Whites Teaching Whites…

I bet you are wondering how my Thai language learning is getting on. You’re not? Well, I can’t blame you. It’s a very boring subject, one, I fear, that’s worse for the learner.

I think in my last missive on the subject I mentioned I’d decided I had to learn the writing first, or at least, in conjunction with the audio lessons. The problem with the latter is that I have no idea what the individual words mean. For instance…

If I learn the phrase “How much does a bottle of beer cost?” … which of course is the phrase everyone should learn first in any language … I can learn it, but I have no idea which word means “bottle” and which means “cost” so I don’t know how to ask the price of a ham sandwich, which is the second most important phrase.

I know how to order both of those things in German, even though I know very little else. Oh, except, “Where is the Hospital?” which I guess would be useful if I had too much of the former.

Some Thai Characters
Some Thai Characters

But getting back to Thai, it’s not obvious that when I think I’m asking “How much does a bottle of beer cost?” what I’m really saying is “Beer bottle per costs how much?” or something like that, with of course the obligatory “krap” at the end.

So. Fine. I need to learn the written language. But how?

Most Thai expat forums and websites I visit have ads that say “Learn Thai from a White Guy” and they promise I can learn in “Five to Ten Hours” or I can get my money back. Too good to be true? Yup. But there’s a couple of reasons I decided to try it.

First, Thais have no idea how to teach farangs. They’re too close to their own language to understand why we struggle. They can say a phrase. I can repeat it, parrot fashion, and they think I’ve learned all the tones and the nuances, whereas within five minutes, it’s slipped out of my short-term memory. I need to see it written down. I need to dissect all the characters. I need to hear it fifty times over a five day period. And then I might both understand and remember.

So, if a white guy has gone through the same struggles, has taken the time to figure what is so hard about the language, and to work out how to teach other white guys, then he might just have a winner. BTW: I think in this context “guys” is gender-neutral.

But beyond that, he too agrees it’s impossible to learn Thai without learning all the characters, their pronunciations, the classes, the vowels, the tone marks, in other words, the whole nine yards. But in five to ten hours? What’s the guy smoking?

So, I depleted my Paypal wallet a little and signed up. Overall, I think that was a GoodThing. What the course provides is a structured way to learn the characters and their pronunciations, if you are prepared to follow the course and spend five to ten hours a day! But at the same time, there’s several things wrong with it…

The course is web-based, but has a downloadable piece of crapwear for flash cards, that supposedly help you remember everything. I still haven’t quite figured what I’m supposed to do with it. It’s instruction-less, and looks like it was written for Windows98, or 3.1.

Some More Thai Characters
Some More Thai Characters

Then, the web part has far too little information IMO. The very first lesson is headed “Middle Class Consonants.” Okay. But it does not explain what these are. It just tells me to learn them first. Are they letters I use if I’m talking to a middle class person? Or, do I only use them if I think I’m middle class? Or course, it’s neither, but I’m no closer to knowing what they really are.

So, did I ask for my money back? No. Because there are some good parts to the course, and I definitely can spot some of the characters when I’m staring at sub-titles or road signs. And when I see something that looks like a couple of fish before a letter, a hat on top, and a candy cane after, I know that the mass of squiggles is just one vowel.

So, thank you Mr. White Guy. Progress is being made.

And at least now I know I’m not alone in my struggles. Last week when I was up north at the Majestic Creek Golf Club (was that just last week?) I met a British couple. Not hard to do. The golfers all seemed to be expats. In fact I felt like I was no longer in Thailand.

Anyways, within a few minutes of making a new farang acquaintance the conversation always comes around to the subject of learning Thai. They told me they’d tried, and given up. They told me all their friends had tried and given up. “Everyone gives up eventually” they said. After one, two even five years. They give up. They said they knew one guy who’d spent a fortune, worked ten hours a day for two years, and could still only manage basic phrases. Depressing.

Will I give up? Some days I feel like I already have. It’s so hard to stay motivated when the learning rate is so slow. One day I got so frustrated with the idea I could no longer learn languages that I listened to five Spanish lessons. I quickly discovered I had an almost 100% retention rate. Bizarre. I really was at a loss to explain why one language I could learn almost without trying, while I failed to learn another despite considerable trying. Until this morning…

On the BBC News website, I read about an elderly lady in China. She was an English teacher, whereas her first language was Mandarin. Then she had a stroke, which damaged part of her brain. As she was recovering, she discovered she could now only speak English!

From this, researchers have learned that tonal languages, like Mandarin and Thai, require the use of both sides of the brain, whereas non-tonal ones like English require only one side. Which explains why the Chinese lady with brain damage can no longer speak Mandarin, and I think explains why speakers of non-tonal languages find it so tough to learn tonal ones as a second language. One side of the brain just doesn’t realize it’s needed in language learning.

Well, it makes sense to me. So, I figure my only choice is to plug away until the other side of my brain realizes that “Oh, you need my help to learn Thai” and decides to co-operate. Oh well. It’s given me some small amount of motivation to stick at it.


...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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