Successful Thai Language Learner: Stephen Thomas

Successful Thai Language Learner: James Higbie

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Stephen Thomas “ไกร”
Nationality: British
Age range: 40-50
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Actor
Web presence: Facebook: Stephen Thomas | Stephen Thomas and People On Wheels

What is your Thai level?


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

Probably more street Thai. Professional Thai has a lot more complicated and redundant grammar, though it can be useful if I am having trouble getting my point across. It’s important to know the proper rules of any language I think. I see and hear grammatical catastrophes in English all the time which people have just come to accept and don’t even know they are wrong. I don’t really want to sound like that in Thai but of course I’m late out of the gate and racing to catch up.

I do use some Isaan language. I have several Isaan friends and a lot of the vendors I go to regularly are Isaan or Lao. It’s also a good way to show that I’m not just a tourist who learned a few phrases, especially when going into touristy areas. It’s a fun and friendly dialect, and whenever people call me “Farang” I tell them I’m “Bak Seeda.”

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

At first, communication, obviously. The first time I visited Thailand in 2006 I was going to be staying with a friend who I knew couldn’t speak English, though she could read and write English. We’d been friends for a few years through instant messaging and e-mail and she offered me a place to stay. I picked up a book and CD set from Teach Yourself and began getting a basic foundation. Good thing, too! It turned out she lived in Ormnoi in Samut Sakhon where practically nobody spoke English. That was a great way to really learn the Thai way of life and to quickly hone language skills.

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


Yes, I came here in September 2009, ostensibly for another holiday after a particularly hard year. I’d been wanting to return since spending 3 months in Thailand in 2006, and I finally decided I wasn’t going to wait any longer. I planned to be here for 3 – 5 months, and a year later I realised I was still here!

I’d met and become friends with an up-and-coming film director named Pakphum Wongjinda in 2006, and when I came back I got in touch with him. He was starting work on a film for Baa-Ram-Ewe and invited me to visit the set. One day he called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing one scene for the film. I said yes and it turned out to be a scene with one of Thailand’s top actresses Sinjai Plengphanich. He then asked me to play in a short film for Channel 3 with Bank Pavarit that would be shown on Boxing Day 2006.

In February the first film reached #1 opening week and my scene was well received by audiences and critics. He then invited me to be in the first movie in a new series of Sunday afternoon films for Channel 3. It wasn’t until I showed photos of the shoot to a friend of mine that I realised how big this production was. It was a huge hit and we’ve done a sequel already and a third one is planned. I’ve continued to do films for him in the series as well as branch out into other films, a huge stage musical (Rak Ther Samer) and even opera!

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

Officially for 14 months. Before that I was picking it up in the street and off of friends, that started in 2006, but when I returned to New York I didn’t really continue until over a year later when I began to meet a group of Thai friends who were working in the states. I was still chatting with friends in Thailand over the internet and meeting more and more through Myspace which I was using to promote my music. Once I began blogging about my experiences in Thailand I became friends with more Thais who were interested in what I was saying. I probably picked up a few more words during that time as well, but it wasn’t until I came back that I really started learning again.

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

Many prongs, many starts… The very first Thai words I learned were from a guy I used to work with in an office in Hackensack. I actually had no idea Thailand would play a part in my future at that time, though my cousins had told me I should visit. I learned hello, goodbye, thank you and monkey which I always think are important words to know in any language.

The next was start was in preparation for my first trip to Thailand in February 2006. That was with the book and CD set from Teach Yourself which I got less than half-way through. A great advantage to that lesson set is that it taught you how to read and write Thai as well. When I arrived in Bangkok my friend wanted to show off my skill. She’d point at a sign and say, “Read!” and I’d stumble through it. Then another one, a little harder. Finally she pointed at a sign with a simplified font and I simply could not make head or tail of it. Every day I would watch store signs and billboards with various fonts go by on the bus, and after about 3 weeks I was finally able to decipher them. It made me aware of how varied the same set of letters can really be. And if you consider the Latin alphabet has uppercase, lowercase, and both cursive and block writing, then all the various fonts… It’s quite amazing how our brains recognise letters.

During that trip my friend arranged for another friend to stay with us as well. She was studying English and would show me around Bangkok while my other friend was at work. I learned a lot of Thai words from her, probably asking for the same word more than once on some occasions, but every day my vocabulary built up bit by bit. I tried to speak as much Thai as I could and use words I’d learned to make them stick. The way a child babbles when they’re learning to speak, I’m sure!

By the evening I would usually be exhausted by the time my friend got off work so I would barely be able to communicate with her. I did, however listen to them talking and started picking up repeated words and phrases.

We would also watch Ching Roy Ching Lan and Mum Show on TV and I can remember suddenly be able to understand something being said, so I used to tell people I learned Thai from watching Mum Jokmok!

I began exploring Thailand on my own and anywhere I stayed I would talk to the staff. I don’t mean the people at the desk, I mean the cleaners, the gardeners… It was during the emergency elections when protesters were gathering in Sanam Luang so everyone was discussing politics. I couldn’t get into deep conversation, but people enjoyed telling me their opinions and asking me what I felt about it, and each day I think I learned another word.

As soon as I got back to New York I knew I would return to Thailand and meant to study Thai language. That didn’t happen, and for about a year I really didn’t expand at all on the small foundation I had.

In 2008 I became friends with a group of Thais working in Westchester County in New York and soon began spending considerable time with them. Most of them were Isaan and I began picking up a couple of Lao words. I would try to speak Thai when I could, and other than the cold weather I would often forget what continent we were actually on. That was when I realised that my heart really wasn’t where I was. I was working in video and film production and as soon as the projects I was working on were finished I came back to Thailand.

Right away I began talking with the vendors and people in my neighbourhood and picking up language from them. I also began visiting the set of a film my friend was making for Baa-Ram-Ewe Studio. A film set being like a second home to me I was able to connect what people were saying to a meaning I already knew. I also began acting for this director and with each script I would learn more words.

I was given one script with very formal dialogue, not like I’d had to speak before. I spent a lot of time learning it, reading it over and over, getting the meaning of each word. Unfortunately when I got in front of the camera I realised that my brain knew the words, but my tongue did not. Reading and speaking are two very different tricks. It was miserable. Afterwards I vowed to never let that happen again.

I enrolled at Walen School in Times Square near Asok. While it’s not an intensive course, its schedule is such that I can have time to go off and do films or plays, though when I’m not working I do wish I could spend more time studying.

I’ve also resumed the Teach Yourself book, though I find I’ve since learnt most of the words that were remaining. It is good to get a mix of grammar though as one book may teach this way to say something and another book will teach another way. There’s also the tried and true method that we all hated as school kids, writing down vocabulary words 10 or 20 times. I’ve been doing that recently for the words that just haven’t been sticking, and it actually does work.

There’s a fun and informative series on Youtube by BonOnstage called Learn Thai The Bon Way. I found out about her from friends watching her character based comedy bits, but she created a series of short Thai language lessons that’s really quite helpful.

Another method was working as an acting coach. Sometimes we had classes or else were performing workshops in schools, where the students didn’t speak English. We had an interpreter with us and I learned just as much from that as anything else. And of course continued total immersion. It is the ONLY way to develop listening skills and is important for pronunciation.

14 months after that disastrous day on the film set I got a phone call from Grammy, completely in Thai, asking me to go in and meet with them about playing a small part in a lakorn on Channel 5. I went down there and they gave me a script with 2 scenes to read, and I passed the audition. That really made me feel like I’d accomplished something.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Once I started classes, yes, I have a regular schedule of 2 nights a week, which really isn’t enough, but it allows me to go off and do films or plays, then come back. The class continues through the book until you’re ready to move onto the next level.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

The first method I used was the book and CD set Teach Yourself which I think does a very good job, though I’ve been told some of what I learned is “old fashioned”. One thing I think is invaluable in that book is that it teaches you to read and write Thai which is vital for correct pronunciation.

The next method was picking it up in the streets or at work which will give you listening skills, teach you which words people actually use, rather than the overly formal words you often find in phrase books, and you’ll learn words they wouldn’t necessarily print in language books. 🙂 However, a pitfall here is that you can pick up the wrong pronunciation or else use a rude word in the wrong setting.

Finally I went to Walen School which uses Thai script and teaches vocabulary with question and answer exercises. The teachers are entertaining and will stray from the book to show other uses of the word or to teach other words that could mean the same thing. Conversation is best way to learn a language, and I often converse with the teachers outside of class also.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Once I started taking classes at Walen my friends told me my Thai was improving drastically.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Right away. The Teach Yourself system has it’s own Romanisation (which actually makes more sense than most) but encourages you to learn to read Thai and prints the dialogues side by side in both formats.

The reading/writing lessons in Teach Yourself broke the alphabet down into about 10 characters per lesson, between consonants and vowels. The method was to write each character while saying the sound, “Dor… Dor… Dor…” over and over. Once they’d taught enough letters they began building up short sentences one word at a time to get you used to the lack of spaces between words. Then the book showed you some of the more complicated spelling rules, like those for words borrowed from Khmer.

The two things I didn’t like about Teach Yourself’s method is that it didn’t give you the names of the letters, which I have since learned at Walen, and it didn’t teach the alphabetical order, which I still don’t know and would really like to. Walen has an alphabet class that all students start out in, but I went straight into Book 2 when I enrolled.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I seem to remember it being fairly quick to learn, though I’ve always been fond of alphabets anyway. It took me a few weeks before I started recognising Thai letters in different fonts and longer before I could read handwritten Thai.

I’ve built up my reading speed by trying to read the signs on buses to see where they go. Now sometimes when I’m at the movies my eyes will pick up the Thai subtitles. On a slower song I can sometimes read along the Thai words on a karaoke machine, but I wouldn’t put bets on it!

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

There have been a few. The first I recall was when I was watching Mum on TV and understood something he said. I don’t remember what it was now, but that was definitely a moment comparable to waving a bone in front of The Monolith.

I also recall going into the Omyai market to buy some fruit one morning and the vendor eyeing me with trepidation. When I asked for papaya in Thai she called out to someone, “Hey, this farang speaks Thai!” I responded and she said even more surprised, “He understands Thai too!”

More recently and on a higher level we were rehearsing a show to perform in front of hundreds of very young school kids. We came up with the idea of a kind of choose-it-yourself adventure where we’d let the kids decide between 2 possible routes during each scene. One outcome led to a wizard who would then transform us into animals of the children’s choosing. During rehearsal someone called out, “Maa” which depending on the tone could mean horse or dog. My partner in this endeavour was luk kreung and has much more experience with Thai than I do, so when I saw him act like a dog I thought, “Damn, I was sure he said horse.” The actor playing the wizard watched us prancing about, barking an yapping, and said casually, “Actually, I said horse.” That was a breakthrough moment for me.

How do you learn languages?

In English we have different words that mean the same thing which you might use in different circumstances. Learning a language is just learning another word for the same thing. Though I know that’s not physically true. I think they’ve done EEGs that show multi-linguists use different parts of their brains for different languages, unless I’m mistaken about that.

I know a little Burmese girl about 2 or 3 years old in the market and she has been picking up Thai language by imitating people around. Sometimes she’ll say things and this one Burmese friend of mine says she doesn’t know what language she’s speaking, but I can hear that she’s mixing the two languages. I think that’s normal at that age for children growing up around multiple languages, but at some point they do separate them and speak wholly in one or the other. I had a friend in the states whose wife was French and he’d learnt French as well. His son wouldn’t speak English to him, though if anyone came to visit he would speak English fluently.

Language is very complex because it’s an important part of human evolution. Our brains are largely built for that purpose and we use so much of our senses and utilities in order to communicate. How often do we have miscommunication on the telephone because we can’t see the person who is talking. And how often do you see people gesturing and nodding their head when talking on the telephone? We use our eyes and ears and then process that through deep analytical functions to make sense of it all at an alarmingly fast pace!

I saw a programme about 3 different species of monkeys who lived in the same area. Not only did they have their own calls for different types of threats, they knew the calls of the other monkeys as well. They also discovered grammar syntax in the calls so that by stringing calls together in a different order they would convey a different meaning.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I used to dread having to speak Thai on the telephone. It’s still more difficult, though not as bad as before. I have a hard time with telephones in general. After all this time you’d think they would improve the sound. I know it’s possible because when people talk on Viber it’s 1,000 times clearer. Even in English you can’t discern between S and Th or V and F on the telephone. You only know because of you know what the words are supposed to be, same as speaking to someone with a lisp or speaking in spoonerisms.

The lackadaisical habit of substituting ล for ร or dropping ล after ก has led to my confusion on more than one occasion. I love Joey Cheuancheun’s routine about Ror Reua is Ror Reua and Lor Ling is Lor Ling. But it’s the same as americans substituting D for T or the New York and London use of glottal stops or substituting N for Ng at the end of verbs. That’s why learning in the street is so important.

I hate forgetting vocabulary that I don’t use as often, but again this happens in English too, only you usually have another word to fall back on in that case.

As for strengths, the only strength I can really say is that I’m not afraid to make mistakes. I’ll try out a new way to say something or make a joke, and if it works great, if not then I learn from that.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That you can get by using Romanisation. There are consonant and vowel sounds that appear in Thai that we simply don’t have in English. Plus the vowels we use pull double and triple duty. In Thai a vowel is that vowel sound only, with the exception of a few vowel combinations which are considered separate diphthongs in their own right. The letter A on its own is used to represent 4 different Thai vowels. In English I can substitute one A sound for another in a word and you recognise that it’s the same letter, but to a Thai person you’ve completely changed the spelling. Also some vowels in Thai are held longer than others but we don’t have a way of noting that in The Latin Alphabet which leads to putting the stress on the wrong syllable which again results in a completely different spelling.

Whenever I see a name or a place written in Roman letters I look for the Thai in order to see how it’s really pronounced. Some assistant directors have offered me “karaoke” scripts and I tell them no.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Not to the extent that I can Thai. I took Latin in high school and that along with having a large English vocabulary to begin with, I can often make some sense out of reading bits of French. Our languages are so closely related. Probably Italians and Spaniards make jokes about English and French being one and the same!

I began to learn Cantonese in the mid-1990s but didn’t have anyone to practice with so I gave up on it. That wound up being helpful to Thai because it introduced me to tones and also some of the vowel and consonant sounds, in particular the initial Ng sound which westerners have such a hard time with.

I’ve always enjoyed learning words in other languages and have made it a point to be able to say hello and thank you. Growing up around New York City you naturally know a few words of Spanish, but not enough to have conversation.

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

I used to do Basic computer programming in the 1980s. During the Myspace era I was using css to customise my page. I started using the internet back when you had to type some Unix in order to get anywhere, this was before graphical browsers, but I never got deeply into coding.

Do you have a passion for music?

“Absolutely. I have 2 albums on iTunes and various other online outlets,” he said taking the opportunity to shamelessly promote himself. “Stephen Thomas and People On Wheels: The Story So Far, and Stephen Thomas & The Reptiles: INANUTSHELL. I also co-produced an album with Incomplete Denial called Our Existence Is An Accident and used to have a band with my brother Paul Damon Thomas and friend Doug Freed, called Sigmund Boo. I’ve been talking to some people in Thailand about recording songs in Thai which could become the next very exciting project for me.”

I’ve performed with Opera Siam, and last September we took our production of Mae Naak to London. I have friends ranging from pop singers to jazz musicians to classical Thai musicians. One of the things I love about living in Bangkok is the great cultural diversity. There really is a lot going on in this city, though it’s not always easy to find out about.

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

No, not really. Some Lao/Isaan words, but not to the point that I would say I’m studying Lao. One comedian I’ve worked with wanted me to learn Northern Thai, but I told him one language at a time!

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

Find people who don’t speak English and talk to them. I hear foreigners say in Bangkok they don’t have to use Thai. I’m not sure where they go, but I can easily go outside and find many people who can’t speak a word of English. Start out by buying your morning coffee from a street vendor instead of Starbucks. Strike up a simple conversation. It will be slow at first but after a month you’ll realise how much you improved and you will have met other people in the neighbourhood who will want to talk to you too.

Learning songs is also a great way to learn, and one that I haven’t been doing to be honest. The couple of times I have learned a song I’ve seen how much faster it sinks in. Again I think it’s to do with the evolutionary mechanisms of our brain. That’s why songs are so important to us and why you can still remember songs from your childhood from historical lessons to toy commercials!

Stephen Thomas “ไกร”
Facebook: Stephen Thomas | Stephen Thomas and People On Wheels

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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