Pale and Exhausted: Accounts of Thai Language Acquisition

Pale and Exhausted: Accounts of Thai Language Acquisition

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Pale and Exhausted: Accounts of Thai Language Acquisition…

In examining interviews of Thai language learners archived on Women Learn Thai (henceforth referred to as WLT), it is apparent that the experiences they report largely corroborate a number (but perhaps not all) of the theoretical claims in the literature on second language acquisition (SLA) and learning.

In this paper I will examine aspects of the learners’ accounts in relation to a large number of factors traditionally considered to impact on the acquisition of a second language. In order to provide a framework for the assessment of these experiences, I will borrow Sapolsky’s model of second language learning (with the implicit assumption that while not flawless, it serves as a functionally valid model). Thus I will begin by addressing the general ‘social context’ common to most of the learners.

I will move on to discuss factors relating to their attitudes, especially those relating to language learning, both general and specific, and towards Thai culture and acculturation. These attitudes in turn shed light on their various (but often quite similar) motivations for learning Thai.

From there, I will examine the ways in which learners’ attitudes and motivation interact with individual factors such as their age, personality, and previous knowledge (including prior second language knowledge and the role of cross linguistic influence).

Finally, I will consider the types of opportunities learners availed themselves of, as evidenced by their comments on the relative importance of the four skills, the role of formal instruction, preferred methods of study, learning strategies and use of learning resources. (Sapolsky, 1989: 28)


Because learners profiled on WLT were not interviewed with these specific categories in mind, there will be some overlap and redundancy across different ‘factors.’  Nonetheless, I will endeavor to create a comprehensive and cohesive, yet detailed overview of learner profiles as they relate to SLA literature.

Social Context…

The vast majority of learners interviewed have had significant (ten or more years) living experience in Thailand, and many are still living in Thailand at this time. Some were Peace Corp volunteers, while others have had a compelling experience in Thailand which motivated their return, such as Grace Robinson, who says “I felt I had left a piece of my heart in Thailand and had big dreams to live in the country.” (Grace Robinson, WTL). For others, their social context provided an immediate need to learn Thai.

Aaron Handel states “I learned Thai because it was necessary. If I were to ask in English for “fried rice with chicken,” Thai people would show me to the toilet or bring me their baby pictures. This just would not do. I had to learn Thai.” (Aaron Handel, WLT)  Another learner, who works in Thailand and must use Thai in a professional context states: “Helping as a translator at the Local Police Station was the wake up call. There you sink and die if your Thai is not up to speed and the added embarrassment of looking silly in front of a group of tourists and police is enough incentive to study harder.” (Aaron LeBoutillier, WLT)

Attitudes towards language learning…

Learners profiled on WLT had many things to say regarding their attitude towards language learning, especially regarding Thai. Aaron Handel reflects the attitude of many learners regarding the discipline required to learn Thai, especially concerning the mastery of tones, in saying “I firmly believe that to learn a tonal language like Thai, you need a drill sergeant!” (Aaron Handel, WLT) While most learners agreed that learning Thai requires discipline and perseverance, most also felt that a common misconception regarding the learning of Thai is that it is difficult. David Long states: “I believe that the thing that makes it difficult is mostly centered on how we try to do it! It seems to me that if a 2 year old can do it, then so can I and it doesn’t have to be hard!” (David Long, WLT

Another key attitude expressed by many learners was one regarding the importance of making mistakes. Jonas Anderson states this clearly in saying: “These 2 methods helped me more than anything else—1. Speaking the language with native Thai speakers as often and as much as possible, and 2. Being willing to make mistakes and not be discouraged by them or daunted by the frequency with which I initially made them.” (Jonas Anderson, WLT) Jonas also comments that he (as did many other learners) actively requested correction from his Thai friends when he did make mistakes in conversation.

This attitude regarding the usefulness of mistakes and feedback fits well with the ‘comprehensible output hypothesis,’ in which “The act of speaking forces us to try out our ideas about how the target grammar [and phonemic system] actually works, and of course gives us the chance of getting some feedback from interlocutors who may fail to understand our efforts.” (Mitchell & Meyers, 1998: 15)

Attitudes towards acculturation…

It has often been noted that more typically successful language learners display an integrative disposition – “a positive interpersonal / affective disposition towards the L2 group and the desire to interact with and even become similar to valued members of that community.” (Dörnyei, 5) In this sense the very act of speaking or learning the language equates to the process of becoming a member of a community, the process of acculturation. 

Nearly every learner interviewed has something to say which weaves together their language learning and acculturation process, thus validating the claim that “social realities are linguistically/discursively constructed”.

Christy Gibson states this well: “Thai Language and Culture go hand in hand. So true. Learning about and being immersed in the culture and understanding has helped me a lot in my usage of the Thai language and my understanding of the things that Thai people say and what they mean when they say it, etc. I think it’s difficult to know how to use the language, at least on a deeper level, if you don’t really understand the culture and/or Thai mentality and way of life.” (Christy Gibson, WLT) Tom Parker also comments: “I believe language is the key to understanding culture and aids integration which is one factor contributing to contented, successful living in Thailand.” (Tom Parker, WLT) Finally, Grace Robinson comments on the integrated aspect of language and culture in saying “Personally, I have benefitted from getting to know the culture at the same time, this is really crucial, as the two cannot be separated. You will find many connections between language and culture and this will really raise interest and pleasure from learning.” (Grace Robinson, WLT)


For many, the social context and immediate need stimulated further motivation for study.  For some, this motivation was integrative. David Long states “I moved to Thailand in 1987 and wanted very much to be integrated into Thai society.” (David Long, WLT) Garreth Marshall, in a comment typical of the implicit attitude of many learners profiled on WLT, says “I couldn’t imagine living in a country where I can’t communicate with people or interact with the local culture/lifestyle.” (Gareth Marshall, WLT)  For Paul Garrigan, integrative motivation was more particular: “I have been interested in Buddhist philosophy since my teens and wanted to be able to communicate with monks in Thai and read some of the Buddhist resources that are only available in Thai.” (Paul Garrigan, WLT

These accounts, which all come from intermediate and advanced learners, seem to support Nikolov’s propostition that “successful language learners …have very strong integrative motivation to become bona fide residents of the target language society” and “try to feel at home in the culture as well as in the language.” (Nikolov, 2000: 5)

Many of the learners, such as Aaron Le Boutillier and Marcel Barang, as well as those who came to Thailand with the Peace Corps, also have or had a professional reason to learn Thai. In addition to integrative motivation, their reasons for learning Thai were instrumental. Because of this further motivation, achievement of a positive learning outcome became even more certain. As Hinenoya and Gatbonton have stated:  “the higher the learners’ desire … to find employment, seek advancement, and so on (instrumental motivation), the better their performance … and the higher their proficiency levels” (Hinenoya and Gatbonton, 2000: 1)

For others, the motivation stemmed from the challenge and fun of learning. Aaron Handel defines Thai in relation to European languages he had previously studied with little interest “Thai is different. Thai is a tonal language. This makes it fascinating and challenging for a native English speaker.” (Aaron Handel, WLT) Another Thai language learner (not profiled on WLT), Luke Grimes, describes the enjoyment he gets from the challenge of learning Thai as a kind of intellectual pursuit, a puzzle to be solved, like a sudoku, but on a far more gratifying level. This type of gratification may relate motivationally as a sort of converse to Ringbom’s observation that “similarities may obscure for the learner the fact that there is something to learn.” (Gass & Selinker, 2008: 146) Because there are so few similarities between European languages and Thai, it becomes thoroughly evident that there is everything to be learned anew and thus doubly challenging and doubly rewarding.

Many others, such as Chris Pirazzi, commented on the ‘fun’ they had in learning Thai as being a primary motivating factor. It is surprising that in so much of the literature on language acquisition and learning, the word ‘fun’ never comes into use. It would seem that further research into the factor of ‘fun’ and what comprises a fun experience in language learning is long overdue. 

What is common to almost all the learners interviewed is their degree of commitment and the enjoyment they obtain from learning and using Thai. Tom Parker offers a statement typical of the level of commitment seen in learners on WLT:  “In the first year of studying Thai I was absolutely determined to master the language and studied it obsessively, that helped give me a good foundation in Thai which I think still pays off today.” (Tom Parker, WLT) And Aaron Le Boutillier sums up well the level of enjoyment obtained in saying “Absolute passion. I am never happier than when I have learnt a new word in the morning and then use it with ease in the afternoon. Magic!” (Aaron LeBoutillier, WLT)

Age, Personality, and Previous Knowledge…

With regards to age, Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson comment that “Younger learners acquire second languages automatically from mere exposure, while older learners have to make conscious and labored efforts.” (Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson, 2000: 152, in Singleton 2003: 10) This seems to be reflected in comments by learners on WLT who began their learning as adults (referred to above) on the necessity for discipline and perseverance in the learning of Thai. Nonetheless, the discipline and perseverance do pay off, and most of the learners profiled have achieved a high level of proficiency. Thus, Nikolov’s observation that “it has been shown that the strong version of CHP cannot be maintained” (Nikolov, M.) holds true. 

One of the few individuals who started his Thai learning as a child comments “I think that the reason Thais compliment my Thai pronunciation … is that I am fortunate to have arrived in Thailand when quite young so picking up the Thai accent was easier than if I had moved here as an adult.”  (Jonas Anderson, WLT)

One feature that stands out as essential for nearly all learners is the importance of mastering Thai tones and the importance of doing this early on. This is generally expressed (and also personally corroborated by this author) as a very difficult pursuit for an adult learner. Here, the literature on language acquisition seems to provide a solid understanding of the underlying reasons for this. Bavin states that “the ability to discriminate the earlier sounds weakens if these sounds are not part of the language being acquired.” (Bavin, 1995: 3) Also, “children acquire the system they are exposed to. Children encode notions only if they are categorized in their language” (Bavin, 1995:  10)

So, adults learning Thai for the first time arrive at their pursuit with an encoded system which does not include a large number of notions which are critical to comprehension and production of correct Thai. Furthermore, our capacity for discriminating such sounds (notions) has been impoverished by an L1 acquisition process which did not make use of them. This phenomenon can also be seen through the stance of connectionism, in which “links become stronger as these associations keep recurring, and they also become part of larger networks as connections between elements become more numerous.” (Mitchell & Meyers, 1998: 79) Adult learners of Thai arrive at their pursuit with a paucity of neural connections necessary for determining tones and short and long vowels. However, through discipline and perseverance those connections are created.

Concerning personality, I venture to extrapolate on the notion that “The classroom culture is constrained by ethnolinguistic norms of society at large.” (Leather & Van Dam, 2002:17) If this can be taken as true, it may also be apparent that an individual’s learning culture at large is both positively and negatively defined by the norms of their society in general. Thus, we can explain (somewhat ethnocentrically) the preponderance of British and American learners not by those societies’ typical lack of polyglots, but by their purported tendency to produce individuals who thrive in going against the grain and in the face of challenge. Having said that, it should not go unnoticed that a far greater number of Thai and other Asian nationals have persevered and strived beyond the constraints of their particular classroom situations to achieve sufficiently high levels of English proficiency as to study at Master’s and Doctorate level coursework.

With regards to previous knowledge, in particular, knowledge of other languages, it is striking that most learners profiled had little or no previous successful language learning experience or interest. Tom Parker states “I had no interest in French and German at school and as far as I was concerned learning a second language (especially Thai) was beyond me. Luckily my tutors encouraged me to take the plunge and I’ve never looked back. … “ (Tom Parker, WLT) Aaron Handel’s experience also reflects this state of affairs: “I was never particularly good at learning languages in school. I was a ‘C’ student in German. Frankly, I did not have much interest in learning.” (Aaron Handel, WLT) These findings would seem to fly in the face of those of Klein, as reviewed in Gass and Selinker (2008), “that multilinguals out-performed monolinguals in both [lexical and syntactic] types of learning.” (Gass and Selinker, 2008: 153) However, those who did have other successful (and mostly subsequent) language learning experiences, did so with similar languages – Issan Thai, Lao, or for a few Vietnamese or Mandarin.  This seems to fit well with Gass and Selinker’s observation that “Similarities[between previously learned languages and the TL], both cross-linguistic and interlinguistic, function as pegs on which the learner can hang new information by making use of already existing knowledge, thereby facilitating learning.” (Gass and Selinker, 2008: 137) 

Some comments regarding the role of cross-linguistic influence are interesting, and corroborate both this author’s experience as well as the SLA literature. Chris Pirazzi says “I used to know French but if I try to speak French now, Thai words and grammar come out.”  (Chris Pirazzi, WLT)  Grace Robinson comments “I learnt Spanish at school although was never really in to it. I feel like the language learning part of my brain is like a sponge, which will only soak up one language at a time, when I try to remember Spanish now Thai just comes out!” (Grace Robinson, WLT) Mitchell and Meyers explain the action of cross-linguistic interference in connectionism in a way which makes sense of these comments: “L2 learners come to the task with some pre-existing pattern of connectivity which interferes with the task in hand.” (Mitchell & Meyers, 1998: 83) In this case, it is the more recently acquired, and therefore more active L2 which interferes with the task of producing a previously learned L2.

Learning Opportunities…

Finally, as a result of all of the abovementioned factors, learners availed themselves of a number of different learning opportunities:  these are reflected in their comments on the relative importance of the four skills, the role of formal instruction, preferred methods of study, learning strategies and use of learning resources, including textbooks, web resources, or informal use of their environment.

Many of the learners profiled on WLT are largely self-taught, and describe themselves as not being ‘classroom learners.’ However, most began their learning in a classroom situation, and almost every one of them stresses the importance of the drilling of Thai sounds. This word, drilling, comes up so frequently in regards to the sounds of Thai language that it could almost be considered mandatory from a unanimous perspective. Perhaps, again, this can best be seen from a connectionist framework, as explained above. Additionally, almost all learners stress the importance of learning to read Thai script, not only for the sake of reading, but also for the achievement of correct pronunciation and overall learning. Grace Robinson states “Being able to read and write with the Thai alphabet system is key to getting the correct pronunciation.” (Grace Robinson, WLT)  Most learners claim that they did not find learning to read difficult, but one of the few who did also claims “In my view learning to read Thai is the principal factor contributing to successful Thai language learning.” (Tom Parker, WLT)

One of the few keen classroom learners states: “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.” (David Smyth, WLT) This resonates clearly with Dörnyei’s contention that “the classroom environment – and, more generally, the contextual surroundings of action” have a strong motivational influence. (Dörnyei, 11)

So, in regards to learning of the four skills, it can be said that overall learners place a strong emphasis on the importance of reading and the mastery of correct pronunciation in speech. The part played by listening in pronunciation also should not be overlooked. RiKker Dockum states: “ I’d say a strength of mine is that I have a good ear for mimicry. One “secret” to my success has been to carefully observe and internalize how and what native speakers say. This includes tones, stress patterns, vocabulary, idioms. And then reproduce what I hear.” (Rikker Dockum, WLT) Another learner, David Long, emphasizes the importance of listening in saying “I would advise students to spend as much time looking and listening, and as little time speaking as possible. It makes sense to me that the more we’re talking, the less we’re able to hear, and if we want to understand Thai, we need to be listening to Thais as much as we can.” (David Long, WLT)


Despite some of the above mentioned consistencies, one learner says “Each person learns in his or her own way so there is really no one method that stands out above any others.” (Hugh Leong, WTL) The variety of preferences with regard to learning methods and strategies seen across the interviews seems to support this. Aaron Handel’s first strategy was to travel around Thailand with a tape recorder and record “various Thai speakers as they read from a text book.” (Aaron Handel, WLT) He later used these recordings to drill pronunciation. Interestingly, he states: “Initially, I was not really learning Thai, but learning how to learn. I was collecting information,” and “I find it difficult to separate the idea of ‘learning how to learn’ from actually learning to speak Thai. (Aaron Handel, WLT) This bridging of learning and communication strategies seems to support observations made by Griffiths that “learners may have a dual motivation to both learn and communicate …learners may learn language even when the basic motivation was to communicate.”  (Griffiths, 2004: 3)

Learners also assessed their strengths and weaknesses in ways which can be related to strategies.  David Long says “My strength in Thai is being able to use it without forethought- I simply use it like I do English. My weakness is in translation. When someone asks me what a phrase or word means, it’s often the case that I’ve never thought about what it might mean in any other language, so it’s very difficult sometimes.” (David Long, WLT) Jonas Anderson states: “After a certain amount of exposure to the language it is good to go back and try to put labels on some of the things you have learned through language books and courses and then you can progress a lot more quickly, but if you start out trying to dissect the language with theory and terminology it could be much more frustrating.” (Jonas Anderson, WLT) These comments reflect both the cognitive and metacognitive elements of language learning and use strategies.  (Cohen, 1996: 4) 

Many of the social aspects of strategies are reflected in some quotes from the above sections on acculturation and motivation. The affective element of the learning process can be seen in comments such as “Thais are so complimentary about even the most elementary efforts to speak Thai, so it can be hard to assess oneself properly.” (Jonas Anderson, WLT) While this would point towards interference with valid self-assessment, such experiences, frequently reported, are no doubt affectively motivating.

In regards to learning resources, interviewees mention a number of different texts, the use of flash cards, recordings and other devices (including Facebook and Twitter), and of course, as detailed above, the resources provided by the immersion experience itself. Furthermore, many learners have gone on to create resources for others, in the form of books or websites. It should be noted that there is a great learning value in teaching others, and this is something that can be brought into use in the classroom by the L2 teacher. But the one account which stood out most and which again illustrates the degree of sheer effort and perseverance required comes from Aaron Handel. 

“I had the Thai tapes that Nók and I had made. And I had motivation. I was inspired by the friendliness and generosity of Thai people. I was intrigued by the language and the culture. I told myself, “I’m going to try this. I’m going to learn to speak Thai.” I locked myself in the room for 30 days, going out only for food and water. I drilled the tapes as I read the text. Drill! Say it again. No, that’s not right. Do it again! Drill again, with better pronunciation. Focus on the tone. Even if it is only one syllable, drill that tone again and again… After 30 days, I emerged from my room, pale and exhausted. Had I learned anything? Yes. Although I didn’t realize it yet, I had broken the tonal barrier. I learned most of the Thai that I now speak, during those 30 days.” (Aaron Handel, WLT)

Concluding remarks…

As can be seen through so many of the above mentioned accounts, the learning patterns detailed here, with very few exceptions, support the validity of the body of literature on second language learning and acquisition. There are two factors evident in learners’ accounts, yet conspicuously absent from SLA literature: one is that of the role of rote learning, hard work, and intense dedication to the learning process; the other is the importance of fun.


  • Bavin, E. L. (1995). Language Acquisition in Cross linguistic Perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 373-396.
  • Churchill, Eton. A Case Study of a JSL Learner and a Word: A Dynamic Systems Account of the Path from Ecology to Form-relations. To appear in: Applied Linguistics.
  • Cohen, A. (1996). Second Language Learning and Use Strategies: Clarifying the Issues.  Minneapolis: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota.
  • Dörnyei, Z. (no date). Attitudes, Orientations, and Motivations in Language Learning: Advances in Theory, Research, and Applications. Nottingham: University of Nottingham.
  • Gass, S. & Selinker, L. (2008). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course (3rd edition). New York: Routledge.
  • Griffiths, C. (2004). Language Learning Strategies: Theory and Research. Auckland: School of Foundation Studies.
  • Hinenoya, K. & Gatbonton, E. (2000). ‘Ethnocentrism, Cultural Traits, Beliefs, and Proficiency: A Japanese Sample.’ The Modern Language Journal 84 no2, 225 – 40.
  • Leather, J. and Van Dam, J. (2002). Ecology of Language Acquisition. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Mitchell, R. and Myles, F. (1998). Second Language Learning Theories. London: Arnold.
  • Nikolov, M. (2000). ‘The Critical Period Hypothesis Reconsidered: Successful adult learners of Hungarian and English’ IRAL 38 (2), 109 – 24.
  • Successful Thai language learners
  • University of Hawaii: Discursive Practice: Specialization

Note 1: in every case, WTL refers to files archived at: WLT’s Archives

Christopher Stern,

1 thought on “Pale and Exhausted: Accounts of Thai Language Acquisition”

  1. WOW, in that entire piece, you didn’t cite “Tod Daniels” even a single time! Man, you burst my bubble for sure, ;P. Here I thought I was becoming a legend somewhere else insteada only in my own mind!

    Sadly my motivation and my “acculturation process” (<- catchy term) came about as a necessity. It is my experience that; "Thais in general pretty much ain't all that good in what passes for engrish here".

    I found out after nearly three fruitless years of attempting to compel Thais to speak engrish that I simply had to learn to speak something resembling Thai so that these people understood me. I had to do that in order to accomplish goals, achieve objectives and "live" rather than just "exist" here. Even mundane stuff that most other "developing third world countries" have down pat in English became giant hurdles or turned into "dog and pony shows" here. These are things I've ONLY crossed with the tenuous grip on their language which I possess.

    It's the same reason I invested so much time in studying the mythical beast sold to foreigners the world over as; "Thai culture". I needed to know what "being Thai" meant in a practical usable sense of the term. Now I admit I did that for totally self serving reasons. I found the better I understood "why Thais act SO darned Thai", and in what "framework" they operate in, the easier I was able to manipulate them with in it. This resulted (and still results) in me "getting my way" more times than not. Yes, I admit, sometimes it's by backing them into a "corner culturally"; where the only option open for them is to do what I want. Still, the Thais I know and interact with appear no worse for wear from this strategy.

    Interesting article, interesting observations, dunno that I agree with it all, but hey, that's the good thing about compiling data. Depending on the criteria used and references cited, an intelligent person can "skew" the outcome some. Not that I'm sayin' the author did, only that it can be done.

    Like I said, interesting, thought provoking stuff, good to know.

    Please realize no disrespect is implied or intended to either the Thais, foreigners who speak Thai or the author of the piece. My take on "all-thingz-thai" may indeed run counter to yours. Believe me; that's okay by me! If this response is too far "off topic" feel free to delete it Cat. ..


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