why I decided to learn Thai

I’ve started taking Thai lessons at AUA.

Foreigners in Thailand fall into a few different camps when it comes to speaking Thai:

1) “Speak English you browned-skinned savages!” These people are either FOP tourists, or expats that really hate Thailand because nothing ever works properly for them. They haven’t noticed that Thailand has an official language, and it’s not English. You can laugh at these people without feeling guilty because their racist refusal to put in any effort towards learning Thai is the source of 99% of their frustrations.

2) “Poot passa Thai geng mak!” A lot of foreigners fall into this category. They can say “sawatdee ka”, “thaorai ka?”, “kao moo deng”, “leo sai, leo kwa”, basic numbers and do lots of pointing. These foreigners feel pretty clever in their “mastery” of Thai as Thai people are always telling them how clever they are, but this has a certain element of “Wow! A dancing dog!” in it, like they’re amazed foreigners can speak ANY Thai.

3) “I give up”: they took some Thai lessons 3 years ago and got frustrated with making slow progress, or never being understood by Thai people because their tone was off. One guy gave up learning Thai because he started understanding Thais trash-talking behind his back as he walked by: he’d rather not know.

4) Mastery! These people are usually either:
a) married to a Thai
b) living kee nok in the middle of nowhere, often combined with (a),
c) a really high-level diplomat or executive
d) into linguistics.

Apart from the ghetto “i married a hooker and moved back with her to issan” contingent, these foreigners never fail to impress me. My friend Muriel falls into this category, and I started to notice, going around the city with her, that EVERYTHING WENT A LOT BETTER FOR HER. When she ordered something in a restaurant, she got what she ordered. People were pleasant and helpful to her (genuinely so, not the smile-smile-do-whatever variety that is the hallmark of confused service people). Navigating the city was so much easier. Even more, every single Thai friend I have LOVED HER, people loved having little chit-chats with her, and they were always curious about her.

It was a real eye-opener to see how many of the frustrating aspects of Thailand that foreigners attribute to Thai people being different or, (let’s be honest) stupid and lazy — stem from the fact that these foreigners don’t speak Thai, and therefore, can’t make themselves understood, and don’t understand what people say to them. I mean — DUH — but it’s easy to fall into feeling like you don’t need to learn more than a few words of Thai to get by here, because Thai people ARE so accomodating and gracious, all things considered.

AUA uses a really cool method for teaching Thai called “natural language acquisition”, which I’d like to tell you more about in my next post.

8 Responses to “why I decided to learn Thai”

  1. 1 geomark July 25, 2008 at 7:22 am

    I agree with you on this. I’m not fluent yet but getting fairly proficient.

    About AUA, I went for a while. I think their program is bogus. They don’t do any teaching. You just sit and listen to them tell stories. If you live in Thailand you can get plenty of that without having to make the trip over to the school and paying for it. Better to combine natural learning elsewhere with some book and grammar study at a real school, IMHO.

  2. 2 cat July 25, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I’ll be interested in seeing how you go with the natural method. My Thai teacher worked at AUA for years so I’m learning the AUA way (one on one). Only, with the original books. Not the way you are going at it.

  3. 3 julielavoie July 25, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    geomark — just because the method doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean it’s bogus.

    I think the difference with listening at AUA and just listening to people in every day life, is that the teachers at AUA tailor their vocabulary for the level of the students in the class, which doesn’t happen in everyday life.

    The only foreigner I know who has a PERFECT accent and gets the tones right all the time, studied at AUA.

    Plus it’s a good way to learn a lot about Thai culture, Thai jokes and just the kind of stuff that Thai people like to talk about.

  4. 4 julielavoie July 25, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Hey Cat,

    thanks for your comment!

    So far I really like the natural method. I guess only time will tell if it will be effective, but I already think some things in Thai that come naturally, and people often compliment me on my ACCENT — not the usual “poot thai geng mak!” — but my actual pronunciation, so I feel that I am on the right track.

    I would be too shy to study on one on like you are doing πŸ™‚ so I think different people have different styles of learning that they prefer.

    More importantly, I’ve studied Italian and Japanese using more traditional methods at university — and I remember absolutely NOTHING. And studying was a chore. Whereas I enjoy going to AUA — it feels like fun, not work. πŸ™‚

    Good luck with your learning Thai! πŸ™‚

  5. 5 muriel August 5, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    hey julie, lol, I am really honored you mention me in your blog post.

    I totally agree with you that speaking Thai makes living in Thailand much simpler and more pleasant. I am currently in China and my Chinese is pretty bad, so I know what you I you are speaking about.

    As for AUA I think that it’s pretty much the only way for foreigners to learn the tones in a natural way. At least, it has worked for me. Say hello to the teachers at AUA for me :).

  6. 6 julielavoie August 5, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    Hi Muriel! good to hear from you! (will answer your email soon! πŸ™‚

    I’m so glad that you introduced me to aua! I agree it seems like a much more natural way to learn the right tones and everything. Already I’ve had a few people complimenting me on my good accent, instead of the usual “poot thai geng maak!”

    and I think you learn A LOT more about Thai culture from AUA than the other classes I’ve seen people take, because teachers are always telling stories about their lives, or things about thai culture.

    Like today we had a class about how people who are untrustworthy are called the Thai word for cobra, and the story of where that comes from. Then we talked about the rice planting season, and how the labor works. It was really interesting!

  7. 7 Natta December 13, 2008 at 10:30 am

    I must admit that we Thais find any foreigner who can speak Thai at all are admirable. Thai language is, in my opinion, hard to speak for foreigners because of the various different tones in the language.

    Anyway, keep up with Thai! I’m sure the result is worth it πŸ™‚

    P.S. I really like your blog. I stumbled upon it and now can’t stop reading it. It’s always interesting for me to see how foreigners have some insights for Thailand and Thai people.

  8. 8 ghostwiththemost January 8, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    I’m currently struggling to learn Thai here in Singapore, and I’m even thinking of enrolling for classes. I think being disciplined is the key! (To most things really!)

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A blog about culture and technology in South-East Asia.

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