Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk: Part 2

Thais Learning Thai Kaewmala from Thai Talk

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Thais Learning Thai…

This is part 2 of 2 absolutely fabulous posts. If you landed here first, you might want to head over to Part 1: Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk.

Part 2: Kaewmala from Thai Talk…

As a native Thai speaker learning Thai, how do you go about it?

Probably in a similar way some native English speakers learn more about English and English-speaking culture, I guess. Since I already speak, read and write Thai at a reasonably high level and not being a linguist, I am not terribly interested in basic Thai grammar (though it doesn’t mean I know much about it). I am more interested in what’s behind the words and meanings. Like cracking the codes of the Thai psyche in Thai language. Deconstructing Thai culture through language, if you will. Remember I want to know my “Thai cousin” better. I look for clues about my Thai cousin’s thoughts and feelings in her language. That’s why I have been digging into Thai idioms. You can get glimpses of a culture’s psyche inside its words and expressions. Look deep and long enough you might find its heart somewhere.

I also read more Thai-language books – on language, culture, history, politics, sociology – to learn more about how good writers use Thai – and their thoughts, of course. Here are a couple of such books in my library.

Thais Learning Thai Books

From left to right: “Thai Idioms” by Ministry of Education; “Thai Language: Finding the Answers”
by Ministry of Education; “Language and Literature in Siam” by Suchit Wongthes, Arts & Culture.

Thais Learning Thai Books


From left to right: “Prince Damrong: Constructing Identity of ‘Muang Thai’ and ‘Class’ of the Siamese”, by Saichol Sattayanurak, Arts & Culture; “The Face of Thai Feudalism” by Jitr Phoomisak” (1 of 100 must read Thai books); “‘Thai Nation’ in Perspectives of Progressive Intellectuals” by Sopha Chanamool, Arts & Culture.

Thais Learning Thai Books

From left to right: “Thai Women from the Past” by Thepchu Thapthong, “Sex in History”
by Ekarong Bhanupongse, “Issues [by a] Golden Flower” by Kham Phaka (pseudonym).

Then I write what I’ve learned. I wrote my first book that came out of my learning Thai through words. A couple of years ago I started collecting Thai words having anything to do with sex, love, Thais Learning Thai Books romance, in order to understand Thai sexuality. So the product was “Sex Talk: In Search of Love and Romance.” I probably started of writing that book for myself but I am glad that it ended up being something I can also share with others.

For me language and culture are symbiotic. You can’t learn one without knowing the other. I’ve learned from my learning English that the more I read in English, non-fiction and novels, the more I understand both the English language and the English-speaking way of thinking. And my English usage improves with more advanced reading – it still has quite a distance to go, but I enjoy the journey and the expectations that I can always get better at it. I apply this to my learning Thai. I read and ponder and write. My blog is another place where I share my thoughts and the products of my learning, my analysis of idioms, etc.

Who is the main target audience for your blog Thai Woman Talks?

Anyone interested in Thai language, culture, politics, sexuality, or cross-cultural relationship involving a Thai partner, or in hearing what a Thai woman has to say on these issues. Notice I use the singular term, “woman talks”, because it’s just one woman. I don’t claim to be a representative of Thai women, though I believe my views on these issues are shared by at least some of other Thai women.

You read mostly Thai sources, but you write and share your learning in English. Why?

It’s a little odd, isn’t it? Well, here’s the thing. Since I graduated from university at the age of 20 I have never had to use Thai language seriously again. All my studies and work have been done in English ever since to the point where writing in Thai doesn’t come naturally to me anymore. It takes me at least twice as long to construct sentences in Thai than in English. So, I try to rectify that, but writing in English for me is still much faster and more natural (in other words, I’m still lazy). Besides, I imagine explaining Thai using English probably gives a different perspective from using Thai.

Where/who do you go to for inspiration?

For the blog I pick it up here and there: interesting current events, a book or article I just read, words stumbled upon, etc. I often have a rendezvous with inspirations in the bathroom. My husband is also supportive in what I do.

There are many books on Thailand written for the western market. Which ones do you trust, and why?

Such books I have read tend to be scholarly. For what it’s worth, my most favorite among good academic writers is Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison who wrote Siam Mapped, one of the best history books on Thailand. Political and social analyses by Chris Baker and Pasuk Pongpaichit are usually accessible and insightful. They are the authors of Jungle Book and many books on Thaksin. For books aimed at popular audience, I prefer those by professional authors familiar with Thai language and culture. Christopher G. Moore, author of Heart Talk and the culturally intelligent Vincent Calvino detective series, is on the top of my list in this category. I find books written by many amateur foreign authors not extremely discerning. Not that I have anything against working girls or their besotted farangs, but stories based love affairs gone wrong with Thai bargirls lose their novelty rather quickly. Hopefully Thailand-based novels will diversify over time.

What advice on Thai culture would you give to new arrivals to the country?

Thai culture is unique – like all other cultures. 😉 Needless to say, there’s much more to Thai culture than in the TAT ads or what’s said on the Internet. Like anywhere else, there are good and bad people, and both pretty and ugly sides of the culture. Newly arriving foreigners often get exaggerated treatments, i.e., extremely well or extremely poorly – so, please don’t take your experience in the first days, weeks or months as the indication of what life is really like in Thailand. Be open-minded but don’t be a pushover. Be curious. Be cautious but not too suspicious.

What advice would you give to those learning the Thai language?

I’m not a language expert and don’t have experience learning Thai as a foreign language. I suspect the way I learned Thai in school wasn’t the most practical. Many successful foreign learners have given much better tips than I ever could on your site already. My experience in learning English may be more helpful. (See answer to the last question.)

Is a book on Thailand and the Thai culture in the planning stages?

Yes. I’m always scheming to write something or other but whether or not I’ll accomplish it is quite another thing. (Laugh) I have planned to write the second book on sexuality in the Thai “Sex Talk” series. This one will really deserve at least an R rating. But it seems I might get sidetracked and write another book on Thai idioms instead. We’ll see. I expect to take fewer work projects next year and have more time for writing books, but consultancy work usually finds its way to me somehow.

You learned English in school. What language learning methods worked well for you?

I was lucky to have had very good English teachers since grade 7 who gave me a strong foundation in grammar, reading and writing. I didn’t really set out with any particular strategies to learn English. I just did what I wanted to do. There were a few things I did that in retrospect probably helped. I was not too shy to speak or too lazy to open a dictionary while reading, and when writing a thesaurus was always nearby. I read English-language papers and magazines and, when I could, novels for pleasure.

Early on I felt that it was important to have correct pronunciation, so I listened to English-language radio programs and tapes, and developed an annoying habit of reading and singing out loud. Whitney Houston was my friend – but the enemy of people around me. Greatest Love of All was probably Greatest Pain in the Ear for my poor friends and neighbors. And watching copious amounts of TV in the States likely did a lot to improve my colloquial English.

Why do you use a pseudonym?

I also write in my professional work. There are many publications with my real name on them and I simply don’t want to mix the two, especially given my sometimes strong social and political views.

Thanks for the interview, Cat. ☺

And thank you for taking the time, Kaewmala 🙂

Sex Talk, Thai Woman Talks, Thai Talk, Thai Idioms and Lanna talk…

Kaewmala (pseudonym) is the author of Sex Talk: In Search of Love and Romance (Bangkok: HLP, 2009).

Blog: Thai Woman Talks – Language, Politics & Love

Twitter: @Thai_Talk (on Thai language, culture & politics);
@thai_idioms (Thai idiom a day);
@lanna_talk (Northern Thai vocabulary)

12 thoughts on “Thais Learning Thai: Kaewmala from Thai Talk: Part 2”

  1. Kaewmala, and what a beautiful rant it is 🙂 As a designer, I wanted to know about the history of the beautiful Thai script. On a Thai forum, one thing led to another. Guided by those in the know, soon I was learning about the Ram Khamhaeng Controversy. But for every comment on that forum, an equal amount of messages were flying around unseen, all warning me to tread lightly on the subject. So you do not sound melodramatic at all. That and more are the realities of searching out truth in Thailand.

    Winners write history, I agree. But at least in Thailand, some people (like you) are trying to put things right.

  2. Hi all. Apologies for not having visited this post earlier. Thanks for all your kind words. 🙂

    Martyn’s comment that my learning Thai as a native Thai speaker is “strange” is an interesting point worth discussing further. I think people tend to believe that being born into a culture or language automatically makes one knowledgeable about it. True, to some extent; by sheer familiarity a native can’t help knowing many rudimentary elements of his/her language and culture and lives and breathes their quirks. It’s the latter part that stands in the way of understanding for me. Many people are stuck at the rudimentary, it’s-just-how-it-is level. Nothing wrong with that if there’s no need for more in one’s life. But when you live and breathe the quirks as if they were the most natural things in life, you don’t really see or understand them. You just live them. And that’s not enough for me.

    Why would I want to learn more about Thai language and culture? For starters, if I had been satisfied with my previous level of knowledge from school, government and media, I would now believe – like many Thais – that Thai language was more or less singlehandedly created by King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai 7 centuries ago and the Ramkhamhaeng edicts are the indisputable evidence of such creation – and not bother asking myself how Thai language relates to Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, Mon & many indigenous Tai languages/dialects that came before. I would see Thai history in a very neat, beautifully linear successions of kings from Sukhothai 700 years ago, to Ayutthaya, to Rattanakosin today – and be largely ignorant of all that came before and all that happened along side within what to become modern Siam only a century or two ago. All I see would be the glory of 700 years of “Siam” and little else. I would probably also believe that the Emerald Buddha is an original Thai national treasure or that if I were to find out it came from Laos the holy statue came “on his own accord” to bless our land – and not a war loot from Laos. I would likely still hate the Burmese for sacking and burning down Ayutthaya twice, and took all our gold and put it in the Shwedagong. (A recent news report involved a Thai employer raping a Burmese employee as a “payback” for what happened then. Clearly crazy this employer may seem, but resentments against Burmese is very prevalent largely because of this chapter in Thai history.)

    I’m afraid I must sound melodramatic in addition to strange now. 🙂

    Winners write history. In Thailand that axiom became a tradition elevated to the level of high art. I’m just trying in my own little way to get beyond it. Sorry for the long rant. 😀

  3. Paul, so I take it you don’t have a fondness for Whitney 😉

    Snap, do you have Kaewmala’s book, Thai Sex Talk? If not then check it out as it’s right down your alley (but there are kangaroos…)

    Martyn, I’ve asked the same question but never did get the time to dive deeper than listening to Thai songs on YouTube and gathering a small collection of Thai CD’s. But it is on my to-do list.

    Talen, Kaewmala certainly put a lot of effort into her interview answers (ta sweetie!) Her interview is like her posts. Beautifully written and well thought out. She stretches my mind most times (and other times her chosen subject goes whoooosh right over my head).

  4. Excellent interview and I think my favorite so far. Keawmala is a very interesting woman with a great point of view.

    I too loved the answer to Thai culture…it really does need to be explored with an open mind.

  5. Catherine and Paul – Music has to be a great way to learn the correct pronunciation of a language assuming you have the right songs. There would of course be certain tunes which would lead you up the wrong path. Nowadays I struggle to understand what many modern artists are singing about and that’s in English. Whitney Houston would I feel fall in the safe category.

    Has anyone got any idea on which Thai singers could be classed as perfect in the pronunciation stakes.

  6. Catherine, your interview with Kaewmala certainly shines a different light on learning Thai, I really enjoyed it…both parts. I am particularly interested in the idioms and am just starting to learn some Thai equivalents to those we have back home, at this stage, only the English translations:( They can often give an insight into Thai culture, that a classroom or text book, cannot.

    I have to remind my other half, that there is no Thai version of ‘a kangaroo loose in the top paddock’…exagerated perhaps, but you know what I mean!

    Kaewmala’s blog is a great read too!

  7. After reading part 1 of the interview I was looking forward to this one – it didn’t disappoint. I don’t think I’d be able to learn any language if it meant having to listen to Whitney Huston 🙂

  8. Hi Chris, apologies again for your comment getting stuck.

    Following Kaewmala on twitter this year has been enlightening as well. I’ve gotten a mini education in Thai politics, idioms, Thai culture, etc. I remember back when she wasn’t sure about taking on twitter but she handles it like a pro, setting the pace for the rest. Books are written from the content of website and Kaewmala has enough twitter material to do the same. What she writes is top quality.

  9. Martyn, what Kaewmala is doing is delving deeper into the different cultures and languages she was born into, at near academic level. Being modest, she might disagree with me saying academic. But like Amy, I know that that Kaewmala is one smart lady!

    My sympathies on your kitchen woes (sounds awful… pretty close to what I went through – but I never got to sign off on mine so I made them start over).

  10. Catherine and Kaewmala – I’ll never forget the Thai idiom ‘kicking a can loudly’, that one really shook my boots. Thai has so many great sayings a book on them must surely be due.

    My apologies for not commenting on Part One but I did read it but got sidetracked. Work, alcohol, an absent night shift and a host of kitchen troubles left me internet-less for a few days.

    It does read strange, a native Thai speaker having to return to learning their own language, or fine tune it might be nearer the truth.

    I like your answer on ‘What advice on Thai culture would you give to new arrivals to the country?…you should carve it on a wooden plaque and put it up at Suvarnabhumi immigration control. I know it took me a long time to get anywhere near to understanding Thai culture. I hope the country never designs its very own Rubik cube.

    Back to my kitchen. It’s now been fitted but still has to be decorated. I’m thinking of going for plain old magnolia paint with white tiles containing a bit of colour. I don’t live there so I don’t want to create an amorous coloured room. Those cheap kitchen units won’t take too many cans kicked loudly.

    The kitchen was designed by one of the UK’s leading DIY companies and they gave it all the computer graphics input to boot. Here’s a conversation I had with my kitchen fitter shortly before he finished the job.

    FITTER: I’ve just realised something
    ME: What’s that
    FITTER: I’ve been fitting kitchens for over 10 years and this is the first time I’ve ever seen one without any drawers. It’s all cupboards.
    ME: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. Wickes’ you absolute b*stards.

    Have a nice day.

  11. Keawmala is from the new generation of Thais: intelligent, thoughtful, open-minded, and generous with their time, putting Thailand into focus and providing a unique perspective. The historical, geographical and ethnic diversity is largely hidden from view, and ancient regional cultures and languages have suffered from generations of official neglect.

    Keawmala’s on-going book, articles, blog and opinion pieces open a door onto a number of worlds inside of Thailand and it is great to see that foreigners who have chance to benefit from her wisdom are going through and seeing a side of Thailand they’ve not seen before.

  12. Keawmala, you are a fascinating lady. I absolutely love reading these interviews with such educated, articulate people, particularly Thai women. Thanks for the interview, Cat. 🙂


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