Readers' Submissions

More About Language

By Wannabe Ajarn

I finished up this submission during my week-long skiing holidays in the Pas de la Casa, an odd, yet very nice ski resort located in the Principality of Andorra. What makes Pas de la Casa odd is that I never know what language to use and speak there (and some are miffed if you use the wrong language with them, especially people from Spain and France). Most of the signs are Catalan (which is the sole official language of Andorra), most of the shopkeepers speak French, those with lower-end jobs tend to speak Spanish, and the policemen speak in Portuguese (at least among themselves). All this while I speak to my family in Basque. A language-lover's delight or Dana's own worst nightmare 😉

What exactly does it mean when we say "somebody speaks X language"?

This is highly subjective. For certain official entities, you need an official certificate that certifies a person's knowledge. It might mean the P6 certificate for Thai. Cambridge First Certificate or TOEFL for English, "Alliance Française" for French, "Mittelstufe" for German, Euskararen Gaitasun Agiria (EGA) for Basque, etc.

Some wit once remarked that knowing a language means that you can argue religion or politics in that language. That might be closer to the mark. If some twit tells you that you are going straight to hell or that the Holocaust never happened, in your response, you are not thinking of how to use the present perfect, the second person singular form of the imperfect subjunctive, the passive voice, ergativity, or accusative cases. You want to verbally belt the numbskull that uttered such drivel. I once had a bash of an argument with a Swedish-speaking Finn, in Swedish, about her statement that all Basques, I mean absolutely all, were terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. My Swedish was imperfect, full of mistakes and malapropisms, but I was able to make my points. It is a shame I can no longer do that in Swedish as I have forgotten so much of it. I had the argument in 1980. Languages: use them or lose them.

Some are content to know just the functional and practical bits of a language. "Kelner Deutsch" (waiter German) or Restaurant English comes to mind. I suppose, from my readings, there is "Thai Bargirl English". I have known Mormon missionaries who know all the ends and outs of a given language, but only that pertaining to Religion. They are out of their depth if you go to just about any other topic.

Some claim that they are fluent in a language but then they come up against some hidden barriers. Having a fairly complete knowledge (no one has a total knowledge of any language, such is the scope of variety and vocabulary) means that they not only know the basic vocabulary, have good pronunciation, it also means that they know how to say even historical names, book and movie titles, geographical place names, etc. If you think you know X language very, very well, how do you say "Xenophon", "Julius Caesar", "Magellan", "Alexander the Great", "Christopher Columbus", "Confucius", "Plato", "Wuthering Heights", "The Merchant of Venice", "North by Northwest", "Some Like it Hot", "The Sound of Music", "Brussels", "The Hague", "Lisbon", etc. in that language. If you cannot, your knowledge is less than complete.

Essentially, for me, knowing a language to a sufficient degree means that you have mastered the core of that language. That means that you can express any thought or opinion in that language, with the help of a dictionary. It means that your pronunciation is good enough to be understood at least half the time and that you can understand speakers who speak slowly and clearly, without slurring their words or using slang.

One possible secret of how to learn the core of a language

I once tried to learn Arabic. I studied it for a year at the university and, to my astonishment, and chagrin, I realized that, at the end of the year, I knew next to nothing. That failure spurned me to look deeply into how I came to know Portuguese, Spanish, German, and Afrikaans well, but failed to achieve the same in Arabic.

The result of my introspection was that I had failed in the following areas:

1. I did not learn how to conjugate the verb nor how to translate the basic English verb tenses into Arabic

2. I failed to learn any conjunctions beyond "wa" (and) welaakin (but). I could not string any sentences together beyond the ones I had memorized by heart (e.g. "Dhahaba Jama'il ala Qahira" or "Jamail went to Cairo")

2. I did not have a very, very basic grasp of fundamental vocabulary. I did not learn the vocabulary systematically. I learnt vocabulary in bits and pieces, drips and drabs. (Bint (girl), binaat (girls), 'ain (eye), Kitaab (book), Kutub (books), but not much else. Just learning words doesn't do the trick.

3. I did not listen to Arabic very much and so I was clueless if anyone said anything to me.

4. I did not learn basic social situations (introductions, how to give condolences, what to say on the phone, etc.)

Thus, I came to realize that in learning a language, you have to learn how to translate the basics of your native language into the target language, at least at first. The basics that a would-be learner has to learn, eventually, include learning the verb system thoroughly, how to construct noun phrases, knowing how to use adjectives, learning conjunctions, and learning vocabulary in "word families". In addition, you have to know what special ways there are to say things in given conversational settings (greetings on the phone, introductions, etc.)

Learn the Verb system

The key to any language is getting a grip on the verbal system of that language. The verbal system is the heart and spirit of a language. All else is mere formality (even though for some languages, that is a lot of formality indeed). In any case, for an English-speaker to learn Thai (or, indeed, any language) to an excellent degree, such a learner should know at least how to say the following sentences in Thai,:

I eat noodles
I am eating noodles
I ate noodles
I have eaten noodles
I had eaten noodles
I will eat noodles
I have been eating noodles
I would eat noodles
I can eat noodles
I could eat noodles
I must eat noodles
I may eat noodles
I should eat noodles
I would have eaten noodles
I should have eaten noodles
I may have eaten noodles
I might have eaten noodles
I could have eaten noodles
I have been eating noodles
I will be eating noodles
I would be eating noodles
if I ate noodles
If I had eaten noodles

I want to eat noodles
I want you to eat noodles
I wanted you to eat noodles

Of course, many of the sentences above actually overlap and the context would determine exactly how to say it. Nevertheless, while the vocabulary of a language is infinite, grammatical structures are quite few in number.

Noun phrase fun

The learner should also know how to make noun phrases, i.e. how to say

The dog
The big dog
That big dog (this is rather complicated in Thai as count words are used, i.e. Mäa tua nán, literally "dog body that")
That very big dog
the dog that you see (relative clauses)

Awesome Adjectives

The learner should know how to express
the comparative ( -er, the more …)
the superlative (the -est, the most …)
equality (this is big as Khon Kaen)


The learner should know how to use the Thai equivalents of such words as
although, even though
if only
provided that, so long as
unless, etc.

Adverbial phrases

The advanced learner should be armed with adverbial phrases such as

at the same time
from time to time
from now on
of course
like this, like that
as far as I know, etc., etc.


While the grammar in any language is finite, the vocabulary is not. There is no end to vocabulary. However, the best way to learn a language is to learn the basic words first, these include

The basic pronouns
but, or, and
for example, however, moreover
this, that
here, there

After the basic words are learnt, the next step to learn vocabulary on the basis of "word families". This means learning all the fruits together, vegetables, together, etc. This is a more efficient way than reading a text and gleaning a few words from it. In my experience, I have learnt (and in the case of Thai, still learning) some of the following "word families" (these are but a few, there are more):

landscape and scenery
human body and ailments
grammar and languages
essential verbs
adverbial expressions
time words

Social situations

Of course, one can know a lot of grammar, a lot of vocabulary but can still be clueless in actually speaking the language. For example, how do you say "nice to meet you" or "my condolences" or "I appreciate it very much" or "I'm afraid I don't know" in a given language. Apart from phrase books and books such as "Making Out in Thai" and "Thai for lovers", I have not seen very much in the way of working out what to say in a given situation. I have the sensation that Thai is underrepresented, understudied, and under-researched. That perhaps explains the relative dearth in good Thai courses, dictionaries, and other reliable learning aids.

Below are some extra tips and comments regarding the Thai language


Oxford River Books English-Thai Dictionary (ISBN o-19-861068-8)

This has just come out, sizzling hot off the presses. It purports itself as the "world's leading English-Thai dictionary", which might just be true.

As a professional lexicographer with a lot of experience in bilingual lexicography (not the same as monolingual lexicography by a long shot), I looked carefully through it with a critical eye and here these are my comments.

All in all, it is the best English-Thai dictionary by far. It is certainly clearer in its layout and includes much of the modern technological vocabulary that cannot be found in other such dictionaries. It also has quite a few illustrative sentences. All in all, it is a very welcome addition. There are also some grammatical notes regarding certain English words and expressions such as "as" or concepts such as "illness and pain". which can prove very useful indeed.

However, since I have a mind bent on anything dealing with dictionaries, there are a lot of things which I have found that they have amazingly missed, especially when in view of the fact that over ten years of time were spent on the project, not to mention oodles of baht (or was it sterling?). While everyone will probably be waxing lyrical about the dictionary and will be singing its praises, only my opinion will vary somewhat.

First of all, the dictionary is openly, unabashedly, and unashamedly Eurocentric. It is quite obviously based on a template database forked over by Oxford University Press. For example, while you can find Columbus, Cicero or Goliath, you cannot find Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, or Rama. Surely these have had a profound effect on Thai culture, arguably much more than Columbus, at least directly. There are few Buddhist terms, which is a shame. This template database method has also led to a mere translation of terms from English to Thai which has consequently led to an impoverishment of the entries over all. For example, there are a myriad of ways of how to express "can", "would", "will" and "you" in Thai but a great many of these were missed since all the dictionary's compilers were focusing mainly on translating sentences or terms supplied by England-based Oxford University Press.

Secondly, there are some words that seem to be present in the vocabulary of English-speaking people (at least some anyway) that live in Thailand, e.g. "barfine", "bargirl", etc. Maybe such words were deemed to be only used by lowlife Farangs but then again the f-word and s-word are included. While arguably arcane words such as "raillery" or "treacle pudding" are present, highly useful words such as "repeatedly" are not.

Thirdly, it is obviously for Thai-speakers who wish to learn English and so, unless the English-speaker is very good at reading Thai, he or she will be lost. Moreover, in the pronunciation section, they deemed it fit to provide a Thai alphabet rendition of the pronunciation in addition to the International Phonetic Alphabet rendition of the Received Pronunciation (Posh Pomspeak) of the word. I think that it would have been better to give that space to the American pronunciation of the word as well given the huge importance, like it or not, of American English in Thailand. Giving the Thai rendition can only lead to the Thai English-learner maintaining a flawed pronunciation of the word something similar to which I have seen in older English-Spanish dictionaries with a Spanish rendition of the English pronunciation (The International Phonetic Alphabet, albeit confusing at first, is vastly superior to anything else). A colossal waste of effort in my humble opinion. Indeed, with the dawn of the internet, the best thing that a Thai can do is to consult an online dictionary with pronunciation and check it out for himself (or herself) how to say the word properly.

Fourthly, its layout is not as "ultra-clear" as it claims it is. It is certainly less clear than other Oxford dictionaries such as the German-English, French-English, and Spanish-English ones. It still requires extra work to navigate through the larger dictionary articles.
Finally, I found the section on the "Characteristics of the Thai Language" to be rather unfocused, fuzzy, though interesting in parts. I suppose it was included to justify the claim that it is also for advanced students of Thai though it is patently obvious that it is geared towards Thais learning English.


FSI Thai Basic Course (I really like it despite its age and eccentric diplomat-oriented vocabulary)

Linguaphone Thai Course (recommended by Stick)

Routlege Colloquial Thai (the explanation of the grammar is okay, the transliteration system is inane, if not asinine (no tones in the dialogues), but I like the quirky dialogues). A new edition with tones is said to be in the works, if not already out.

Thai for Beginners, Thai for Intermediate Learners (by Benjawan Poomsan Becker).

One book that I came across in a used bookshop in Boulder, Colorado, and one that I like, is "The Fundamentals of the Thai Language" by Stuart Cambell and Chuan Shaweevongse. , first printing 1957

Other tips

One very important matter when learning a language. If you don't live in the country (or even if you do), you need to listen to your new language over and over. There is no other way to learn how to speak it, or at least understand it. As for myself and Thai, I bought the FSI Basic Thai Course and the Routledge Colloquial Thai course. I then converted the tapes in MP3 format and then downloaded them into my Ipod. When I walk to and from work (I am fortunate that I only live a kilometre away), I play my Thai tapes. I have found that it is absolutely essential. My extensive and intensive listening has allowed me to figure out how to really say a word in Thai in spite of whatever transliteration system is used (I still think that the Mary Haas system, which could do with a little tinkering, is the best while the Routledge Colloquial Thai system is the worst, with the Berlitz system a close second).

Finally, I believe that a stay in the country where the language is spoken is absolutely indispensable. Hopefully, it would be in a setting where little English is spoken, thereby guaranteeing maximum exposure to the language. How long? The longer the better, but I think that at three weeks would be time well-spent, provided that the learner already has a basic grasp of the fundamentals of the language.