All Thai’d Up…

I bet you’d like to ask me how the Thai language learning is working out. Well don’t! Not unless you’d like to learn a string of new swear words, along with some oldies and goldies! Some days I don’t even want to think about it.

“That bad eh?”

Well, yeah, pretty-much. It’s hard to put a finger on the problem, which in itself is frustrating. I really want to learn it, but it’s so different from any other language I’ve encountered, I think the basic problem is that I don’t know how to learn it. The traditional techniques just don’t seem appropriate.

Let me see if I can explain…

But first, I should say, I’m not one of those people who finds it hard to learn languages. For sure I’m no linguist. But maybe if I wanted to be I could be.

After a few glasses of wine I can speak reasonable French. That’s not meant as a joke. I find a little alcohol makes me less worried about making mistakes, and as a result I can hold a fairly sensible conversation. Well, to me it sounds sensible. And a little practice rattles the brain cells and words and phrases present themselves faster. Last night I watched a movie in which the dialog was, somewhat bizarrely, in English, French and Spanish, without subtitles. Most of it made sense; until I decided it was too much hard work for a late evening’s entertainment.

I think it must be about twelve months since I decided to move from Malaysia to Thailand. I’m not very good with dates. Maybe it was a little longer. But, up to that point I was learning Italian. I’m not sure why. I thought I’d like to visit again, so I suppose I figured some language skills would be useful. Plus, I’d read that language learning helps to delay the onset of senility. Although, I don’t remember where I read it!

I was learning from an audio course, and had gone through about 45 of the half-hour lessons. The Thai audio course I’m trying to learn from is made by the same company, so I think a comparison is valid.

Today, just for the heck of it, I started to listen to lesson #40 of the Italian course. Immediately I recalled about 90% of what I’d learned more than a year ago. Clearly neurons had fired, synapses had aligned, or something, and I’d remembered way more than I would have imagined. Actually, that put a smile on my face (or, in social media speak, I LOL’d) which certainly doesn’t happen when I try to learn Thai. I can listen to lesson #5 of Thai, and think “WTF did she just say?” Which makes me believe my whole approach is plain wrong.

Everything I’ve read says you have to learn the written language first. It’s supposedly the only way to learn the correct pronunciation. Okay, but hold on a cotton-picking minute. That’s not as simple as it sounds. For starters Thai has 44 consonants. Whereas in English we have how many? 26 letters (tap,tap) minus (tap) 5 vowels (tap) and that equals (tap) ah yes, 21 consonants. So as a five year old I only had to learn 21 squiggly things?

Nope. We’re forgetting that English has upper and lower case letters, or big ones and small ones if you don’t like the typesetting analogy. So that means learning 21 (tap,tap) times 2 (tap,tap) which equals (tap) 42. Not so different from Thai’s 44, which has only one case. Just two extra squiggles and we’re done. Well, not so fast…

Wikipedia says…

there are 15 vowel symbols that combine into at least 28 vowel forms, and four tone diacritics.

…at which point my eyes glaze over and I pour another glass of scotch to ease the pain.

Then you learn that vowels don’t exist like other characters, but they can appear before, after or over a letter. Sometime one vowel is split into squiggles before and after a letter! That’s a bit like writing “cat” as “act” or as “ct” and then sticking the “a” over the “c”. Or putting the left side of the ‘a’ before the ‘c’ and the right side after.

Plus, there are things called tone marks which are also plopped over a letter (but over the vowel if there happens already to be one over the letter.) These tell you a letter has, for instance a rising tone, unless it’s a high class letter in which case it’s a falling tone… Or something equally meaningless.

The Wikipedia article has wonderfully “helpful” comments like…

Although the overall 44 Thai consonants provide 21 sounds in case of initials, the case for finals is different. Note how the consonant sounds in the table for initials collapse in the table for final sounds. At the end of a syllable, all plosives are unvoiced, unaspirated, and have no audible release. Initial affricates and fricatives become final plosives. The initial trill, approximant, and lateral approximants are realized as a final nasal.

Okay. Gotcha. I’ll try to remember that!

What the fricative is that all about? Are they serious? And I can find literally hundreds of similar “helpful” comments scattered around the web.

The other thing I struggle with is the complexity of the written characters. When I look at English, there’s nothing too complicated about them. A five year old can learn them fairly quickly. Other than one or two fairly simple Thai letters, the rest are really quite complex, and some are so similar to each other that making a vertical line just slightly too long changes the letter completely.

And why do five totally different letters sound like “K”? There is no answer. There’s no point in asking.

Some of the things I’ve tried to learn are how to write my name – which I can do, so long as I do it every day, otherwise it slips out of my mind – and where I live “Sichon.” So, I can recognize the latter on street signs. I often go to Surat Thani, so I figured I’d be able to recognize that by the fact it starts with “S”. Ah ha. That would be too easy. Sure it starts with a character that sounds like “S” but it’s not the same “S” that is the first letter of Sichon. Of course it’s not. That would make life too easy.

So at the end of the day I’m left with the feeling that Thai is completely and utterly illogical. I can’t make sense of any of the rules. And as a long-term IT person, I like logic and rules. No matter what programming language I’ve learned, and there’s been a lot, the rules are straightforward and logical. They have no exceptions. If you want to say “x=2+2” you can’t suddenly type two different characters that mean “2” or arbitrarily decide to stick the equals sign over the “x”.

Now, before I disappear off into the distance with smoke coming from what’s left of my hair, I have to say that one of the most illogical languages on the planet has to be English. I can’t imagine how anyone can learn it as a second language. I’m sure it has just as many bizarre rules and exceptions as Thai. I mean, take the “i before e except after c” rule. That’s just weird science. And there are how many ways to pronounce “ough”? Seven I believe. How daft is that.

Anyways, I will focus now on how to learn Thai, in the hope I can get back to some meaningful learning, instead of remembering things for just five minutes.

I read that to learn anything properly takes at least 10,000 hours of study. That means that if I can somehow manage to spend an hour a day without going insane, and if I live long enough, I will be able to say in fluent Thai – somewhere around my 96th birthday – “I’m having a heart att……”


...has been travelling the world for more than sixty years; having lived and worked in five countries and travelled to many many more.

He likes to write about his travels - present and past - along with his other main interests of Drones, Information Technology and Motorsport, and he adds a few general twitterings along the way.

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