Apart from Do you have a Thai girlfriend?, the most common question both Thais and foreigners alike ask us, expatriates living in Thailand, is Phut Thai dai mai? Can you speak Thai? The standard reply to this question is the vague Nit noi. Just a little bit., which, for most of us, means that we have enough knowledge of Thai to be able to order a plate of fried rice, to give brief directions to a taxi driver, and to bargain a better price in the weekend market.
But, every once in a while, you do meet the odd farangs who not only can speak the language fluently, they can also write it and read it! And let me tell you, it’s not an easy thing to learn, especially when you have to deal with tens of consonants and numerous vowel combinations. But, stop, take a deep breath and don’t panic. Thanks to Gary Orman, a South African who has been living in Thailand for five years, you now have a good chance at learning to read Thai and be able to subsequently show off your skills when your former classmates visit you from abroad.
For the last few years, Gary has been devising a new method of learning how to read and speak Thai. He does not believe in the idea that the longer you spend in the country the more you’ll be able to assimilate the language. The truth is that there are many foreigners out there who have been in the Kingdom for more than ten years and still can’t make sense of what the ordinary Thais are saying on the street, not to mention the inability to actually listen to a news broadcast or watch a movie in Thai.
The research that Gary has undergone, which is backed up by studies reviewed by Stephen Krashen and other famous linguists, has shown that unless you have already read and understood words and phrases in a language, you cannot hear what people are saying. “Your brain simply doesn’t register the sounds unless you already know them through reading. And reading extensively is the most effective way to become fluent in any language,” explained Gary. It seems that immersion only works for children or if you also engage in cognitive activities such as learning vocabulary and understanding how words are put together to express ideas.
Although Gary Orman’s method of learning Thai is mainly for people who already have some knowledge of Thai, he is sure that even a total beginner will be able to read Thai by the end of his workshop. He believes that deep down in our mind, we have already accumulated basic words and language patterns, so “you’ll be surprised at how much you already know or can easily guess. After trying my method of learning how to read Thai, you’ll be forever playing an exciting game in which reading out signs and notices will become a great thrill,” Gary reassured.
But why is Gary’s method more special than any other method used by the many language schools that offer courses for foreigners? According to Gary, he uses a system based on five years research in Accelerated Learning. “Essentially, each letter is visually associated with its sound. The entire alphabet is thus permanently imprinted in your brain within a few hours,” summarized Gary.
For example, this is the letter ค and, with the help of an artist, Gary made it look like someone carrying a cactus. But, there are many subliminal elements incorporated into each image representing the letters of the Thai alphabet. The strange man in the “ค picture” has hairy legs and is wearing high heels. Basically, he is a ladyboy, a transsexual, also known in Thailand as katoey. By associating this funny picture with the sound and action of a ladyboy carrying a cactus, Gary believes that learners will never forget what the letter looks like and what sound it stands for.
What Gary has done is actually use a completely non-linguistic approach for learning the sounds and tones. Instead of complicated classes and tone levels, each letter has a gender – boy, girl or ladyboy – and the tones can then be derived from the personality characteristics of each letter. The Read Thai in a Day e-course offered on Gary’s website has been designed so that you “see” a picture when you look at the shape of a letter. The picture has all sorts of associations and connotations, which leads to a chain of facts bound together in a rich, visual story. Now, this sounds like a lot of fun to learn!
In Gary’s opinion, reading is the first step to learning Thai. “It makes the world of difference learning vocabulary directly from the Thai text, rather than via a contrived and approximate (and often incorrect) transliteration.” The truth is that, when learning Thai using phonetics, you very quickly reach a ceiling and will find it very difficult to learn any more. Also you learn a kind of “farang dialect” of Thai that becomes very difficult to unlearn.
When asked what are some good tips of learning to speak Thai, Gary told us that if you start to read you will be able to learn conversational Thai in the right context. This can be done either by reading easy books or simply by reading the newspapers, which generally use formulaic expressions and an easier vocabulary. Also, once you can read, it will be very easy to pick up colloquial Thai by studying and learning the lyrics of Thai popular songs.
You can download the e-course from Gary’s website. An additional feature of the e-course is a visual story method for memorizing the 300-word Thai vocabulary. Gary assured us that after working through the e-course, you will be able to take in so much more of your surroundings in Thailand and will be able to read (and start to understand) Thai street signs and notices. And the best part, the e-course makes this clear and intuitive because of its humorous and visual approach.
If you’re still not convinced about the infallibility of Gary’s method, download for free the first part of the e-course and learn 25 of the most common letters in an hour. Then, you either spend 2,000 baht for the entire e-course and learn by yourself in your own time, or join one of Gary’s workshops. The next one will be held in Bangkok, between February 28 and March 4, at Nichada Thani, near Impact Arena. The cost of the workshop is 11,000 baht and it includes five half-day sessions from Monday to Friday plus lunch, drinks and the e-course. For groups, discounts are available. For more information, contact Gary via e-mail at: workshops[at]learnthaionline[dot]com or visit his website.
Photographs provided by Gary Orman.
Initially published in ‘Bangkok Trader’ (vol.5, no. 1, January 2011)