds me of helping people with bad stutters to get around it by singing. Apparently, singing uses a different area of the brain to talking. (This must be why people with thick Glaswegian accents sing with no accent).

    The analogy of tones to consonants in English is helpful to me. As English speakers, we know what parts of speech are redundant & can be compressed or dropped. But knowing that different rules apply in Thai to what is key information makes the job of learning clearer.

  2. ‘So I guess I must retire’

    Let me know what your boss has to say, as this should be fun… 😀

    Well, I laugh, but my brother just this month got fed up with the rat race and walked away from his company and sold all his belongings. He flew to LAX to pick up a sail boat (he’s there now), with the plans of heading out to sea for ten months. Just like that. Bye bye civilization. Bye bye employment. Hello exciting world!

    I know that Hugh and my brother would get along just grand.

  3. Outstanding interview. I agree with what Martyn highlights, namely the music of the language being so important and the fact you’ll learn it if you really really need it. I think that might be the only way. So I guess I must retire. I’ll speak to my employer tomorrow 😉 (That ought to get a good laugh!)

  4. Talen, I am confident that I’ll be interviewing you about your adventuures into the Thai language. Why? Because I know you are chiselling away at it.

    And like Huge said… ‘In fact, if something were easy, then why do it in the first place? The fun comes when we try something difficult and we succeed.’

    He’s right. I look back at accomplishments in my life and they all took plenty of time and effort. And the most cherished were the hardest to pull off. And what a RUSH when I did!

  5. Another great interview Cat. One day hopefully you’ll be interviewing me and Martyn about our mastery of the language…I just hope we can get to the point where you would understand what was said.

    The best part about these interviews is the fact that they can inspire those of us that are still struggling and keep us heading in the right direction.

    I’m of to check out Hugh’s site as well…mostly because I’m nosy like that.

  6. You know Martyn, I was going to ask the very same thing. The photo Hugh sent over is a recent one and he looks so fit and young. But if his exercise regime is anything like his dedication to learning Thai, then I already know his secret.

    Those words from Hugh have quite inspired me. I’m off to check out Hugh’s site, have fun in the sun.

    Fabulous. And you are sure to enjoy his tips on retiring to Thailand too 🙂

  7. Catherine I really do think you should have asked Hugh how he keeps looking so young when he is actually into his sixties, perhaps that’s one secret he wishes to keep.

    Hugh revealed some good language secrets in this one and as picked up in Keith’s comment the ‘music’ of the language is a fascinating one. Also “Tour Tife is Tine” explains to me why I wipe the smile off many of the Thai faces that I attempt to converse with and…’The best way to learn a language is to have a serious need to learn it. The next best way to learn a foreign language is to really like talking to people.’…really hit home to me.

    In young Wilai’s village there is an old man that walks his cows past our house everyday and he often stops and talks to me. He chats in Thai and me in English without either of us knowing what the conversation is about. He sometimes sits with me at the garden table and we share a bottle of beer and I really would like to understand what the hell we’re meant to be talking about. Those words from Hugh have quite inspired me. I’m off to check out Hugh’s site, have fun in the sun.

  8. Hi Keith. Thai is very musical. It has a lovely rhythm and if you can catch hold of it, the tones slide out easily. And it has been said that if you can learn to sing Thai songs, you’ll speak fluent Thai. Eventually. Maybe I should give it a try 🙂

    Many non-English speakers the world over learn western songs without knowing what they mean first. I don’t know if they eventually figure the meanings out (the few I asked were surprised when I told them what they’d been singing).

    That’s a good suggestion. Thanks! I’ll add it to the new interviews coming up. I have several already in the works, so it’ll be two to three interviews in before you’ll see a response.

  9. Interesting interview. It is very admirable that he still studies Thai for an hour a day.

    I liked this part:

    The words, with their meanings, consonants, and vowels, won’t get in your way. All you will hear is the “music” of Thai. Those are the tones.

    If you don’t mind me saying, this reminded me of the TV method (or any method where a learner listens to the natural language without knowing what is being said) because this is the advantage you would get. The advantage of not knowing the words and their meanings is that they can’t get in the way.

    Catherine, I would like to suggest adding one more question to your interviews. It’s just a suggestion so you can freely ignore it. That question would be: What mistakes, if any, did you make in your approach to learning Thai?

  10. Thanks for another interesting interview. I’m so bored of reading Thai childrens books so the reading exercises posted in Hugh’s site are great! Printing them now 🙂



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