This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
What does science have to say about the most effective way to learn Thai (or any language)?
I am writing on behalf of Lanta International Language School, a Thai language school located on Koh Lanta, a small island along the west coast of Thailand. Our methods of teaching are fun and effective, and embrace the latest findings in educational science.
Whilst researching the existing market of Thai language courses we stumbled across Women Learning Thai, and felt you may all be interested in reading about the recent findings in educational science, especially when it comes to learning a second language.
Many of us struggle to learn a second language. Why is this? When you consider the extremely high success rate of children under the age of six when learning their native language, you have to wonder why we find it so difficult as adults. Dr. James J. Asher was so intrigued that he embarked upon an in-depth study of the learning processes of children, particularly when learning their native language. His findings, along with other scientists, including Blaine Ray, Prof. And Stephen Krashen, led to a breakthrough in brain research, especially in the arena of learning a second language.
Here’s a brief overview of the latest findings in educational science when it comes to learning a second language.
1. Learn by engaging all of your senses
As children, we learn to speak our native language by doing, touching, smelling, tasting, experiencing, looking and listening. For example, if we touch something that is hot, our parents will say “hot”. They will repeat this every time we go to touch something hot, until as children we understand that we use the word “hot” to express the feeling of heat.
Your brain is able to learn from all of your senses. By involving all of your bodily senses in the learning process, you gain a deeper understanding of every word, and multiply your learning speed and retention. PLUS, the experience is far more fun than if you were only reading from a book, or memorising vocabulary lists.
2. Learn to think Thai
Many traditional Thai language courses will teach you to translate from your native language; however, it is far more effective to learn to think directly in Thai. If you learn to think Thai, you move from having the thought to speaking Thai, in one-step. If however you have the thought in your own language and then translate to Thai applying the grammar rules and vocabulary that you know, it takes a lot longer, and it inhibits a flowing conversation.
In order to think in Thai, you need to be taught in a particular way. By associating a word with a feeling or experience, rather than what it means when translated to your own language, you will gain a much deeper knowledge and memory of the word. Effective courses will therefore deliver commands in Thai, and will involve acting, imitation and doing, using ONLY the Thai language. This approach also imitates the way we learned our native language.
3. Learn by varied repetition
Repetition is the best way to learn anything, and this is particularly the case with languages. Traditionally repetition has been applied by providing vocabulary lists to be read and repeated until all of the words have been memorised, at least until the next day. One of the problems with this method is that the situation in which you use the word does not change. Your brain cannot get any help from remembering where you were or what you did when you were learning.
A good Thai language course will introduce you to Thai words through numerous experiences and media. Let’s take the word “door”. To learn the word door your tutor could tell you to; “close the door”, “open the door”, “knock on the door” etc. “Door” could be repeated several times in many different situations during a number of lessons.
In addition to this repetitive use of the word “door” during classes, if you also hear “door” in videos loaded onto your computer, and meet the word in computer games, sound files and in wordlists, you will have a very varied experience of the word “door”.
Due to the variation in your learning, you will not be bored by repeating the same word tens of times. On the contrary, your memory traces will grow deeper and broader until your Thai words become a part of you.
4. Your learning rate will improve if your brain has sufficient energy
When you study, your brain uses a lot of energy. Actually, even though it makes up just 2% of your body weight, your brain can consume as much as 20 – 30% of your total energy intake if you are studying. Glucose is the fuel that your brain needs to be able to think, and your body generates glucose from what you eat and drink. If your levels of glucose run low you will think more slowly, which means that if you study Thai, you will learn the language more slowly. Make sure you have regular snacks while studying to top up those glucose levels. Melon is great for a quick release of glucose, and banana is good for a slower release, keeping you fuelled for longer.
We hope that you find some useful tips in this article to help you on your journey into the Thai language. It’s a beautiful language, and becoming fluent in Thai will help you gain a deeper understanding of the Thai culture. Good luck with your studying, and most importantly, make sure you have fun along the way!
Lanta International Language School
21 thoughts on “Most Effective Way to Learn Thai”
Tony, I think you are right about Thais not knowing about tone rules especially. It’s similar to asking us about grammar rules. We instinctively know what’s right (most of us, anyway).
When I was learning Chinese a few years (decades?) ago, I would stick post-its all over the house…on mirrors, doors, cabinets, etc. Characters on one side and pronunciation/translation on the other. As I walked by, I’d check myself. Once I felt comfortable with one, I’d remove it and put it aside to review from time to time. Just another form of flashcard, but effective.
The analogy would be to put Thai words on one side and the pronunciation/translation on the other. I think that by learning words you will learn the alphabet. Also, I’m not convinced that many Thais remember all the tone rules and alphabet elements. I suspect they see the word and relate it to a word they are familiar with, much like sight-reading (versus phonics) in English.
Katia, I failed at memorizing that darn alphabet chart. I moved alphabet posters all over the house… didn’t work. I needed a hook.
I find that I need to “use” things to learn them. I am making a lot more headway in learning the alphabet and tone marks by looking at how the sample words are constructed than by trying to memorize the chart! (And there’s no way I’ll remember the words I don’t use regularly!)
Hi Tina, I see what you are saying. I know that for me, repetitive does work. And sometimes it’s the only thing that’ll get Thai words into my head! Another one for me is reading. I was totally lost when I started Thai. While I could mimic my Thai teacher, the tones did not stick around. Reading burns them into your memory.
Now off to get more bananas… 😀
Thanks for all of your comments.
I have to say Pete, I chuckled when I re-read the article adopting your wavelength… hmm.. I’ll have to consider people with a one track mind in my future writing :-0
Jokes aside, in order to produce a worth reply to your comments, I’ve consulted Paula Westberg, Managing Director of Lanta International Language School, and the fountain of knowledge for which I am a vessel…
The science regarding the place of reading and writing in learning a second language is less detailed. Reading is seen as a very important part of learning a new language, but the scientific literature of Asher, Ray and Kraschen only presents examples from languages which use our latin alphabet. Paula has found limited information on reading when it comes to first learning a new alphabet and then using it to learn new vocabulary etc. Having said that, LILS believes that learning to read Thai is very valuable and helps to learn pronunciation. Later on, reading the language provides more input, which leads to further learning. The school therefore takes an all round approach and teaches reading, writing, listening and speaking, as they believe that is the most effective.
AK – thank you for your valuable views on adult versus child brain functioning.
The researchers the article refers to (Kraschen, Asher, Ray) say that we don’t lose the language “module” that we use as children, but rather we “cover it” with analytical and logical skills. This means that the adult analytical brain takes over and tries to learn by analyzing rather that experiencing.. Catherine, your comment about needing to translate is a prime example 🙂
Traditional methods of teaching languages tend to teach to the analytical brain only, whereas LILS try to teach to both the analytical and experiencing brain – i.e. both right and left brain hemispheres. They find this approach faster, and both more rewarding and fun for the student.
Another thing that differs between children and adults is that the community will meet the two age groups in completely different ways. Adults tend to talk to children with simple language and many repetitions (a principle adopted in LILS courses), while adults seldom meet that “adjusted language”. This makes it much easier for children to learn from immersion.
Children also have to learn the language to be able to participate and play with other children. Adults often get by using English or friends who translate, and generally don’t have the same pressure to learn as children do.
The main point is, that the “module” of learning we held as children, does still exist, it’s just a little hidden. Subtly introducing teaching methods targeted at that module can have a very powerful effect.
Paula agrees that it is also useful to use English or the students native language when teaching Thai, and English is used within their courses. However, their courses emphasize listening comprehension far more than traditional methods of teaching. They believe (and have witnessed) that students learn better from input and repetitions rather than memorizing and applying grammar rules.
Well – as a newby to WLT – I hope my comment is a worthy reply. 🙂 I look forward to chatting with you all more in the future…
p.s. Catherine – keep eating those bananas 🙂
Hi AK, thanks for joining in. I’m a mere student in the mix, so I will leave it up to Tina to respond. She’s having a grand time in Bali at the moment but I’m sure she’ll jump in once she’s back on the ground.
Nice article but I have to disagree. Children’s brains are different from those of adults, and it is generally believed there is an innate language “module” that exists for children under 11 years old or so. When we learn languages as adults, we are no longer using a specialized language module, just our general intellectual facilities. Virtually all children, at all intelligence levels, will learn their native language flawlessly, while we certainly can not say the same for adults, even those immersed in foreign countries. Further, because adults are using their general intelligence, translation can be a great tool in language learning – why not use what you already have (your native language)? I think saying that effective courses only use Thai is patently untrue.
Having said that, I do agree that repetition is a very helpful technique, and I’m sure getting proper rest and energy doesn’t hurt 🙂
Pete, Nikon, nice! And your photos are wonderful. My choice this time around was either Nikon or Canon. If I had to choose again, I’d go with the next range higher.
Before I got into cheap digital (before SLR Digitals came down from US$10,00) I had an OM10. It was a fantastic camera (I still have one).
Lazy Thai learners… for starters, try Pimsleurs or Linguaphone. The American accent in Pimsleurs irked me at first, but after I got used to it, I preferred it over Linguaphone (semi upper class British accent).
Ben, let me know how you get on with it. I do believe you’ll be totally chuffed, just like I was 🙂
Priceless info Cat. Thanks so much for sharing. I will do that! 🙂
Me too Catherine, I’m a relative newcomer to photography after a loooong break – my previous camera was an Olympus OM1 Manual! Now I have a slowly aging, and incredibly heavy to cart around, Nikon D2X, with a Nikkor 17-55mm lens and a 70-210mm zoom which fortunately for me is VR equipped (vibration reduction).
I don’t know about the biggest breakthrough in learning a language Martyn, but I know the greatest obstacle… according to the wife2B, I’m kêe-gìat (lazy)! At least that’s one word that’s stuck 🙂
Martyn, I would also like to study with a course that teaches you to think in Thai, but they’d have to work around my nature of always wanting to know what the word for word translation is. Word for word does not always work with Thai, so I’ve run into some funny situations 🙂
Ben, if you look to my sidebar on the right, you’ll see ‘Top Posts’. That is where I keep all of WLTs goodies.
Look down from there and you’ll see The Easy Way for Beginners to Read and Write Thai.
It is a download so you can get it tonight. The price can fluctuate, but it is a steal either way.
What I did was print out the book, cut each letter/vowel/number section out, fold each one to hide half of the information, then start quizzing myself.
You won’t learn the Thai name for each one, but it will jump start you into reading Thai. For me, learning the Thai name came only after I got the confidence to read.
After studying with the book, I was in taxi at a light and found I could READ the street sign! I totally flipped as it felt so grand 🙂
I have got to go for number two and say that think/association is the big breaktrough in learning any language. I started with beer, ashtray and how much, I have progressed a little since.
Catherine.. Really? that’s news. You’ve given me hope. One of the most frustrating things about Thailand for me is walking into a bookshop and not being able to buy a book that I can understand, ESPECIALLY when they put the titles in English and you think YES! a book in English, only to find it is in Thai…… I guess the best option is to have a crack at learning the alphabet, I have to do it sometime – 60 Min Alphabet book – I will get my hands on a copy ASAP. Thanks again!
Pete, I was just looking at the fantastic photos on your site and wanted to ask you the same. I purchased the Canon Kiss XSi (known as the Rebel in the West). Then when the Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 fell short, I added the Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens.
(or should I say ‘glass’?)
Last year this time, I started back into photography after being away from the camera scene for awhile. I’m now having to dust off the brain to see just what I remember.
Mere youngster? Hah! I’d say ‘I wish’ but I honestly don’t as the world is much more relaxed on this end of life’s scale.
(thinking of a nice surprise…)
Catherine, I don’t know what you going to do with me. I’ll just leave that up to you, so it will be a nice surprise 🙂
Glad the alphabet clicked with you. But then you’re a mere youngster 😉
By the way, like the photos on the other site very much. What camera/lenses do you use?
Ben, I believe you’d be surprised at just how easy it is to learn the Thai alphabet. I tried with the charts then gave up. Later, I found the 60 Min Alphabet book and it clicked right away for me. And with 60 Min, learning how to read numbers was amazingly fast (and all that time I thought I was dense… 😀
Yeah very useful info here. The repetition bit when others are talking is where I am currently picking up most words and phrases (still limited though). The reading bit as Pete mentions is a good point, I was thinking about getting a Thai to help me to translate some good (and simple) blog posts into Thai (phonetically, I can’t even think about learning Thai alphabet yet) just might help me pick up some more useful phrases etc….
Ben Shingletons last blog post..The Taming of the Tropical Landscape
Tina, thank you for your contribution on WLT. I tend to eat bananas more in the tropics because if I don’t, a lack of potassium seems to make me feel tired. I didn’t realise the language benefits of bananas, but now that I know, I’ll stock up.
When I first arrived in Bangkok I took Stuart Jay Raj’s ‘Cracking Thai Fundamentals’. During the course, he taught us how to act out some of the letters of the Thai alphabet, each with a different sound and physical action.
Being the only female in the class, my cheeks would burn when we got to า – are you reading this Stu? 🙂 – but as I never forgot the letters we reviewed, it did prove to me just how effective engaging the senses can be.
Pete, what am I going to do with you… 🙂 I know you asked Tina, but I’d like to put my two cents in anyway… Even though I have transliteration on WLT, I strongly dislike reading it. Beginners using transliteration for a quick check to see if they are reading the Thai script properly, sure. But as the only way to read Thai? I’m not so sure about it as I feel it stunts the Thai learning process.
Note: I am not an expert at anything Thai language, but I don’t let that stop me from having strong opinions (oh, dear).
Hi Tina, that’s a nice concise summary of the key elements of learning a language. Although I must admit to having had a bit of a snigger at technique 1 … “”learning through engaging all the senses” 🙂 Of course, I’m game for anything. Now what was lesson no. 69 again; “a tour of Bangkok’s night life, useful phrases”?
Ok, I’ll be serious…
Moving on to point 4, I think I’ll need regular glucose injections. Especially if I hope to survive technique no. 1.
Right, sorry, I’ll be really serious now, or Catherine will be taking her revenge on my blog 😉
One thing I’ve noticed, apart from the obvious problem of memory retention as the years go by, in contrast to learning a European language, is that you can’t unconsciously pick up vocabulary from scanning signs/headlines etc, in the street, above shops, on the box, etc., when in the country. This helped me to learn basic Italian over a very short period of time. It must be a good idea to to read and write Thai from the start, rather than stick to phonetic/spoken Thai?
Despite being a career linguist (a French translator speaking German and Italian as well), I’ve barely picked up any Thai over two years. I really must knuckle down to some serious work. Now where was I… technique 1, lesson 69… or was it 96… who cares 😉
(Your fault Catherine, you have been advertising quick and dirty ways to learn Thai, I’ve been thinking of nothing else ever since…)