I took up Thai in April! Hitherto, it’s been almost 5 months since I started my classes. Here’s what I discovered about learning a new language in adulthood.
For some background, thanks to Singapore’s bilingual education system, I was taught both English and Chinese from my childhood years. Therefore, I am able to read, write and converse decently in those two languages.
Fast forward to this year 2023, I decided to learn a new foreign language — Thai. The main reason was because I wanted to do or learn something for fun, outside of work. I signed up for physical classes at a language centre and attended classes once weekly.
My Journey Thus Far
My Thai lessons were organised into chapters and every chapter would largely follow the same structure. It starts off with a vocabulary list, followed by simple conversation scenarios. Sentences used in the scenarios were formed by words introduced up till that current chapter. The last segment would be a “fill in the blanks” section for practise. In the vocabulary list, the textbook would list the corresponding English translation for us to pick up the new words.
I wonder … how do kids do it?
As every chapter went, I learnt Thai words by matching them to a (seemingly) equivalent English word and memorising the translations. This learning method really makes me wonder how children pick up a new language, for I don’t recall my Chinese lesson textbooks having English translations and vice versa. As if magically, back then we simply learnt the meanings as we went. (My friend did mention that we learnt via pictures too in preschool and primary school.)
As I attended more lessons, I recalled my childhood days and it absolutely baffles me how younger me was able to absorb a language’s grammar, vocabulary, semantics and even its nuances, such that it’s second nature to me. It’s such a huge contrast to now: when I come across two Thai words that are similar in meaning, I would get confused and may struggle to discern when to use which. Besides that, some Thai sentence structures are still not clear or natural to me.
Seriously, how do kids do it? My only rationale guess is that children have a much stronger learning ability than adults, after all, it’s easier to paint on a blank canvas than an already coloured one.
We all think in a certain language
My friend once told me, “we all think in a certain language”. I didn’t understand what she meant.
In my daily life, I almost always use English, except for the occasional use of Mandarin when I’m ordering caifan (“菜饭”) or talking to my dad.
However, when I travelled in Taiwan for 21 days, my use of Chinese increased vastly. Everything was in Chinese there! Street names were written in traditional Chinese, so were the bus stop names, train stations, and menus. The main mode of communication was also Chinese, no surprises there.
I struggled at first, even for the simplest things like asking a stranger where a place is and how to get there. But after my first week there, conversing in Mandarin became natural enough for me. I did not have to pause every few words and think what to say next.
Currently, at work, since majority of my teammates were from China, I mainly interacted with them using Mandarin. Conversations with them flowed and I could easily find the words to express myself. I was thinking in Chinese.
When can I start thinking in Thai?
But when it comes to speaking in Thai or listening to others speak Thai, my mind is a far cry from thinking in Thai.
I will think of what I want to say in English, translate word by word to Thai, and then reorder the words to fit the correct grammar or sentence structure. I either start speaking and have a “gazilion” pauses in between, or wait a while until I piece together my so-called proper sentence before speaking. When I hear Thai sentences, the “reverse” process repeats. I translate from Thai to English, comprehend it, and then start forming my response with the limited Thai words in my vocabulary bank.
Taking it easy on myself
Although it can feel quite frustrating to not be conversant in a foreign language yet, I made a conscious effort to not give myself too much pressure to master the language as soon as possible. In my first few months of learning Thai, I realised that due to my perfectionistic mindset, I would feel upset whenever I could not pronounce a word properly or cannot fully understand real-life conversations.
I was being too hard on myself and learning Thai became another task to excel in. This was undesirable as I initially took up Thai because I wanted to do something for fun. I even made sure the language centre did not hold exams. Yet, I was adding stress to myself unnecessarily.
After realising this, I worked on changing my mindset. Now, I remind myself that so long as I’m enjoying the learning process and learning something new weekly, that’s all that matters! I acknowledged that learning a new language is not easy and if I don’t enjoy doing so, chances are I will give up soon.
Learning beyond the classroom
While the textbook is clear, it merely scratches the surface. We all know the importance of practising a language to really “absorb” it and have the words ingrained in our brains. As such, I would sometimes watch online Thai tutorials to reinforce my learning. Through those online resources, I could better understand the application of some words and practise my pronounciation by repeating after the speaker too!
For instance, I referred to this video: Numbers in Thai – Counting 0-1000 several times when I was having troubles even with basic numbers. I also found other videos from the same channel helpful too!
However, one lacking factor is that there aren’t many Thai speakers around me. I only know less than a handful of people who know the language. Nonetheless, whenever I get the chance to interact with them, I would practise conversing in Thai! Something is always better than nothing 🙂
Understanding that every language is different
As I learn more Thai words and am exposed to more Thai sentences, I also start to notice that not everything in one language has an equivalent translation in another language. Some Thai expressions cannot be conveyed using any English / Chinese word or phrase, vice versa. Perhaps a similar term exists, but it can’t capture the exact same nuance or meaning. My Thai teacher would then occasionally remind us that “this is how the language works” whenever we struggle to directly translate a Thai sentence to English. Indeed, every language works and flows differently.
That’s it for my 5 months update for learning Thai! I’m really enjoying the learning process and find it fun so far! Every time I understand more parts of a Thai speech, I take it as an improvement and that makes me happy. Hopefully, when I travel to Thailand again, I can converse in Thai more smoothly 😄
Thank you for reading!