Pick a Language Any Language
Over the past 2 weeks, I have received over 50 messages, comments and emails from people all over the world asking about how they should embark on learning a language. I normally keep the following for people who enroll in my Cracking Thai Fundamentals programme, but after reading through it, I think that the things that I cover in the article are appropriate for all languages – not just Thai.
As you’re reading through it, substitute the word ‘Thai’ for the language you are learning, and most of the stuff in this article will be ‘plug and play’ for you.
I’ll be looking forward to responding to your questions / comments at the end.
How Long Does it Take to Learn Thai?
One of the questions that I often get asked when opening a workshop like Cracking Thai Fundamentals is “Do you really think that you can teach me to speak Thai in 16 hours?” The answer of course is an emphatic “NO”.
The Cracking Thai Fundamentals workshop does not promise to have you speaking Thai after 16 hours. What the course does do is strip away the mystery of the language and provide you with skills and knowledge that will facilitate and even accelerate any further study in the language. Given that, the course is suited to:
- People who have just arrived in the country and want to start off on the right foot
- People who have lived in Thailand for a long time and have a working knowledge of Thai, though don’t feel confident when it comes to some of the finer details
- Anyone in between the above two categories
After having completed the programme, you will be well on your way to developing an efficient language learning regime that will have you realising things about language that many teachers of language perhaps don’t realise themselves.
In saying this, I’d like to present what my vision would be if I were to take this course:
It is now 3 months from the time that I finished Stu’s Cracking Thai Fundamentals Workshop. I am reading Thai newspapers, menus and magazines every day. Even though I don’t understand all the words, I am pronouncing the words with about an 85% level of accuracy. I can look up new words that I hear and see in my dictionary that never leaves my side in less than 20 seconds. I’m learning a minimum of 15 new words and 1 idiom per day. I watch Thai television programmes or listen to Thai radio for at least 1 hour per day. Whenever I hear a new sound or a new word, I can visualise where it’s being produced from in the mouth and imitate it. I regularly visit Thai websites, bulletin boards and chat-rooms and am able to type in Thai so that I can communicate over the internet.
**Q. **** “So why don’t you speak Thai after being here for so long?” **
A. *“Oh… I get by just fine speaking English here. I don’t need to learn Thai. And besides… I went to learn once, but gave up after a few lessons. I’m just not good at languages – and TONE DEAF!…. I can’t even sing in tune let alone hear tones in a foreign language!” *
**Q. ****“Would you like to be able to speak Thai?” **
A. “Of course I would, but unless you’re thinking of giving me a brain transplant, I don’t see it happening any time soon. I made a conscious decision a long time ago to not pursue the issue any further. I think I’ll stick to English… I’m still struggling with that you know!”
I’ve asked similar questions to numerous expats living in Thailand – journalists, businessmen, government employees, teachers, housewives, students, U.N. employees. – you name it! More often than not I get the above dialogue in one shape or another. Other comments that I hear are – “Oh, I don’t know how long I’ll be here for. I could be gone tomorrow. I don’t want to waste my time on learning a language that I won’t get to use in the future. If I could learn it by osmosis, sure!.. I wouldn’t say no – but to tell you the truth, I just don’t have the time”.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll learn by osmosis. I can however help you to prepare yourself to learn at a more ‘accelerated’ pace than what you might be used to learning languages with. The results of this type of language development will have you thinking and speaking in a more ‘native-like’ manner. The bonus is that learning a language this way won’t take too much time out of your schedule either. You will also have a great foundation for learning other languages – especially those that are tonal, Sanskrit based or that have Chinese roots. To start off, you’ll need to prepare yourself. The three areas that I prepare myself in before learning a language are:
- Mental Preparation
- Physical Preparation
- The Preparation of Your Environment
After perusing through the introduction (a feat in itself) from a particular book that has until recently been one of the standard ‘texts’ for learners of Thai (I affectionately refer to this linguistic gem as the ‘Black Covered Beast’ – though the most recent edition has strayed from tradition and gone for a nice shade of mauve), I would feel like I was dead in the water before I even started!
(The following is a word for word / letter for letter extract from the Introduction on p.i of “The Fundamentals of the Thai Language – Sixth Edition” by the editors of Marketing Media Associates Co., Ltd. )
One letter may have several different sounds, and one sound may be represented by several different letters. There are also many silent letters, which are written but not pronounced. These are the reason that the learners may find it a trouble to pronounce or read correctly. “
So often when I’m embarking on learning something new – especially a new language, any hope of making real progress is all but quashed by being drowned with statistics and so-called ‘facts’ about the new thing (language) that I’m going to learn. Irrational comparisons are made between my mother tongue and the new language –
“…Thai has 44 consonants and 22 vowels!
…The same word can have totally opposite meanings if you pronounce it with a different tone
*…You have to say sentences around back to front… *
*…There are some sounds in the language that I’ve never heard before! I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get my tongue around them… they just sound too foreign!…” *
In my mind, this is comparing apples with oranges.
If it’s like that on Floobenflahter, surely it’s like that on Earth?
In Floobenflahter, water exists, but it’s a deep red colour. Nevertheless, Floobenflahter water tastes just like earth water, and provides Flooenflahterites with all the same benefits that water provides us earthlings.
There exists tea in Floobenflahter too, but it’s the same deep red colour as Floobenflahter water, it tastes the same as Floobenflahter water, and Flooenflahterites only drink it for medicinal purposes.
Our Floobenflahter friend became so fond of the taste of his new found Green Tea that upon arriving back in Floobenflahter he proclaimed to all in his land that:
“I now know what I am meant to do. My lifetime quest will be to search for the natural spring of green water. Only then can I make my Green Tea and live happily ever after!”
“Our language isn’t easy for foreigners to learn”
Upon hearing that, I usually want to raise my thumb to my nose, extend the rest of my four fingers, wiggle them round and blow a big long dribble-laden raspberry! I figure if a two-year-old from your country can speak it without any problems, I can speak it.
For some people, it’s almost like a ‘dick’ thing (am I allowed to say that in blog-world?) – ‘Mine’s bigger and harder than yours’. These attitudes might exist because there are some things in one’s own language that even to the native speakers are baffling – e.g. look at the spelling in English of the following words – ‘though’, ‘through’, ‘trough’, ‘thorough’, ‘thought’.
Some people have had bad experiences trying to explain things in their own language to learners of that language in the past and concluded that it’s all too difficult. Some people were told by their teachers at school that their’s was the most difficult language to learn … probably because their teachers have had similar difficulties in trying to explain things in their language in the past. They might believe this about their language because they constantly hear foreigners speaking it appallingly. Someone who’s had a bad experience learning a language might conclude that it was all too hard and then the myth spreads.
Patterns and Logic Prevail
I believe that there are patterns and a system to be found with every language, and SOMEWAY, SOMEHOW logic will prevail in explaining why things are the way they are. It’s finding those lines of logic that make it fascinating for me and they act as great learning devices / memory pegs.
Why have I put this post up now? I usually use the Floobenflahter analogy to start my Cracking Thai Fundamentals classes – it gets the mindset right. I have a bunch of cool posts planned, but I would like this analogy to be running in the background.
Back to the Floobenflahter analogy ..
Just like in the Floobenflahter analogy, many people embark on learning a language using their own language, precepts and understanding of ‘their language’ as filters / measures which in the end can send them down a rabbits hole that will never lead them to the place they wanted to go to.
‘Meanings’ in my Floobenflahter sense don’t just mean the meanings of words. Michael Halliday’s (the father of Systemic Linguistics) models of ‘meaning’ best relate to my own experiences in ‘acquiring’ and learning languages.
The Meaning of Meaning
Meanings lie in:
- The general culture that we’re communicating in
- The way we perceive the relationship with the person to whom we’re speaking – The fact that we choose different words in English to use with different people shows that our selection of words actually ‘changes’ the meaning of the sentence. If not, we would just speak to everyone using the same selection of words
- The method we’re communicating by – We might communicate differently by telephone as opposed to face to face, or through an email
- Topic that we’re talking about – A husband and wife might speak to each other differently about the family’s finances than they would about the movie that they watched on television the night before.
I was fortunate enough to have a brilliant and eccentric grandfather that for took me under his wing and left me with the extraordinary legacy of being able to understand just a fraction of what went through his mind. Like me, he was extremely partial to anything linguistic – and would take any opportunity to strike up a conversation on the topic. A simple conversation about the weather would turn into a lesson on where the word weather came from, why ea is used to represent the sound /e/, the importance of the concept of ‘sun’ in ancient societies and consequently on their languages. He would describe the consonant, vowel and semantic shifts that occurred from the original word that brought about the various words that we use today. Heavy stuff for a six year old to listen to when his mates are playing cricket outside, but strangely enough, this kind of stuff fascinated me, and admittedly, I was hooked! One sentence that I would hear over and over again was “Think loud! … Don’t let words limit your thoughts”. I realise now that perhaps this is the reason why I have been able to go on and learn many more languages. In many cases, I can consciously think about ‘meanings’ (as I’ve defined them above) without the use of words. I truly believe that this is a skill that can be developed by anyone willing to give it an honest go. If each person can go away from one of my classes with just a taste of being able to think in this manner (without using words), I have achieved one of my main goals. Being liberated from words is a lot like separating coffee from water. Once you’ve done it, the water is yours to do whatever you want with it.
I could use the cliché analogy of an athlete preparing for the Olympics, but I’ll spare you. I’ll relate this one to music instead. I come from a family of musicians. All of us have played, listened to and composed music since childhood. Although I can read music, I find it much easier to just listen to a song and play it. The mixture of a good ear and no mentor to slap me across the knuckles when I used the wrong fingers on the piano, led me to develop an interesting technique that for many years would suffice for what I needed (and wanted) to play. As the years went on, the jazz that I was playing was getting more and more complicated. One day I realised that my hands just couldn’t cut it. It was like strapping a 700cc motor to a push-bike! Because of that, I had to gruellingly go back to the very rudiments of piano playing and re-learn all my scales and fingering. In doing this, my hands started to ache in places that I never knew that they could ache and I even started hearing new harmonic relationships and colours between notes. New muscles were being developed, and after not too long I was able to play runs that had always defeated me in the past.
Learning a language is no different. It’s sometimes tempting to compare similar traits in our mother tongue to a new language that we’re learning. This might get us by – and people will probably understand what we’re trying to say. The trouble rears its head when you want to start developing your fluency in the language and you realise that the foundation that you’ve set yourself can’t cut it. You speak with a heavy accent, the rhythm of the sentences don’t flow like a native speaker and you still have puzzled faces staring blankly at you when you try to pronounce a word that you thought you’ve been pronouncing correctly for years!
Developing the muscles in your mouth from the very beginning is critical. You need to be able to use your tongue, your lips, your throat, your glottis and anything else that you can find in there, like an instrument. It will facilitate fluency in the language from early on. For example, the phonetic sound /a:/ – (the ‘a’ in ‘farm’) is produced from a different part of the mouth in American English, Australian English, British English and so on. It’s also pronounced differently in the many different sub-varieties of American English, Australian English, British English. In some dialects it comes from the front of the oral cavity. In others from the back, in others from the top-mid, in some dialects the tongue is slightly raised at the front, in some at the back. The same goes with other languages. I often see people’s tongues getting tied in a knot when learning a new language because of this. They hear a sound (perhaps like /a/) and assume it’s the same as the sound in their mother tongue. When we human beings speak our native tongue, we subconsciously find the most economic route to producing combinations of sounds that our mouths and bodies will let us in that sound system.
If you’re a native English speaker, try this test.
Say the sentence in a natural conversational manner –
“Why did you say he didn’t want it anymore?”
Now say the sentence over and over again, progressively getting faster and faster until you can’t get any faster. Keep saying it until you don’t have to think about the words coming out of your mouth and start to observe what your mouth is doing. It’s really important to be honest when you’re doing this, and not pretend that you speak according to the ‘ideals’ of how you think English should be spoken. The point of this exercise is to show that the ‘ideals’ that we might have about our own language might be very different to what actually happens. As you’re observing yourself, ask yourself these questions:
What’s your tongue doing? Where is it making contact with in your mouth? Where is it not making contact with in your mouth that you thought it should be?
What is your throat doing?
Does the pressure in your throat actually stop mid sentence?
What’s your tongue doing for the first ‘d’ in the word ‘did’?
What happens to the words ‘did’ and ‘you’?
What about the words ‘say’ and ‘he’?
What is going on with your tongue and nasal cavity in the word ‘didn’t’? Can you hear a faint clicking sound in your nose?
How about ‘want it’? – Do you pronounce the plosive ‘t’s’…. really??? Do you pronounce the ‘i’ in ‘it’ as an /i/ sound like in /sit/, or does it really come out as more of an /ə/ sound? (don’t worry – you don’t have to be a New Zealander or a South African to do that! J )
**Exercise 2 **
Try saying these words in groups making note of what your tongue, your lips and voice box are doing during each portion of each utterance:
Skate Kate Gate
Stuck Tuck Duck
Apple Paul Please
I would like to touch briefly on one other point that has to do with using the sounds from our mother tongue on another language. In my Australian English, I say the word ‘can’t’ as-
/ka:nt/. The ‘a’ is pronounced like ‘a’ in the word ‘car’. An American or Canadian would pronounce the same word /kǽ:nt/ – something like the word ‘pant’. A subconscious rule gets made to make a lateral sound change– /a:/ becomes /ǽ:/. These two sounds are NOT the same sound. This rule sometimes gets transferred across to the new language that one learning. In Thai, I have heard many North Americans pronounce the word – ฝรั่ง ‘farang’ (Which is used to mean a ‘western foreigner’, pronounced /f۸r۸ŋ/ ) as /f’rǽ ŋ/ (rhymes with ‘meringue’). Unless the Thai person is used to hearing ‘Farangs’ mispronounce the language, it might be difficult for them to make out what is trying to be said. One skill that I will try and help you develop, is that of being able to hear the subtle differences between sounds, visualise where they are being produced from in the mouth and then be able to reproduce them at call. You will find that after not long, you will see the relationship between all the sounds in a particular language as a whole. They comfortably fit together and can be uttered without seriously contorting your face in the process.
Preparing Your Environment
This might seem a little strange. Isn’t living in Thailand a good enough ‘environment’ to learn Thai in? It is very easy as an expat to live in a comfortable ‘non-Thai-bubble’ while staying here in Thailand. What’s that?? – Lots of non-Thai friends or Thai friends who speak English, predominantly western food, western books, western radio, western television and western news. The English language Thai newspapers are next to the only real link we would have to keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the country at a local level.
When I was about fifteen years old, I went through a stage where I wanted to eat, live and breathe the Scandinavian languages – in particular Danish. You might be asking WHY??? .. I’ll leave that for another book. The Scandinavian community in Australia is one of the smaller ethnic groups. I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to be in a position where I could use my Danish in a more ‘native’ environment. I started with the Yellow and White Pages. I looked for any Danish looking names and Scandinavian owned companies and took note of where in the city they were. I would then call the companies, or just go there and start to chat with them. From these encounters I began to meet people who knew other people, be invited to various events, dinners, celebrations, congregations – you name it! More often than not they were more than willing to have a yarn in Danish with me. I began to frequent the Danish Consulate in Sydney and take the old newspapers and magazines home (with permission of course) to keep up to date with all the little things going on in Denmark and with Danes around the world. I would take note of what programmes were on television there, editorial write-ups on events, competitions being run. Within a few weeks, my Danish network was growing and I was beginning to think more like a Dane. I began to understand what made them laugh, idioms that got used regularly (not just the ones that you get out of a ‘How to Speak Danish in 3 Months’ book), television shows that young people liked to quote lines from, politicians that copped the brunt of peoples’ jokes and most importantly, how the Danes see, hear and think about non-Danes.
Within no time, I was at a level with my Danish that I could carry my own in a conversation about politics, religion or the price of beer in Kǿbehavn. The more I spoke the more I listened. The more I listened, the more I heard – and the more I could speak. This is the kind of vicious circle that I like being in.
So, how would I recommend that you prepare your environment for learning Thai?
Even if you don’t understand the words, start buying and studying Thai newspapers. You might have ‘seen’ them every day. Now really start looking at what’s in them.
Watch Thai television! I know there’s a limit to the amount of commercial packed dime-a-dozen celebrity studded game-shows that one can palate before the grey matter starts to numb… but through sitting through these kinds of shows, you’ll start to know the people that Thais talk about during lunch breaks, the new sayings that come in and out of the language, the songs that people hum when they’re in the shower…all the little things that are in their essence, ‘Thai’. Not only will you know about these things, you will start doing them too. Strike up a conversation with a Thai about ‘such and such’ that you saw last night on Joh Jai (เจาะใจ- Late night talk back programme on channel 5). Lyric books to all the songs you hear on the radio are available on most street corners. Pick one up for around 20Baht and learn a few songs in Thai. If you’re really game, put your talent to the test at one of the many cultural oases scattered around town that sprung up in the 90’s (often referred to by the layman as a ‘Karaoke Bar’). Once you start getting into the Luk Tung music you’re hooked! There’s no going back.
Another good way to prepare your environment, is to buy a pocket-size Thai-English dictionary. Take it with you wherever you go. Every new word that you see or hear, look it up. Listen to words and sentences that that seem to occur regularly in conversations. Take note of the context, who said it, the tone of voice that was used and the reaction of the other person in the conversation. By doing this you’ll start to feel the meanings, adding to your semantic database as well as your vocabulary.
The Cracking Thai Fundamentals programme has been divided into a series of ‘keys’ to help you crack the code. Learn each key for what it is. Understanding of each individual key will help put the whole linguistic picture together. This will build your skills in, and understanding of not only the Thai language, but the way we humans use language in general.