This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language…
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (insert laughs) I know this is a corny joke; however this joke holds the key to great success in language learning and in life. No one becomes an expert overnight and no one can become fluent by tomorrow. Just as the character, Bob Wiley, learned in the movie ‘What about Bob?’, we need to take baby steps to get where we want in life. Anything that seems beyond our ability to accomplish is possible as long as we take it one step at a time.
I first learned how this can be applied to language learning when I studied Thai as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As many young men of my church do, I volunteered to serve a two year mission, to wherever my church had need of me. Luckily, I was called to serve in Thailand. And that’s when my love affair with the Thai language began.
Two Months of Thai…
Funny enough this Thai language love affair didn’t start in Thailand. It started in the college town of Provo, Utah. Provo is where the Missionary Training Center is located and where my two months of 8-9 hour days of language study began. It was intense! The first day we were given a huge orange bound book, the textbook created by the church to teach missionaries Thai. I later called it ‘The Orange Book of Death.’
After getting this and a few other important things I would need, including a vaccination shot for Japanese encephalitis, I eventually made it to my classroom, my home away from home for the next two months. My teachers introduced themselves, shared why they were chosen to teach us Thai, and then the main teacher turned to the black board and wrote the phrase that changed my life.
Speak Your Language…
Speak Your Language? What does that mean? I’ve been told to watch my language, is that what it means? They quickly answered: “We are phasing out your English. From now on, once you learn something in Thai, you can no longer use English.”
They can’t be serious! I’m not ready to start speaking Thai! I haven’t even learned to say “Hello” yet! How can I start speaking Thai?!?
They weren’t joking. As soon as we learned a Thai word, our teachers no longer understood the English equivalent. And once we learned a Thai grammar pattern, we couldn’t use the English grammar pattern.
After a few weeks this is what our sentences were like: ผมไป get a drink, can ไหม? ห้องน้ำ is where?
As weird as that seems, it ended up being one of the best language learning tools on my journey to learning Thai.
How does speaking Thaiglish help?…
Firstly, this method allowed us to continue speaking without as many pauses.
New language learners pause because they try to think of words to say what they want to say, while at the same time trying to remember the grammar they need to say it with. This constant pausing is made worse by the fact that learners sometimes forget what they wanted to say in the first place. With ‘Speak Your Language’ we were speaking what we knew and didn’t have to worry about what we didn’t, so we didn’t have as many frustrating pauses typical of new language learners.
Secondly, the method showed us what we needed to know.
So much of our time in learning a language is often wasted learning words we don’t need right away. I had friends in high school who could name every animal known to God in Spanish, but couldn’t say “I would like that pencil please.” I learned how to say ‘even though’ in Thai, before I learned how to say ‘pineapple’. This wasn’t because the ‘Orange book of Death’ was so well written. It was because I heard myself saying ‘even though’ in English a lot so finally looked it up, and then started saying it in Thai.
The joke that changed everything…
The third thing that helped me was something the teachers didn’t intended on happening. As a joke, students in my class would speak English using Thai grammar. To give you an idea, here is an example:
“I think the following language Thai hard to enter heart, but I still excited that was called the church to go to Thailand. You eat already or still?”
This was when I realized that vocabulary and grammar are two separate skills. It’s what makes learning to speak Thai, or any language, so hard. You are trying to do two things at once and your brain is having a difficult time keeping up. I liken it to learning to play the piano with two hands. To think about two hands playing different rhythms and different notes at the same time can be overwhelming.
This variation of ‘Speak Your Language’, which started as a joke, unlocked a key to language learning for me. I would take Thai grammar structures foreign to English, like the noun+quantity+classifier, and practice using English vocabulary. Later on I would learn any needed Thai vocabulary. Once I was confident with both the sentence structure and the vocabulary, I would put the two together, in Thai.
The method is similar to how some piano players practice using one hand at a time, and then once he/she is more confident, combine both hands.
And eventually, just like a piano player, I didn’t have to separate the grammar from the vocabulary; I could just speak it.
In a flash two months went by and I stepped into the terminal at Don Muang Airport! No, I wasn’t fluent yet, but I was much stronger and capable at speaking Thai than I ever thought I possibly could be in a mere 2 months.
So, to paraphrase my earlier joke, how do you learn Thai? One word at a time.