Successful Thai Language Learner: Antonio Graceffo

Successful Thai Language Learner: Antonio Graceffo

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Antonio Graceffo
Nationality: American
Age range: 40-50
Sex: Male
Location: Shanghai, China
Profession: University lecturer/author
Website: Speaking Adventure

What is your Thai level?

Upper Intermediate (Listening and speaking only).

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

Standard Thai (Bangkok).

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I lived in a monastery, studying with monks and I wanted to understand them.

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


I live in China now, but I have lived in Thailand a total of about 2.5 years, spread out from 2003-2008 and frequently go there for work, up to a month at a time.

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

I studied at AUA for a total of about three months. 2007 for 2 months and one month in 2009.

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

When I lived in the monastery I didn’t have any classes, so I just had to acquire the language naturally. When I attended AUA, I learned by listening only.

I stayed in the monastery for three months, improving but without proper lessons, it was hard to learn. Then I worked in Thailand, on and off, as a journalist, where I had to use the language to conduct interviews. Later, in 2007, I moved to Bangkok for the express purpose of learning Thai in school. I remained in AUA for about 2 or 3 months, then went into the field in Cambodia for work for several months. I came back to Thailand in September of that year and began working in Burma, based out of Chiang Mai. So I was speaking Thai every day, but was no longer studying. I went back to AUA for classes again in 2009. By then, my Thai was at a pretty good level and I really felt relaxed and happy in class. Unfortunately, my work took me to Malaysia and then Hanoi, and I don’t think I have studied Thai again since then. But, I was back in the field in 2011, on Burma border, conducting interviews in Thai language.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

No not at all.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

ALG Automatic Language Growth which is a listening based, natural language acquisition theory. I use it for Chinese and am not writing a masters thesis about it. The world expert on ALG is David Long, and you can study in his program at AUA in Bangkok (Chamchuri Square Office Tower on Rama IV Rd).

Did one method stand out over all others?

Yes, I took ALG with me to China. Now I am preparing for HSK national Chinese exam and I primarily study by ALG, watching 4 hours of TV per day. I log my hours. So far, I have listened to over 500 hours of Chinese. In Thailand, I logged 250 hours of Thai in class, but didn’t watch any TV or movies. I also didn’t know how to count the hours I spent in the field, doing interviews. If I went back to Thailand to finish studying Thai, which I may do, I will use ALG and watch a lot of TV and movies.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?


What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

After being in AUA, I went into the field and during a very long weekend of interviews, on a mountain top in Burma, it suddenly hit me that I was functioning largely without my translator. According to ALG, you learn by listening, but your learning needs to be activated. Activation happens naturally, as your mind needs time to process what you have learned. So, I guess that is a semi-scientific explanation of the aha moment. The aha moment comes when your brain is done processing.

When I studied Vietnamese intensely in Saigon, I got dengue fever and was in a delirium for several days. During that time, I dreamed only in Vietnamese, when I woke up, my level had jumped dramatically. I guess my brain was processing. Probably, you process better when you aren’t doing other things and when you aren’t studying the language. For most of us, this probably happens only when we are sleeping or maybe if you are a long distance runner or swimmer, your brain will process your language learning while you are exercising. But I have read of other people awaking from a fever with a brilliant idea or a level jump.

How do you learn languages?

Until I came to Asia, I always used a combination of core novel method, which means just reading novels, countless hours per day, never using a dictionary and never taking notes. You just read and read and eventually you learn. I used this method, plus watching TV. When I got to Asia, I found I couldn’t use core novel method because the script is different and really hard to read. I also couldn’t watch TV and movies, because I hated local TV and movies. So, I used traditional language learning, with books and tutors, always private lessons, and lots of contact with locals, till I found AUA. After that, I always tried to create listening based input situations for myself. In China, I walk around with headphones in nearly all day, listening to Chinese soaps. At home, I only watch Chinese TV.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

The strength of natural language learning is that you learn good pronunciation and native usage. The downside is that you don’t learn to read, write, or translate. I have a translation background, so I sometimes war with myself about ALG. Any of the natural language acquisition methods help you develop a set of foreign vocabulary and usage which is completely separate from English. This reduces native tongue interference, but it makes translation impossible. You will understand everything being said, but stammer if you try to translate it to English, because your brain isn’t trained that way. The two languages co-exist in your brain, with no connection between them.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

There are so many. Where to begin? It is a myth that children learn faster than adults. If adults and children are given the same amount of input they learn at the same rate or adults learn faster because they are smarter. If you follow ex-pat families, if the kids go to international school, which is taught in English, at the end of a year in Thailand they may speak literally zero Thai. Obviously, if you put the kids in a Thai school they will learn Thai, but that’s not because they are younger. It’s because they are getting more input.

Another misconception is that it is somehow beneficial to hangout with locals. This is a myth. It is true that you need input to learn a language. But if you hang out with locals, are you speaking English or Thai? If you having out with them for 3 hours, are you actually getting 3 hours of exposure to the language? If you are allegedly having conversations, are you just answering the same tired questions again and again (Where you come from? How long you stay Thailand?). If you attend 3 hours of ALG classes, you get 3 hours of comprehensible input. If you watch 3 hours of TV, you get three hours of input.

No matter how bad your Thai is, Thai people will tell you speak Thai well. But ask yourself, honestly, can you have the same level of conversation in Thai that you have in your native tongue? Can you walk into a conversation between two native speakers, and jump in without derailing their conversation? Can you understand two native speakers talking behind you on the sky train?

One of the largest myths is that people severely overestimate their own ability in a foreign language.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I am fluent, at native speaker level, in English and German. I am a non-strict native speaker of Spanish and was raised non-strict native speaker of Italian. I have attended university in both Spain and Costa Rica but never taken Italian classes, so my Italian is not nearly as good, even though I was raised with all three languages. I attended four years of applied linguistics education at University of Mainz in Germany, all taught in German. I studied at Social Science University in Saigon for one semester, Vietnamese language. Right now, I am preparing HSK level 4 exam for Chinese, here in Shanghai. I studied at Dong A University in Busan, South Korea for 7 months and passed both a Chinese and Korean language exam to be accepted to grad school there. I have since forgotten nearly all of my Korean and Vietnamese. To get into university in Germany I had to have four years of French, but I don’t claim to speak it. I also speak Khmer and frequently was in the field doing interviews in Cambodia without a translator or with a Chinese-Khmer or French-Khmer or Thai-Khmer translator.

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

No, but I was shooting off to Cambodia and other countries to work and conduct interviews. Also, I took huge breaks from Thailand, where I would live in other countries, studying other languages. But even in Thailand I use Chinese nearly every day.

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

Input! You need comprehensible input. Output so much less important. Don’t talk till you really have something to say. Until then, just listen. Listen to your teachers, TV, movies, podcasts… ride the skytrain and eavesdrop on conversations, anything, but just listen.

The ALG Thai program calls for 800 hours listening, followed by 2,500 hours of a mix of all four skills. National Language Services and Defense Language Institute both rate Thai as a category 3 language and require about 2,000 hours to learn it.

There are no shortcuts.

Antonio Graceffo,
Speaking Adventure

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

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