Learning Thai

Pom rian passat Thai.

 I am learning the Thai language.  I have completed exactly six days of classes at the Union Language School and already I am able to do amazing things, which I will write about in a moment.

One of my reasons for choosing Union Language School was that its curricula was developed by Donald Larsen, a noted linguist.  My experience learning French from a speaker who was trained in linguistics was very positive and it seemed that linguistics provided a good framework around which to organize the learning.

The first school I had tried (studying briefly during previous visits) was the structure-less American University Alumni Association.  The focus there is on learning by absorption.   Sit here and listen to two instructors carry on a dialog in Thai and in a few years you will have learned it just the way a child does.  AUA graduates are acknowledged to ultimately speak Thai with near-flawless accents.  Locals regularly mistake one Japanese friend (Mitsu, shown below) who completed three years at AUA for Thai.  Albeit, usually not a Thai “from around here.”

That said, I have found the complete lack of structure a bit frustrating.  At AUA they discourage students from even attempting to speak Thai until you reach the third level of studies.  Feeling the need to get up to speed a bit more quickly, even if I require more work on the back end of things to get rid of my accent, I went knocking on the ULS door.

From the very first day, I have enjoyed the experience at ULS.  For starters, the teacher, Khru Lakhana, is incredibly enthusiastic.  She must have a dozen cups of coffee first thing in the morning.  The class is composed of thirteen students: 5 from the US, 2 from Japan, 2 from Spain, 1 Russian, 1 Israeli, 1 Brit, and 1 Bolivian.

We spent the first three and a half days learning the basic phonetic albhabet – a standardized set of letters and symbols that each have a discreet sound.  For example, in the English language, the “ou” sound in “cough”, “tough”, “though”, and “through” are different.  In order to learn a language properly, we need a standard vocabulary to use and the phonetic alphabet provides that.

An example of how the nine pure vowels (as opposed to the compound vowels like “ia”, “ua”, etc.) in Thai, each in a long and short sound.  The phonetic symbols for the nine long vowels are:

  • ii = “ee” as in “see
  • ee = “a” as in “pale”
  • oo = “o” as in “go
  • aa = “a” as in “father”
  • uu = “u” as in “ruler”
  • ¥å¥å = “a” as in “sad”
  • әә = “e” as in “teacher”
  • ɔɔ
  • = “a” as in “Tawn”
  • ʉʉ
  • = “u” at in “ruler” but with a wide smile on your face as you say it

We also spent those first three-plus days practicing the five tones in the Thai language.  Think of tones like holding a note while singing.  The vowel sound in a syllable will rise, fall, hold steady, etc. based on the particular tone.  The five tones applied to the word “mai” are as follows:

  • māi = mid tone, hold stead at a middle pitch
  • mài = low tone, start at middle pitch and drop to low pitch
  • mâi = falling tone, starting at middle pitch, rising a bit, and then dropping sharply
  • mái = high tone, starting at a mid-high pitch and rising sharply
  • măi = rising tone, starting at mid pitch, dropping a bit, and then rising sharply

These are much fewer than some languages have.  I have been told that some dialects of Chinese have up to eight or nine different tones.  The different between tones is critical because the change of a tone also changes the meaning.  The above five words mean, in order, “mile”, “new”, “no” or “not”, “right?” and “silk”.  The challenge to learners who come from a native language that does not employ tones is that we’re not used to even hearing the differences.  And believe me when I tell you that the distinctions, especially when someone is speaking at a conversational pace, are subtle.

One the tail end of the fourth day we began to practice actual words and conversations.  We learned simple things first, like how to refer to yourself, another person, and a third person in singular form.  Then we learned to identify ourselves and ask others their names.  Then we learned to ask what something is, what color it is, and how many of them there are.

What I am finding is that the structure of the material is quite brilliant because each new bit of knowledge does not just add another building block – it adds a multiplier or an exponential factor to our existing knowledge.

For example, once I learned how to ask colors in addition to asking names of items and quantities, my Thai universe expanded in size by a factor of three.  I can now ask how many items of a particular type that that other person is holding, are a particular color.  Very useful stuff.

Here is an example of a conversation I can now carry on with a native Thai speaker, assuming he has infinite patience as I mispronounce every word and tone, and also assuming he follows my practiced script to the letter.  The conversation is in English for your ease of reading.

  • Chris: Hello there.
  • Thai person: Hello there.
  • Chris: My name is Chris. Excuse me, what is your name?
  • Thai person: My name is Chai.
  • Chris: I am sorry, what is your name again?
  • Thai person: My name is Chai.
  • Chris: Your name is Eric?
  • Thai person: No. My name is Chai.
  • Chris: Your name is Chai?
  • Thai person: Correct. My name is Chai.
  • Chris: Chai, what is this called?
  • Chai: That is a pencil.
  • Chris: Chai, what is that called?
  • Chai: That is a ruler.
  • Chris: Chai, that ruler is orange.
  • Chai: No, that ruler is not orange.
  • Chris: Chai, that ruler is not orange. That ruler is clear.
  • Chai: Yes, that ruler is clear.
  • Chris: (picking up a bunch of colored pencils) Chai, how many of these pencils are green?
  • Chai: What the heck are you asking me for!?

Of course, this is not based on a real conversation, but only on the types of conversations I have with my teacher and fellow students in class.  I have attempted to engage Tawn in these conversations, and while he is very supportive of my studying Thai, I think he finds the conversations with his three year old second cousin Mark to be significantly more mentally engaging.

But this is just day six.  We have a test next Wednesday and I am sure by then I will be having some truly amazing conversations!

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