On Polyglots, the Thai Language & Time


pol·y·glot [pol-ee-glot] –adjective- able to speak or write several languages; multilingual.

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in language blogs and articles pertaining to learning languages where the emphasis in learning is placed on time more so than skill sets or fundamentals. This trend seems to have started among the polyglot set but has been steadily moving out to more conventional language learning venues little by little. Normally I wouldn’t notice such things but lately a few of these self proclaimed polyglots have tackled the Thai language and that’s something I’m deeply interested in.

Some of the more typical blogs in this new niche of language learning are drawing people in by claiming they will learn a specific language in 3, 6 or 12 months, fluently. I’m not going to point out any specific blogs but a quick Google search will head you in the right direction.

I’m all for people challenging themselves and finding new and unique ways to learn languages, we all seem to tackle language learning in our own ways. I am more of a visual learner who really excels when submersed in the natural habitat of native speakers where others find it much easier to learn through auditory repetition or by learning to read  the language before speaking it.

No matter what type of learner you are you will always be interested in different ideas and methods which might help you learn more or even learn faster. It was with this interest in mind that I stumbled upon more than a few of these new language blogs. Call it arrogance, positive thinking or just plain hubris, these authors really believe they will be fluent in the chosen languages they set out to learn in very little time.

The one consistent theme throughout these blogs and articles by polyglots is the word Fluent. They challenge themselves to become fluent in a given language under time constraints that just don’t seem feasible and it would seem that their definition of the word “fluent” is often very fluid and changeable. While, to most of us, fluency is still perceived as a very rigid word, not one used lightly when talking about learning any language much less Thai.

flu·ent [floo-uhnt] –adjective-1.spoken or written with ease: fluent French.2.able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily: a fluent speaker; fluent in six languages.3.easy; graceful: fluent motion; fluent curves.4.flowing, as a stream.5.capable of flowing; fluid, as liquids or gases.6.easily changed or adapted; pliant

If you go to one of the many Thai language resources online such as Catherine Wentworth’s Women Learning Thai… and some men too you’ll see the differences in how she and the language learners she interviews perceive word fluency. On Catherine’s blog she has interviewed over 20 Thai language learners/speakers who come from very diverse backgrounds and have studied the Thai language anywhere from a few years to a few decades. Some of these people are polyglots in their own right. But, as you read each interview the same themes take shape time and time again with an emphasis on the fundamentals. Although some of these people have lived in Thailand and have spoken Thai for decades, none of them profess to be fluent in the Thai language.

As most travelers to the Kingdom will tell you, whether they spent 2 weeks or 2 months in Thailand, they came back with a healthy vocabulary of Thai words and phrases and a retention rate that is better than average. I have a theory as to why this is, being in a relaxed environment, exploring your surroundings and generally enjoying yourself is very conducive to not only learning a new language but to retaining what you have learned as well.

To that extent some of these new type language blogs are getting it partly right as in they all subscribe to learning in a native speaking environment to some extent by submersing yourself into the native culture.

I’m not downing these polyglots, I think it’s great that they are challenging themselves and their readers  to learn Thai and other languages. Generally I think they share a great attitude towards learning, but on the other hand I think they are doing a disservice to their readers who are looking to them for more information on learning a language and are being given some tricks and hints that they can supposedly use to become fluent in their chosen language in 3. 6 or 12 months. The readers and supporters of these blogs are doing themselves a disservice as well in many cases because they are looking for the quick fix when there are none when it comes to learning a language fluently.

I myself am not fluent in Thai and am just beginning my journey towards hopefully one day being proficient in the Thai language and I share that goal with many other Thai bloggers who have taken up a second language later in life. While I don’t write specifically about the language it definitely comes up from time to time  as it does on other Thai blogs that I recommend such as My Thai Friend, Beyond the Mango Juice, Behind the Noodle Curtain and quite a few more that can be found on the links page. We share a common thread in that learning the Thai language will enhance a love we already have for the country and it’s culture.

The one thing I think many of us have realized in learning Thai is that it’s not a sprint but a marathon. Slow and steady may not have us fluent in the language in a few months but I think it will give us a deeper appreciation and better understanding of the language and hopefully that will translate well to the Thai’s we communicate with.

I’ve also come to suspect that a lot of these self proclaimed polyglots are just that, “self proclaimed”. Being able to memorize sets of words and a handful of phrases is much different than being fluent and holding a conversation with a native speaker. If this were the case I would definitely be considered a polyglot because I am able to curse people out in at least 6 languages and I am always up to the task of learning even more, but that does not a polyglot make…although, it is good fun in the right situations.

I guess what I am trying to say is, take everything you hear or read regarding language learning with a grain of salt and don’t impose any limits upon yourself or your learning. Find the methods that best suit you and the right atmosphere to learn in and you will be infinitely more happy with your progress and your goals will become more clear.

I have to confess that besides learning the Thai language I have personally taken it upon myself to teach Thai’s what little Spanish I know. While not as rewarding as one might think there is nothing more priceless than hearing a Thai girl sing La Cucaracha for the first time ;)

Spanish English
La cucaracha, la cucaracha, The cockroach, the cockroach,
ya no puede caminar can’t walk anymore
porque no tiene, porque le falta because it doesn’t have, because it’s lacking
las dos patitas de atrás. its two back feet.
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18 Comment(s)

  1. I must admit to only regularly visiting one language site and that is Women Learning Thai. Catherine’s workpiece is a mine of information packed full of Thai language resources and I also like the stories of her day and field trips as well.

    Her interviews with ‘Successful Thai Language Learners’ is also a great inspiration to readers. The experts are as you point out very modest in their use of ‘fluent Thai speaker’.

    Any language course should not set time limits or claim to be able to teach someone a language in a set period of time. We all learn at different speeds and that is also dependant on circumstances too. A single unemployed person will have more spare time than a single mother with three young kids to look after.
    It’s the quality of the material and the effort and input that matters.

    Like you I find a hands on approach to be more beneficial to me. I learn more in Thailand than I do elsewhere. You need to carry what you have learned in the classroom out into the field and as Catherine’s site continues to stress practice but enjoy.

    A very well written piece.
    .-= Martyn´s last blog ..Thailand’s Scarecrows and Black Holes =-.

    Martyn | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  2. Talen an interesting piece and thank you for the mention. Sadly two years down the line my ability to speak Thai in a conversation is pretty basic.

    Sure I can count, know the colours, can tell the time, ask for directions and order food etc etc. Living with a Thai lady and little girl have helped me here and yes I do understand more Thai when Thais are conversing. Then again given the different tones used for similar sounding words I often get the wrong end of the stick!

    Daily immersion in any language is definitely beneficial, but I firmly believe this needs to run alongside(compliment)a formal method of teaching/learning. Each learner needs to discover how they learn best to achieve this.

    I have also noticed that some folk, perhaps some of the afore mentioned bloggers, also have a natural ability for language learning.

    Will I ever be “fluent” in Thai? I doubt it. Will I keep trying-yes.
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..Thailand Marine National Park-Hat Wanakon =-.

    Mike | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  3. Talen, A very thoughtful piece. As a native Thai speaker myself who can read and write at a high level, I sometimes feel lacking in fluency (I can’t always think of an appropriate Thai word in the right context; it takes longer for me to write anything in Thai than in English, for instance).

    I live in Thailand, but having used English as the primary language in work and in a large part of life for so many years has chipped away my Thai fluency. So, fluency for me is ability to use a language with great ease and natural flow of thoughts and verbal expression.

    That is why I’m getting back learning Thai, as a Thai (and writing about it in English!). I feel that I’m learning more deeply about my own language and culture. Quite enjoyable.
    .-= kaewmala´s last blog ..Three Days of Abandonment, the Lady’s Heart Changes – Or the Man’s? =-.

    kaewmala | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  4. Martyn, I think Cat’s site has definitely made an impact on a lot of us in many ways. Aside from the interviews she really does have a wealth of information in one place that encompasses all the different levels of learning. Truly something for everyone there.

    Hands on is definitely the best approach for me and when I do make the move I plan on backing that up with classes and the usual programs I already use.

    Talen | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  5. Mike, I definitely don’t have a natural ability and struggle pretty hard at times. I agree completely that there needs to be some formal method along with immersion in the culture. Every little bit helps.

    Even being immersed can sometimes work against you. Up country I find that most Thai’s I meet want to practice their English on me which doesn’t help my Thai much.

    Talen | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  6. Kaewmala, I’ve never thought in terms of what it would be like for a native speaker who has used a secondary language as their primary language for a long period.

    “fluency for me is ability to use a language with great ease and natural flow of thoughts and verbal expression.”

    That’s how I see fluency. It will be interesting to see what you write as you get back into Thai…sounds like there will be a lot we can learn from you as you do it so I look forward to reading it.

    Talen | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  7. Talen , great post and lots of good advise for those wanting to learn to speak Thai , everyone is different with different learning abilities and as for me my favorite Thai expression after all these years is “NIT NOI” thanks again for all you great post and the wealth of info you post , as they say “YOU THE MAN” Malcolm
    .-= malcolm´s last blog ..PAPAYA THE CANCER FIGHTER =-.

    malcolm | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  8. Learning another language fluently in 3 or 6 months does sound like an impossible task. Unfortunately people do seem to want to spend as little time as possible learning something, then declare themselves some sort of expert. I believe these people are not only deceiving themselves, but as you say other people too.

    “If something seems to good to be true, it probably is”.

    Kazza | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  9. Hi Talen, apologies for taking so long to come over. I’ve been going like crazy lately and it’s not going to calm down for awhile.

    …learning Thai is () not a sprint but a marathon.

    Absolutely. Learning a language well can take a lovely long time. Three months/six months… only scratches the surface.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..The Red Shirts are Coming to Bangkok. Again. =-.

    Catherine | Mar 12, 2010 | Reply

  10. Malcolm, I think Nit Noi, Hongnam, and several other words and phrases are the very first most of us learn and never forget.

    Talen | Mar 13, 2010 | Reply

  11. Kazza, have to agree with you. I think it’s also a symptom of the society around us when everyone needs instant gratification.

    Talen | Mar 13, 2010 | Reply

  12. Cat, I was beginning to worry if you had joined the red shirt cause and were leading the charge into Bangkok ;)

    I don’t know if I’ve even scratched the surface in a few years but Buddha knows I’m tryin.

    Talen | Mar 13, 2010 | Reply

  13. Talen, I was beginning to worry about myself too! I’m still totally shagged out from this week, and my busy weekend is just upon me.

    Btw – thank you so much for mentioning my site (my brain was mush last night).
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..The Red Shirts are in Bangkok. Again. =-.

    Catherine | Mar 13, 2010 | Reply

  14. Sounds to me like a certain segment of polyglots who claim fluency in 6 months are very much like the kind of tourist that hits a different town each day — to collect check marks on “a list.” The latter will simply be used to parrot the names to friends over a beer back home, as if changing buses is a meaningful visit. If you don’t spend time in the town, you did not learn anything.

    So I do like the sprint/marathon analogy. So true.

    Talen: Cat’s site has definitely made an impact on a lot of us in many ways.
    Her outstanding site reminds me, in a nice way, to keep studying!

    I can proudly claim the lowest possible level of Thai language. Not a natural learner; have to work hard. But I did learn another language years (er, decades) ago and I think that experience keeps the brain’s language oven light on Warm (faintly).

    Very good post, Talen. Needed to be said.
    .-= SiamRick´s last blog ..Canadian boys need to toughen up =-.

    SiamRick | Mar 13, 2010 | Reply

  15. I am embarrassed to say that after all the years I have visited/stayed/lived/worked in Thailand I have, in my opinion, barely begun to learn the Thai language.

    For several years while visiting Thailand I stayed in Pattaya which meant that knowledge of the native language was unnecessary for communication.

    When I eventually began to venture out into the “countryside” it was with English speaking “girlfriends” so a rudimentary vocabulary was more than adequate. (Mai mee tang !)

    My wife speaks English so, even after 10 years of wedded bliss, I have never felt the need to buckle down and really study the language.

    In fact, anytime I try out some little tid-bit I picked up on the street she eyes me suspiciously and admonishes me with “Oh, you speak Thai too much”.

    There are times, though, when I wish I had spent a few years studying Thai. Such as, when my wife goes off to do something and leaves me alone in the middle of Nakhon Sawan with all of her in-laws – most of which have been drinking Whiskey since sunrise.

    ChuckWow | Mar 13, 2010 | Reply

  16. Cuck, being left with the relatives is definitely one of those times I wish I knew a lot more…but I do speak whiskey pretty well now.

    Talen | Mar 14, 2010 | Reply

  17. And there’s a lot a Thai person can learn from foreigners learning Thai as well. I certainly get jazzed up when visiting sites like Catherine’s and yours.

    Just wrote another piece on my blog about more Thai words I discovered (or rather, got reintroduced to).
    .-= kaewmala´s last blog ..From “Wet Bottom” to Masculine Guile =-.

    kaewmala | Mar 14, 2010 | Reply

  18. Great post Talen.

    I absolutely agree re the so-called wonder learners. One of them admitted to me that his aim was to simply learn enough to get by, yet he was declaring himself a fluent reader within a week just because he had learnt the alphabet.

    As you said, there is more to learning a language than simply studying all day, conversation is a different animal.

    The language barrier is actually one of my favourite aspects of living out here. I see the learning of Thai (written and spoken) as a big challenge and I will miss it when we go back to London.

    Funnily enough, I just posted a learn Thai blog. It is a big part of the expat lifestyle these days.
    .-= Jon´s last blog ..Learn Thai on YouTube =-.

    Jon | Mar 28, 2010 | Reply

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