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Reflections On Learning Thai



First of all, let me state that I have never been to Thailand and the closest I have got to Thailand is a Thai restaurant in Madrid and other Thai eateries in Utah and Colorado. However, I have a Master's degree in linguistics (eventually a Ph.d when I finish my thesis), can speak several languages, and have been studying Thai for a year and a half on my own. I have also written the definitive Basque-English dictionary so when I talk about bilingual dictionaries, I think that I am able to speak with some authority on the subject.

I was hesitant in writing this article but Stick told me that at least there might be some readers interested in things besides lovesick Faràngs and steamy descriptions of seedy Nana Plaza, Pattong, and Soi Cowboy bars.

Myths about learning Thai.

There are people who claim that it is impossible to learn Thai, at least if you are a Faràng. Dana seems to be one of those who purports such views. This means means that Thais can learn English but English-speakers can't learn Thai. A preposterous premise.

English is actually a very hard language to learn. The phonetics are incredibly complex. Spoken English is a totally different beast and native speakers of English are totally unaware of this. While the learner might learn "What did you say?", the native speaker slurs into "Wadya say"?, which is usually gibberish for non-natives.

The English writing system is often based on, among other things, 13th and 14th century pronunciations of English words (e.g. light, enough, thought), spurious attempts at Latinizing certain words (e.g. debt, island), classical Latin spelling and classical Latin renderings of Greek words, and words directly taken from foreign sources without as much as changing the spelling (e.g. coup d'état, Weltanschauung, jai alai, aficionado, auto da fé, etc.)

English grammar is seemingly simple, but certain aspects such as phrasal verbs (e.g. get up, put up with, set off) are daunting to all learners of English, often unsurmountable.

Thus, if a Thai or Burmese or a Basque or an Angolan can learn a complex language like English, there is no reason why a Faràng cannot learn Thai or Chinese or Basque or Chechen.

Problems of learning Thai

The greatest problem for Faràng types, to be sure, is the fact that Thai is not an Indo-European language, not even European. An obvious fact but one that often poses great differences in the way that things are expressed. In a nutshell, Thai is a tonal language, the vocabulary is essentially a combination of native Thai words at the core with Sanskrit and Pali words used for most abstract ideas, essentially just like English uses Latin and Greek for abstract concepts. Then there are a few Khmer, Chinese, Lao (a closely related language) and now English words added to the brew and you've got modern Thai.

One overall problem is the fact of reference. Western culture falls back on Graeco-Roman culture, Judeo-Christianity. Thai culture falls back on Hindu and Buddhist culture together with a large dose of Chinese influence. For example, in Western languages, the names of the planets, save for Earth, come from Latin and Greek names whereas planet names in Thai are ultimately from Sanskrit and Pali.

Another problem is the lack of many Thai learning aids (certainly not as many available as there are, for instance, for English, French, or German). Another problem is that Thai-English dictionaries are, in my opinion, fairly awful, certainly not on the same level as can be found in other languages of Asia such as Japanese and Korean. Finally, there is what I would call, the imperialist factor. If Thais are willing to speak in English, if they can, why bother to speak Thai?

Writing

One obvious obstacle for the Faràng to learn Thai is the alphabet. The Thai alphabet is one that is connected to the Khmer language but is ultimately derived from India (Sanskrit and Pali). This means that, like Sanskrit, some vowels are written before the consonant, some above it, some below it, and some after it. To make things even more dicey, there are no spaces between the words. If that were not enough, Thai is hardly a phonetic language as it pays homage to words of Sanskrit and Pali origin (but the same goes for words of English origin). Thus, the word for nation is pronounced "chaat", but written as "chaati". <Actually, this is strictly speaking correct, but Thai is VERY closely to being truly uniformly phonetic – there are only a few exceptions and it doesn't take long to learn themStick> The polite word for "to know" is literally written as "thraap" but pronounced as "sâap". Even common names such as "Sowaluck" are literally written as "Saawalaksn". Even surnames derived from Sanskrit are antiphonetic. I know a woman whose surname is "Maapradit" but is written as "Maapradisth". At least Thai has a little marker that show that a certain letter is silent. English-speakers, of course, have no reason to complain since words as "enough", "Caesar", "plaid", "·Yosemite", etc. are about as antiphonetic as you can get.

The best guide to writing the Thai alphabet, in my humble opinion, is the book written by Mary Haas entitled "The Thai Alphabet".

Transcription systems of the Thai Alphabet

Transcription means rendering Thai letters into the letters of another alphabet, our Roman alphabet.

The system used in Thailand is known as the Royal Thai Transcription. It is very inaccurate, is often more based on etymology, not actual pronunciation, and tones are never indicated.

By far the very best transcription is the one devised by Mary Haas decades ago. However, it may be rather daunting to the non-linguist since it uses unknown symbols for the various vowels of the Thai language and certain consonants such as "ng". "C" represents "j" and "J" represents "y". "Y" represents the sound usually written in transcription systems as "eu" (and pronounced as in French "peu" or like an "ö" in German as in Göthe) Confusing? Perhaps for the non-linguist but quite precise for those who are familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet who admittedly are few and far between.

Methods for learning Thai

There are various course books on the market. The Routledge Colloquial Thai. The FSI Thai Basic Course, the Linguaphone course.

Let me venture to say that I think that the Routledge Colloquial Thai transcription system is about as bad as you can get. There are, for the most part, no markers for tone save for vocabulary lists. Not good. The only redeeming qualities are the dialogues which, though quirky, seem to be a bit useful, at least in the last chapters.

I am sorry, but I think that the FSI Thai Basic Course is the best that I have studied. Yes, it has bizarre references to now obsolete things such as JUSMAG. It makes a lot of use of words that are useful to diplomats, but, all in all, it is a solid, comprehensive course. I also would recommend Benjawan Poomsan Becker's three volume course, complete with recordings.

Dictionaries

In this area, I must be brutal and frank. I think that the Thai-English English-Thai dictionaries are, for the most part, and with the odd exception, pure rubbish. In Asia, the Japanese and the Koreans have the best bilingual dictionary tradition by far. I am hardly impressed by the Chinese endeavours even though it is, of course, the giant language of Asia, indeed, the world. In Europe, I am only impressed by the efforts of the English (Collins, Oxford), French, Germans, and Russians (though I do admire the large Hungarian-English English-Hungarian dictionary). A good bilingual dictionary has a lot of senses and subsenses in a dictionary article, especially one that means many things (e.g. get, turn, set, on). These senses and subsenses are differentiated by semantic fields as indicated by parentheses. These, for the most part, are lacking in Thai dictionaries. Moreover, there is no systematic treatment of phrasal verbs (get up, put with with, turn over, etc.) and the Thai-English part is simplistically organized.

The most comprehensive is the MacFarland Dictionary and the most useful for English-speakers is the Mary Haas dictionary. However, these dictionaries are already quite obsolete. Just look for internet or disk drive in the Mary Haas dictionary (published 1964) and you will understand what I mean.

The Thai-English English-Thai dictionary by Benjawan Poomsan Becker is most recommendable but it also suffers from appalling organization. One can find the word "course", but not the expression "of course" or "on course" or "in due course". However, the transcription system is, for the most part, quite good and accurate. Some words are inexplicably omitted (e.g. economy) but then again, there is a good summary of how tones are written and examples of Thai fonts.

The Robertson's English-Thai dictionary is quite out of date. Its phonetic transcription is incredibly out-of-date.

I have started to compile a Thai-English dictionary myself along the lines of my English-Basque dictionary. Hopefully, within a few short years, it will be available.

to be continued

Stickman's thoughts:

As a language teacher, I found the Linguaphone course great. The way it reviews and recycles language is very important to a language learner.