Successful Thai Language Learner: Joe Cummings

Joe Cummings

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Joe Cummings
Nationality: American
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok and Chiang Mai
Profession: Editor/writer/musician

What is your Thai level?

On a 5-point oral proficiency scale, I’d rate 4.5 (near-native). I manage academic reading just fine, and write well enough for emails, notes, etc, but not at an academic level. Frankly I’ve never met an adult learner of Thai who could write at a native academic level.

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

Professional Thai at work, street Thai with my friends, and Lao/Isan (Vientiane/Udon Thani dialect) when travelling in Isan or Laos.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

In the beginning, to integrate into Thai society as much as possible, and to function without using English. Later at university, and later still, in my writing career, to carry out research on Thai art, religion, history, and so on, for books and articles I was writing.

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


I first arrived in 1977 and have lived here on and off every since. I divide my time between Bangkok in Chiang Mai, with homes in both cities.

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

Since the day I arrived, March 17, 1977. I joined the Peace Corps specifically to come to Thailand, and began language training right away. After that, I continued my Thai studies as part of an MA program at UC-Berkeley. I tested out of all the Thai courses at Berkeley, and so took independent language study under a Thai professor. I did my MA field studies back in Thailand, translating Thai texts for my thesis on the Thai communist insurgency’s treatment of Buddhism. While at grad school, and also after graduating, I began working as a Thai-English interpreter/translator in San Francisco, specialising in legal translations, including live deposition and simultaneous court interpreting for the State of California for various lawsuits between Thai and US companies, and in a drawn-out heroin smuggling case involving Thai nationals. One of the more memorable translation jobs was serving as an escort for Bangkok cosmetics reps who had been given free trips to SFO after exceeding their annual sales targets. Then I started coming to Thailand to write Lonely Planet guides, and drifted away from academia. I did go back to school for a second MA in applied linguistics at the University of Hawaii, concentrating on the order of acquisition of English structures by native Thai speakers.

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

Although I was able to travel and converse freely after nine months, it took five years of full and part-time study before I felt really confident in the language. And of course I’ve never stopped learning.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Peace Corps language training was six hours a days, six days a week for three months. At Berkeley, I kept a typical grad student schedule, with daily in-class discussion, a ton of Thai homework, and a lot of late-night drinking sessions with Thai students at UH, many of whom had fled Thailand in October 1976.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

The Peace Corps language training used Caleb Gattegno’s Silent Way, where you physically manipulate colored wooden rods (Cuisenaire rods) of various lengths, using them to represent people and things, and also as syntax markers for sentence structure. For reading and pronunciation practice, we used the Silent Way charts where the different letters of the Thai alphabet were colored according to differing sounds and consonant class. At least 15 minutes of every hour of instruction would be spent on pronunciation.

The Silent Way is based on the basic theory that:

  1. Learning is facilitated if the learner discovers or creates rather than remembers and repeats what is to be learned.
  2. Learning is facilitated by accompanying (mediating) physical objects.
  3. Learning is facilitated by problem solving involving the material to be learned.

At Berkeley we used the grammar-translation method, which is pretty much the complete opposite of the Silent Way! After a short period doing grammar exercises followed by sentence-by-sentence translation, I went straight into translating Thai newspaper stories (I spent nine months translating nearly all of Kukrit Pramoj’s Siam Rath columns) and moved from there to Thai epic verse, eg, Phra Aphaimani, Traiphum. After that I could read well enough that I would choose my own material, based on topics I was interested in (politics and Buddhism), and then work on those until my professor was satisfied with the translations.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Each had its strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve come to the conclusion that we learn language in spite the methods chosen, rather than because of them.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Immediately, beginning the first week of classes in Thailand.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I found the first month or so quite difficult, and although I could read simple signs on the street, and simple notes between friends, it wasn’t until I went to Berkeley that I properly learned to read long passages of text.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

I had a major ah hah moment when I flew back to Thailand after 18 months at Berkeley, coupled with all the translation work I’d been doing. Suddenly I could understand almost everything around me, spoken or written. It was like rebirth in a new life, but in the same world. And it felt like I was supposed to be here. I knew Thailand would always be my home after that.

How do you learn languages?

My father was in the military so I grew up with neighbours and friends who had lived all over the world, and often spoke languages other than English. When I was 10 my family moved to France and I went to an international school for three years where I learned French. So by the time I came to Thailand as a 23-year-old I had been exposed to foreign languages and appreciated the language learning process. But I don’t think I was a particularly talented language learner.

I believe that since we’re all completely fluent in our own native languages, that that means we have the same capacity to learn other languages. I think most of the obstacles to learning another language are sociolinguistic rather than psycholinguistic. “I can’t speak French because I’m not French,” is the basic problem.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My Thai is strong in most fields of reference nowadays, but my best areas are probably politics, tourism, cuisine, music and Buddhism, all areas I’ve had a lot of experience researching in Thai. I’m weaker in medical and scientific Thai.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That you can learn the tones without learning to read. Children can learn by pure imitation, but not adults. Adult learners benefit immensely from both using the language communicatively (as in The Silent Way methodology) and by explicitly discussing the structure (grammar translation). You need to work at the language from both ends, structure and communication.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I can read French pretty well but can’t speak it very well. I got involved in Spanish in the 90s while doing guidebooks on Mexico, so can also read and write Spanish at a 3+ level, I’d say. I really haven’t spoken much Spanish since then. I studied elementary Mandarin and Burmese at one time. I guess I’ve forgotten more languages than I can speak! I can read and speak Lao okay – sometimes inadvertently mixed with a little Thai.

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

At Berkeley I studied Sanskrit and Pali alongside Thai. Learning to read Sanskrit (and to a lesser degree Pali) really helped me understand Thai orthography and technical vocabulary a lot more.

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


Do you have a passion for music and or you play an instrument?

I’ve played music since I was seven years old. First piano, then saxophone, and finally guitar, which I still play today.

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

For Thai, I think it’s as important to study Sanskrit and Pali as it is for a student of English literature to study Greek and Latin, to get to the roots of a lot of the vocabulary. Plus you can have fun translating your Thai friends’ last names for them (the Thai interpretations are often incorrect)!

Joe Cummings

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.

25 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Joe Cummings”

  1. Dave, welcome to WLT! The Suzuki method sounds interesting. I’ll have to look into it more, but as it pertains to language learning not music (I’ve long given up on music intruments – my cats have not been impressed with my attempts).

  2. I’m late to this fascinating debate but if I weigh in I’d have to give credence both sides.

    As a Suzuki student growing up I learned music the “nontraditional” way with listening, imitation, and delayed note reading–similarly to how children learn their mother tongue.

    Twenty years later I applied my Suzuki skills to learning spoken Thai. Learning to read came about five years later.

    Thai people have often told me that my pronunciation is “chat maak.” There may be an element of flattery there, but if I can hear Thais pronounce the word, I can usually get it fairly quickly.

    My problem with reading is I did not learn in an academic way and while I can read and understand much of the Thai script in this blog, I do not know the pronunciation rules, so if I see a word I don’t know I don’t have a clue what the tone is.

    However, I believe that I could benefit enormously from further, more formal study. If I knew the reading/sounding rules I’d definitely be better off and could proceed from intermediate spoken and beginner reading.

  3. Adam: Yes, I agree. Where I part company with Joe Cummings is the claim that the greatest misconception is that you can learn the tones without learning to read Thai script. This is patently false. Many peaple learn to speak Thai without ever learning to read it. The Lonely Planet stuff includes a pretty good transliteration system — one that is alleged to be useless by its author! But I’m really not so interested in scoring debating points. I think people should use whatever method works best for them. Joe’s suggestion that the various learning methods need to be empirically tested is absolutely right. Learning Thai tones using transliteration is just one of those methods.

  4. I would agree with Joe on this one. If you learn how to read properly, then you will be able to pronounce almost every word correctly. Of course there are exceptions such as สำเร็จ and กำเนิด. Also, there are a variety of loan words that aren’t pronounced as written such as อินเตอร์เนต. However, for the most part Thai is a phonetic language so if you’re able to picture the word in your head, then you’ll be able pronounce it with the correct tone 95 percent of the time. When you run into words that are exceptions to the rules, Thai people will usually make sure that they tell you that you พูดเพี้ยน. haha

  5. Joe: Thankks for your thoughts.

    Your anectodal evidence is not statistically valid, nor is mine. Those who I know who speak Thai the best (ie., with tones) do not read or write it. (Of course, I do, but only many years after I was already fluent.)

    Regarding the Chinese (1.9 trillion and counting) and their lack of written tone indicators:

    You make a good point about associating the ideograph with a tone. In fact, that is precisely what trasliteration of Thai with tone marks does. Of course, without quite a bit of study, Thai tone marks from Thai script are useless, even counter-productive.

    As you know, I never suggest that anyone should not learn to read and write Thai. I only assert that reading and writing Thai script is not necessary in order to learn to speak Thai with proper tones.

    I’m “doubling down” on my assertion. See my web page:
    Learn the 5 Thai Tones

    Love ‘n Kisses,

  6. Aaron, valid points, but all five are in reference to learners who acquired their native languages as children, presumably beginning as infants. That includes those “1.3 trillion” Chinese.

    There is a big difference between child language acquisition (which relies more on mimicry and less on analysis) and adult language acquisition (where one has already mastered at least one language and can apply that experience, consciously or otherwise).

    I don’t know any adult Thai language learners who can’t read Thai yet are able to speak with correct tones — comparatively speaking at least. They get some of them right but a lower percentage than those who can read. That’s just anecdotal evidence based on personal observation. It is an issue that could easily be empirically researched … wonder if anyone has?

    Presumably many adult learners of Chinese do fine with tones. But I’m betting that most of them know how to read Chinese, so maybe it isn’t the encoding of the tones (although many Chinese characters do include phonemic content) so much as something visual to associate the sounds with.

    Even with that being the case, being able to see the tones encoded in an alphabetic script undeniably gives a reader a huge advantage over a non-reader. You can pronounce a word correctly the first time you see it. A non-reader might have to hear the same word repeatedly to retain the tone scheme. Maybe it’s a simple case of visual aids prompting phonetic memory.

  7. “What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

    That you can learn the tones without learning to read.”

    This is a pretty wild assertion, in light of these facts:

    1. Thai students speak Thai with good tones long before they learn to read.

    2. There are also many adults, both Thai and foreign, who speak Thai, but have never learned to read or write.

    3. On the other hand, learning to read Thai may or may or may not lead to good tone pronunciation. I know several people who read and write Thai but cannot speak.

    4. Sometimes proper tone deviates from the tone indicated by Thai script. In these cases, reliance only on Thai script would lead to an undesirable outcome.

    5. Many languages, Chinese for example, do not indicate tone in the written script. Even though the Chinese can not read tones, Chinese people speak with tones! Can 1.3 trillion people be wrong?

    Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the misconception that one must learn to read Thai in order to speak persists. It’s hard to explain how so many bright people can disregard the facts. I’m guessing that their view is the result of their own personal experience rather than that of the overwhelming majority of language speakers.

    Are there instances in which Thai script helps to decipher tone? Of course! But the notion that one can not learn tones without learning to read Thai script is absurd.

  8. Rick, Joe has filled his life with accomplishments, with learning Thai being just one aspect. Writing is what Joe is well-known for but did you know just how much he’s into music?

    That’d be great if you wrote a post on the different methods. I started to (and will eventually) but I got distracted with learning styles.

    Finding out how you learn languages is important, but they’ve swamped it with different theories called ‘learning styles’. If you can wade through, only paying attention to what’s common-sense, then you’ll get somewhere without your head exploding unnecessary.

    To learn a language you put in the time. Lots of time.

  9. I always admire people who jump right in, as Joe Cummings did. They set a goal and achieve it, and in some cases like Joe, exceed it.

    I don’t know which way to go, I’ll admit. When I arrive next week in BKK, I will take some time to go over the various methods. (Hmmm, that just might be a post, Cat . . . hint hint . . . like a very quick summary story on the language learning methods — although knowing you, you’ve already done this!)

    I look forward to your post on the Silent Way and the coloured rods.

  10. Snap, Cusinaire / Cuisenaire… no prob 🙂 I’m a visual / hands on learner myself so like you, my imagination was grabbed. I’m still debating whether or not to purchase the rods (I probably will, just because they are niggling at me).

    Another hands on learning tool you might be interested in is Where Are Your Keys. It was created to save/teach endangered languages, but it can be used for any language. Active learning methods really catch my attention, so yes, I’m writing a post on WARK as well.

  11. Since first reading this post I couldn’t get the Cusinaire rods out of my mind. I loved my Cusinaire rods when I was in primary school, in maths class, but couldn’t imagine how they could be adapted to language learning.

    But, after looking at a few websites that explain how they can be used in this context…it makes sense.

    I think this could be really useful for visual learners such as myself.

  12. I agree, Joe’s interview grabs the attention. I would have asked more questions (he’s accomplished so much) but I was sticking to the format.

    For methods, it’s quite something to start at the beginning and work your way forward. A quick overview can be found on wikipedia: Language education.

    I went through it awhile back, but only skimmed. Most are driven by a lack noticed in previous methods.

  13. Really interesting interview, Cat. I’d never heard of The Silent Way before and I’m looking forward to learning more. Seems like there are an overwhelming number of ways and methods to learning Thai (or ANY language) today, but the added dimension of using your sense of touch makes the language gel a bit better.

    Cuisinaire rods – sounds like some sort of cookery appliance. LOL! 🙂

  14. Thank you Martyn. I have a post in the works discussing the rods (surprised? 🙂 but it’s always great to have it spelled out when the subject comes up (I’m lazy, so only added links).

  15. Catherine in case there are any other readers like me who bunked off school when the teacher was beating into the poor pupils everything you need to know about Cuisenaire rods, here’s a bit from Sticky Wiki about them.

    “Cuisenaire rods are a versatile mathematical manipulative used for elementary school mathematical training as well as at other levels of learning and even with adults. They are used to teach a wide variety of mathematical topics such as the four basic arithmetic operations, working with fractions, areas and volumes of figures, square roots, solving simple linear and quadratic equations, and systems of equations.”

    There you go, easy to understand. They’re a clever sort of Lego in all different colours. Good old Sticky Wiki.

  16. Martyn, the Cuisenaire rods might have been introduced years ago, but they are still being used today for learning languages, and maths as well.

    I was quite excited about including Cuisenaire rods to a learning arsenal because they are interactive. It’s too easy to get stuck into books and online courses – the rods add an extra dimension.

    For more, check out the simple graphics in this article: Linguistic Situations as the Context for Presenting a Challenge (no longer online) and Google the pdf ‘Silent Way and Getting low Intermediate Students to speak’.

  17. Catherine – I’d always thought Cuisenaire rods were used by customs officers in tandem with thick rubber gloves and a wry smile.

    I hope Joe doesn’t mind me saying this but language learning has come a long way since the days of putting square pegs into round holes. I’d be interested to know if Joe thinks today’s world of skype, hype and cellophane wrapped DVD language courses are an improvement on the kind of studies he and Barney Rubble were regimented in to. They didn’t do Joe any harm and so I wonder if the old ways are best.

    Reading your interview with Joe I get the impression that he is as near to being a natural Thai linguist as anyone could ever hope to be. Quote……

    “I’m weaker in medical and scientific Thai.”

    I’m English and outside of paracetamol (difficult word to spell) and Grand Prix Formula One G Force, I’m pretty hopeless in those subjects myself in my mother tongue.

    I take my hat off to Joe, he’s reached a summit in learning the Thai language but is still looking for a higher mountain to climb. Perhaps those Cuisenaire rods might give the rest of us a good foothold as we start our own climb.

    Smashing interview, I enjoyed this one a lot. I like a post that gets me thinking.

  18. “What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

    That you can learn the tones without learning to read.”

    I totally agree! Although I am only in the baby stages of learning Thai, I realised early on that unless I can read, I can never really know the correct pronunciation of the words. Now all I have to do is learn to read…lol!

  19. Hamish, indeed, it’s a good one. Methods are to keep the attention of the language learner more than anything else. You can learn a language by writing out sentences on a brown paper bag if you have to. But if you find a method that makes you sing instead of croak, then by all means, go with it.

  20. Paul, true, I am the artsy type. But I also have an anal nature. My first choice would be to handle the rods to get a feel for the realities. But as that is not likely to happen, Hugh and I were talking about using something else instead. And we did find something grand, but I’ll let him tell it 🙂

  21. I love this quote:

    Each [language learning method] had its strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve come to the conclusion that we learn language in spite the methods chosen, rather than because of them.

  22. Paul I was unaware of the details of the rods so spent a morning researching, and then discussing them and similar learning tools with Hugh. Interesting concept. If the past two months hadn’t been so expensive, I’d order some just to play around with how they work.

  23. Excellent interview. I have always wondered about how the Cuisenaire rods work in practice; I’d heard about them previously. Joe has obviously worked hard to reach such a high level of proficiency. I admire the fact that he still feels he has a lot to learn even though he has reached a level that most of us would be satisfied with.


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