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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Aural and oral characteristics of the Thai language

Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby Glenn Slayden » Sat Mar 15, 2003 2:02 pm

I've had many people ask me if they think Thai is hard to learn.

I found Thai relatively easy to learn and I've been at it since 1996. Then again, my goals or expectations have never been too ambitious.

I still wouldn't say I'm fluent, but I can communicate anything I want or need to say in Thai when I'm in Thailand, probably with butchered tones and grammar.

In studying Thai, I find that the potentially complicating concept of tones (which is actually a straightforward concept, if difficult to implement) is a more-than-fair tradeoff for the simplicity of the grammar (compared to Western languages and especially Japanese). In other words, if you're picking a language to study, with Thai you get a much easier grammar (no verb forms, conjugations, subject-object agreement, etc.) and the only "price" to pay is learning the five tones.


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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby mrentoul » Sat Mar 15, 2003 8:35 pm

I think ‘more than a fair trade-off’ puts it very well, and I agree: learning Thai is so much easier in the absence of verb conjugations and subject/object agreement that the hassle of learning and using tones is but a small thing.

I spent a year or so learning French a few years ago, which I first learnt at school, and found the conjugations wearying, though I never got to the point of speaking in French as I do in Thai. Maybe you do manage to overcome all these barriers and once you are there everything becomes easy. I recall in French that for most verbs the changes were slight; it was just the core grammar ones (of which, still, there were many) that changed radically. Even so, it was a pain.

Tones add to the fun of using Thai, in my view. It takes a while for a learner to recognize the differences by ear, and to work out how to form them, but it’s not an impossible task.
My goal in learning the language has always been to speak it, which is quite a humble goal when you think about it, because most everyday conversation is not terribly deep. However, I can now talk to my friends about their worries, fears and hopes and once you reach that point you are really communicating, because you are sharing something of yourselves.

Apart from that, I think studying the language helps you understand the way Thais look at the world, and is a worthwhile academic goal in itself.

It is quite possible, of course, to pick up the language without studying it at all. I have two friends, a Spanish guy in his mid-30s, and a young Taiwanese in his early 20s, who both use Thai every day and claim to have never picked up a language book.

Michael, my Spanish friend, is what I would call a high-level speaker: he can get across whatever he wants, virtually, though his knowledge of tones is backward. My Taiwanese friend came here three years ago, and studies at a private university. He also claims never to have opened a language book, yet in my view speaks very well.

The interesting thing that both my friends have in common is that they came to Thailand speaking little English. They had no choice but to plunge into Thai if they were to communicate.

So, if Thai can lend itself to learning in this manner, mainly by ear and through repeated exposure, it is a truly flexible language indeed.

I often wish I had picked up Thai the same way, from friends rather than books. But the point is, people seem to learn Thai by both routes, which suggests to me that the language is not as impenetrable as some people claim.

Michael, by the way, has been here 13 years: his language skills did not arrive overnight.

Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby Gwindor » Sun Mar 16, 2003 5:20 am

I've studied several other Western languages, including French, Spanish and Russian. I've also taken a crack at Japanese and Sanskrit (which has the advantage of not really being spoken!).

I am impressed with Thai's simplicity in many ways. That is part of why I enjoy studying it so much! There are no sense of impending doom about complex verb endings. It's use of auxiliary verbs is pleasantly similar to English.

Where Thai is difficult for me is in the careful observance of "polite" vs. "casual" vocabulary and pronouns. When to use ท่าน instead of กิน, for instance.

I think part of the reason that Thai is "simple" is that the Thai people are incredibly polite and friendly, and they are more willing than some other cultures to decipher your garbled remarks. My experience: The Russians are also polite, but they don't help much. The French tend to treat you like you make no sense even when you say things properly. The Japanese would never dare to tell you that you made a mistake or that they can't understand you (that would seem very rude to them).

Thai people, on the other hand, will laugh, encourage you, ask you what you mean, give you suggestions about it, etc etc etc. In conversation, if they can't understand you what you're talking about, they will change the subject and keep going. This is the mean reason I think Thai is easier.

BTW, I can't imagine what learning English must be like for Thai speakers. I think English is a wonderful language, but I can't imagine that it's easy to learn.

[ March 16, 2003, 08:10 AM: Message edited by: Gwindor ]
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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby Glenn Slayden » Sun Mar 16, 2003 11:59 am

As I alluded to above, I did briefly try to study Japanese. This effort was not a success. I was amazed that a language could have more complicated word-ending conjugations than, say, French. I ended up spending my six months in Japan as a recluse, a prisoner of incommunication.

I recently read that German grammar is uniquely bizarre, requiring speakers to maintain unusually large "FIFO-stacks" for their sentences, and then "popping" all the verbs at the very end. Comments?

Now that I think about it, it's ironic that I consider Thai "easy" to learn compared to Western languages, since I'm still more fluent in French (in which I took a 300-level college course 16 years ago) than Thai. But I don't consider that fluency as significant since it's another Western language. So I should really be more specific and say (much like Gwindor pointed out), I'm lucky that my first language was English, 'cuz I don't know how I'd ever learn it if I had learned a grammatically-simpler language such as Thai as a first language.

So the amazing people are like our editor Bryan, who has mastered English after growing up in Thailand. You go. Or my Chinese friend here in Seattle who didn't start learning English until a late age but now avidly reads Schopenhauer or Bertrand Russell translations. Geez.

[ March 16, 2003, 12:01 PM: Message edited by: Glenn Slayden ]
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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby ling ลิง » Sun Mar 16, 2003 12:53 pm

If I remember correctly, every Thai I spoke to in Thailand when I was there said English was impossible to extreamly difficult! However i did meet an interesting character who was a saphire seller who to me spoke English impeccably.
I can imagine how daunting English is to a Thai student, for example all those extra words that to them, in their own language mean the same thing! (the conjugating of the verb).
I don't know, maybe English is a bit pretentious having all these verbs, and in essence meaning same thing, why not just do it the Thai way :D

[ March 16, 2003, 12:54 PM: Message edited by: ลิง ling ]
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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby Gwindor » Sun Mar 16, 2003 3:07 pm

The fact that it's difficult doesn't stop lots of Thai people from speaking beautiful English!

Last time I was in Chiang Mai I met one man working at a tour agency who spoke with such an impeccable American accent that I asked him if he was from the US. He had never even been there! I guess it's possible to pick up a good accent from all the tourists. I thought it odd that he picked an American accent, when there are so many Australians there too. ;)

So much of learning a language is individual, a gift, perhaps. When I was in college (University of Illinois, back in 1979, the dark ages... :D ) I knew two Chinese fellows, both from Taiwan. One had been in the US for 4 years and hardly had any accent when he spoke English. The other had been in the US for 10 years and still spoke very broken English with a thick accent. He was very smart, very funny, and very capable of taking care of himself, but English was just not easy for him.

I heartily agree with Glenn. I am really English glad it was my first language, or I'd never learn it! And Glenn, like you, I gave up on Japanese pretty early. Partly because the reading and writing system was too difficult! At least in Chinese, the characters are pronounced in set ways, but in Japanese the pronunciations can change in baffling ways that can only be memorized...

I prefer Thai. The alphabet is very beautiful and the spelling is consistent (well, more consistent than English, anyway:D).

[ March 16, 2003, 03:16 PM: Message edited by: Gwindor ]
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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby Glenn Slayden » Sun Mar 16, 2003 4:08 pm

I've recently come to believe that whether one can speak a foreign language without an accent might be related to some kind of ear-skill with a biological basis. Certainly some people are more musical than others, or hear "more" in sounds than others. Or are drawn to sounds.

The alternative hypothesis is that some speakers just simply "care" to make the effort to imitate all aspects of a native's speech, whereas other folks don't bother.

In other words, does such a difference exist with a biological basis such that some people are more able to hear and imitate sounds--or is everyone just about equally skilled and it's more a matter of attitude or preference.



[ March 16, 2003, 04:09 PM: Message edited by: Glenn Slayden ]
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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby Gwindor » Sun Mar 16, 2003 5:45 pm

"The alternative hypothesis is that some speakers just simply "care" to make the effort to imitate all aspects of a native's speech, whereas other folks don't bother."

It's tricky, because we ALL learn at least one language, and we ALL learn it with a very authentic accent! But it seems that after a certain age, the ability to rapidly learn or absorb the speech processes are diminished for some people, while other abilities become more emphasized.

I agree, that just as some people can draw amazingly well, while others can play the piano by ear, etc etc, perhaps skill at learning languages and accents is inherent, rather than a matter of effort.

What I know for sure is that good teaching can make a difference. I used to teach "accent correction" here in New York City. I pity my early students! It took me a while to learn the ropes, and after a year, my students began to progress more rapidly. I definitely think it was the result of improvements in my teaching, rather than their learning....

As you say, a lot of it has to do with hearing. Most of my students were Chinese or Korean, and the most important process was to teach them to "hear" english sounds rather than "hear" chinese or korean sounds. And the process of hearing was directly linked to the process of reproducing English sounds. Back and forth, a little of listening, a little of reproducing, gradually would lead to students both hearing and repeating differently.

For my Asian students, I had to learn a teaching style that suited their cultural differences. In their cultures, making a mistake in a classroom is insulting to the teacher, so students prefer to do exercises where the answers can be given with authority, rather than exercises where they will experiment, improvise, and risk making "mistakes". But the process of hearing and reproducing English sounds requires lots of practice and lots of "mistakes". I had to learn to work with these cultural issues.

I never had a Thai student, but I would imagine that in such circumstances, the concept of สนุก would be very helpful. If everyone practicing, improvising and making funny mistakes is สนุกมาก, then learning to articulate foreign sounds is more possible. Everyone can learn because they can laugh about the mistakes rather than dreading loss of face for themselves and their teacher.
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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby Glenn Slayden » Sun Mar 16, 2003 6:10 pm

There may be สนุก but then there's also เกรงใจ, which is very strong in Thai culture, to balance it out. I wonder how that would express in a classroom situation.
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Is Thai difficult to learn?

Postby Mikel » Sun Mar 16, 2003 6:35 pm

Interesting topic!

I've got basic Chinese and reasonable French (or used to at least - probably forgotten most of it now! :) ), and I'm not really sure how difficult I'd rate Thai to be honest. I think it depends on what level you're talking at. I don't think Thai is, relative to other languagues, all that difficult to get to intermediate level in. But to really get fluent in it and to be able to talk Thai as a Thai would rather than just getting your point across I think would be more difficult than getting to that stage in European languages, perhaps a lot more. I mean, just for off the top of my head you'd have to count fully knowing how to use (เอา)ไว้, ให้, เสีย(ที), have no doubt when to use ละ อ่ะ ดิ and all the other particles, enough knowledge of ราชาศัพท์ to be able to, say, understand Suriyothai in Thai or read newspaper articles on the Royal family, full knowledge of all the classifiers, all the pronouns (;f=43;t=000025#000002) and when to use them etc...Of course you don't need all this just to get your point across, but I think you have to take it into account when comparing Thai to other languages.

Also on the difficulty of getting fluent, to take an example mrentoul recently posted of how to say "a flower’s scent isn’t just to please your nose". To just get the meaning across of this in Thai wouldn't be all that difficult, but I don't know how long you'd have to learn for before you'd automatically think to say it like กลิ่นดอกไม้น่ะไม่ได้มีไว้ทำให้จมูกของคุณไว้ดมหอมๆ

I think perhaps reading Thai is both overrated and underrated in difficulty at the same time. I don't think it's as difficult as beginners often assume it is, or as Thais often tell you it is! But I think there's a massive difference between being able to 'decipher' Thai and being able to really read it (i.e. at the same speed you would English).

I think the difference between knowing that สวัสดี says 'sawat dee' and being able to read, with the correct tones, at the same speed as a native speaker a difficult paragraph like...
ทลายเอเย่นต์ขายกาวย่านคลองเตย หลังขี้ยาหันพี้แทนยาบ้า รวบ "เจ๊หวิน" เจ้าของร้านรายใหญ่ เจ้าตัวรับขายมาถึง 17 ปี อ้างไม่รู้กฎหมาย ยันช่วงสงครามยาบ้า ทำให้กาวขายดีเป็นเทน้ำเทท่า แถมโขกราคาขึ้นเกือบเท่าตัว ตำรวจงัด ก..ฟัน ทั้งจำทั้งปรับอ่วม ขณะที่ลูกค้าประจำแฉ ซื้อกาวแถมถุง "วันนอร์" ขู่งัด ก..สอบภาษีย้อนหลังร้านค้า มท.เปิดแฟ้ม ขรก.พันค้ายาเกือบพัน แต่ชิงลาออกร่วม 100 คน แฉ พล...ส่งเด็กในคาถา คุมเส้นทางลำเลียงยาบ้าแบบเบ็ดเสร็จ
...must be several years worth of reading practice at least. (That's my guess anyway - I'm not there yet so I can't really say!)

[ March 16, 2003, 06:52 PM: Message edited by: Mikel ]


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