Time to Speak Thai
If you want to learn Thai, there is a smorgasbord of schools, teaching methods, and prices to choose from. This article compares different schools of thought on how foreigners can develop their Thai skills best.
It is no secret that many foreigners have lived in Thailand for years without learning more than a few basic survival words in Thai. Speaking meaningful Thai often gets postponed indefinitely. It’s easy to be intimidated by the 44 consonants, multiple tones and beautiful but unusual Thai characters.
Communicating in the local tongue opens doors to new friendships and is really worth the effort. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about taking the plunge. It’s never too soon or late to start. Thai language courses are quick, easy, fun and all around you. There are a variety of teaching methods and learning strategies. This week Learning Post takes a look at a few randomly selected Thai language programs and examines how they teach Thai to foreigners.
Design a study plan
Nisa Thai language school was founded in 1973 by Nisakorn Karchai, and it was granted its license by the Ministry of Education in 1975. Its single-branch office offers Thai classes only. This school is small and self-sufficient. It produces textbooks and trains its instructors. The 30 teachers are all Thai and each undergoes six months of evaluation.
Students choose whether to study privately or in small groups of five or less. The school is flexible with schedules and custom designed study plans. The manager, Dr Somsong Phu-ngam says, “Each country has different language problems. We know how to customize courses because we have experience with different nationalities.”
Students include diplomats from Australia, Kenya, Singapore, the Czech Republic and the United States. Many students are employees of Japanese companies and attend classes before or after work. The school also teaches Thai students to write in their native language to supplement education at international schools.
Nisa Thai sends teachers to companies and arranges private home lessons. Since students often have time constraints, schedules are flexible.
Learners won’t lose money for missing a session if they arrange in advance to make the class up.
In the Nisa Thai method, the first step is learning to pronounce the five tones. Students are also taught phonics and the alphabet early on, but the emphasis is on conversation. “When you learn to communicate and use vocabulary,” Somsong explains, “reading and writing are easier.” Nisa Thai’s methods include activities such as field trips and cooking classes.
Susan Robinson, a housewife who formerly taught Spanish in the US, appreciates these field trips because they prepare her for real life situations. However, she enrolled because she liked the student-teacher ratio. She is motivated to learn Thai because she wants to volunteer on poverty-related projects.
Earle Wayne Gaetz, a retiree from Canada, feels it is his responsibility to learn Thai because he shouldn’t expect Thai friends to learn English for his sake.
The school encourages a ten-week intensive course, in which students study for several hours per day. Prices are about 300 baht per hour, but decrease if you register for more of hours.
Get the sounds and tones right
Union Language School (ULS) opened in 1955 when four missionary groups founded the school.
Its students are mostly missionaries, expatriates, housewives, college students and teachers from various countries, including Japan, Korea, China, Germany, the US, and the United Kingdom. Many learn Thai because their profession involves interacting with locals.
New students might be surprised that the school does not teach casual greetings or self-introductions at the beginning of class. Instead, the teacher asks students to repeat certain sounds, which are written in phonetic script on the whiteboard along with intonation symbols for those sounds. Phonetic script is used instead of the Thai alphabet in the beginning.
For the first two months, students are exposed solely to listening and speaking. Martha Newton is the chairperson of the ULS board and was a student 18 years ago. She believes that it is most effective for students to first listen to and speak Thai, because it is the natural way to acquire language.
“Our school gives importance to clear pronunciation because an inaccurate pronunciation may lead to inaccurate communication,” says Ajarn Nareeboon Rachkee, ULS principal. Therefore, all lessons are taught completely in Thai.
Instead of English translations, teachers employ visual aids and physical gestures to help students understand. Students are forced to practice Thai in class because teachers do not use English, which helps learners to overcome embarrassment and shyness.
One student, Todd Sanders, a non-government organization (NGO) volunteer, says that it is important for teachers to use Thai exclusively and not give in to the temptation to speak English with students. It may be harder to comprehend at the beginning, but it is very helpful for learning Thai in the long run.
Students start learning how to read and write in Thai during their third month of study. Instructors do not teach Thai letters in alphabetical order, but by the way they are categorized in three tonal groups _ low, medium and high. Ajarn Vanthanee Wannaying, who has taught all grade levels during her 30 years at the school, says students are able to remember the alphabet better this way.
Todd Sanders acknowledges that he can survive with English in Thailand, but “if you want to build deep relationships and understand Thai people, I think you need to know Thai.”
Classes are from 8AM to 12 noon, Monday to Friday and tuition is 7,000 baht per month for 80 classroom hours.
Look and listen method
AUA was formally established in 1952 to promote understanding between Thailand and the United States. Dr James Martin Brown developed the AUA Language Center and promoted its present-day teaching method, which is based on Stephen Krashen’s theory of language acquisition.
According to this theory, language can either be “acquired” subconsciously in the natural process used by babies _ based on listening and observing _ or “learned” consciously by efforts to understand a language and its complex rules.
AUA’s concept adopts the concept that language is learned best by experiences and meaningful interaction. Children absorb language naturally while adults try to force language into preset ideas, which blocks the overall learning process. It is counter-productive to try and remember words, definitions and grammar.
The conscious act of speaking is also considered a hindrance because it distracts from listening and observation, so students are encouraged to refrain from speaking in class for the first 200 hours.
Classes are always done in groups to create a shared experience. Students are encouraged to take it easy and not work hard. There are no tests, homework or memorization exercises. AUA refers to this as the Automatic Language Growth method.
Beginning classes consist of two Thai teachers engaged in spontaneous conversations that are exclusively in Thai. They make generous use of the whiteboard and body language. They will not use English even to answer questions asked in English.
David Long, AUA program coordinator recommends that, “You have to be willing to be like a child again and laugh at yourself. You must push through frustration and embarrassment.”
Classes are held Monday to Friday from 7AM to 7PM, with additional classes available on Saturday. Schedules are flexible. Students can easily pick and adjust study times.
Classes are arranged at ten levels at 200 hours each. Prices start at 150 baht per hour if less than 30 hours are taken, but this rate sharply decreases as more hours are selected. A free trial class is available to anyone interested.
Repeat after me
Some students’ tastes are not inclined toward formal language schools, so they prefer a more private environment for lessons. Ajarn Viparat Sumrannich fulfills the need as a private tutor with her 20 years of teaching experience.
She rents a house with other teachers who give private Thai lessons to diplomats, business executives and mis-sionaries. Her students come from France, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.
Many of her learners are volunteer workers who work in remote areas of Thailand. They usually opt for a one-month intensive course to prepare themselves for everyday conversation with locals. Meanwhile, businesspersons and diplomats usually take lessons for several years, meeting about two hours per week.
She does not teach writing for the first few months, emphasizing the ability of her students to speak Thai.
Her teaching style includes the audio-linguistic approach. The US army developed this method during World War II as a means for soldiers to learn foreign languages in a limited amount of time. It is based on hearing and verbally repeating words, phrases and dialogues in the form of drills.
She uses drilling in her classes, asking students to repeat certain phrases to develop the same tonal accuracy and natural rhythm used by native Thai speakers. She substitutes one or two words in each drill to teach new vocabulary.
Her drilling method is also used to correct mistakes on short and long vowels. She recommends that every Thai teacher correct tonal mistakes immediately. Teachers should ask students to repeat particular words many times, she says, along with the rest of the sentence. She then changes parts of the sentence to show how words can be used for other purposes.
Viparat teaches political and economic vocabulary words to advanced students to help them in their profession, as many require technical terms for their jobs.
Most lessons are on a flexible one-on-one basis, from 7:30AM to 7PM at 500 baht per hour. There’s no penalty if you miss a class.
Go ahead! Take the plunge
Language schools are too numerous to list in one article. It may help, however, to get a general idea of the options available. Schools use a variety of teaching methods. Likewise, each student has different needs. The trick is to find the school that works best for you.