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Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

How Did I Learn Thai? - Learning Thai Language - Resources and Methods

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I get asked quite a lot about how I've gone about learning the Thai language. For me, it's not a direct answer to a more or less direct question, because how one learns a language when you actually live in the culture is entirely different than how I learned German, for example, which was sitting at a desk in school, in America, for 5 years. So, the short answer is: I moved to Thailand and it was important to me to learn the language, so I've been learning it all along. The long answer is: tutors, books, websites, magazines and newspapers, being forced to communicate with trainers, strangers, government officials, and promoters, and having friendships with Thai people. None of these things are singularly responsible for my ability to speak, read and write Thai; and none of them would have made it possible without all the others.

Thai is a tonal language. What that means is that the inflection of a word doesn't express your emotional connotation, instead it is required for the meaning of the word itself. For example, if we say "what?" with a clipped tone, we might be ready to fight. If we say, "whaaat?" with a rising tone we might sound like we're in disbelief. But the meaning of the actual word stays the same. In Thai, the change in tone would change the meaning of the word. So, for example "ma" with a flat tone means "come," whereas "ma" with a rising (like asking a question) tone means "dog," and "ma" with a high tone (like an incredulous "huh?") means "horse." How easy it is to mix those up in speech, and yet they're all spelled differently. For a long time, as folks coming from non-tonal languages, we can't even hear the difference between these words. All this is to say, I think it's important to have a teacher at some point in your process of learning Thai. Not only are tones important for people to understand you, but it teaches you how to hear as well, so that you can understand other people.

My first teacher was Kru May, who was a generous young teacher at a school that was on the same street as Lanna Gym in Chiang Mai. It was my first trip to Thailand and I wanted to learn some Thai, so I'd contacted a teacher via an advertisement on a light pole. That didn't work out so well and I was lost. I wandered into this school and the office-director, when she realized what I was looking for, was so kind that she just sat me down and had Kru May teach me Thai every few days... for free. It was an incredible sign of Thai generosity. She even invited me to her home to have dinner, this odd little farang who wandered in, but that never came about. I'm really grateful to Kru May and Khun Luang (the woman who took me in). When I got back to New York, I found an online tutor and continued learning that way. This was my teacher, Titcha Kedsri, who may or may not still be offering lessons. Once I moved to Thailand, I met in person with a tutor named Simon, maybe for 6 months or so.

For those who want to wade in with their own materials, there are a few sources that are really valuable and free: Women Learn Thai is an online source that really has a lot to go through. If you're a man, don't be confused by the name, it's in no way female specific and often still uses male pronouns and polite particles. Another great resource is video lessons by Mod and Pear, so you can really work on pronunciation and hearing those tones, "Learn Thai with Mod" is great for rudimentary and basic Thai phrases and vocabulary.

A book that I used in order to be able to start reading is this Thai: An Essential Grammar by Smyth. Learning a language with proper structure, grammar, spelling, rules, etc. is dizzying for me. It's a good reference and it's the reason I know that the class of a consonant, coupled with it being "live" or "dead," and the length of the vowel, plus or minus a tone mark, all changes how a word is pronounced. I know those things in my head, but over time I just read and now how to pronounce something because I'm learning the language via exposure and immersion all the time. That's really important. I don't know all the rules of English the way I know those rules in Thai, but you know what sounds correct or not. You need both.

Finally, and most importantly, I think: it was really important to me to learn Thai. As soon as I could sound out basic words, I was struggling to read through the Muay Siam magazine that gave short reports of female fight results. I tried to order my food in Thai, even when I was painfully shy about it. Moving from Chiang Mai to Pattaya significantly improved my Thai, because I was forced to speak Thai more in Pattaya (there's much less English here than in Chiang Mai). I started chatting with Kru Nu in the mornings. I had to start booking my own fights, so I was texting with promoters - man, I'm sure I made some serious errors along the way. My messages were super short and basic. Now they're long and conversational. And occasionally I still don't understand things, but I have lots of practice in how to figure them out. Because it's an ongoing process.

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