Any phonetic script can be learned in just a few hours
If you liked my association technique mentioned below, you would also enjoy my tips on using imagination to memorize vocabulary, which are discussed in great detail with many other hacks in my book. See the most popular posts on the right below for other interesting topics.
For those curious, this post discusses Thai, but the ideas can equally be applied to other phonetic scripts such as Japanese (but not as well for Chinese).
Just one week into the challenge of reading/speaking Thai in 8 weeks (actually only about 5 hours total, since I've been quite busy since I arrived, but I've made time to learn on the skytrain/in restaurants/taxis etc.) and I've reached the first major milestone already.
I can read Thai.
The major thing still missing is tones, which admittedly are an extremely important part of this language that cannot be ignored and I will get to shortly (Edit: Done! Thai tone rules aren't that bad either), but in terms of phonetics I no longer need to rely on romanisation (using the Latin alphabet to see how a Thai word is pronounced).
Based on recommendations from other learners, abandoning romanisation was a huge priority for me; I didn't want to use that system as a crutch preventing me from having a more natural way of learning Thai from within the language. Romanisation is a purely academic concept for Thai. Interesting for studying the language, but not so great when you actually want to read it. I don't study languages, I learn them and speak them. I needed to abandon romanisation quickly.
It was actually way easier than I expected.
From squiggly symbols to new letters
When first looking at Thai it reminded me of the language Frodo read on the One Ring that he threw into Mount Doom, well, it was actually Gollum, but you know what I mean:
เดอะลอร์ดออฟเดอะริงส์ เป็นนิยายแฟนตาซีขนาดยาว ประพันธ์โดยศาสตราจารย์ชาวอังกฤษ เจ. อาร์. อาร์. โทลคีน เป็นนิยายที่ต่อเนื่องกับนิยายชุดก่อนหน้านี้ของโทลคีน คือ
It's a mess of incomprehensible symbols that would take possibly years to get your head around, right?
This is exactly the attitude that seems to hold everyone back. I can tell by talking to those who have given up on learning languages that they just see each aspect of a “hard” language as this insurmountable monster. The reason for my success in languages has little to do with natural talent and a lot to do with attitude, especially in the early stages.
When you look at the letters as ‘squiggly symbols' it's very hard to imagine them worming their way into your head. How could you possibly even remember what each symbol means? Is months or years of practice the only way?
I threw out this unhelpful concept immediately.
The technique used – image association
With a bit of imagination (in the same style used for learning vocabulary) you can very quickly associate each symbol with its corresponding sound.
There are 44 consonants, 15 vowels (which combine into about 28 forms) plus 4 tone marks, so let's say there's a total of about 75 “symbols” to learn. If you use a good memory technique and devote an entire minute or two to each symbol, that's just about two hours to learn the entire set. Add in extra time for practising and testing yourself and it really isn't that much time, especially since there are patterns in some symbols you start to see that reduces the work for others.
If you aren't used to image association, then the first few will take more time but you'll get the hang of it (you were certainly imaginative as a child, it will come back to you!) and the rest will come much quicker.
In my research since arrival (and thanks to commenters on this blog) I've come across Stu Jay Raj; another polyglot who has had many many more achievements with languages than I have. What most interested me is two short videos he made about remembering Thai vowels. After watching them, I applied his suggestion and think immediately of “ah” when I see:
His amusing suggestion is to imagine the path taken by your pee as you relieve yourself against a tree, and the sigh you'd make as you do it – more relevant for men of course!
His other suggestions were also very useful, and I've applied the same concept to consonants myself. For example when I saw
and needed to associate it with ‘t', I thought of a number of common words starting with t. None of the first few looked anything like it, but then I got to toe! The symbol looks pretty much like your big toe, with the circle representing the nail of the second toe (if looking at your left foot). It's very easy to remember and very hard to forget! Now I think of t instantly when I see that symbol.
It took time, but I've come up with such an association for all symbols. Some are funny, or nerdy, or related to sex, or something childish. Some require a ridiculous stretch of the imagination to make it work. Whatever did the job best to help me remember.
Practice makes perfect
Learning with image association is way more fun than pure repetition, but it still slows you down as you try to recall the association. With very little practice it comes quicker and quicker and soon you can skip the association altogether as the sound comes naturally and quickly. About half of the symbols are like this for me already (such as the two mentioned above), and I no longer need to remember the association. In my mind า is ah and ท is t. Plain and simple.
Here in Bangkok, many signs are “bilingual” Thai + romanisation. This can be extremely useful to learners of the language, and not just tourists who don't speak Thai. When it is a translated word like hospital you can use this to learn vocabulary, but this is not currently what I'm focused on.
Instead, I look at untranslated words (names of places etc.) and see if I can pronounce it based on the Thai. I do this with advertisements, road signs, notices inside a taxi etc. and all of this practice is giving me an idea of how to read the language. The romanisation used by the Thai government does not help at all with tones, but it does help with confirming and checking pronunciation; the focus for my first week.
One thing I never even thought about, which confuses matters somewhat, is fonts. You never even think of this when learning other languages that use the Latin alphabet, since fonts work the same for them as in English. But there are completely different ways of writing a letter in formal announcements, casual advertisements/magazines, LED displays, handwriting, and within each one there are subsets of fonts or styles (e.g. a versus a are quite different if you really look at them).
This means that the symbol is not exactly as I remember it. I kept seeing an “S” for example when reading shop signs and couldn't find it anywhere in my notes until I put two and two together and realized that it's just the way that
is rendered in that font.
Another issue is separating words; finding out where one word ends and another begins is a challenge since there are no spaces, but it is still doable, as the order of vowels before or after consonants is consistent, so you know which one it is associated with. Thai is extremely phonetic (with a few exceptions), so reading it left to right as you see the symbols really isn't that bad.
The road ahead
I have started learning some basic vocabulary entirely through the Thai writing system with no romanisation. i.e. to speak is พูด for me and it's clear how this is pronounced without referring to romanisation. This will be important in how I continue to learn the language.
There are some surprises still incorporated in the writing so I definitely can't read perfectly yet, but I'll continue to practise as I go on with other aspects of the language. Something I've said a few times this week to people is that I do not aim for perfection. Reading “pretty well” is quite alright for me, even if there are several holes in it. The rest will come as I progress with the rest of the language. I don't want to dwell on reading too much; for the moment “good enough” is good enough!
This method could work just as well with any language that uses a phonetic writing system. (I'll deal with languages like Chinese some other time)
Right now, I still am not speaking much Thai beyond basic courtesies; I feel that trying to do several things at once will slow me down a bit and result in me spreading myself too thin, so I am focusing on the building blocks that will take me to my objective. I can now start to learn some key vocabulary, specifically to words I am likely to use in day to day encounters. I'm using the triage system as always, to prioritise what I learn, so if it's something I can point to or mime then I don't need to learn the word yet.
I'm expecting to have an explosion of vocabulary and conversation when the time is right. Until then, I need to continue building the foundations to make sure that that can happen.
For the purposes of this mission, I will try to have mini-goals that last for 1-2 weeks and the next couple of weeks will be focused on tones and learning vocabulary through the writing system (both to practise it and to increase my communication ability). The tone part can be subdivided into being able to decipher from the text which tone is involved, saying the 5 tones correctly, and of course distinguishing them when others speak.
In a follow up post, I mention a little of what I generally think of Bangkok; my first window into Thai culture, before I traveled to Phuket.
There's something that I feel holds many learners back from ever making progress; focusing on what they don't know. I feel like this attitude may be the biggest block for learners to even get a good start on a language (and the greatest fuel for sceptics of my method) so I want to discuss it in another fun post: Is Your Language Half Full?.
So, for example, anyone who meets me who speaks Thai to me or tests my spoken Thai will be greatly disappointed. I don't care. I have a plan and I'm sticking to it. I know from experience that speaking doesn't happen magically overnight, so not being able to have a casual chat in Thai for the next few weeks is not going to discourage me, since I'll be working on making a structure out of my Thai and have a clear idea what I'm aiming for. When you have a well formulated plan, you should stick to it and not give in to pressure to change from that course. 😉