Successful Thai Language Learner: Ian Fereday

Ian Fereday

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Ian Fereday
Nationality: British
Age: 50 next month (oh dear!)
Sex: Male
Location: Phuket Town, Phuket
Profession: Semi-retired owner of Patong Language School
Website: | |
Products: Commenced studies at Patong Language School using the Ministry of Education series produced for Thai children studying in primary school (12 books in all). These have a great cumulative teaching method, but the vocabulary is obviously mostly useless. I think they are great for learning the alphabet and tones, and I eventually incorporated the method into our own books for adults.

What is your Thai level?

Fluent. I read Thai at a glance, make notes in Thai, type Thai, watch TV, listen to the radio, can sing Thai songs and tell jokes, and have even done a TV interview in Thai. I have attended seminars and training sessions conducted in Thai. My vocabulary covers legal terms, building and construction, car repair, politics, birdwatching and many other strange corners of the language. When I answer the phone to Thai speakers they are surprised to find out I am a farang!

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

Professional Thai and a bit of street Thai. I live in Phuket and we don’t get much Isaan Thai down here.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

Having decided to move here and married the owner of a language school it was a necessity!

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


Yes, 1992.

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

I studied hard for most of the first year, and have used Thai every day since and even now still learn the occasional new word.

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

Yes, I studied for the first several months and haven’t done any serious study since.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Yes, daily classes of 2-3 hours with an experienced teacher, practice and review in the evening with my wife (a very patient teacher), and used Thai at every opportunity. Drove my wife crazy reading every signpost, menu, business card and leaflet I found.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

Only the Ministry of Education produced series during classes with Patong Language School. The books are still available but have been heavily revised since I used them and have lost direction a little. I don’t think the editor/revisor fully understood the intended method, and consequently spoiled some great books.

I have bought and perused many Thai language books and CD’s over the years to get ideas for my own books. To be brutally honest, most of them are rubbish and some are just phrasebooks. The only two I can recommend are Thai System of Writing and Fundamentals of the Thai Language. These books are from the 50’s or 60’s, so some of the words and constructions are now archaic, but they are clearly laid out, easy to follow and very accurate. It’s surprising that nobody has managed to do a better job after all these years (including me!). The internet wasn’t around when I started learning, but I am sure there is a wealth of information out there now.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Yes, cumulative lessons gradually adding to my repertoire of letters and tones, words and rules, and practice, practice, practice. Group study was better over one-on-one or self-study because I could learn from the other students’ mistakes and successes as well as the teacher.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Immediately. I recommend to anyone that if they have the time they should learn to read first. It makes it much easier to learn to speak if you can read written Thai. Trying to understand Thai speakers is not always easy – they don’t speak the best Thai! If you can read, your grammar will also be better and you will have no slang or dialect. Your speech and tones will be clearer and sentence structure accurate. Learning conversational Thai using phonetics will only get you so far, and you’ll never have good pronunciation.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I found reading Thai very easy. Writing is not hard, but spelling is a bitch. Frankly, being able to write Thai is not a useful skill. If you need something written in Thai you ought to get a Thai person to write it – it will always be better than your own effort. The only useful thing about writing is to aid memory in learning the alphabet and vocabulary.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

After weeks of struggling over obscure squiggles masquerading as letters, they all suddenly ‘clicked’ one day. It was as if I could suddenly read, when the day before I couldn’t. I have heard many people say they have experienced the same thing when it all just comes together.

How do you learn languages?

By listening, practicing and correcting as I go while immersed in a language with speakers of that language. I also need to see a written, structured method, but I know this doesn’t work for everyone. Drilling doesn’t work for me – I feel stupid repeating myself.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

I am extremely determined and will never give up. My theory at the outset was that if Thais could read that crazy script, there was no good reason I couldn’t too. My weakness is I get bored if something doesn’t hold my interest. That’s really why I stopped regular classes, because they had become reading magazines, watching videos and doing translation.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That it is any more difficult than any other language. Clearly, Europeans learning a language that uses the ABC alphabet is always going to be easier because they can already read it (mostly). That’s why I think learners should get reading out of the way first. Then it is not a hindrance to speaking and understanding.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

English obviously! Not bad in Italian and Spanish, and a little bit of Indonesian/Malay (enough to go shopping and order a meal).

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

No, I wouldn’t try that! I studied Italian in Italy, then moved to Spain. The similarities in the languages were too great and I got hopelessly confused. Even now I can say a sentence in Italian and include a Thai or Spanish word by mistake. I think this is something the brain does automatically, inserting a known foreign word into a foreign sentence when it can’t find the right one. My wife does it too, but fortunately we understand one another!

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

I write CSS and X/HTML for websites, that’s about it. Would like to learn PHP, but too old and too little free time.

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

Not musical at all – probably tone deaf.

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

  • Never give up. If you feel you aren’t moving forwards, try a different approach or switch to something else (from conversation to reading or vice versa).
  • Don’t confuse learning to read with speaking or understanding. You learn to read to gain the tools you need for conversation. When you learn to read, you needn’t even worry about what the words mean – just as long as you can read them and know the sounds.
  • If the vocabulary is useful and relevant, by all means learn it. If it’s not, don’t bother because it will only slow you down.
  • Some people learn faster than others, so don’t be disheartened if classmates seem to be getting there faster than you. It’s not a race and it doesn’t matter how long it takes.

Ian Fereday, | |

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: Ian Fereday”

  1. Hi Hugh. I can’t get the sounds into my head until I see them on the printed page, in Thai script. Linking the script with the sound is important for me as well (I’m big on getting recordings), so maybe it’s a combo for me.

  2. Sorry this is so late but stuff aways seems to happen.

    I have to disagree with the idea that you will learn to pronounce Thai properly from reading – especially for beginning learners. Reading will help you to learn “how a word is supposed to be pronounced”. The only way to get it really right is to hear a word and say it as you hear it.

    It must be remembered that writing (of any language) is merely an approximation of what we are saying, since the spoken word always comes before the written word. But we are fairly lucky, and because of this we can get close to the correct pronunciation, because written Thai is quite phonemic (although, sadly, with a lot of irregularities). Speaking of irregularities, I wouldn’t try to know an English word’s pronunciation by reading it.

    I myself almost never say anything unless I have heard it first. But if I do, I will say the word or phrase, and then immediately ask my listener if I am pronouncing it correctly and if I am using it in the correct context. Luckily I have หน้าหนา / nâa nǎa / thick face, a Thai idiom meaning in part that I am not afraid of what people think.

    Later, when you have more experience in Thai, then you can read a word and get pretty close to saying it correctly. But I do not think that this works well for beginners. It will never take the place of listening.

  3. Chris, I agree with Ian in that Thais don’t always speak the clearest Thai, so being able to read the tones helps connect it in your head. It’s like trying to read small Thai script. If you know what the word is supposed to be, or can take a decent stab at it, then the little bits falling off don’t matter as much. But if you are in the dark, then you miss by a mile.

    “don’t learn anything that a native wouldn’t know” – Good idea. I’m always getting sidetracked with academic talk about the Thai language and I just don’t need it at this point. It’s interesting, but it does not add to my understanding.

  4. Agree strongly with the vocabulary thing though, ignoring words that weren’t useful to me at the time (and not likely to be in the near future) has helped a lot with my Chinese. I would take it a step further “don’t learn anything that a native wouldn’t know” Many Chinese learners get distracted in the whys and wherefores of particular words and characters and go beyond what a native would normally know (kind of like digging into all the greek and latin orignins of English words, interesting but not really helpful if you are just trying to learn the language). I expect there are similar distractions in Thai.
    .-= chris´s last blog ..Thai by the numbers =-.

  5. I still don’t buy it, imho learn to pronounce Thai from Thai not from writing or phonetics. Time will tell I guess, so far I can’t prove that even to myself yet 😉
    .-= chris´s last blog ..Thai by the numbers =-.

  6. Hi Rick. Learning to read Thai is powerful.

    Out of Ian’s suggestions, I like this one overall: If the vocabulary is useful and relevant, by all means learn it. If it’s not, don’t bother because it will only slow you down.

    So the trick would be to get a Thai course tailor-made. And chuck the rest.

  7. This keeps coming up again and again: learn to read Thai. I’m starting to become convinced because the people who do this seem to attain a fairly high level. And I like the point that if you learn to pronounce properly from reading, you won’t pick up a lot of slang or dialect. Not a bad idea, really. Keep it central or pro Thai. Which may not help you to understand street Thai but I imagine that should come along after while.

    Definitely one of the best interviews, Cat! He obviously has a great deal of enthusiasm for the language and culture.


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