What Does “Fluent in Thai” Mean to You?

What does “fluent in Thai” mean to you?

What does “fluent” mean anyway? …

When people start talk about learning Thai I often hear the word “fluent” bandied about. A couple of forums are talking about just this sorta thing (google). So what exactly is the definition of “fluent”? Being an American, I’ll use the Merriam Webster dictionary.

flu·ent adjective \ˈflü-ənt\

Definition of FLUENT
a : capable of flowing : fluid
b : capable of moving with ease and grace

a : capable of using a language easily and accurately [fluentin Spanish] [a fluent writer]
b : effortlessly smooth and flowing : polished [a fluentperformance] [spoke in fluent English]
c : having or showing mastery of a subject or skill [fluent in mathematics]

I’ve met more foreigners than I care to count who’ve told me they know someone who’s fluent in Thai. My question to them is, “how do you know if your friend is fluent if you can’t even speak Thai?” I’ve since met some of their friends and when I ask them to “bust out with it”, seems they are anything but fluent.

I’ve also had conversations with a guy who makes no bones about his fluency in Thai, and the fact that every foreigner he’s taught is also fluent in Thai. Now, in his defense, he is a clear, concise foreign speaker of Thai. His rhythm and cadence are what makes him so easily understood by Thais.

I’d learn Thai from him in a second (he’s that good) excepting he’s set a maximum age limit and in his opinion, I’m well past my “sale by date”. And darn it, on top of all that, and for reasons beyond my understanding, I seemed to have rubbed him the wrong way.

Anyone who’s listened to Thai knows it’s spoken with a definite rhythm. For myself, the more I emulate the distinctive tempo of spoken Thai, the better Thais understand even my quirky version of Thai.

Awhile back I started a post asking about comma words in Thai. Written Thai is bereft of commas so comma words are where you pause either before or after a word. I asked about comma words because when it came to my turn in the reading aloud portion of Thai class, the teacher would often be in tears either from tryin’ not to laugh or from the sheer anguish of havin’ to endure my reading. I now know that what I was doing wrong was pausing to take a breath in the middle of compound words, or at the wrong place in a sentence. So unless someone was following along with the written text it was hard to understand what I was saying.

In my own defense I’ve gotten much much better but that’s the direct result of reading books aloud for hours on end while a Thai friend lounged around my house half listening and then yelling corrections whenever I messed up. It hasn’t made it into my spoken Thai (yet) but at least my oral reading skills are doing okay. Not that I do a lot of that, come to think of it…

But let’s get back to the topic of fluency. What is fluency and what makes a person fluent? I read somewhere that being able to ask about the meaning of a word you don’t know in your target language demonstrates fluency. To a degree, I believe this is true because I routinely do the same so experience the value.

I also read somewhere that being fluent is having a conversation in the target language without breaking into your mother tongue. Dunno about that one as it’s a pretty broad interpretation of fluency. I talk to taxi drivers and never have to fall back on English. However, I’m using the same ‘ole predictable taxi driver conversation that anyone who speaks even marginal Thai gets into. Not exactly fluent. And seeing as in taxi situations you are usually just answering questions, or maybe even elaborating on the topics a little, it’s not a big stretch language-wise.

Now, if you were to talk to the taxi drivers about, oh, let’s say the recent law where you can report a taxi driver who declines to take you somewhere. And let’s say you start chatting about your personal feelings, that it’s not a fair law because: 1) taxis are rented and hafta be returned at specific times, 2) taxis run low on petrol and maybe where the customer wants to go will drain the tank, 3) that there’s just nothing but a parking lot where that someone want to go, and 4) the meter for fares haven’t increased in Bangkok for almost 10 years, etc. Well, all of that might constitute being a little more fluent than the run-of-the-mill Thai taxi chatter.

As far as I’m concerned, there is a huge difference in fluency between you driving a conversation topic-wise or participating in one where they are in the driver’s seat. Keeping a conversation in Thai on a topic you’re comfortable with can seem to demonstrate fluency. That is, until it strays off script, leaving you all of a sudden floundering around without a word to say in response.

Fluency can also be broken down into a myriad of subjects: politics, religion, business, or any specialty trade lingo, casual conversation, conversations with superiors/subordinates, giving presentations at meetings, etc.

I recently worked for a Thai company on a consultancy gig and I had NO business Thai vocab to fall back on. I was woefully behind the curve on projections, sales, training, and basic office and managerial lingo Thai. It was vocabulary I’ve never needed to know before. So again, depending on what you need to communicate, fluency can be rated based on different criteria.

On a sidetone: At the beginning of the consultancy gig my casual (and very coarse) direct, no frills way of speaking Thai didn’t really play that well with the people sporting impressive titles. But thankfully, they’re now dialed into Todz-Thai and realize that’s just how I speak.

I think what I’m trying to get at is that for most of us it’s better if we just chuck the idea of fluency out the window. Seems that when it comes to speaking Thai, we put way too much time and effort on attaining this mythical fluent rating. And really, in the big picture it doesn’t always mean that much of anything.

If you’re gonna go for something, go for fluidity instead (another meaning for fluent):

  • Pause where Thais pause.
  • Say things more like Thais do.
  • Speak with the rhythm and cadence Thais use.

And if you live in Thailand these Thai traits can be gleaned just by listening to the Thais around you.

Talking Thai to Thais ain’t a grammar or structure test by any means. No one’s grading your ability to converse. And the Thais I know don’t give two hoots if I make an attempt to speak perfectly constructed Thai or stick with the half-assed version of Thai I speak. What they do care about is being able to understand what I’m saying.

And here’s another thing. You shouldn’t be speaking Thai to impress anyone. And if you are, IMHO, you’re learning Thai for all the wrong reasons. Because at the end of the day, aren’t we merely trying to connect with Thais in their language?

To finalize: Don’t take this language or yourself too seriously. Don’t let other people bring you down. Oh, and if your opinion differs from mine, that’s fine. What I’m not is a Thai language pundit. I’m just someone who’s struggled for over four years to get a working semblance of Thai under my belt in order to communicate with Thais.

Now, because I’m considered “old” by some, I could very well be a slow learner because “old people can’t learn”. But I’m gonna prove that fallacy wrong. Not to impress anyone, but to prove that old dogs can learn new tricks. Because you know what? This old dog still hunts! Yeah.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

10 thoughts on “What Does “Fluent in Thai” Mean to You?”

  1. Congrats, mate.

    I’ve struggled for years with Chinese living in China. I know how hard it can be.
    Thai is just about equally hard. Do you find the tones get you down? Could you discuss politics?

  2. There are any number of foreigners who are really good, non-native speakers of Thai who also happen to teach it to foreigners. Google is your friend on this one..

    First, let me be totally clear on one fact! It’s not that these foreigners sound like native born, bred, rice fed Thai speakers. In all my time here, I’ve NEVER come across a western foreigner who learned Thai as an adult who would fool a Thai for more than a couple minutes into thinking they were native speakers.

    What sets good native English speakers of Thai, who also teach it apart from the native Thai teachers, is the foreigners ability to convey the intricacies of the Thai language in clear concise English so that the student understands the reasons behind some of the quirks and can make leaps in logic as far as applying the rules or information faster. The ability to do this can go a long way to clearing up a lot of the poorly understood things between thai and English.

    I’ve seen foreigners make some incredible progress learning from a good foreign speaker of Thai who is also an native English speaker. Now quite possibly there are near native English speaking Thaiz out there who teach Thai to foreigners and who also have this ability. It’s just in the 20+ schools I’ve been to and the many many Thai language teachers I’ve met and know, I’d say maybe 2 of them could hit that mark. Again, I’m not saying that native Thai teachers who don’t speak English aren’t good. Comparing a native Thai teacher to a native English speaking teacher who is adept in thai is apples and oranges. They are NOT the same..

    Interestingly, it is often quoted myth that foreigners can’t teach the Thai language, the real truth is they can. They just can’t teach Thai to Thaiz! The regulation makes no such distinction about who can hawk Thai to foreigners.

    Teaser; I’ve got a submission called “Say It Like a Thai Would”. It’s not quite ready for prime time yet as I still have to file off the rough edges and sugar coat what I say so Cat will post it.

    In it, I try to dispel some of the long mistaken beliefs we as non-native adult learners of this language hold and sometimes hold onto for dear life!

    It’s a little controversial, but what would Tod Daniels be without a hint of controversy? Even if you disagree 100% with what I say, at least you’re thinking about it. I can’t see a down side to thinking despite the Thaiz saying “don-tink-too-mut” อย่าคิดมาก!

    Good Luck

  3. After making the previous comment I received several emails from people congratulating me on my estimated proficiency – – in ENGLISH, ;).. One thought I was taking quite a bit of creative license given my penchant for spelling “wordz worng on porpoise”, err words wrong on purpose!!

    Obviously (or not), what I meant was using the criteria in the CEFR I rated my THAI abilities at a high-B2 or a very low-C1. The technical stuff I know and talk about regularly in Thai I’m pretty good at, however on stuff I don’t know, well let’s just say I’m worse than abysmal.

    Let’s see what the new year brings. Hope I cleared up the confusion..

  4. I didn’t even know what the CEFR scale was, so I had to Google it!

    I’d hafta guess, based on self assessment that I’m lost somewhere between a high-B2 and a low-C1. The hard truth is often a little depressing.

    Still glad you liked the article!

    I wish all readers of Catherine’s site a Happy, Prosperous and Healthy coming New Year..

  5. Hey young feller,
    Nice post, as usually.

    What does fluency mean to me? Absolutely nothing. Seriously, every single human being on earth, and probably their cats and dogs, have unique definitions of fluency. You tell me you’re fluent, and that could mean anything from you can say a few phrases that are understandable to natives, to you are a native speaker. I’m aware of this “fluidity vs aptitude” debate too, and I have to admit it seems pretty pointless.

    So when someone asks if I’m fluent, or if I want to let someone know what my level is, I give them a brief description of what I can do. If I don’t have time for that, I use the CEFR scale.

    Oh…but I like YOU’RE definition of fluency buddy. Heh heh heh.

    PS – that’s bizarre about the age limiting teacher

  6. A lot of people ask me if I dream in English and it’s often considered one of the main signals that your brain has switched into the foreign language as a standard mode, so well done! I think I dream in English, I’m never sure though – remembering dreams is a nebulous business isn’t it. I most definitely think in English, to the point where switching back to my actual native language takes a minute for me to get comfortable.

    Still, I don’t have a vocabulary as large as native speakers. I think being a language aficionado comes in handy for that, but just the other day I found two words that are foreign to me: Varsity, of which I don’t know what it means (but neither does my native speaking partner), and enterment, which isn’t used in Britain.

    So fluent – I’d say that’s when you don’t search for words, so you don’t interrupt your flow. But your point about rhythm is so interesting too – maybe there is more to it.

  7. Well, I couldn’t comment about what it means to think in another language as that’s something I don’t do. Even when I’m speaking Thai to a Thai, I think in English, just Thai comes out..

    About 8 or 9 months ago I did start having dreams in Thai where I spoke incredible Thai (far past what I normally do). Now I regularly have dreams where all the dialog is in Thai, even when my dream has only white people in it!! At first it freaked me out, but now, not so much.

    I dunno if I’ll ever “think in Thai”, but it’s something to aspire to.

    That reading aloud for hours takes a super patient Thai willing to hang around listening to a foreigner massacre the Thai language. Once they stop laughing, they can be quite helpful, but there’s a long learning curve to get the giggles out of them..

  8. Hi Tod, thanks for this article! I just had to read it, given that I set up as a language tutor this year and quite deliberately named my company “Fluent Language Tuition”. To me, fluency is what most language learners want to achieve – it’s not a holy grail but a word that is so evocative that it does make anyone dream of communicating in a foreign language, just like the natives, blending in and becoming a part of the other community.

    You are so right in saying that the key meaning is the flow. I wouldn’t describe myself as entirely fluent in French, but have often heard positive comments about my pronunciation and accent. Being a choir singer has come in handy, perhaps. The rhythm is important, the sounds are important, and not only for becoming proficient but also for building the confidence to go out and just try speaking in your new language.

    Interestingly, I would never think of fluency as not having to use my native language at all. I’m quasi-native in English these days and when I try to speak French or Spanish I resort to thinking in English, not my native language German. It brings up another question though – what does it mean and when do you know that you “think in another language”?

  9. Hi Tod,

    Interesting article as always.

    I think things like rhythm, cadence, and knowing when to pause must only be acquired from long experience. At my reading level, I can’t even consider such things, as I all too often have to pause to parse out an unfamiliar word. It must be only when you can instantly parse every word that you can take a split second to group them into meaningful chunks.

    When I used to take lessons at a wat in America, our พระอาจารย์ would have each of us read a paragraph from the lesson, and then he would read it as it should have been read. I could hear him grouping the words into proper phrases, and could hear how better his rendition was.

    Thai texts like the Manee books and the original AUA courses seem to emphasize reading drills มา หมา ม้า but that seems pretty monotonous. But it probably does help achieve the desired result of instant word/tone recognition. However, reading books aloud for hours on end does sound like an equally effective and more สนุก method.

    As to fluency, the bit about not having to resort to one’s native tongue sounds good to me. If I could spend a month in Thailand conversing about a variety of activities (travel, work, personal) and never once have to resort to English or pantomime, I would consider myself fluent. I think I might allow some leeway for not knowing some specialized language such as royal and religious terms.



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