Thai: taking the plunge

Like I talked about earlier this month, my Thai has had trouble getting off the ground since I started learning six weeks ago. I’ve been dutifully shadowing Hippo almost every day, but until last week could still count the number of Thai words I knew on zero hands. Granted, Terry’s version of natural acquisition is supposed to take a while to get going, but six weeks with exactly no tangible results makes me think I’m doing something wrong.

I had a choice: Either let Thai become another language I’ve tried for a little while and set aside; or try learning it another way. To be fair, I hadn’t really been using the Official Terry Method. I left out at least one important ingredient: real conversation in Thai. Duh.

So last week I had a couple hour-long lessons on Italki.

Lesson one

Maybe six weeks of ear training counts as some form of preparation, but I sure didn’t feel prepared when I started my first video chat with my new teacher, Pook. Incidentally, Pook is a monk.

I had cobbled together a list of sentences and questions I planned on saying, things like “I like learning languages” and “What do you do for fun?” Before I could consult my script, however, Pook started talking to me.

I nodded and tried to convey with an awkward smile that I both didn’t understand what he said and was embarrassed by this fact. Luckily, Pook was patient. He also knew some English, and using this he helped me piece together a few fragments of conversation. Our first exchange went roughly like this:

Pook: What do you do?

Me: I’m a… student.

Pook: What?

Me: I’m a chef.

Pook: Ok, chef – por krua. is – pen.

Me: Ok.

Pook: I am a monk. Pom pen pra.

Me: I am a chef… Pom… pen… por krua.

Pook: Good. You are a chef. Kun pen por krua.

Me: Pom pen por krua. Kun… pen… pra.

Pook: Right!

Me: Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra. Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra. Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra.

Pook: Ok!

Unfortunately, this was one of our only successful conversations during that hour. The only other thing I remember is Pook trying to have us role play a restaurant situation, and my embarrassment at having nothing to contribute beyond “I like coconut.” When the hour was over, I was exhausted and relieved.

Lesson two

My second lesson was with a middle-aged woman named Ari. She spoke less English than Pook, but was abundantly patient. We got a lot of mileage out of material like:

“Will you go to Thailand? // I will go to Thailand. // Will you go to Thailand? // I will not go to Thailand.” and

“I like food. // What food do you like? // I like Thai food.”

I used Google Translate’s text-to-speech as a bug in my ear telling me how to say things, and Ari seemed amused by my earnest attempts to imitate her speech. Her amusement was reassuring, since one of my greatest fears in speaking a new language is boring my interlocutor.

When the hour was up, Ari even offered to keep speaking Thai with me off the clock. Exhausted, I did my best to politely decline. Still, this lesson with Ari was even more encouraging than the first with Pook.

What now?

If I could make this much progress with no vocabulary, doesn’t it stand to reason that I could do even better — maybe much better — with a foundation of basic vocabulary? Maybe, but it feels sort of like cheating. Also, I think one of the points of this exercise of learning Thai in this particular way is to get used to speaking without any preparation. It’s this mindset of willingness to learn a totally foreign language that’s the goal, and is maybe even more important than learning Thai in and of itself.

A week has passed since my first two lessons, during which time I meant to review the recording I made of my lesson with Ari, but didn’t.

I have to leave Taiwan to renew my visa in a couple weeks, and I decided to go to Thailand for a few days. Having made that decision, I doubled down and booked another lesson with Ari.

Lesson three

The second lesson with Ari was similar to the first, but I seemed to understand quite a bit more, even if this “understanding” involved a lot of guesswork. She asked me a question in which I only understand the word for “Thai” and I assumed she was asking me if I had studied during the previous week. I replied “No” and cringed, and she laughed. Does that count as speaking Thai?

Again combining Google Translate with Ari’s patience and hand gestures, and a few well-placed words of English, we were able to have exchanges in Thai that probably sounded something like this:

Ari: Will you go to Thailand?

Me: No. Uh… Yes!

Ari: Good! When?

Me: Nextmonth?

Ari: Huh?

Me: Next…

Ari: Oh! next month?

Me: Yeah! Next month!

We also covered subjects like:

  • I like to travel. What do you like? Do you like to travel?
  • What will you do today? I will go to the market. Where will you go? I will go to the cafe (coffee place).
  • Where do you live? Is it far from Bangkok?
  • I don’t like cars. I don’t have a car. Do you have a car?

This lesson was slightly less exhausting than the first two.

Afterward, Ari suggested (using more English now) that I try learning with her daughter, who is a professional trilingual translator and also teaches on Italki. According to Ari, her daughter said that after six hour-long lessons with her, I would be speaking Thai. It’s an enticing claim, even if a little vague. Imagine being able to get around in Thailand using only Thai!

From her daughter’s profile and reviews from current and previous students, it sounds like her lessons also involve speaking Thai from day one, but are more structured and have more supporting material (i.e. audio recordings and review lists). Her lessons are also twice as expensive. Still, the experiment might be worth the price.

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