Successful Thai Language Learner: Don Sena

Successful Thai Language Learner: Don Sena

This article was originally posted on

  • Get your FREE Thailand Cheat Sheet ​by entering your email below. The ​Sheet, based on ​our experience with living and working in ​Thailand for 10+ years, shows you how to ​save time and money and ​gives you the tools the thrive in Thailand.

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Don Sena
Nationality: American
Age range: 68 
Sex: Male
Location: Phoenix, AZ, USA
Profession: Translation (Thai – English), Editing (English); semi-retired

What is your Thai level?

Intermediate – Advanced (I think).

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

Standard Thai (Central Plains dialect).

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

Was stationed in Thailand during late sixties; general passion for languages led to inquiry into language spoken and written officially in Thailand.

Do you live in Thailand? If not, now much time have you spent in Thailand?  


Do not reside in Thailand; have not returned since leaving in 1969. Was stationed in Thailand for twenty-one months.

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

Have been a student of Thai – on again, off again – since June of 1967.

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

It was a very gradual approach, starting in June of 1967. Study was persistent throughout the period of twenty-one months ending in 1969. It continued when I returned to the US. I had my books that I had brought from Thailand and acquired more here in the US.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

It wasn’t very regular, as I could only do it when not assigned duty. Even now, my study isn’t really very regular.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I am entirely self-taught. I obtained the best books I could find — those with the most information and generally written in the old style of explicit rule descriptions. Linguistically-oriented books were especially helpful.

Did one method stand out over all others?

The linguistic orientation of Richard B. Noss of the Foreign Service Institute (1964) with its rigorous analysis proved to be prominent.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I actually found a book shortly after arriving in Thailand that explained completely the orthography, including “tone rules.” I scrutinized it in its entirety.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

It would have been difficult if hadn’t been so fascinating. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn more. I developed a handwriting that won the admiration of the Thais who saw it.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

It was probably when I found that I could handwrite a letter (in Thai) and receive back a type-written letter (also in Thai) in response.

How do you learn languages?

I prefer scholastically-written books – those that are meant for the college classroom, even though I may intend to learn on my own. After absorbing a good description of the language, reading printed articles and other such items follows. The same block of text needs to be read and reread multiple times until it can be oralized with ease. Contact with native speakers is a further aid in learning to be understood and – hardest of all – to understand the spoken language.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

An analytical mind has been for me very useful. I still receive (the spoken language) with great difficulty.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

It is possibly the greatest misconception concerning any foreign tongue: an unawareness of the phenomenon of polysemy – the array of related meanings associated with almost every vocabulary item in any language. Because of polysemy, there are no one-to-one correspondences between the meanings of a word in one language and the meanings of any one word in some other language.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I can. I’ve studied numerous other languages, though I’ve made the most progress in Thai.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

I have recently completed a BSE program in computer-systems engineering. It involved quite a bit of programming. One program I wrote on the side was an early Thai word program – useful before the development of the 16-bit Unicode system of character representation. The program runs on either UNIX or LINUX. It combines standard ASCII characters into a form of “ASCII art” resulting in readable Thai. It has editing features, as well. It has no practical application, though.

Do you have a passion for music?

I do. Late Renaissance and Baroque-period music consumes my passion almost entirely. Its deeply euphoric appeal to the emotions and very light intricacy in its melodic interweaving render it instinctively beautiful to almost any listener. This period came to an end in the year 1750.

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

Once I began Thai while stationed in Thailand, I studied no other language until some time after returning to the US a year and nine months later. I did later study (through university classes) Japanese and Russian.

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

Do not use transliteration. It is grossly inadequate to the features of Thai. Do use transcription – IPA style – as it is (at least) capable of revealing certain important features not visible in the Thai orthography. Use detailed written accounts of the language – the kind that require a lot of study. Make sure that when using a teacher, that the teacher is not offering some quick-fix approach. Reject any teacher that uses transliteration. Understand that learning a language is a major task, and that there is nothing more complex that human language – whether humanly devised or natural. Human language, unlike animal language, is capable of an infinite number of utterances. Machine translation from language to language is far short of perfection and may possibly be inherently incapable of ever achieving complete reliability.

Don Sena

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.

6 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Don Sena”

  1. That’s a really good way to put it Martyn. Currently, I spell it with a subscript m. Btw, I had no idea that majuscule was a word until right now, I had to look it up on just to be sure, although the auto-correct would disagree.

  2. motivation…some of us spell it with a minuscule m, others with a majuscule M. It sounds the same but there’s one helluva difference and you are right that’s the secret to mastering languages. It depends a lot on how big your motivation is.

  3. Catherine and Don – The go it alone approach has worked in this case with self taught study being the favourable route. A lot of determination is also needed between the book pages for this to work. The problem with going it alone is that it’s easier to give up, you have nobody to spur you on or let down. Don is obviously a man full of perseverance and a very clever one too.

    If Don reads this I’d like to ask him if he’s ever been tempted to return to Thailand and try out his language skills in the true Thai language wok.

  4. Thank you Lisa. I love reading the interviews as well. It’s almost like Xmas when a new one comes in 🙂

    Todd (writes the Thai school reviews) ran into Don on Glenn’s forum. Don’s posts on the Thai language are impressive so if you do aim to learn Thai, that’s certainly the forum to lurk at. Or post. I’m more of a lurker myself.

  5. Hi Catherine, I love reading your interviews about successful Thai language learners. I only know English and a bit of Spanish. I’d really like to learn French but Thai seems interesting too.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.