This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
Name: John Boegehold
Location: Los Angeles, CA USA
Profession: Property management / songwriter-composer
Facebook: John Boegehold
What is your Thai level?
Not fluent. A combo of intermediate and advanced.
Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?
Probably somewhere in the middle of professional and street. I know a bit of Isaan, but not enough to throw in more than an occasional word or phrase.
What were your reasons for learning Thai?
I didn’t really have a specific reason when I started. Los Angeles has a very large Thai population. A few years ago, I discovered that Wat Thai Los Angeles was only a few miles from where I live and that there was great, cheap food available there in an open-air market setting on the weekends. A couple of my friends and I started going there occasionally to eat and hang out since it was a really great atmosphere.
One day I noticed a sign about Thai language classes being held there on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I had been toying with the idea of learning a second language at the time and figured that since I was already coming there regularly, I’d check it out.
I’d never been to Thailand and besides a Thai ex-girlfriend trying (unsuccessfully) to teach me a word or two a year earlier, I knew nothing about the language. I went to the class and was deeply confused pretty much immediately.
Maybe I have a bit of a masochistic streak, but the idea of starting from zero on a language so radically different from English really appealed to me. So, I took the plunge.
Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?
No, but I started visiting a few years ago, two or three weeks a year.
How long have you been a student of the Thai language?
About 3-1/2 years.
Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
I definitely jumped right in! I was pretty much obsessed immediately.
Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
Yes and no. I still go to both the Saturday and Sunday classes at Wat Thai every weekend which helps keep me disciplined. The first 90 minutes is mostly for beginners so I just put my ear buds in and study on my own by reading various books, Thai newspapers, watching Thai YouTube videos on my iPad, etc. until the intermediate / advanced class starts. Outside of that I don’t really have a set schedule because my workload varies so much from day to day. I do try to study every day, even if it’s only a few minutes.
What Thai language learning methods did you try?
When I started, the classes at Wat Thai L.A. were the predominate method, although I tried a few others along the way. On my own I went through the Benjawan Poomsan Becker / Paiboon Publishing beginner, intermediate and advanced books as well as the Speak Like A Thai series. All very helpful. Their Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary for iPhone and iPad is great. I read a lot of other books I bought on Amazon, at a Thai bookstore in L.A. or when I visited Thailand. I’m always snooping around the internet and pick up little bits and pieces of a lot of different websites. I found the vocabulary and grammar lessons at ITS4Thai to be really useful.
One thing that’s been helpful for me is watching Thai TV and trying to follow along. I have a satellite service with a large number of Thai channels and usually have some program on a few hours a day, even if it’s only in the background. Right now, my favorite shows are กินอยู่คือ, which is a cooking show on Thai PBS and วันวานยังหวานอยู่, a talk/entertainment show on Channel 7. I try to watch Thai soap operas, but those can be tough to take.
Did one method stand out over all others?
Not really. They’re all pieces of the puzzle.
How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?
From day one, right along with basic vocabulary.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?
I learned the mechanics of reading and writing consonants, vowels, tone rules, where words begin and end, etc., for the most part in about 10-12 months. I really didn’t find it difficult, just very, very time-consuming and tedious. For me, it was all in the repetition. I know there are a lot of mnemonic devices and tricks for learning all of that, but it seemed easiest to just plough through it. The part of reading for me that’s a bit more difficult at this point is the vocabulary, especially in newspapers and books where you come across a lot of technical, political words and phrases, proper names, religious terms, etc. The difficulty for me in writing Thai isn’t physically writing or typing the characters, it’s forming a thought and writing it the way a Thai person would.
What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
That pronouncing “mai” with different tones and vowel lengths was actually several different words rather than the same word pronounced several different ways. That realization made a lot of things fall into place for me.
How do you learn languages?
I’m probably not a good person to ask. Thai is only the second language I’ve tried and I was too young to remember much about learning English!
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I think my biggest strength is reading. My pronunciation of consonants, vowels, words, tones, etc. is usually pretty good. I can follow conversations fairly well, but I still have trouble following rapid-fire dialogue in TV shows, newscasts, etc. Again, my biggest weakness is thinking in English while trying to construct a sentence in Thai. My conversation is definitely not up-to-speed with my reading. A lot of that has to do with not living in Thailand and not being able to practice speaking Thai in everyday situations. Same with vocabulary. Words I don’t use consistently I tend to forget. It seems in my case that quantity time would be more beneficial than quality time at this point.
What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?
That’s tough from my perspective because I had no conceptions at all when I started! I have noticed a fairly common one in other students has been thinking (or hoping, anyway) that tone is a secondary component in pronouncing a Thai word when in reality it’s as important as consonants and vowels in being understood clearly when speaking.
Can you make your way around any other languages?
Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?
Do you have a passion for music?
Yes. I’m a songwriter and composer and have done it professionally on and off for 20 + years.
Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?
What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?
A few things. I know it can seem tedious, but back off on trying to learn a lot of vocabulary at the start and focus on reading and writing. Once you have a grasp on the consonants, vowels, tone marks, etc. learning vocabulary becomes a lot easier and you have a much better shot of nailing the pronunciations.
Also, wean yourself off of using English transliterations as soon as possible. While they may seem helpful in the beginning, they quickly become a crutch and will ultimately slow you down. Once you learn how to read Thai, you’ll realize how inadequate English transliterations are in capturing the actual pronunciation of many Thai words. Don’t get me started on the supremely annoying (to American English speakers, anyway) of using “r” in transliterations like larb, Sathorn, gor-gai, etc…
I know there are some notable exceptions, but when you start to learn Thai as an adult, I don’t believe you can be fluent and speak clearly without knowing how to read the language.
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.
10 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: John Boegehold”
John – You’ve made great progress as a long distance language learner even though you have the benefits of living in a city with a large Thai community. Your regular weekend Thai language classes are obviously a big help but your determination to succeed is probably a major factor in your success as well.
I would think the great majority of Thai language learners live outside of the Kingdom and so you are a great example to people like me who visit Thailand but make the excuse that by not living there that makes learning the lingo near impossible. Are you a Tom Cruise and Mission Impossible fan?
Picking the bones out of your long distance interview I’d say the biggest one to heartily swallow is your advice about learning to read and write Thai from day one. That’s sound advice but surely American super agent Ethan Hunt wouldn’t divulge such top language learning secrets.
Thanks for the nice words, but to my mind, I’m a long way from being successful. There are times when speaking with Thai people that I can hold a fairly decent, lengthy conversation without tripping up too much. But, there are also times when someone says something to me or I’m watching a Thai TV show, etc. and for all I know they’re speaking Hmong haha…
Tod: You’re right about people over-exaggerating tones when they first learn them. Tones as spoken by native Thai speakers are for the most part relatively subtle, but for anyone who grew up speaking a non-tonal native language, being taught subtlety doesn’t cut it. After you learn the tones and get comfortable with them, you realize you have to “reign them in” a bit.
Also, about the vowel lengths. When a Thai tells you that you “พูดชัด” (speak clearly), it means you’re using the tones and vowel lengths correctly, not just the consonant and vowel sounds.
Apologies for coming in late to comment. I’ve been in Cambodia and while there was a decent Internet connection I was back to back busy (now wading through 10 gigs of photos).
Josh, I had a pleasant time listening to John’s music while coding in this post. Linked is his YouTube channel (great stuff!)
Dan, “I just feel depressed now….” lol…
Paul, it’s interviews such as these that energise me to carry on with my studies.
Lynn, “When I arrived I found that so few Thais in my area speak any English at all” … And what a great way to learn Thai. My life here comes and goes. Sometimes I’m surrounded by mostly English speakers and other times by mostly Thai.
Lawrence, “I imagine that with enough determination, anybody can do what John did.” I was just discussing this very subject yesterday. Great language courses are all well and good but motivation is key.
Duane, me as well 🙂
Todd, it just go to show that there are different methods of learning a language. Some depend on reading first, others just jump in and start speaking.
Well, that “pick up thai by sheer osmosis” is a pretty darned tough row to hoe. I can say after being surrounded by Thais 24/7 for almost seven years, it’s ain’t ten times easier learning Thai here. True you have the “luxury” of walking out of your apartment and hearing Thais speaking Thai. Mostly though those conversations are above your comprehension level, other than maybe the odd word or three you might pick up. Listening to Thais speak Thai is mostly a lesson in frustration, listening meaningless gibberish.
As far as transliteration, well Benjawan’s is about the best out there (and I won’t even touch on the nonsensical way the powers that be here try to spell their words engrish for ‘official signage’). I know quite a few people who speak some pretty darned clear Thai ONLY from using the phonetics from Benjawan’s books with the C/D’s. I also know a fair few foreigners who’ve been here eons and who speak very clear, very fluid Thai, (meaning they pause when thais do, use sentence structure like thais do, etc) yet very few of these guys can read more than a few of the consonants. They learned it by mimicking Thais speaking.
Given the large number of Thai language schools here who teach Thai ONLY thru “karaoke” or phonetics until students have a good spoken vocab, I certainly don’t believe the faster you read the faster you can speak clear Thai. In fact, my observations bear out that people can learn to speak really understandable Thai and yet not be able to read a character of it.
I can read Thai WAY above my level of spoken Thai and translate it into engrish too, but still I have some pretty errantly toned spoken Thai. I know the tone rules inside-outside, upside-down, now, but it ain’t all that much help when you speak. It’s even less help when you read because don’t employ those rules to read Thai at all. Reading is only memorization, or noticing the difference in the character make-up of similar sounding yet differently spelled words. I don’t know any people who read out loud except in a class setting. So to me, nope learning to read Thai ain’t gonna “clean up” your spoken Thai a bit.
Don’t mis-read what I’m saying; tones are definitely important (especially give than is classified as a tonal language), but vowel length is also super critical and one thing the schools don’t really teach the importance of as much as they do tones. In listening to foreigner speakers of Thai, it seems they go “off script” more due to varying vowel lengths than from errant toning. In English we can and do to impart emphasis to what we say via vowel length variance. I mean if the Thai word uses a short vowel sound, you can’t change it to a long one to emphasize what you’re saying. This is a really hard thing to “un-remember” because drawing out vowel sounds in English doesn’t reduce comprehension much at all.
One last thing, it’s ALWAYS apparent (at least to me) when a foreigner “gets” the tone rules in Thai. Usually when I’d heard them speakin’ Thai just a few weeks before, they were doin’ fine without thinkin’ about the rules. However, once they know the tone rules; their spoken Thai gets so choppy and so heavily over-toned it’s nearly unintelligible, even to me, and I can understand some poorly pronounced foreign Thai speakers.
Still, very good post and good on him for learning the language the way he did. He’ll definitely have a ‘leg up’. Being the die-hard KISS fan, I dunno about the glowing accolades concerning “greatest bands of the modern rock era,” but I’ll let that slide.
That seems to be one of those experiences that inspires me to go on studying the language.
Considering that he doesn’t even live in Thailand, this should be a wake-up call to all those people living here that say Thai is too difficult. I imagine that with enough determination, anybody can do what John did. Living in Thailand there really is no excuse not to learn as it’s probably ten times easier then what he went through.
Nicely written post. I have been living in Thailand for over 6 months now and I can tell you with no doubt, Thai is a very complicated language. You’re right in the tonality, the same word spoken in a different tone means a completely different thing here. Also I’ve experienced many differing Thai words actually having the same meaning- kind of like English. I know very little Thai but if I listen carefully to the Thais here in BKK I can understand at least a few words. Looking to take a Thai language course soon but currently I’m busy teaching English. When I arrived I found that so few Thais in my area speak any English at all.
I admire John for putting so much effort into learning Thai while living outside the country. I agree with him that avoiding transliteration is best.
“A combo of intermediate and advanced.” “I don’t live in Thailand.”
I just feel depressed now….
Nice to see John interviewed here, Cat. John works with perhaps one of the greatest bands of the modern rock era – Spock’s Beard. If any of you get a chance to listen to John’s music or the contributions he has made with SB, I highly encourage you to do so. They have been one of the most influential bands in my music “career,” and I was very fortunate to be introduced to John through his music and then find out about his passion for Thai as well.