Friday, 31 December 2010

Memory tricks for words


Various mnemonic memory tricks for remembering words in a foreign language are mentioned from time to time, often involving mental images and mapping sounds of a new word to sounds of your own language that sound similar. These techniques for learning facts have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks (and probably before). They are impressive in that a couple of examples will quickly convince somebody of their power. The problem I have with them is that they do not seem to scale well for language, also the word you know via this method is not properly known yet. The mnemonic is a patch, to help cover a few sticky situations nothing more. You can learn words to the full extent you need them much more efficiently.

My experiences

I posted initially about this technique (a cow with a shopping basket) sometime ago, after some experimentation I can still stay that for me it will never be more than a patch, a little jump-start for the odd tricky word than won't stick or for a new new word I need to use very soon. There are too many disadvantages, for example the danger of associating the word with a sound that isn't quite right, the hesitation (however small it is still there) in recalling the word etc.

As a recent example I was going for a meal with some Chinese speaking (and another Chinese learner) friends and booked a Thai restaurant. I quickly realised that they would expect me to speak some Thai (not really prepared for that in this situation) so I crammed a few words and phrase that I had never learned or needed to use before when eating on my own. Phrases like "have already booked".
Having used this memory technique for many years (it is not just for languages) I was able to cobble together something that allowed me to recall the words I didn't know almost immediately but it felt awkward to use and I know my pronunciation was poor. Now a couple of weeks later I can still recall them but they are not comfortable and don't feel learned at all (if you imagine running smoothly as speaking comfortably then each of these words feels like an awkward gap that you see ahead and have to jump safely, you know you can jump it but it breaks your stride and feels uncomfortable) One word is an exception and is comfortable, but that is because it is more universally useful and been exposed to it a few more times.

Language requires immediate and comfortable recall, in some areas knowing a vast amount of facts that can be recalled "almost" immediately may be useful but not with language. To be fair many of these memory techniques were designed for times and technologies where taking written notes or copying data was difficult. A Jesuit priest famously used the more sophisticated "memory palace" technique to learn Chinese (including the written language) in very little time. The problem is simply that it takes some considerable effort to master the technique. Fair enough if you are a Jesuit priest who can use his memory palace to practice, review and consolidate his Chinese in the darkness of night when there are no tutors or people to practice with, but is that effort worth it now when you can just turn on an Ebook or mp3 to do the same?

For more information on the method of loci follow the link, I think the following quote though sums up my qualms about it for language.
It has been found that teaching such techniques as pure memorization methods often leads students towards surface learning only. Therefore, it has been recommended that the method of loci should be integrated thoroughly with deeper learning approaches..

When I start learning Thai script I will use something similar for the mechanical easy bits (to save time) but the hard slog of learning to read Thai will mostly be by exposure.


There are bold claims for this technique people claiming that you can learn hundreds of words in a short time with little recall delay etc. etc. It makes a useful marketing exercise (because you can easily show it working in a couple of examples). But in practice you then find the same people trying to cram some language (with tuition) into 11 hours and still doing a poor job of stringing a few simple sentences together (the magic goes away I guess). Yes the word does get "burned in if you keep using/reviewing it" but there are other easier ways to do that in the same time-scale.

What this method promises with the hype turned up to 11, is a way to learn a language very fast but I don't find real world example (excluding the odd savant and some of them can just as easily work from boring long lists of vocabulary).

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Stream Languages In


Sometimes it is easy to forget how much easier it is to for most of us to learn languages than it would have been many decades ago. With computers and the Internet it is very easy to stream radio and TV from many different countries. Before this technology a person who could live in a foreign country wasn't at a disadvantage if they wanted to learn the language of that country (exposure is there if they want it). A person who was exposed to many foreigners in their own country could also decide to learn that language. What was very hard would be to pick a language at random and then get exposure almost immediately (leaving the worrying about when and how you are going to speak it with natives until later). Go back further and the practicalities of ever going to the country where many languages were spoken meant that although someone may learn some of a language to help them go on and whilst on a pilgrimage (or similar great adventure) I doubt that many people would have learned a language and then gone on a pilgrimage to practice it.

Recently it is even easier, with an Ipod touch and wireless network, or with an android phone I can stream video and audio content anywhere, any when, and in many languages whenever I feel the need.


TVUPlayer is a peer2peer video application that streams a whole host of TV channels(and pseudo tv channels) from all over the world. There are a number of mainstream channels from some countries (China for example) and a lot of smaller (often stranger channels). Being peer2peer the connection may start off weak but usually picks up.

I have used the player on PC and Ipod there is a small charge for the Ipod and Android versions but you can download a free version (limited to a couple of minutes at a time). Be aware that the player uses a lot data transfer, which is a drain on the battery of your device, also possibly expensive (I only use it over wireless).

There are many, many languages represented, I find the easiest thing to do is to just add a bunch of channels to 'favourites' and filter out the ones I don't like (the channels have little country flags next to them that usually match the language).

I don't use the player for organised learning, just occasionally for when I want to listen to some Chinese, Thai or German. There is a much better choice of Chinese channels than Thai and a couple of the Thai channels I have found are poor quality but still enough to be useful.

If you are learning multiple languages, this application is particularly useful.

TuneIn radio

For streaming radio, I have used the TuneIn radio application on both the Ipod and Android. I think there was a small charge for the Ipod version but the Android version was free (but you don't seem to be able to record on the Android version yet).

You can start your search for stations by language :) there are many types of radio stations including talk show and story channels.


Language is there waiting for you to watch an listen, a significant aid to your language learning and particularly when you consider that many of the native speakers you may want to talk to could have listened to and watched similiar material whilst learning their mother tongue. I have two cousins who grew up without television, probably and advantage in many respects, but one thing they told me is that even as adults they often don't understand cultural references in English conversation because they never experienced them on the TV.

I watch hardly any TV in my own language these days, but in other peoples languages, that is a different matter, even trashy TV ;).

Monday, 20 December 2010

How to start learning a language

Youtube is a great place to pick up some basic vocabulary in many languages. This is not the best example of these particular lessons (they are pretty good ;)) but it is at least seasonal.


I don't feel I wrote a single good summary of how I would start to learn a language so here it is.... I am not a polyglot yet, and I have higher personal standards for fluency than many, but this kind of approach works for me, I am currently successfully applying it to Japanese.

Start by listening

If the sounds of the language are unfamiliar then listen to it, listen attentively and listen whilst doing other things, get a feel for how it sounds, get a feel for words, word barriers sentence intonation etc. You can listen to radio, watch TV, news, drama, comedy, people what ever you can get your hands on. You should feel the language get more familiar. At the same time you can watch the style of the native speakers, how they move, how they express themselves, also pay attention to how they speak your language, if they have an accent this gives you clues about the sounds in their language.

A good test is to determine how well you can distinguish the language from others (especially languages that are similar). If you are learning German, you should be able to easily distinguish it from Dutch or Norwegian or Afrikaans. learning Spanish then distinguish Portuguese, learning Japanese then distinguish Korean.

You may find it hard to listen to something you don't understand, I never have had a problem so long as I can feel the progress. You can listen for word-boundaries, mood, names, conjugates at some point the stream of random sound becomes a stream of words that you don't understand. It sounds trivial but the difference is huge.

You may have done most of this stage already if you have been exposed to the language before and you can continue this process whilst doing other things. You have probably done enough when you can say "right that is the language, now what the hell does it all mean". You are going to be speaking in the style of a new language, for most activities if you are going to do something "in the style of" you would expect to have some experience of what that style is. Play music in the style of, dance in the style of, paint in the style of ......

Pick up some basic vocabulary

A few hundred high exposure words and simple phrases, this is not a significant feat of memory in yours or anyone else's life, if you get stuck in you will learn them.

There is much debate about how to pick up vocabulary, in the early stages though I really don't think it matters. Children learn the basic vocabulary for their own language by massive exposure, you can do the same. Find whatever lessons, videos, podcasts you can online that are teaching basic vocabulary in the language you are learning and get exposed. The words will stick with enough exposure. These very high frequency words don't need tests, flash cards, SRS, lists or similar. If you are being tested on or testing yourself for example on simple words like "yes" or "no" or "thank you", then stop. Just get a bit more exposure and you will just know them. Save the arguments for how you are going to learn vocabulary later on, even guys that have a "bad memory" still seem to manage to remember all the names of the players in a bunch of football teams or similar, so at this level of memory exposure is all that is required, no special tricks or techniques needed.

Youtube is a great place to pick up basic vocabulary, many languages have countless little lessons teaching language, some free offerings from commercial organizations and some from members of the public. Quality doesn't matter too much, get as much variety as you can and it will all even out. Free introductory lessons to learning podcasts, free cut-down versions of learning software, all may give you audio you can practice.

People are obviously a good source of vocabulary, friends, family, associates, people around you, anyone who can speak the language. If you are in a foreign country then you are surrounded by sounds that will help you, don't ignore them. If not in a foreign country then rejoice at all the technology available to you that will help.


If you watch small children learning a language you will see them play, babbling, making their toys have pretend conversations etc.. When playing they don't stress about whether it makes sense. Sometimes they may have to talk to a big scary adult they don't know and then you can see the stakes raised, suddenly they are more careful, perhaps more nervous. Have fun with the language, pick up a few words and start mashing them together in ways you think they may work, play in your head or with a trusted friend, or in safe environment (where your ridiculous accidents will spark humour rather than a fight).

Think about when you will talk

Start to think about how you will talk the language and to who. Maybe that bit is easy at first, perhaps there are friends, colleagues people there already, so armed with the style of the language and some basic vocabulary start practising. If not then just start to work out where you will find the opportunities when you will need it. When the speech is bursting to come out you want to have planned an outlet.


Get yourself used to the sounds of language and when you speak your pronunciation will be OK at least. It doesn't take long to get used to a language, if you really don't like the sound of it then you are going to struggle learning it anyway (you can get to like it but not if you resist it).

Don't stress about the initial basic vocabulary that gets you started, that bit is easy. It is high exposure, you will learn it. If it takes you twice as long or twice as fast then over the course of learning the language it is not a big deal. Keep getting exposed, pay at least some attention and if you have any interest in the language you will learn the basic vocabulary.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010



Homophones are words that have the same sounds but different meanings, or at least that is the definition I will use here, I am sure that there are some linguistic wrinkles that add complication but I will ignore those. Homophones can be a big headache for language learners and the occasional cause of mistakes even for native speakers, basically speaking it is unlikely that any rich language will possess enough sounds to make every word sound distinct even if multiple syllables are used. It could probably be done by design, but languages evolve over time. Many languages have enough redundancy that homophones are not likely to clash (the context makes it clear which word is being used). In some languages (Mandarin Chinese for example) the number of sounds and the structure of the language (each syllable having a meaning) have resulted in the tone of a sound contributing to the meaning (so sounds that would technically be homophones in English aren't homophones in Chinese unless the tone is the same).

Thai is a tonal language and to some extent presents similar problems to Mandarin Chinese, but in my opinion Thai is somewhat easier for a learner in the area of homophones. I will start with the difficulties of Mandarin and then show why I am finding the sounds in Thai somewhat easier.

Not enough sounds

Mandarin Chinese has a limited number of sounds compared to English, tones are used to pack more information into each sound but even then native speakers still typically need more context to select the meaning of a word (in English even a random, seldom used word in isolation can often be understood if spoken clearly). For a learner just starting out, you can't distinguish the tones without practice so now you have so many homophones it seems impossible to select from the possible words you hear. To put things in context a learner of English may get frustrated with "to", "two" and "too" but to be fair there aren't many common homophones in English that can be confused in the early stages. In Chinese if you can't catch the tone then the words for "buy" and "sell" the words for "there" and "where" etc. are homophones (a bit of a headache).

Poor loan words

Many languages have English loans words, Chinese has a fair few, which is great, the problem is that because Chinese uses characters from its writing system to represent them the sounds are only close approximations to the English sounds and are not easy to remember at first. For example "party" becomes pai dui. This potential source of easy words is not so easy after all.

Single syllable meanings

Essentially in Chinese every syllable has a meaning and is represented by a single character with meaning in the written language. Written language can be quite compact and is especially so in classical Chinese. The characters (of which there are thousands) map well to meanings. In spoken language often words are constructed by ramming together two syllables of similar meaning to make the word distinct enough when spoken. This effect becomes even more noticeable when you start listening to Cantonese as a comparison. In Mandarin bu zhidao means "don't know". In writing (and sometimes speech) just the zhi part can often be used for "know". Cantonese has a fair few more sounds than Mandarin and you are more likely to hear m ji rather than m jidou for "don't know" (there is more redundancy in the sounds so a little less need to create two syllable words for spoken meaning).

Initially Chinese can sound just like a stream of syllables of which you have to pay attention to every single one just in case.

Where Thai is a little easier

Thai appears to have more sounds than Mandarin, reducing the number of those troublesome homophones, even accounting for the tones.

The English loan words in Thai are basically pronounced the same as in English but with a heavy Thai accent (naturally) this means that once you get used to how Thai people speak English then the loan words are easy to remember and pronounce. They also are very unlikely to collide with existing Thai words so won't from more homophones.

Alongside the loan words from English Thai has picked up a decent number of Asian loan words, injecting a generous amount of multi-syllable words that can be distinguished.

Thai of course has it's own hardships and some aspects are harder than Mandarin (saving those for later posts).

Listening is important

Listening to the language you are learning and taking time occasionally to pay attention pays huge dividends. I haven't read about homophones or these elements of the languages I have been paying attention to (although I did read somewhere about Cantonese having more sounds than Mandarin and a few other things). It is quite possible I am actually wrong about some things (Thai having more sounds than Mandarin for example), but the things I notice help me learn. I can start guessing that there are no Thai words that sound like English "hay" or "may" and no Thai word that sounds like howzhai (rather than kaozhai) because these sounds are freely substituted for the sounds of other Thai words (which mostly wouldn't be allowed to happen if it caused homophone issues).

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


This video apart from being funny in places also highlights the difficulty of real language. The intended meaning of a word can vary radically from the dictionary definition.

I will be posting some fairly heavy posts soon, prior to that a lighter one. When you learn a new language you quickly find out that in the real world many words shift and squirm in meaning, often (depending on the context) meaning exactly the opposite of the dictionary definition. Sometimes you are pre-warned I believe in Thai you can use "man" to refer to a person either in an insulting manner or because you are close to them (at least everyone involved should be able to guess your intention :)).

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Unusual language equals video goodies

Coming up with a title for this little post was difficult, regardless of any arguments about relative hardness some languages are more unusual to learn, some languages stand out more. An English person speaking French or German or Spanish doesn't stand out as much as one learning Arabic, Chinese, Japanese etc. etc. Learning one of the more unusual languages sticks in the memory of people you meet and it is well worth telling them when you have the opportunity.

A long time ago on my Chinese learning blog I posted about telling everybody that you learn Mandarin (warning as usual, hastily written with the odd spelling mistake etc.) I have had enough surprise presents, introductions etc. to be sure that this is good advice.

This works for Thai as well as of course. A recent happy example, I told a Chinese friend I had met a couple of times that I was learning Thai also, when she left Bristol to move elsewhere she couldn't take a lot of videos that she had accumulated, including the videos of a Thai friend who was also leaving etc. To cut a long story short I became the happy recipient of a couple of bags of mostly Thai videos (mainly VCDs). This little archive has resulted in me not renewing my subscription to the excellent DOOTV service.

Apart from lots and lots of films etc. I have 55 hours of Conan cartoon videos, DVDs of Thai stand-up comedians and when I start reading (or learning Korean) a bunch of Korean series subtitled in Thai.

If you are learning something slightly unusual people remember, they pick up things for you from second-hand shops or car boot sales, they divert things to you that are otherwise going to be thrown away and occasionally they arrange introductions to native speakers. It is an advantage of learning this kind of language you may as well use it.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Language Spikes


I recently use the word spike to describe the Pimsleur approach whilst commenting on a post at Randy picked up on the term spike as a good term and I realised that although I use this term myself it doesn't seem to be used very much in language learning (as far as I can tell). I am used to hearing the term applied to software development, a definition from here is quite appropriate: A spike is a narrow but deep coding experiment that allows the developers to see how various functions might work and to better estimate both system performance and the difficulty of the coding. The key concepts here are "narrow" and "deep".

The spike

Right from the first time I started learning languages I have seen most learning material as various types of spike. Inevitability learning materials want to give learners a feeling that they are making progress and this often entails build up a conversational exchange and penetrating the language to some depth, without the time to develop related vocabulary, alternative ways of saying things etc. this also inevitably leads to a narrow understanding of single area of the language.

Self learners can also make their own spikes, concentrating on the vocabulary required for a discrete task, a daily chore, a certain interaction with a single person can also involve raising a deep and narrow spike into the language.

Advantages and disadvantages

Spikes generally work better for output, as a speaker you can get away with knowing only one way to say something, even if there is a more eloquent way to say what you want, your spike will give you perfectly acceptable ways to say it. As long as the conversation progresses roughly in the expected direction spikes can give you an opportunity to have a conversation early on and they can introduce elements of the language like grammar that you wouldn't meet at first.

Spikes can rapidly collapse, the more potential variability that is introduced the more chance that the spike will fail you. The biggest problem of course is that there are many ways of saying the same thing, if talking with someone who is helping you learn a language or in a very formulaic situation, then they will probably stick to the scripts but perfect strangers may wander in any direction.

The more spikes you have raised the greater the opportunity to jump from one to the other and the more vocabulary you pick up the broader the base. Eventually everything should hopefully start to join up.

The basic spikes

The most basic spikes that people may acquire first are usually to do with ritualised politeness, food and drink and perhaps interaction with people they may interested in on a romantic level.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Women Learning Thai

Not just because I got a brief mention, but because it is great site, I want to put in a strong recommendation for the site Women Learning Thai. There are a lot less Thai learning resources on the Web than Mandarin resources (although enough to be highly useful), however Women Learning Thai is about as good as they come in either language. A lot of posts covering reviews, other resources, instructional material, culture, guest writers etc. etc. etc.

What is most pleasing is that the site is pretty much approach neutral, although Catherine Wentworth is happy to present her own views on approach to language learning in posts or comments, other views and approaches are equally well represented, the interviews with successful Thai language learners for example. I think this is a key factor to the success of the site as a learning resource.

BTW although I was a little nervous at first, men are welcome :). I can only recommend that new Thai learners start by browsing there, if not I sure that gravitational force will pull them in soon from other parts of the web.

I notice my RSS feed from the site on the left-hand side is obviously the wrong one (I'll fix that).

Sunday, 19 September 2010

FSI Thai Course

I have decided to give the FSI Thai course a go. The Foreign Service Institute released their courses for a number of languages to the public domain a long time ago. The courses are old fashioned but they have text and audio and a very reasonable price (free).

I am using the wiki backup and also the extras at The dictionary resources are useful as I am not formally studying the written Thai language yet (I don't mind looking at it and starting to guess a little though).

Mostly I will be listening to the audio, I will report back on how useful I find it.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A break from learning Thai

A bit of a surprise for me, for a few weeks I haven't been doing much Thai learning. I have still watched a couple of things, the odd Thai word has popped into my head but time spent on task has been relatively small.

I didn't expect that, I assumed that if I am interested in a language (and I am in Thai) then I would do something significant towards learning it every day. The disruptive element is simply learning more than one language. I have had a strong focus on Chinese recently and started learning German, that took up time.

Interestingly, although I haven't been actively studying I don't appear to have forgotten anything. In some areas things seem to have clarified a little. I have started listening and watching Thai again and it seems fresher and easier to pick up new things.

Perhaps I should schedule a similar break every now and again if it does not occur naturally. At some point soon I will also explain how I know that I haven't forgotten things, particualary as I don't have vocabularly lists or SRS cards etc. to test myself.

Monday, 30 August 2010

film collections a valuable resource

A quick post about a sometimes forgotten reservoir of language practice material (well someone I was speaking to at work hadn't thought of it). I don't collect a lot of films, but sometime I buy them, particularly as these days sometimes buying a DVD is about the same price as renting it. When learning a language you may find that you have immediate access to a number of films with soundtracks and sub-titles in that language. Perhaps if not directly, then via borrowing films (I have a friend who literally has stacks of DVDs taller than me laying around.

Even if you don't like dubbed sound you may have watched a number of films in the past that were dubbed in your mother tongue, so now you can watch them as they were intended :).

I admit this has not helped me hugely for Thai,  although I did have the Eye trilogy which I originally purchased because I like that type of film and  because the soundtracks have some Mandarin (also have lots of Thai). The real reminder for this came from starting German and I came across a number of films with German soundtracks.

Will this help much? Well bizarrely there are those that don't seem to rate listening activities as much use, I find them incredibly useful. Besides if you are just replacing watching a film in your mother tongue with one (or the same one) in your target language what can go wrong (no you won't go blind or lose the power of speech :0). Another advantage with tapping the reservoir is that you may try and enjoy some films that you never thought you would (perhaps one you borrow from a family member).

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Sights Sounds and Smells

I am back on track (more about that in a later post). The first language I tried to learn was Mandarin Chinese, Mandarin has a huge advantage over Thai (for the remote learner) in that as I pointed out here: there are a lot of Chinese speakers. It is relatively easy to find them, relatively easy to get access to the language either actively or just to listen to how it is used in real life situations.

Ideally I would like to be able to wander around somewhere like here, listen observe, start getting involved:

There would seem to be a huge advantage to learning a language in the place that it is naturally spoken. Not long ago I was at an English market that had a stall selling home made Asian/Indian foods (run by an English lady). It was a very popular store, I had to queue, at the front of the queue were what appeared to be an older Thai lady and her daughter, the daughter acting as interpreter and dealing with the things the elder lady wanted. I wasn't close enough to hear much but at one point the elder lady inhaled deeply and clearly said "hom" and indeed the food did smell wonderful. Imagine if the whole market was full of this, สนุกดีใช่ไหม?

A while ago I was working with a contractor who had developed a passion for Thailand, he started learning Thai in the early 1970's, at one point he traveled to London just to get hold of some recordings of Thai speech, until that point he had never heard Thai, everything he knew was in books (not very helpful books at that), how things have changed, I guess I shouldn't complain.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Passive listening


Recently Benny posted on the results of his C2 Exam in German, in the post Benny questions the usefulness of passive listening, anybody who had the time to read all the posts on this biog from the beginning (and I really don't blame you if you don't ;)) would know that I rate passive listening very highly as a language learning tool. I would like to think that anybody who understands Thai can see me gaining from it. This is a long post but it could be so much longer, I will be posting much more on listening but for now I will try to keep this focused(ish).

Input and "listening" well is as complicated as speaking well and if you want to master a language the scope of what you need to be able to understand by listening is far wider than what you need to be able to produce, listening requires thought and in some cases the learning of new skills. If you wanted to become a good tennis player you would get fit, not too much to ask a language learner to expand their listening skills, it is after all expected of musicians.

Immersion is the earliest form of language learning and can obviously be very successful, for many people throughout history it has been the only way to learn a language, immerse or don't learn, black and white. If I had a choice I would much prefer to have bags of cash (no need to work), bags of time and immerse myself in a country (hey who wouldn't ;)), hardly anyone can indulge themselves to that extent. What has changed? Printing presses, sound recording, the Internet, increased international mobility bring language to you, and technology makes it more and more convenient. I think many of the Victorian language pioneers, the Jesuit priests that learned Chinese etc. would have been delighted to "prepare" and practice with many of the materials and technologies we have available now, I know I am :)

What is Passive Listening?

Here is the usual problem: definition, what Benny describes as passive listening is wavering all over the place ranging into situations where I can easily actively listen to listening in your sleep (yeah I don't see how that is supposed to work either), We could argue about definitions for ages, but passive does not have to mean completely inactive, we have passive resistance, passive aggressive etc. as examples.

Benny appears to think that when you listen yo give it 100% attention? Some languages the speakers regularly speak over each other, you may be in a noisy environment, in a group, you NEED to learn to understand language by giving it part of your attention.

The word passive can have negative vibes but I always prefer to be positive(irony). For the purposes of this exercise I will use one example that Benny gives "listening to language whilst washing the dishes" (apparently Benny gets nothing from this) you could substitute any other reasonably simple task. It is easy to do. with on-line radio, Ipods, audio books, or a cheap mp3 player from the supermarket etc. You can choose from news, podcast conversations, radio chat shows and mix and match depending on your needs.

Passive listening is often listening in dead-time (unless you really look forward to washing the dishes). The more attention the activity requires the less attention you can pay to the audio (duh) but you can increase your ability to concentrate and learn mental techniques to improve what you get out of it even further. Benny appears to have thought he could get something out of passive listening whilst simultaneously studying grammar? and apparently meets lot of learners with similar ideas, all I can say is WOW.

Can I do it?

Can you walk and chew gum at the same time? Yes, well then you can do it, the only thing stopping you is imagination and a little application. Gum chewing doesn't require thought though the sceptic smugly declares. Okaaay then imagine you are in your kitchen washing those complicated, thought provoking dishes, imagine that someone else is there with you doing something else, can you hold a conversation with them? Could you hold a conversation with them in a language you are learning? (if not you are a beginner but don't worry you can still gain from passive listening). Still with me? then having that conversation can you learn anything from it or are you too occupied with the dish washing job to think at all.

Maybe you use this dead time for something else? Benny uses his for SRS but I presume that is a different type of dead time or he has a waterproof iphone. Maybe you use this time for just "not thinking time" that is fine it is just language learning not life and death but can you see the spare processing capability is there? Some people have trouble concentrating, you can improve that just by practice, I have found the ability to concentrate very useful in language learning, I picked it up elsewhere though. Do you think the ability to concentrate and focus is useful when learning?

In the beginning

I am not going to stress this too much because even Benny is prepared to concede(he has posted his war post) that listening will get you used to the sounds of the language early on, I think it goes a bit further than Benny describes though.

You can get the same benefit later on in your studies though, find it hard to understand old people, southern dialect, regional accents, kids talking etc. then a batch of listening later on get your filters for the target language improved.

In the middle

I haven't got anywhere near the middle in Thai yet but a few middle type things have happened already. I hear a phrase that isn't quiet like anything I have heard before that teaches me something new. Simple recent example I pointed out before, len footbun hai sanook (play football for fun) when the opportunity arises I will try pom rian pasa thai hai sanook (I study Thai for fun) usually my guesses are correct but if not I will learn.

Really useful at this point is to be able to replay back in your mind a number of seconds prior to the word(s) that caught your attention (even if you though you weren't listening), if you are a musician or similar you can probably do this if not you can learn to do it.

Later on

Some thoughtless person recently commented that they didn't see the point in acquiring passive vocabulary I can't remember the context but that requires an amazing lack of thought. Various levels of listening build my passive vocabulary. I have not grown up in the language I am learning much of what I want to learn I cannot get from a direct conversation but that does not mean I don't want to learn the words, I need to be able to understand them, perhaps use them in a joke or story. It is hard to find the right context to learn these words in conversation (some) swear words, aggressive words, the language of love (I am happily married thank you), street gang slang, youth culture etc. In real conversation I have better things to do than contrive situations to learn passive vocabulary, I would much rather learn this from listening (not from a book for sure).

Winding up

I suspect that Benny would respond that most of my examples are active listening, if that is the case he should be clearer about what he is talking about.

Seriously I can easily identify a couple of hours a day and I know that I get a steady stream of benefit from this kind of listening and short of kidnapping a Thai or Chinese person and chaining them to my sink or in my car I can't replace that with conversation.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Songs don't help me learn languages

The video above nicely illustrates the point I trying to make in this post, although from a program for small children it is quite funny.
So far songs don't seem to help me learn languages, nor do poems. I have found stories and jokes far more useful for learning Chinese so far and expect to find the same for learning Thai. I have been listening to and recording some Thai radio and over the last few days and have listened to quite a lot of songs, although I can identify a fair few words, they don't sound the same as in conversation so I can't use them as references for speaking.

One problem with songs is that they often use non-standard language and pronunciation particularly in tonal languages (which is possibly why I don't get on with them for learning). When I listen to English songs they don't usually seem to be very useful references for foreign language learners. Another problem for me at least is that although I can often remember a song quite quickly to the extent of being able to sing it (badly) I don't have ownership of the language to be able to use it elsewhere.

I can understand people enjoying songs and using them for study, maybe it is just I pick the wrong ones? In Chinese I gravitated towards punk and rock music and quite liked Shanghai rap (being in Shanghainese not much use for learning Mandarin). Possibly some kinds of folk songs make better learning material.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Thai by the numbers

How can just listening teach you anything?, actually I am a little impatient I help the process on by combining real Thai with lessons in my mother tongue, I don't get out a pen and paper or practice, or think too much about the lessons. Language is full of numbers so I find them a good hook in during the early stages. Islands of numbers that expand are just like the other islands of words and meaning that expand outwards.

A Thai lesson on numbers above, if you follow the link back to Youtube you can see part two. I have made no systematic effort to learn Thai numbers yet (I haven't sat down with a book or a lesson etc. and any lessons I listen to I am doing something else) but I have both listened to a lot of Thai and a fair number of lessons on numbers. I let the lessons wash over me, I pay attention to Thai when I think numbers are involved and now I am pretty comfortable with Thai numbers. I have to say pretty comfortable with them, I think mostly in Chinese numbers now and will probably stick to that. Both Thai and Chinese numbering systems are simple logical and powerful (Chinese more so because of the Thai et and yi). There will be another post on numbers soon, the language you think in when you think about numbers makes a big difference, there is a real reason why many Asian kids are so much more advanced in maths than Western kids of a similar age and it not because they work harder.

When I was a child (and I suppose still) you could buy those "painting by numbers" kits, you had to fill in numbered sections with selected colours. If it was a complicated one you didn't know what it was going to look like until you had filled in enough of the blanks (especially if someone hid the box from you ;)). Listening to Thai is a bit like the paintings it is blank, there is data and information there but you don't exactly what it represents, every blank you fill brings it closer until finally you get the complete picture.

In my post summarizing the first two weeks of learning Thai I included a video, I noted this about the video:

Early on she says a number, five hundred and fifty three, the first time I watched it I heard fifty three, but then I found out a meaning for that roi sound I like so now I hear five hundred and fifty three. Of course she may be saying a bigger number I have not got that far yet, in fact I have not actually deliberately sat down to learn Thai numbers in any systematic way at all.

Now I know the number IS bigger, I was hearing similar numbers all the time now she is clearly saying "year 2553", I have managed to work out that Thailand measures it's own year aside from the international year. This mirrors the way other words are growing into phrases.

One example from many: I hear "len footbun hai sannook" In a Thai radio broadcast. I guess this means something like "play football for fun", I don't know for sure that hai can be used quite like this, if I am wrong I will find out at some point.

This is how it works. The phrases will get longer, turn into sentences etc. It will depend on material and time.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Grammar go home

Getting too serious around here so I though it was time for a little Monty Python language learning. As in this video some people seem to focus too much on grammar and miss the message. I am not going to worry about learning Thai grammar, I may read about it little after the event but I didn't study or learn grammar for Chinese and I will not deliberately study it for Thai. It is a waste of my time.

Some people may say that Chinese and Thai have a relatively simple grammar anyway (and yet the grammar books in various series of grammar books seem to be a similar size to other languages), I think that is is just that their grammar is different and we have a tendency to think about grammar in a western way (because we caught it from the Greeks and Romans). I won't know for sure until I study a European language though. This blog will not have any posts detailing how I am learning grammar for sure though, if it doesn't get adsorbed along with everything else I am in trouble... :)

Grammar is not even that important (yes you heard me correctly). if you get the pronouciation correct and the words right then for casual conversation in most language grammar mistakes will not stop you being understood (think about learners of your language you have talked with). Many languages it seems even the natives don't worry to much about their own grammar when talking.

If you think I am wrong then I would be happy to hear your opinion.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Firm conversation base


I have already established why I think conversation in Thai will be important to me, however it will only be a small (yet significant) part time wise. I don't live in Thailand, the easiest way to gain Thai language experiences is by being prepared to speak a little Thai (if you have other easy or even hard ways then please let me know).

Conversation also provides a firm base to build language around I can acquire words and concepts randomly via other input means but conversation provides a necessary focus to build a connected set of language.

Thai only meal

Last week on lunch-time I treated myself to a Thai meal at a restaurant near where I work, managed to not speak a word of English. The waiter helped a lot by not getting too chatty, but also by accepting that I speaking Thai and only using Thai. I managed to go outside the basics a little, asked where the toilet was (even though I didn't actually need it) also asked whether I could have the mussaman curry with chicken (the menu only said beef prawns and pork) but Chicken was fine. Actually I just said 'mee gai mai krap?' but it worked. Thai restaurants are going to be important, I expect to and am trying to build up a strong base of food and restaurant related language and then work out from there. Chinese was different, the menus are hard to read, the staff often don't speak Mandarin etc. for Chinese, Chinese medicine shops were a much better base. From the base, need to work outwards. Having had some success in Thai restaurants I can in theory (my theory of course) leave off the conversation until I have accumulated enough knowledge to strike up more interesting conversations with the staff. However sometimes an opportunity presents....

Local Thai opportunity

There is small Thai eating place just near where I work, I have worked out the following, in the evenings it opens just about the time I leave work. if I pick the busy Friday evening I can pop in for a coffee or beer, (can't regularly spend money on meals). There will usually be three Thai staff in there with nothing really to do until the customers pick up. They are happy to help me with questions etc. My objective isn't to speak only Thai (that dries up too quickly) but to ask questions, try things out etc. For example I know 'wan atit' is Sunday but occasionally hear 'atit' in things I listen to. I don't know if this is short for Sunday (often it seems not) or another word with the same sound and tones etc. etc. After asking it appears that is does actually mean sun (but usually combined with something else when talking about the sun directly). I am used to listening out for 'patet' to try to pick up country names but have a radio recording where the word 'patet' ends a sentence. I asked about this and the person I asked couldn't think of another word that had the same sounds or why this word would be on the end of sentence (although I am aware that when I get asked questions like these about English often nothing comes to mind until later). Since then I have head the word for abroad (I would understand if I heard it but can't quite remember, as I need a bit more exposure). I guess you could end a sentance with something like bai XXXXpatet "go abroad", there are probably other examples.

Wind up

I hope this continues to show how I will be using conversation to learn Thai, it is significant but I am by no means "talking myself towards fluency" I am as always mainly "listening my way towards fluency". There will be more no listening in my next post.

Also I have noticed that some preparation goes a long way, I didn't have to think or struggle to speak Thai in the restaurant, I had spare capacity to listen and concentrate on what the waiter was saying, having Thai sounds in my head doesn't guarantee that I speak perfectly but I can honestly say that so far in my Thai speaking experiments I have not been misunderstood once, not withstanding that mostly the scope for what I may be trying to say is fairly limited I am pleased about that.

Lastly and most importantly, I am using language to describe language, I don't actually believe that atit means sun or that patet means country. It is possible that they map exactly to those English words in connection with the internal meanings in my brain but highly unlikely, there is still a lot more to learn.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Knowing when to speak

This is going to be the last post in the eight weeks series, I have a lot more to say about conversation and a few more things about tones and reading/writing etc.but hay-fever has kicked, in, time runs out and a want to learn languages rather than write about what is happening. This post is a follow-on from my post: Doubting to speak Thai.

There has been quite a lot of controversy online recently about when to first speak the language you are learning, some say straight a-way, right at the beginning. There is a legitimate concern that some people are never ready to speak, never get over the nerves and insecurity of speaking a new language and never feel they have absorbed enough grammar, vocabulary etc. However going from this concern to "speak straight away" is a big leap and a rather lazy fix. In many fields of learning there is a possible "short sharp shock" approach to get over barriers of nerves etc. but usually they are discredited, you have to be careful sometimes it works, sometimes a phased approach to build confidence is better.

So how to work out when to speak, how to deal with the amorphous "when you are ready". Well for my case I have worked it out. Firstly I don't have as big a barrier to overcome as the first time, I know I can speak Chinese with people. In trying to speak Thai right from the start I found what made me uncomfortable what made it unpleasant and at what stage all that when away.

Firstly vocabulary, I don't expect to be able to say very much at all at first, but I do want to a basic set of common phrases that I "just know", that can come to mind without really thinking and that sound reasonably native in my head (so hopefully my pronunciation won't be too horrendous). I do not want to be suddenly forgetting how to say "sawat dee krap" etc. I do not want to have a little collection of phrases and words swimming around in my short term memory that I have recently "crammed there", that is uncomfortable.

I want to know that those phrases I know, I have a reasonable chance of understanding when I hear them, that I can recognise them in a radio broacast or TV program, if I can't do that how will I know that I can learn anything new. I should only be thinking hard to pick up or say new things.

I want to have a feel for variations and breakdown of the things I know, the person I am about to talk to has not "read the script".

For me with Thai, that took about six weeks, not a huge amount of time, if this was my first language then maybe 2 months, 3 months, but a finite goal still. But what if you HAVE to speak because of X or Y, then simple just speak after all you HAVE to. Maybe my criteria are not quite refined for the general population but it should be possible to come up with a better defined set.

If an individual chooses to not speak until later, if that is a choice not made by fear or indecision but a conscious choice because of belief that it will harm their learning, then that is fine of course.

There will be more on conversation, much more.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Does Chinese help me learn Thai?

Firstly it is clear that as other people have pointed out any new language learning after the first one is likely to be quicker. Your language learning abilities improve with practice it seems. I thought I was going to spend most of my time listening to uncompromisable Thai and getting used to the sounds of the language but that process kicked of much faster than I expected.

I have not noticed much in the way of conjugates, I have a small experience of Cantonese and it feels like there are more similarities between Thai and Cantonese than Thai and Mandarin. I am sure they are there but really even if a word sounds similar in Thai it will almost certainly have a different tone I guess and even a small difference in pronunciation means you may as well learn it from scratch particularly as it is likely to be a single syllable.

Sentences are usually constructed in a different order, I don't really focus on grammar though so lets leave it at that.

Thai feels like it has more sounds, also more multi-syllable loan words (I have read about Sanskrit words and found lots of English ones), that should make it slightly easier to target and absorb new words I hear. This combined with t he fact that I feel the range of Thai is a little smaller, what is called speaking in Mandarin with a "strong accent" can blur into speaking "a dialect" of Mandarin.

Having already got used to a tonal language is a big help, I know it will just take time, also I can usually remember the tone of words I hear. My brain has already cottoned onto the fact that tone is important.

Other elements like using word particles for questions, to soften meaning, to focus parts of a sentence etc. are also familiar already even if the details are different. I don't waste time getting used to this idea.

At this stage Thai people are easier to talk to in general and easier to learn from, this is probably offset by the fact that there are so many more Mandarin speakers in the world to track down and harass (I mean practice with).

The Thai writing system is simpler (looking forward to that :))

In summary Thai shares some characteristics with Mandarin which make for a smoother start. Nowhere near as close as Mandarin-Cantonese, English-German etc. though.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A great resource, I came across this via Bakunin and decided to give it a go, I am glad I did. This website acts like a big cache of Thai TV/film and video feeds. You have to pay a fee to join and access the feeds but at £15 for ninety days, I think it is very good value so far.
The site has a lot of Thai video and films in many different categories a big choice for all ages and tastes it seems.

Technically the site works well there usually seems to be a choice of switching between US and UK servers and so far the performance has been good. Most of the videos I have watched have come in through a Flash player but a few have come via Windows codecs. This can be hiccough on Linux but in my case Firefox and the VLC mozzilla plugin step in as a substitute for Windows Media player. The site is mostly in Thai but there is just enough English in the categories etc. for even a beginner to find his way around. There may well be an English menus link but I don't mind, I like getting used to written Thai slowly.

As Bakunin has pointed out some childrens videos, travel, cookery videos etc. can serve as great ALG type sources. I agree and will certainly use them as such. Having said that I still feel they will be significantly less potent than the ALG lessons themselves. So far however in the short time I have been on I have mostly been looking around. I have also discovered the large amount of anime and cartoons some of which I already know so watching them in Thai is great, particularly as I know the names of the characters which helps to demark the Thai speech. As an observation I am pretty sure that some of the anime whilst unmistakably in Thai is deliberately dubbed in Thai with a Japanese accent (they sometimes do this in English also). I will look out a second opinion to make sure my Thai radar is developing properly. seems to be aimed at Thais, I wonder if they may get some mileage from targeting language learners also?

Sunday, 30 May 2010

First Eight Weeks Learning Thai Summary


Well eight weeks and a bit, as usual this post is a little later than hoped and unlike before, technically a couple of things mentioned would be at eight weeks and a bit. A jump as the last progress report was at four weeks, but I have severely underestimated the resource required to try to analyse my progress in this way. Going to summarize some findings here in this post, run a few more posts through the mill and then make the blog public. I have to say I am enjoying learning Thai and intend to continue for sure. The landscape for learning Thai for me is quite different to learning Chinese, and the language is quite different, but there are some distinct similarities to Chinese learning.

Learning Thai has robbed time from my Chinese learning but also allowed me to analyse my Chinese learning to-date. I can easily see now where I am with my Chinese and formulate a plan for taking my Chinese to the next level.

I have been greatly surprised by how much faster things have happened than I expected, I expected to spend a lot longer listening to Thai to feel that I had got used to the language.


In as much as there is a method, it can probably be summarized very simply. I listen to and watch (although I have more time for listening) a lot of Thai, radio, tv, podcasts, anything. A large amount of this listening is in the background whilst I am doing something else and a huge chunk of that so far, I haven't been paying a lot of conscious attention

When I do pay attention I am looking for characteristics of the language, common sounds, words etc. This is increasingly moving into word usage, meanings and phrases.

Alongside the pure Thai I have listened too a lot of lessons on Youtube or podcasts, I don't try hard to learn the words of phrases but over time they sink in and start to connect with the real Thai. Sometimes I use subtitles on video (in English or Chinese)

I try not to assign concrete meaning to words, some people may say that I am harming my learning by using vocab lessons, subtitles etc. (they may be correct). I am hoping that keeping things loose will offset damage, I need some vocab. particularly as I am doing so much listening (very hard to get context with no vocab to work on).

I have starting talking, talking with Thai people as with my Chinese is the thing that makes it easy to keep going. I have started talking Thai considerably earlier than I would have done with my first language, more importantly for me at least I know when I am ready to speak a language I am learning. Again talking early may cause damage, I keep it loose, just becasue someone understands what I say I don't assume the story is over at that point. I don't spend much time saying things out aloud or practicing pronounciation.

I am not learning words, no vocab lists, no testing, words are aquired, another benefit from listening to lots of lessons is that if makes it easier to aquire words that can be used in initial talking practice with Thai people.

I have not started reading or writing Thai, I strongly feel that it is crazy to start learning to read and write a language you cannot yet 'hear', although I have started to acquire some knowledge of written Thai.


I am freezing the timings now, they are a pain to monitor and hard to define (how do you define thinking about Thai at random times), after the first week I was averaging well over three hours a day, over the the eight weeks this dropped about an hour a day, very quickly the non-attentive and semi-attentive listening is dropping off (I am sure that some part of me was attentive but I don't seem to need this anymore). Acquiring a feel for the Thai language was much quicker than with Chinese.


I have found a number of resources to help, recently, a recent blog I have looked at that has interesting posts being Women learning Thai A recent post on there being about the Learn Thai podcast that I have listened to a lot of the free lessons from.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Help with Thai (more observations)


I can both understand and sympathize with the principles of the ALG method I have problems though. I am not going to be able to devote a large amount of time to video, but I can find time to listen, I am not in Thailand, I do not have Thai relatives so my opportunities for experience are limited. I have aggressive plans for learning languages and a scary big number on my last birthday card. I need help.


A women has been kidnapped in a Thai drama series, in the car that is carrying her away she cries out choi doi, choi doi. Whilst watching one of the excellent ALG videos, the teachers are discussing swimming wai nam, and the female teacher can only swim a little nid noi, she mimes swimming badly whilst shouting choi doi, choi doi.

Right then I don't know if choi doi means "help me" or "save me" actually it just means whatever choi doi means in the situations it is used. Later I hear a phrase float out the mostly meaningless Thai of something I am listening to kun choi pom dai mai? it seem to me that this means something like "can you help me". Maybe I have misheard, I check a dictionary and a phrasebook (Ipod phrase book with English search). The phrase book has choi doi for help. Forget the transliterations I am only approximating the sounds I don't want to get too good at transliterations. So now I know that choi doi has been translated to "help" in English and is seem that choi is detachable. I don't assume that it has the same characteristics as help in English and I don't make a strong connection to the English word.

Next I come accross Choi being used for "please" it seem this word does range beyond the English meanings for sure.

I need help

Some words and phrases come from listening, some from video, some from lessons (internet freebies) a few with the aid of a dictionary or sub-titles. Like a small child that watches TV with help from an adult to explain what is going on I am attempting to boost my impaired learning environment.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Books for learning Thai?

Not a language book lover

I am not a language book lover, but I have a lot of language books, I find them interesting but usually for the wrong reasons. For Chinese I have a bunch of books that have either been donated to me, or have been discovered in 2nd hand shops.

I came across a book called "Thai in a Week" a book from 1990s. I find the optimism of the title amusing, but there were other interesting elements. I quote "Don't let a fear of getting a tone wrong inhibit you from practicing Thai" actually there are a whole load of positive messages all around about learning languages but some people prefer to focus on the negative and then make a big fuss about being all positive about it.

Personally with Chinese I have found it is sometimes nice to read about things once I already have a fair idea about them. I am not alone in this Steve Kaufmann has often mentioned the same.


I have been surprised by how much I have learned from phrases in phrasebooks or phrasebook style lessons, especially once you can start to break them down and remix the language, but those have come from audio lessons. I don't see the immediate usefulness of phrase books for languages that are completely new to you, the "phonetic" transcriptions will be a poor way to learn words in the case of Thai this is touched upon by Stuart Ray Raj. A prime example is pinyin and Chinese. Pinyin romanisation of Chinese is highly phonetic (but not exactly like English) it is very common to see people consistently mis-pronouncing words even after hearing them many times because they remember the writing not the sound. Lao shi is pronounced wrongly as lao she (the English she) even shortly after hearing it again. The solution I feel for pinyin is to first get a feel for the sounds of Chinese and then to learn pinyin well prior to using it for memory. Phrase books for Thai for example are giving you a broken approximation of the sounds when they try to tell you how to say the phrase. Apparently the Thai written language is highly phonetic so it would seem to make more sense to wait for learning that for interacting with the language in writing.

At first the Thai book was of little interest but after a few weeks I found picking it up a few times quite useful, I knew the sounds of some of the word so could apply those to the phonetic system used in the book.

Ultimately I guess I will keep looking at language learning books optomisticall, I like books, they have not been a huge help for language learning to-date though, but can be very entertaining.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

ALG and TV method


I have heard a lot about the ALG method in the past with regards to language learning and having read a lot about it and with it's basis originally in Thai I was keen to find out more.

The TV method is derived from ALG method principles although many people who have reported some success with it already have some knowledge of the language they are studying. There seems to be plenty of material available in Thai that would allow somebody to follow this approach.

I find it very easy to agree with the principles of ALG however I am not in a position to adopt all of them, I will certainly be watching a fair amount of video also but if the TV method doesn't include subtitles etc. them often I won't be following the TV method (this is a question of time).

How it relates to me

Great news, there are a bunch of videos of ALG classes on Youtube, I have embedded the first part of a level one class below.

The video lessons are amazing, to the extent that I have virtually stopped watching other Thai videos until I have got what I can out of these ALG videos. I am sure I would enjoy living in Thailand and learning from these lessons. Despite this there are some things I have to do differently. A major difference for example is simply that I will talk earlier than it seems ALG would recommend. I will need to talk Thai to get Thai experiences, Thai experiences will help me learn Thai. As a time poor family guy with no Thai connections, speaking Thai will be my best source Thai experience (there is a kind of catch 22 there). Whilst I can see the attraction of the ALG method, I personally don't have have classes I can walk into and follow the course, I don't currently wish to invest money in my new hobby and having had a family relatively young I am looking forward to the freedom of many years of potential travel coming up in the not too distant future (just not right now). So all things considered although I may borrow from ALG I cannot follow it.

The reason for not following a pure TV method is one of time. ALG suggests an important milestone occurs around 800 hours of lessons. Even the videos of their lessons are much more effective in teaching me Thai than normal video, if I say three times more effective then that means I would have to watch 2400 hours of regular video to hit that milestone. I would find it hard to find time to watch one hour of video per day, do the math. I am 40 something, my kids are growing up rapidly soon they will no longer need their parents on a day to day basis, I want to start travelling and using the languages I am learning well before I am 50.

Note 01/06/2010: As Bakunin has pointed out some types of Video can make good substitutes for ALG type input. is a good source.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

First use of a Thai dictionary


Dictionaries are very useful, but they are also liars, they pretend that words have rigid meanings or that a word in one language maps directly to a word in another language. Despite the lies they can be very useful of course, for Chinese I used pinyin a lot to look up words I heard in radio shows etc.

I don't expect to have to use a dictionary very much to look up basic vocabulary, dictionaries come into their own for specialized language, but there are of course many varieties so if I am lucky I will find a dictionary of colloquial phrases.

The only reason to use a dictionary at all was because of the requirement applied from planning to and trying to practice speaking.

The Dictionary

And the dictionary of choice was the one at I had already come across this site. I am likely to be practicing in restaurants and don't like the phrase book "can I have a table for X please?" type of phrases because I don't feel enough ownership of those sentences. At some point I have come across 'saam tee' as 'table for three', trouble was I couldn't remember where, it seems compact though. I wanted to look up tee so that I could confirm I wasn't completely mistaken.

First problem I don't know the official romanisation so started with tee and finally got to thee, which gives me ที่ with potential meanings including seat, location etc. that must be it. It seemed to work in the wild even when I was not prepared, but I had to replace 3 with 1 of course.

Second problem, intellectually I knew this was not Chinese, but with the vowel rammed on top there, I panicked for second and thought this "character" has too many meanings ;). After I calmed down it was obvious however that like Chinese many composite words are formed in part from singles meanings of this syllable. English is often like this also but it is much harder to spot as we don't know the original Latin or Greek parts. What the dictionary page was showing me was bunch of meanings that contain this particular sound which looks scary for a second when you associate 'foreign' writing with characters that have meaning rather than sounds.

You may have noticed I haven't mentioned Thai script yet much at all, there is a reason for that.

Monday, 3 May 2010

An accidental conversation in Thai


Conversation practice is about the only cause of stress and effort in learning Thai (apart from blogging) at the moment. So why bother?

Accidental conversation

Well conversation is pushing it somewhat, last Thursday I was wandering around at lunchtime I thought I would try one of the Thai restuarants I have targeted for potential conversation use in the future (they have lunchtime specials). The intention was simply to get the lay of the land, check they were actually Thai staff etc.

Problem was they greet everybody with sa-wat dee, on hearing that I kind of brain froze and the only response I could come it with was sa-wat dee krap. That went down ok I asked for a table (well seat) for one in Thai and the person I was talking with looked confused, and spluttered back a half English half Thai sentance that I had no chance of understanding, assuming I had been completely mis-understood I reverted to English and apologised, they apologised in English.
Apparently I had been understood fine, this place always greets everyone in Thai and they are used to some people learning how to greet back, so my continuing in Thai wasn't immediately registered.

Ok so no long real conversation but I had a few minor exchanges commented on the food, complimented a waitress on her English in Thai, said that Thai was fun and I like learning Thai in Thai. I was not set up for recording though (dang).

How am I going to make a more flowing conversation occur? Apart from just waiting to have another Thai naturally available to me.

Why make the effort?

That sounds rather defeatist, why make the effort? However only two things about learning Thai so far are an effort. The main effort is blogging about learning Thai, the next main effort is trying to work out how to have conversations and what I am going to be able to say. I could guess possible conversations and cram words for them, but right now I am not learning words, just aquiring the ones that come easily. I could do some research, find a better source of potential Thai conversation, but right now I don't feel comfortable having nothing to say. I could cram my short term memory with phrases prior to a conversation but that is hard and stressfull, the conversations I have enjoyed in Chinese are the ones where I just relax and clear my mind beforehand, relying on words and phrases that are deeply embedded.

Some people would say I was being negative, negative about finding good conversation. Looking at poor conversations with a "glass half full" mindset. The problem with this is that it is my language learning, if I order a pint of Guiness and I am given a half glass of orange juice then yes I am going to be quite negative about it actually.

Besides I am confident in my approach, I know it is not fear that is holding me back, I have had plenty of conversation in Chinese, and I know that the "positivity message" is far too blunt a tool to be applied in complicated circumstances, after all I can sit and listen to real Thai and enjoy getting tiny handholds into the language and understanding the occaisional word and phrase, this is more like "WOW I am so happy, there is a detectable trace of moisture on the bottom of the glass" ;)

I am going to pursue conversation, and attempt to get a better audio, for two reasons.

Firstly, I am experimenting with myself somewhat, putting my own personal language learning under the microscope I am intersted in seeing what will happen. If I have some audio I can refer back to it at a later date.Secondly, there may come a time when I will spend some time in a country with short notice if I wanted to get some ability in the language, could I start learning the same way? could I then use that as a springboard into speaking earlier than I normally would?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

I don't know krab about Thai

There is a lot of talk about knowing words, learning words from vocab lists or flash cards. It seems that knowing something is black and white, on/off. Very little information and learning is like that at all, it makes people feel better though, it makes testing easier (though less accurate).

First of all apologies, I am not sure of the official romanisation of the word krap / krup / krub but basically I am talking about the polite word that males attach to the end of some sentances. I probably know more about this word than any other Thai word but I still don't know krap.

I know the word is high tone in Thai, I know what it is supposed to sound like after much exposure from many speakers (audio and video + 1 waiter). I know that despite what the lessons tell me, Thai male speakers don't put it on the end of every sentance but I need to get more a feel for that. In video they don't use it much when talking with friends or family, with themselves, to their dog, etc. On various forms of radio it almost seems as if it is thrown in every few sentances when the pressure of not enough krap exceeds a certain level. On one of my Tony Jaar movies when they interview the actors and actresses, they use Krab (and ka) a lot at the beginning and then stop using it as they answer later questions. I know you can roll the r, pronounce the r as an l, lose the r entirely, loose the k and end up with something like hup which isn't much at all to end up with as the p is usually unvoiced (I think the technical term is unvoiced anyway).

Having heard the word in many guises, I can say it to a point, I suspect that in a few months time I will hear me saying it now and thing farang! In my head it sounds Thai (having just watched Britian has got Talent on the TV whilst typing this, some people "think" they can sing because they can in their head).

I know the word is not used (or to a much less extent) in the Lao language

Ultimately I still don't know the word in any full sense, I feel I "Know" very few Chinese words, and there a lot of words I don't know even in my mother tongue. I don't expect to know any Thai words yet.

I still don't know so much about this word but that is not a problem all I expect that as with all the words I will keep learning more about it.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Brimming with Thai

A quick post about something that has started happening recently, I am listening to a fair amount of Thai in the background, sometimes lessons, sometimes radio or Thai podcasts. Like those songs that stick in your head phrases sometimes keep circulating, sometimes I know what the whole phrase means, sometimes just a word or two.

The phrase right now is wang-wa je-di po gan yi -> Hope/wish **** see/meet together again. I feel I should know that jedi means, feels like I have heard it quite a lot, I will know it soon for sure.

Interesting that I have filled my head with so much Thai that it is starting flow back out. And that mostly listening in dead time whilst not paying full attention.

On a related note, the word lao-gore or similar what does that mean? I keep hearing it, I will know soon for sure.

Note (added 24/05/10)

Lao gore means something like "and" or "besides", many words seem to start of as sounds I notice and then wait for meanings to arrive (usually needs video), or I am listening to a lesson without paying attention and pick-up a meaning (approximate of course) to apply to the sound.

That gore sound is going to be interesting seems to be a filler and much more. The next sound was senme, senme = always (or maybe often) that one hasn't quite gelled obviously.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Fourth Week Learning Thai


A bit dry this post, it doesn't feel right trying to analyse the learning process but on the other hand it is very instructive, I could never have thought back to this point, because all I would have remembered was that I was making progress. The purpose of this post is really to describe to my future self and to anyone who may actually know how to speak Thai what is happening. Just because listening input doesn't make for exciting videos doesn't mean that nothing is happening.

I am going to summarise my fourth week learning Thai and then skip a week of summary (so I will summarise the fifth and sixth week together. I am writing a few notes as I go along but falling behind on all the things I want to post. For the fourth week I was mostly listening to lessons, a bunch from Youtube and mp3's from Itunes, mostly just letting them wash over me and listening whilst doing something else (I usually listen to the Youtube videos rather than watch them) . I am not making any effort to learn words but occasionally picking up some, and occasionally paying special attention to something. Towards the end of the week I started getting enthusiastic about listening again, after the realisation that Thai is Thai (important milestone) I dropped of listening for a few days but picking up a few words from the lessons I suddenly wanted to listen again.

I am now paying much more attention to sentences than before, also noting that I am acquiring words, which is not the same as learning them (I have deliberately learned one word) only. Most of the words I now know (although only in a limited way so far), I have managed to identify in in films and or radio and or mp3s of real Thai people talking real Thai, this gives me a great deal of confidence going forward, also as am note "learning" words, I don't have any stress forgetting them, if I can't recall a word, I just haven't learned it yet.


Most of the words I know are being identified in real Thai now and chains form. I hear aroi aroi in a story and next time I pick up the a-han (food) so now have food delicious. I hear a phrase that seems to mean "can you understand?" rather than the easier "do you understand?", but I struggle somewhat to recreate it now kun kao-jai dai mai? perhaps. If I have started picking up some related words then they start adding words around them, when a close word washes by in a lesson I suddenly pay attention tee-nee (remember I heard this sound right at the beginning of my Thai journey) here -> tee-nai where -> tee-non there.

Little words are coming through that I pick up when listening to lessons, I am not really concious of knowing them but when I hear them in real Thai I know what they mean and the process of hearing them fixes them. Chok-dee (good luck), a while ago I recognised the dee was the same dee as in sabai-dee, sawat-dee etc. dee maak? The best one was drong-bai straight ahead, for some unaccountable reason I hate lessons about directions I skip them, but I listened to one once and though nothing had sunk in, then watching a video where it was pretty obvious that someone was giving directions I heard drong-bai, knew what it meant and won't forget it.

Starting to desconstruct and reconstruct, once knew that tam-nan was to work, tam-ahan make food, then realized that ahan was food nan could be used separately as could tam. Know enough words now to hold some phrase like rau jeur gan mau-rai dee? when shall we meet? Listening to a lesson where they are going to tell me how to say "feels very good" my mind automatically fills in roo-suk dee maak part of me is thinking can roo-suk be used that way or is just for feeling something like pom roo-suk blur) turns out it can be used that way.

Heard sa-nook dee, guessing this means good fun (it seems right in context), heard sa-nook a few times now wonder if you can say sa-nook dee maak? I like playing like this sa-nook na.

lots of choob and mai choob like, don't like. pom choob rian pasa thai!

Heard apple, one of the lesson hosts somewhere is called apple the mp3s start off sawat dee ka, chan chu apun. So whem I hear a couple of guys talking about ipods and iphones then hear apun I can be pretty sure they are talking about Apple. So the fruit starts, but I don't want to go too far down that route. ;)

Brain dump over

The vast majority of what I listen to still means nothing to me, the brain dump above is just to demonstrate that stuff is happening because as I keep saying watching a video of a guy with head phones on would be pretty boring. the phonetics I am using are non-standard, possibly borrowing a little from what I have seen in places, the brain dump of observations is far from everything but hopefully enough for demonstration purposes of the methodology for now.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Lao is Thai-ish

To be fair I should also say Thai is a bit Lao-ish. Having got to the point where Thai doesn't sound foreign I want to start extending my ear for Thai. I will start looking for examples of dialects, accents etc. I read somewhere that Lao language is closely related to Thai which seemed a good starting point. I have done similar whilst learning Chinese the idea I had is simply that that listening around the boundaries of the language help me to understand the sounds of the language even better. Of course eventually this listening may actually help if I get into a conversation with someone who has that regional accent, dialect etc. Watch the video above to demonstrate my point (classical Spanish indeed :)).

So now for the analysis bit, the bit that hurts but at least provides the slightest chance that anyone will believe I actually get anything out of this madness. I listened to some Lao language (radio) without finding out much at all about it before hand. It sounds very like Thai (not rocket science), they use sa-bai-dee instead of sa-wat-dee for greeting (or at least they can... I have never heard this in Thai unless it is a question about how someone is sa-bai-dee mai?. Lao language doesn't seem to have the Krap and Ka polite words (or a least at a much less lower frequency than Thai). The numbers seems superficially the same (may be tone differences in a one or two).

Then I listened to some lessons on Youtube, which was interesting, the pronouns (wow I know a grammar word) are different. Significantly two people teaching Lao seemed to have poor accents, judging from their English I would say they are second generation Lao brought up in American, a European guy actually sounded more authentic. Of course I am basing this entirely on having listened to a lot of Thai so I may be talking rubbish.

That is probably enough Lao for now.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Thai is Thai and I am Thai


I listen to a lot of the language I am learning, apparently this does not translate very well to the web: "hey guys here is a video of me listening to Thai, can you see the headphones?, and here is another video of me listening whilst watering the vegetables in their raised beds". Followed by the incredibly exciting "here is the full two hours video of me listening whilst working, it looks a lot like a guy programming for two hours but spot the headphones!". Now here is the exciting bit I actually don't understand hardly anything yet! I was really enthusiastic at the prospect of releasing these videos, I thought they would go down a storm on Youtube, friends and family members advised me against this though...

So although I know that analyzing the process doesn't help me, it is the only way to capture what is happening. First real milestone is that Thai is Thai.

Resistance is useless, I cannot speak Thai in English, I cannot think Thai in English, I may use English or Chinese as a scaffolding or a fuzzy definition but I should be aiming to lose that. So when studying Thai I am Thai, how can I possibly resist my own language.

Thai is Thai

The first step for me, Thai no longer sounds a little Welsh or a little Cantonese in places, it sounds like Thai. I wanted this to happen as early a possible so that I am not studying a foreign language. Of course Thai is not Thai to me in the same way as it is to a Thai person (for a start they actually understand it) and a Thai person has a wider filter for dialects, regional variations, age variations, styles of speaking etc. etc. But it is no longer foreign.

As most English people I can easily say that German is German, French is French, not being able to say that Thai is Thai was one of my biggest initial hurdles. A hurdle that I think is vastly underestimated. When I meet someone who studied Japanese for three years at school and then later for two years at night classes and they tell me that they can't understand real world Japanese because "they talk too fast" I know that for them Japanese is not Japanese yet, which after five years is a shame don't you think? If Japanese was Japanese to them they they could just apply all that vocab they had learned and understand fairly easily, but because Japanese is not Japanese they can't understand even the words they think they know when they study them in pristine isolation and slow motion.

I am Thai

When studying or thinking about Thai, I am Thai, in my head I am Thai. I explain away the obvious problems with this statement by imagining that I have had some sort of brain trauma that has left me with little or no memory of my own language or culture, but has left me with the English and some Chinese that I learned previously (so at least I can think Phewww), I bet the brain freaks would like to get a hold of the imaginary me. As for the physical side, well I just would just have to mumble about recessive genes, complicated family history and try to change the subject as fast as possible coff.

Being Thai, I am obviously somewhat upset that I have to re-learn my mother tongue, but there is no real resistance to the language, no unfavorable comparisons, no moaning about it (unless I am having a bad day, I always reserve the right to have bad days). Significantly there is no embarrassment about trying to sound Thai (after all that is what I am). There is considerable embarrassment though about sounding English (damn that hurts), let's hope I don't have to undergo that forever.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Third Week Learning Thai

Still continuing with much the same activities, however again seems to to have dropped off a little. Partly because the background listening and to some extent the attentive listening didn't seem so important. I expect this to change soon. I had have already passed one big hurdle (more on this in a separate post). I have discovered Lao language (why? you may ask) which also requires another post to explain.

Chinese has eaten in the Thai study, but that was expected, having said that I can categorically state that I have made more progress in Thai in the first three weeks than I did in Chinese, which is encouraging. The reasons for the faster progress are probably down to knowing what I need to do (based on experience) and being a little better at it (most things get easier with practice).

Still slowly discovering things resources, moving from Bakunin learns Thai to the interestingly named sweet and coolbeans where Josh has started putting together a list of Thai TV shows for learners of Thai. A great list of resources that I am sure I will be using very much soon. The Youtube video above is from one of the cartoon series linked to, not the mobile phone one though (see below) :). before I open up this blog I will take trouble put a list of best resources in the sidebar.


I am not going to add much here because I know that there will be a bunch of observations in the week four post (I know that because I am a week behind ;)) More of a fairly typical event, muur-tuu was a sound that I had noticed before (the tones and vowels make it sound quite distinctive) I think it was in one of the podcast lessons I listened to also. One of the cartoons I randomly visited taught me that is a mobile phone (maybe other phone as well?). Another acquired word and after seeing a cartoon pig buy one for his friend quite hard to forget ;)

Addition: 20/04/2010 thought this was worth noting, after discovering a word via an interesting sound or experience I usually find it is easy to start adding related words around it so now muur-tuu is mobile phone and tora-sap is phone.

Do I need a teacher to study Thai

Waiting for a course

I have met a number of people, who claim that they wish to learn this language or that language, but they are waiting for a course. "I hear they are going to start a Mandarin course in September so I am waiting for that to start" for example. Why wait? We know that plenty of people around the world learn second or third languages without a course, and with the Internet you can find your own content so why wait? The typical answer would be something along the lines of "I don't want to do anything wrong", what can this mean? are they afraid that they are going to "break" Italian somehow, render is unusable to anybody. At the very least what harm could just listening to language do? Apparently some people are of the opinion that even this is risky without trained supervision. To be fair some languages can be a little tough, an innocent bystander just listening to an argument in Afrikaans could come away with bruises and minor flesh wounds.

Do I need a class?

I have attended one class in Mandarin (just the one evening) and in the pursuit of further knowledge I recently listened to a bunch of recorded lessons from one of the Confucius Institutes, I also remember studying how not to speak languages at school and an Italian course that was provided for me by my Employers many, many, many years ago. The most striking thing is that you spend a lot of time listening to other students being stupid or waiting for other students to catch up because they are being stupid. To be fair they have to wait when I am being stupid but the cumulative effect of all the stupidity is a huge waste of time. You need an excellent teacher and/or an excellent curriculum to even start counteracting the stupidity and if god forbid the teacher is a little stupid then everybody is DOOMED.

My next problem is the content, I want to choose it. I remember doing the Italian course having to learn a bunch of stuff about airports and meeting people from planes. I had no interest or use but had to learn it because the teacher rated our progress. I dropped out of the course.

So do I need a teacher?

That depends on how you define teacher, I have listened to lots of material on Youtube for example, every single one of those people was a teacher of sorts, every Thai person I may meet and talk with is potentially a teacher, everybody I may meet on Skype at sometime could be a teacher. A confidante, a trusted friend can be a powerful teacher. Recently I have had a Chinese teacher with whom I can pick a topic and talk to for an hour, that is a valuable experience. In the classic sense, in the classroom sense however I do not see the need for a teacher.