The other day, I realized that I’ve been in Thailand for 6 weeks, and have only retained the same basic phrases that I learned in my introductory Thai class through the TEFL course. I’ve been surrounded by English-speaking friends, and not many Thai people. It’s crazy to think that you can actually live here and get by just fine without ever learning the language. I mean it’s great, but I thought I would’ve picked up more Thai by now. I also traveled here for the purpose of learning more about Thai culture.
For that reason, I decided to seek out a Thai language school and actively learn the language. I found a language school online that offers a program for travelers to Thailand who are looking to secure a 1 year visa (Non Immigrant B Visa). It’s basically a package deal that people purchase before they come here. The school arranges everything necessary for the students to travel, and it’s a way for the students to have an extended visa without having to leave the country and come back every 60 days on a tourist visa.
Anyhow, my school is arranging my Non Immigrant B Visa for me, but I was interested in joining their group lessons. I e-mailed the school to ask for their address, and it turns out I can see their building from my house. Yesterday I walked in and asked about times, prices, etc.
I spoke with the owner of the school, who sat me down and showed me the curriculum. She told me that their group classes are from 10am-noon every two days. This kind of schedule would work now that I’m on vacation until November, but isn’t sustainable once school starts.
The woman told me that in my situation, it would be better to sit down one on one and take private lessons. She said that the students who enroll in her group classes are really only studying there to obtain a 1 year visa, and so they don’t take it as seriously as people who are there to learn. She was definitely a sales woman, but I agreed with her. Learning at my own pace seems ideal, and the price per lesson is about $10. Granted, that’s a lot of money here, but I think it’s worth it.
This way, I’m able to set my own study schedule and show up as often or as little as I want to. In fact, when I asked the woman when I could start, she asked, “how about today?” It was 3:45, and she offered me her 5:00 slot. She said that I can schedule any time I want, including Saturdays and Sundays. I took her up on her 5:00 lesson. I was pretty excited to get started.
The school itself is in an office-type building. Honestly, I didn’t take a tour of the school. I’ve only seen the front desk area, the coffee/tea area, and the meeting room for 1 on 1 lessons. For the life of me, I can’t remember the owner’s name. She is wonderful though. She is probably in her mid 40’s, and told me that she will be there to teach a private lesson any time I’d need, unless she was busy at a weightlifting competition. She’s not bulky muscular, but I definitely wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.
Before the lesson started, she offered me some green tea. She said it’s the best green tea I’d find in Thailand. She imports it from Japan.
At 5:00 sharp, she took me into the office to start the private lesson. I immediately felt like this woman was giving me more than I had paid for. She jumped right into it, and overwhelmed me with all sorts of new information. She provided me with a workbook, a notebook, and a pencil. The first thing she taught me was the “basic” structure of Thai language. There are 40+ consonants, they’re all divided into categories of low, middle and high class, and from there, they’re divided into subcategories that depend on the tone used in pronouncing the consonant.
I immediately had a headache.
She reassured me that we’re going to take it piece by piece, but by the end of the workbook (~20hrs), she told me that I’d be able to read and write Thai. That doesn’t mean that I’d understand what I’m reading and writing, but that I’d feel comfortable with the Thai alphabet.
The next hour flew by, and I learned so much in the short time that we had been working. I have learned to write seven consonants, and about 9 vowel sounds, most of them using the “middle tone.” She had me working on pronunciation while I was tracing the dotted outlines of them in my workbook. It brought me back to kindergarten, but I’m fascinated by the script. Some of their vowels are placed on top of or underneath the consonants, depending on the word.
The hilarious thing about the tonality of the language is that it brought so much awareness to how I speak. Usually when I’m learning something new, I feel vulnerable, and I instinctively answer as if there is a question mark on the end of my sentence. In English, this wouldn’t be a big deal, because the listener still understands the word. In Thai, this isn’t the case at all. My tutor was having me answer questions in the workbook, and I was answering them with an uncertainty that changed my tone all together. Think of it as saying “three.” and “three?” In Thai, the difference in the tone can change the entire meaning of the word. I quickly learned that even if I am uncertain in my answer, I have to be uncertain in a neutral tone. 😉
She left me with about 6 pages of homework, and we rescheduled for Sunday. Even though I only know a handful of the consonants, I’ve been looking at everything around me that’s written in Thai, and have been picking out the letters that I know. I have a bunch of free time to study Thai during my vacation, so I figured I better work on it while I can. Also, since I’m learning at a kindergarten level, I think it’ll help me sympathize with my kindergarten students who are learning English!
Until next time, here’s another fun fact I learned about Thai culture:
Teachers are seen as one of the highest respected members in Thai society. To a student, the hierarchy places the teacher above their parents and below the monks.