Successful Thai Language Learner: Terry Fredrickson

Terry Fredrickson

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Terry Fredrickson
Nationality: American
Age range: 60+
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Head of educational services for the Bangkok Post

Twitter: @terryfrd

What is your Thai level?


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

Professional Thai, street Thai, Issan Thai and southern Thai (I enjoy dialects).

What were your reasons for learning Thai?


I was a US Peace Corp volunteer assigned to Nakornsrithammarat Teachers College.

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

Have lived here since 1992 with a previous stint from 1968 to 1981.

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

Had three months of intensive Peace Corps training on the island of Hawaii before arrival with a team of 20 Thai teachers. Unbelievably good. Apart from Peace Corps training I had about one more month of formal training. I mainly learned from day to day experience. About two weeks of that formal training came after a year in country. That was when I was finally able to straighten out my tones forever — thanks largely to one very strict teacher.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

Our training 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.

Did one method stand out over all others?

When I got in country, I immediately started using my tape recorder. That is how I learned to read. Once I mastered the alphabet and the tone rules, I jumped into the old Mary Haas reader, having previously taped students reading the texts. Within days I could look at long lines of text and see words instead of a jumble of letters needing decoding. Listening while reading also allowed me to see how the parts of sentences fit together.

What about writing Thai? I also used listening in learning to write. I would listen to a line of text and then try to write it out, making corrections after looking at the text.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Not really.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

Hearing the word “bird’s nest” (rang nok) after reading it the day before. I am sure I had heard it, and many other words, previously, but they had just passed by because I hadn’t been reading.

How do you learn languages?

Listening and speaking to people, followed by reading.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths: Pronunciation, general vocabulary, humour, knowing what is appropriate in different situations.

Weaknesses: Making the same mistakes for 20 years. They become noticeable when dealing TV scripts. The sentences are not quite what I would normally say. Inability to communicate fluently in certain more technical subjects.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Malay, or at least, I used to.

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


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

Speak confidently, even if you are not. Speaking tentatively will inevitably skew your tones. Get into reading as soon as possible so you can see how a word is really pronounced. Before that, find materials that use a real phonetic alphabet. Trying to represent Thai in English is hopeless. As someone else pointed out, vowel length is very important in Thai, ie., it’s not just the tones. Listen constantly, even if you don’t understand what is being said. Use the media. I learned to read the newspaper very quickly and I watch Thai TV everyday, especially news shows.

You speak Thai dialects. Do you have any advice for learning a dialect?

First, get your central Thai down solid. Then you should realise that the tone changes in Thai dialects are very systematic. For example, take words beginning with a mid consonant with a maithoo that don’t have stop finals, e.g. baan (house) and dai (can). They will both shift in tone from central Thai in exactly the same way. Somewhere there is a chart of about 15 representative words that will allow you to determine all the tone shifts in a particular dialect.

Terry Fredrickson
Twitter: @terryfrd

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

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5 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Terry Fredrickson”

  1. My advice to beginners is to learn to read Thai to a competent level,then go out and buy a couple of Thai phrase books for Thais who want to learn basic English.This way there are no mistakes,you are reading and understanding Thai correctly.
    Most English-Thai phrasebooks use the same given formats, the airport,in your hotel,at the petrol station or asking directions,and are very basic.Once you get into reading Thai phrasebooks and/or newspapers you will soon begin to realise that a whole new world has opened for you.Enjoy.

  2. I think you are right. I notice that when I switch to southern Thai my demeanour changes and I almost feel that I am in a different culture. I got the tone shifts by learning sets of words with the same tones, but I think listening to texts read in southern Thai — and later Isarn Thai — helped me internalise them faster. Having a native speaker work with me on a regular basis was useful too.

  3. I have a question/comment about the advice for learning a dialect. How useful is it going to be to know the system of tone shifts while speaking? I am of the belief that it is not possible to be thinking about tones and especially tone rules/shifts while speaking. To be able to switch between dialects must require a switch in your state of mind where you would feel you are in a totally different language. A requisite amount of exposure should be able to create that ability to switch.


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