Breaking down the Wall ‘O Whyz…
I had the chance to go out with a group of Thai language teachers from various schools around Bangkok the other nite. We talked about the problems they face when teaching Thai to adult foreigners.
They said a big problem is that foreigners think attending a Thai language school the minimum hours set out by the Ministry of Educations guidelines for a measly four hours a week is going to give them some proficiency in Thai.
Well, sorry to burst your bubble but that just ain’t gonna happen.
I know some students who’ve been attending an un-named Thai language school for several years who are totally incapable of stringing together more than a couple Thai words in even a semi-coherent sentence construct.
Learning Thai is like learning to do anything skillful. It takes time, practice, motivation and desire. Four hours a week just isn’t going to cut it and falls FAR short of the mark. Still, most people know that learning something takes time, so this is a no brainer really as far as learning much of anything to a fair degree.
The next thing (the actual topic of this piece) is this: to a person the teachers said students incessantly ask “WHY?”
Why does the Thai language have 6 characters that make a “T” sound? Why doesn’t Thai space out words like most other languages? Why isn’t Thai more like English? Why does an adjective or adverb go after the main verb? Why does the possessive go after the noun? Why? Why? Why?
The teachers said this is easily the biggest impediment to foreigners learning Thai.
Being an inquisitive person, and with Thai being the first second language I’ve attempted to acquire, I fully admit that I am guilty of asking why questions. It’s quite possible that I’ve asked them hundreds of times in my quest to learn Thai. And I realized that after discovering the answer to my mundane why question via a Thai teacher, Google or some other resource, I didn’t get that much better in Thai.
I sure didn’t speak Thai any clearer. I certainly didn’t learn any faster. I couldn’t read any better. In short, knowing why didn’t help me a single bit in learning Thai.
Looking back at my early attempts, asking why got in the way of my learning way more than it provided any real help. Granted, I did find a lot of interesting things about the “whyz in Thai”. But other than being able to provide answers to other foreigners asking the same questions, it really didn’t help me learn Thai all that much better.
I know in previous pieces I’ve written that it’s important to find a teacher who can explain the “whyz in Thai”. However, now I believe that it’s really not that important of a factor and actually can be an impediment to learning.
Being at a fork in the road on my journey to learn Thai I found myself faced with two choices: either accept it and get on with learning, or stress out about the “whyz” and stumble along at a snails pace. I now accept that Thai is Thai and it’s different from other languages. End of story.
The teachers also said that students seem to build a “wall of whyz” in front of them as they try to learn. Every brick in this wall is composed of a question which starts with the word “WHY”. It’s getting students to break thru (or climb over) this “wall ‘o whyz” which could very well be separating the people who learn Thai from the people who can’t seem to get it to click.
I’m not going to pretend I have the answer to how people can overcome this (I’m certainly not a life coach, or a cunning linguist, lol). And at the end of the dinner the teachers didn’t really come to a consensus either. They were all of the mind that once a student breaks down the “wall ‘o whyz” they learn Thai faster. Sometimes WAY faster. They went on to mention that some students seem to break thru more quickly but others have never managed at all.
Anyway, after this nearly four year quest of mine to learn Thai (which I honestly undertook because I was bored and also because I knew 63+ million Thai speakers weren’t ALL smarter than me) I can say without a doubt that my asking why was possibly the biggest stumbling block at learning this language.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My spoken Thai isn’t anything to write home about. I am a horrific Thai speaker. I speak Thai with a definite Middle American accent. I routinely sub out long for short vowels, mix up the tones, and some of my sentence constructs are so “un-Thai” that it leaves the Thais scratchin’ their heads as far as what I’m on about. However, I only know this because I’ve reached a level of proficiency to realize I speak some pretty shaky Thai. Early on I didn’t know just how bad I sucked at it and that was actually a blessing.
I suggest anyone wanting to undertake this language, take that “WHY” word right out of your vocabulary from the get go. Knowing why won’t help you, it only seems like it does at the time. Accept that Thai is different from your native language. Accept that it’s written like it is and that it ain’t gonna change in our lifetime. If you wanna speak, understand, read and write Thai, the faster you break thru the “wall ‘o whyz” the faster you’ll get there.
Again, these are only my opinions and I realize they may run counter to yours. That doesn’t negate either of our views on the subject, it just shows how different we all are.
I always tell people, I’m not smart so if I can speak, read and write something which resembles Thai enough to interact with the Thais, ANYONE who puts their mind to it can too.
Sincerely good luck in your Thai language endeavors.
BTW: “Wall ‘O Whyz” is a phrase I coined, feel free to use it but remember you heard it here first!!!
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com