Learn Thai from a White Guy
Man Behind the Blog
Brett, the man behind Learn Thai from a White Guy.com and I walk into the Monkey Club, the night though still young has devolved into streaks of colored lights punctuated in laughter in a language I don’t understand. I move towards the door leading into the club, but he waves me back towards one of the outdoor tables. “It’s the only chance you’ll have of hearing a word I say“ ,he explains. We grab a table and order a bottle of whiskey and a compliment of mixers and he orders a few snacks including something that he translates into a “rolling monkey.” “Don’t worry – its good stuff.” I can’t help but worry as on a previous assignment I was treated to a dish known as ‘dancing shrimp.’ I’m fairly sure what those shrimp were doing had nothing to do with dancing.
A handful of Thai girls sit down at a table next to ours and before they’ve even ordered Brett has somehow managed to get them to join us at our table. “The two of us will never finish that bottle without help.” I’m always impressed with people who can flip back and forth effortlessly between English and other languages, with what I assume are diametrically opposed rules and construction considerations. I tell him so. “I guess it might look impressive, but consider people who grow up with this from the beginning – it doesn’t even occur to them. I remember a few years back I was sitting in a song taew (local taxi) with a bunch of Asian kids and they spoke back and forth using maybe 60 or 70% Chinese, but plenty of English words and phrases thrown in with essentially native pronunciation. I remember thinking how cool that was and I enjoyed trying to keep up with my limited Chinese. Whatever I’ve achieved it pales in comparison to kids all over the world. Anybody can do it. It doesn’t take a genius to speak a language. Stupid people can talk too.“ I find this hard to believe. Hopefully, we can find out how.
Where to begin – what brought you to Thailand?
A long story. Let’s just say I had already made the decision that I no longer wanted to live in the US and I was finding the UK and Ireland wonderful places to be, but extremely expensive places to figure out where I was going in life. I asked around about places other people had traveled and Thailand sounded attractive as a very inexpensive place with a rather relaxed environment. I bought a ticket without really knowing where I was going or what I was going to do there.
So then you couldn’t speak any Thai before you arrived?
I bought two phrasebooks the day of my flight and one came with a CD that I listened to on the plane. I picked up a few phrases and memorized a few of the numbers, but the flight had no significant impact on my Thai at the time. I spent a lot of that flight learning Russian.
Russian? So Thai wasn’t your first trip into foreign language?
Of course not, there was a couple years of high school Spanish, plus I worked in a restaurant for a while where many of the kitchen staff spoke little or no English. And I dabbled in Russian along with a few European languages, but it was like treading water in a pool. You aren’t going anywhere if you don’t know how to swim.
Why have you made it a mission to learn the language so well?
Well, I’m here. But as soon as I arrived it was important to me. I felt naked in a way. It doesn’t take long to realize that the average level of English here is not very high. Functional at best, but in reality there are a lot less people I’d call fluent than you might think. I like to know whats going on around me. You can’t get that if you can’t understand 100% of what people are saying around you.
How does your Thai help you out here? Do English-speaking people really need to know anything to get by here?
Do you need it? That depends on what you want here. If you really want to have any clue what’s going on here, you need to speak the language. I don’t mean you can order food and tell your girlfriend where you are so she can come meet you. I mean that you do everything you normally do in bad English and start doing it in Thai. You will save money, you will meet better people, and you will find a whole new world of things to complain about. It’s a vast improvement.
Who is your target audience? How can it help them ?
My blog is for the people who are ready to make an effort. Its for the people who have been in and out of language schools and haven’t gotten anywhere. Studying at a school is not going to get you fluent in anything. Fluency in a language is not a tangible object that you can pay a school and they hand you over a big block of language that you can then start using. It just doesn’t work that way and far too much of my energy is used just trying to show people that.
Learning a language is not difficult in the same way exercise is not difficult. To become good at anything takes countless hours of exposure to it. It needs to become part of your life. That’s the hard part. It requires a fair amount of discipline. This is where I come in. I become like a coach or a guide. I’ve done most of the work already. I’ve built the bridges and dug tunnels alone because I couldn’t find anybody who could show me how. The blog is intended as a lighthouse to keep the learners afloat because I’ve been down that way and I know the pitfalls that cause us to get frustrated and give up.
Where did you get the idea to start a blog about learning Thai?
I had the idea to start teaching Thai about 2 years ago. It seemed like people (foreigners) were always asking me (a non-expert) many of the same questions that I tried asking when I was struggling to break into Thai. I had to find nearly all of those answers on my own. There just were too few people who could explain the things I was asking. I suppose what I’m trying to do is to save them time. I can guide people around all of those blunders I made and expedite the whole process. It still takes time, but the amount you can accomplish in a year with the right guidance is impressive.
Can you give an example or two of the type of questions you tend to be asked?
One example is this one particular letter in Thai ต (ตอ เต่า). We don’t have the same sound in English. People tend to run into problems with this one. I try to explain it as best I can on my blog and if in person I can help them practice making the sound. Other examples would be some of those particles that show up a lot in Thai that rarely have a meaning as a word, but instead function by adding emotional colour or urgency/lack thereof to a sentence. To be honest, I still have trouble giving an exact explanation for many of those particles because there usually is no English equivalent. I tend to come up with loads of examples that people use and explain how the words enhance the sentence and urge them to use caution before using it. I promote waiting until you hear something a few times until you get a feel for it. Guessing just makes you sound silly because you can’t guess correctly in another language. It creates bad habits.
What was it like teaching Thai? How did it work?
I began teaching an English friend of mine. He has been here for a number of years and had never gotten anywhere with Thai and decided to give it a shot with me. We met twice a week. It took him about five sessions to get a fair grasp of the alphabet and we just build from there. Unfortunately, he became rather disillusioned with Thailand and gave up.
Fast forward to my most recent student of five months. A friend of my first student had studied at a number of schools in Chiang Mai and was fed up with the fact that none of them seemed to be concerned with teaching reading and writing which is an extremely important factor if you want to be able to pronounce it correctly. We studied 3 times a week. He had the alphabet under control in about 2 weeks and within 2 months we had conquered a number of the supposedly “advanced” materials in the book Thai for Advanced Readers. I also read news excerpts, newsletters from my university, basically any real material I can get my hands on where I can pick out parts that he will be able to read and understand with as little prompting as possible. Long enough so it seems daunting, but not really difficult. Its a good way to build confidence in reading.
Since then, things have been working well. I create flashcards for him so he can review the sentences. Its really important to note that its just sentences and phrases. I believe words should always be taught in context and one shouldn’t bother even thinking about grammar until one is at a high enough level to understand it in that language. The cards ensure that he remembers what we go over. As long as he does the cards, there is no need to review anything else. So in maybe 4 months at 2-3 times/week, I’ve managed to bring this student to a level that was comparable to myself after a year and a half if not more in Thailand. Its been working great. Also, I get a lot of good post ideas while teaching my current student. A lot of things that feel like they should have been obvious in retrospect pop up during lessons.
What would you say is the single biggest obstacle for foreigners learning Thai right now?
Correct pronunciation or rather, the lack of effort in regards to pronunciation. While some people are very good at mimicing sounds, most aren’t. There are plenty of foreigners here who can understand the patterns because they hear them so much, but they still can’t reproduce them correctly. In many cases, the problem is that they still associate English sounds and English phonetic flexibility with Thai. Many of the sounds are completely different and plenty of languages, like Thai, do not have that same vowel flexibility that English is famous for. Its common here to see some frustrated. It certainly doesn’t help that most of the schools here don’t bother to teach the alphabet which leaves people with an incomplete perception of how the sounds are made.
Could you offer any tips for someone who is trying to learn Thai or perhaps any foreign language?
There is no secret method. Be wary of monolingual people telling you how to learn a language and of schools that assume you can sit in three 30 hour classes with a native speaker of whatever and go from something called beginner to intermediate. Don’t think in terms of levels with languages. Its a waste of time, energy and especially money. Oh yea – learn the everyday stuff first. I don’t mean the stuff in phrasebooks and textbooks. I mean the stuff YOU do everyday. The stuff you encounter the most is the easiest to remember so always start there.
There has to be something you do that most people don’t….
I guess I do have one secret. Its not mine though, a friend and fellow polyglot passed it on to me. Always carry a pad with you. Whenever you encounter a situation where you want to say something, but you don’t know how – write it down. Then find out. Next time that situation arises, if you can’t remember, pull out the pad and check! Rinse and repeat 2 or 3 times and you won’t forget it anymore. You can’t choose what you will and won’t remember, all you can do is be exposed to something enough times until it sticks.
By now the bottle is running low, some of the girls have run off to dance or what not and I’m running low on questions. The beer girl comes with another round of ice and mixers. As the night carries on, as most alcohol-fueled nights do, everything takes on a more frenzied surreal and somewhat dreamlike quality, and pacing myself with the whiskey does the job of mellowing my reactions whilst hampering my ability to ask coherent questions. However, Brett continues on with our conversation, while simultaneously carrying on other conversations in Thai with the same deftness as he did at the start of our night. It never felt like I was being ignored. Brett’s social skill reads like his blog - confident, engaging, knowledgeable, and self-assured…the ”real deal” with a seemingly natural ability that only comes from hard work and repetition. He insists its the alcohol, however. He comes off as truly honest about his commitment to languages, as he is about everything else. This is apparent in all of his responses this evening and in his blog - the blatant honesty. Whether you find it jarring or refreshing, there is no generality or sugar-coating with Brett – He tells it “like it is,”….
So, last question of the interview…how do I ask that girl over there for her number in Thai?