09 March 2008

Learning thai

I came in Thailand for the first time in June 1996, and never could have imagined to visit the country without at least speaking the most basic language.

At that time, I was still not connected to the net and anyway the resources were still very scarce. And being in France was a restriction for an easy access to learning material : I had forgotten most of my English due to lack of practising, and learning thai from French was the only option. So I first worked the Assimil method, which is curiously named "introduction to thai language" whereas it is called "English (or whatever) without trouble" for most other languages. This handbook is based on reading romanized thai and listening at everyday conversations. Not the best for really learning a language but it was a good introduction to the basic words and expressions, and probably for a full awareness to the importance of tunes.

My first stay made me quickly understand that it would not be enough, and I immediately found out that learning how to write was an absolute necessity not only to get around in Thailand, but mostly to have a thorough knowledge of the language. I bought two books in France ("Méthode de thai" volumes 1 and 2 by a teacher in the French Institute for Oriental Languages) which also came along with audio tapes. I also found a little treasure – also in French - promising you to be able to read and write thai within two weeks ("Grapho-Thaï 14", DK Editions, out of print since many years).

Good student
Using these books was the most difficult part of the process. Not that they were bad of course (although a little bit too academic), but the time had come when I had to overcome the difficulties which could not be ignored any more : the alphabet with these off-putting letters which are pronounced one way if standing before the vowel and another way if standing after, these vowels which are written before, or above, or beneath, or "around" the consonant, the long phrases without any space between the words, and of course the tone rules. Lack of logic is a big turn-off for Cartesian French people, and this was the time when I had to struggle hard for not dropping out. In the same time thai television had appeared on the dish, which helped to keep the ear familiar with thai intonations, although it was – and still is – very hard to understand everything.

After a lot of writing, trying to understand and memorizing, it seemed one day that everything had suddenly become clear : I could get the right tone without thinking of it, isolate the words in the phrases, understand what I was reading, and write the Assimil exercises in thai. However I was still unable to build elaborate phrases. This is when I turned to what I would call an essential step to learning thai : the well-known "The fundamentals of the thai language" which I bought in Asia Books in Bangkok (also out of print now). This one was in English, which helped me to improve my English too, but most important of all was the fact that it provided me with many new words, expressions and phrases. 

Together with working on this book, I used the "Bangkok Post" Tuesday lessons which were very useful for new expressions and words linked to current events. It is a pity they seem to have stopped it last November at least on the web. I read every lesson, writing down every unknown word and looking for sample phrases on the net (the Lexitron dictionary is a fantastic resource for this). I also tried to study from thai textbooks I found in Thailand (Pathom 1 and so on like thai children ...), and of course from all the websites that you can find now, the better being probably the learningthai.com website and all its related resources.

Learning more words and spoken expressions is now my main target, along with trying not to forget too much of what I have already learnt : like every language, practising is essential and staying only one month a year in Thailand is definitely far from enough….

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