Successful Thai Language Learner: Ryan Zander

Successful Thai Language Learner: Ryan Zander

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Ryan Zander
Nationality: American
Age range: 30-40
Sex: Male
Location: Yokohama, Japan
Profession: Teacher, podcast host, app developer
Website/blog:, Nagaraja Rivers
Products: Thai language learning podcasts at, Reading Thai and Read Thai Alphabet iPhone apps

What is your Thai level?

I’ll say “conversational”. My vocabulary is still light years away from what I’d consider “fluent”, but I surprise myself with the range of ideas that I’m able to express.

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

I guess I speak more regular everyday Thai, but I keep it polite. I never learned much Isaan dialect, but I’ve picked up a little bit of the Thai-yai, or Shan, dialect because my wife is from Mae Hong Son, and that’s what her family uses at home.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

My initial reason for taking up Thai was that I was already halfway through an undergraduate program in Language and Cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin and I needed to finish 4 semesters of an Asian language. I was really more interested in the “culture” half of the program at first and I took a bunch of courses on Indian religions, Southeast Asian history, Asian art history, etc. For the language part I initially tried to go with Sanskrit. It was very interesting, and I’m glad I was able to learn a bit of it, but my study habits at that time were just abysmal and I couldn’t keep up with it. So, I took some time off from school to travel to Nepal, and on the way I passed through Thailand. While there, I heard Thai being spoken and something about the sound of it just resonated with me. And then when I saw how simple the grammar was, I decided it was something I could get myself to study.

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


I currently live in Japan. But I lived in Thailand from the end of 2001 to the beginning of 2005.

If you live elsewhere, how often are you in Thailand?

Not often enough. The last time I was there was about a year ago.

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

Since 2000, which would make 10 years I guess. Hmm… that sounds like a long time. I really didn’t actively study it for ten years straight. But initially I did have 2 years of regular classroom lessons.

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

I started to get it right away, but some word uses took a bit more time to sink in than others.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

When I was a university student I was pretty good about getting all my Thai homework done. But since I stopped taking formal classes my study has been much more sporadic.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

At the University of Wisconsin we used a set of textbooks put out by AUA. Then when I did a year of study abroad at Chiang Mai University I had private Thai lessons with one of the professors, who catered the lessons towards my interest by using articles about Buddhism. Some years later, to refreshen up my reading, I studied on my own using Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s books and also Thai Reference Grammar by James Higbie & Snea Thinsan.

Did one method stand out over all others?

I had a really great first Thai teacher at the University of Wisconsin, Sidhorn Sangdhanoo. She did a good job of drilling the sounds of the language into our heads. She wouldn’t let us get away with doing something wrong. If our tones, consonants, or vowels weren’t right we had to keep repeating something until we got it. Thai people often tell me that my pronunciation is very clear, and if that’s actually true then I owe it to her.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Pretty much right away, which I definitely think is the way to go. Although I admit it took a while for me to get around to really bothering to learn all the rarely used letters well.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Not really. The hardest thing about writing was to remember the spellings, like which “s” or which “th” to use. The lack of spaces between words gave me some frustration in the very beginning, but I found that the more you read the quicker you can instantly recognize words, and it’s not really a problem anymore.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

Maybe not one specific moment, but when I started to see that a lot of Thai words are just Sanskrit with altered pronunciation I really got a lot of satisfaction out of that. Like “aa-jaan” (teacher) is just the word “acharya”, or “mon” (prayer) is just the word “mantra”. A lot of place names make more sense, too, like Phitsanulok is from “Bhishnu-loka” (Vishnu’s world). But the most interesting I think is the term “song-saan”, which in Thai means “to pity”. It is actually just the Sanskrit word “samsara”, which anyone who’s studied Buddhism would know is the term for the endless cycle of death and rebirth–quite a pitiful situation to be stuck in indeed.

How do you learn languages?

The written part just by lots of practice writing, and the speaking part by actively trying to fit new words I’ve learned into sentences, then making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths are probably reading and writing. My biggest weakness is probably remembering new words if it isn’t a word that I’m actually going to use when I talk.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That the tones are the hardest part of speaking. When I hear people speaking Thai poorly, it’s almost always their getting consonant sounds wrong that sticks out to my ears.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I’m OK at Japanese.

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

For one semester at school I was studying Thai in the morning and Japanese in the afternoon. At the time the Japanese was sinking in better. One of my professors said that, the way our brains work, I was basically overwriting what I’d learned in the morning before it could make it’s way into the long-term memory storage. So I’m now inclined to think that it’s better to study different languages on different days if possible.

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

I’m not really much of a programmer, but now I can say that I have some programming experience since I wrote a couple iPhone apps. Basically I saw a need for a better app to teach how to read Thai, so I spent my whole summer vacation learning just enough Objective-C to accomplish what I wanted the app to do. I went from having no knowledge to having an app in the iTunes store in about 2 months. There are definitely some similarities between learning a computer language and learning to read a foriegn language. But learning a computer language is more boring and tedious, I think, because you don’t speak it with anyone.

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

Yes, I’m a big music lover. It would be interesting to see if there were some correlation between lack of music appreciation and difficulty with tones in Thai.

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

Learn to read right away. Start by learning all the sounds of the language. Then you won’t be fooled into poor pronunciation by bad transliteration schemes. Reading and writing ability in Thai will really help your speaking skills more than you’d think.

Ryan Zander | Nagaraja Rivers

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.


7 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Ryan Zander”

  1. Catherine and Ryan, I really enjoyed reading this one, perhaps it was the relaxed mood I was in (just got a nice plump cheque), then again I think Ryan’s answers ticked all the right boxes for me.

    Ryan’s route to conquering Thai has once again proven the need to start learning to read and write Thai from day one really is the way to go. I just find the letters so bloody hard to reproduce. I’m surprised Thailand has a post office service because it must take everyone hours to compose a letter.

    The link between reading and pronunciation is to my mind (little fuzzy at the moment not long woken up) the real key to one day being able to lick that stamp and slap it on the envelope.

  2. Talen, I used to fuss up a storm about the lack of spaces, but now I think to myself how fabulous it is that I’m reading a run-on script. I’d say ‘how cool is that’, but I never say cool.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Nice to hear about your experience with Ajarn Sidhorn, Hugh. I’ll have to try to find her the next time I can make it back to Chiang Mai.

  4. Another excellent interview Cat. I too have been struggling with finding the correct letters for the correct sounds at times and the lack of spaces in written Thai can be off putting but thankfully I am learning better how to distinguish individual words.

    I hope in ten years time I am still as into learning as I am now…and hopefully fluent to some extent.

  5. Ryan,

    I was please to hear that you studied with Ajarn Sidhorn. She was my first Thai teacher (Peace Corps training 1969)and we have since becomes good friends. She is one of the most fun teachers to be around. Ajarn Sidhorn has returned to Chiang Mai and I believe is still teaching (at AUA here). And she never speaks to me in English – since in Thailand, once a person is your teacher she stays your teacher for life.

  6. I always feel a bit ashamed when I hear about people living outside Thailand and still putting the effort in to learn the language. I so wish there were more hours in the day.


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