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Review: Learning Thai Texts and CDs

Colloquial Thai: A Complete Language Course
by John Moore and Saowalak Rodchue.
London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 325 pp.+ vi + two 60 min. cassettes.
U.S. $ 34.95; Can. $46.95.

Life and Language: Thai Language Videos, with Transcripts in Thai and Phonetics, Vocabulary Lists, Translation and Notes,
by Peter Jackson, Scot Barme, and Pornphimol Panthusanit.
Canberra: National Thai Studies Centre, The Australian National University, 1994. 250 pp. + 100 min.video. NTSC version (N. America)
Aus. $65.

Reviewed by Dr. John Hartmann, Professor of Thai, Northern Illinois University.

       Ever in search of the magic bullet or ideal course materials for learning a foreign language, and an exotic one at that, two enterprising teams in England and Australia, respectively, have come up with new offerings for Thai.
      Colloquial Thai: A Complete Language Course begins with a Mr. Ken Stevens, British businessman, learning to say (polite) "Hello" in lesson 1, and able, fifteen lessons later able to track down Khun Suporn to nail down an export deal. Be assured that this is a "man's book." Women should look elsewhere to learn the Thai they need for their survival.

      The lessons constitute a "complete" language course in that they purport to teach one to comprehend and talk about basic needs and business tasks and to learn the rudiments for reading very simple Thai (e.g., signs, notes) in indigenous orthography. Very much in tune with current trends in second language acquisition, the course aims to teach competency using contextualized dialogs representing authentic speech. There are two types of dialogs: short ones for production and longer ones for comprehension. The latter are followed by a couple of questions that call for inferencing, an important skill for the language learner to develop. I can remember when my-nine-year old son was with me one summer in Chiangmai, and he would turn to me every once in a while and ask me if his surmises about what the servant and the heads of the household were talking about were correct. They usually were; his audacity paid off. At the end of 8 weeks, he was able to escort his visiting American aunt by mini-bus into town, where he knew (after he bargained with the merchants in Thai) that he could get her to buy some of the trinkets he had his eye on for some time. The listening comprehension exercises in Colloquial Thai promote a similar "natural" approach to acquisition, and this is the strength of the course.
      Grammar and cultural notes are presented in an interesting and clear manner. Useful exercises are part of each lesson The cumulative vocabulary is in the range of 300 items. Were one a disciplined student who set out to master the contents of this book, ideally with a linguist or native speaker as tutor, survival Thai would be the most that would be achieved. The level of sophistication of the conversations does not rise much above talk about money (who is rich and who isn't), girlfriends (echoes of bar talk), and trade (getting down to business), but the culture notes are mindful in ways that would prevent the (male) student from becoming boorish. If language teachers could be sued for malpractice, however, the book's authors, whose backgrounds are not given, would be in serious trouble. They use a layman's type of transliteration that is an abomination. Matters are made worse by providing an even more ludicrous pronunciation key to their misleading system. Thus, they say that their eu sounds approximately like "ugh" (short) and their euh like "ugh" (long)! While there is a brief discussion of the tones of Standard Thai, nowhere is there an indication that vowel length produces lexical change. Editors who supervise the publication of these types of language courses for the unsuspecting should be locked up for life for not requiring more linguistic integrity than is represented in these pages.
      Fortunately there is a brighter light. In recent years, scholars at The Australian National University have been publishing a variety of Thai language course materials in several media formats: books, audio cassettes, video cassettes, and computer software. In conjunction with other texts, I have used several segments of Life and Language: Thai Language Videos, with Transcripts in Thai and Phonetics, Vocabulary Lists, Translation and Notes with great success in my beginning and intermediate Thai classes. The materials were videotaped on the campus of Silapakorn University in Nakorn Pathom, Thailand. The action centers around the daily life of two Thai professors, husband and wife, and their two young daughters. Thus, there is both gender and age equity in this sequence of lessons. While the family lifestyle strikes one as being overly-Westernized (the couple had studied in Australia), serious students of these lessons are more than likely to have relationships with the level of Thai society or higher represented by the family. That is not to say that the filming perspective is elitist. Indeed, one of the more interesting episodes is an interview with a young pedicab driver whose low economic status yet high aspirations for the education of his two children are poignantly presented. There are also colorful episodes dealing with a male fortune teller and traders in a fresh food market, predominantly women. A half-dozen articulate male and female students, voicing opinions on everything from their favorite foods to the status of Thai women, are interviewed, giving the viewer/learner multiple speaker styles and socio-linguistic perspectives. Also captured on camera is a striking diversity of "racial" features: light to dark skin, Sinitic to Negrito. No, refreshingly, all Thais do not look and speak alike.
      Contextualized and authentic language cannot be denied in these filmed lessons, even though it is obvious that everything has been carefully scripted in advance. For the non-novice learner, these lessons are a joy. The accompanying texts employ a phonemic transcription that is unambiguous and universally accepted, as well as the same enactments spelled out in Thai script. I happen to be an advocate of early and exclusive use of Thai script from the outset, and my students will read directly from the Thai, except when they are unsure and check their suppositions against the phonemic representation.
      The recently prepared Thai language materials from Australia are intelligently executed. The enterprise was made possible by a sizable earlier grant from the Australian national government, and these are the laudable results of that wise investment. The Language and Life video, in particular, probably points to an eventual CD-ROM course. But for the time being, we are served well by this fine, professional production.

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