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Review: Learning Thai Texts and CDs

Teach yourself Thai, A complete course for beginners
David Smyth
Teach Yourself Books,
1995, pp. 261
(+ Teach yourself Thai cassette)

Reviewed by: Dr. Jordan Zlatev, Department of Linguistics, Thammasat University.
June, 1998.
        David Smyth’s "Teach yourself Thai" is the textbook that I relied on mostly in making my first steps into the Thai language after arriving in Bangkok some 6 months ago. Being a linguist, what first attracted me to the book was that it seemed refreshingly NON-linguistic. This squares in with my general view that Linguistics deals with "explaining" languages, but has very little to offer when you actually need to learn one. And since I wanted to learn Thai by immersing myself in it, Smyth’s statement on p. 2 that his book "aims to equip the learner with the necessary vocabulary and grammar to cope with the day-to-day situations a foreigner is likely encounter in Thailand" sounded to be what I was looking for. Another big bonus seemed to be that the book teaches the (inscrutable for the newcomer) Thai script from Unit 1, in such a way that one is expected to make progress in reading and writing, alongside with learning the spoken language. The transcription provided throughout the book is said to be "no more than a learning aid .... a crutch" and one is encouraged "to learn pronunciations from the tape and to memorize Thai script spellings rather than romanized spellings" (p. 4).
     After going through the 15 units of the textbook (relying heavily on the tape), I am left with rather mixed feelings: in brief, following this teach-your-self course has helped me to learn some Thai, but after 6 months, my knowledge is far less than what I expected – which perhaps speaks more of my limitations than those of the book.
     Let me, however, try to give a characterization of what, in retrospect, I feel to be the strong and week parts of this textbook.
     The dialogues around which each unit is centered are the best part of the course. They sound quite realistic, and the language they introduce may be used directly in the kind of situations which one encounters living in Thailand: introducing oneself, bargaining, giving instructions to the taxi-driver, ordering food, small-talk, touristing etc. In the book they are given in the transcription and in Thai in parallel – and without English translations for each sentence, as in many textbooks. This I find a plus, because in working out what the speakers are saying – with the help of the glosses for new expressions which follows each dialogue – one is lead to learn the meaning of Thai expressions SITUATIONALLY, rather than as translations from English. (There are also comprehension questions after the dialogues, but I found these rather useless – I never relied on them to understand the text, and once I had done so, they were trivial.)
     What follows is a few-paragraph long section on "Language and culture", which provides some background context for each dialogue – this could be quite useful for the newcomer.
     Next, follows a section which is underestimated in this course: "Key phrases and expressions" – given in the transcription and in Thai – which are to function as drills. However, often they do not even appear in the tape, so unless one goes back and drills himself on the dialogue, it is all to easy to think that one has mastered a unit, without really doing so – which was my problem all too often. There is a special "Exercises" section further on, for most units at least, but these sections also are rather sketchy and by no means cover all the new material in the dialogues.
     Between the "Key phrases" and the "Exercises" there are sections with "Language notes", including notes on grammar (e.g. ’What?’ questions, p.15) and rather hard to notice distinctions (e.g. the difference between koo-up and bpee meaning "years", but the first one used for children, p. 113). I found these rather useful.
     Since in the passage above I gave two Thai words, using the transliteration provided by Smythe, I have to turn to my major frustration in "Teach yourself Thai" – the transcription system. It is alright for Smythe to write that this should be a crutch to be used and discarded as soon as possible (see above) – but (a) it is NOT possible to discard it soon, since Thai script is simply too difficult for the beginner (only now am I beginning slowly to let go of the crutches and to try walking on my own) and (b) since the transcription Smythe uses is rather confusing, it is very likely to leave one with a limp! The problem is not the Smythe is not using the IPA transcription system – for me that would have been best, but most people are not familiar with it – but that he fails completely to explain it to the reader. As I see it, it should be a miracle if the unable to read Thai learner does not begin by pronouncing many Thai words wrongly!
     Let me give specific examples: the voiceless, non-aspirated, velar stop which begins the Thai name for the city that westerners call Bangkok, is overall given as g – not a word about the difference between the two sounds. The whole word is the rather monstrous grOOng-tayp (falling tone not shown). In the very superficial chapter on "Pronunciation" that comes after the Introduction OO is never illustrated – there is obviously a mistake since oo is said to be the vowel both in "book" and in "food"! bp is said to be "the single sound which is somewhere between a b sound and a p sound in English" (p.5). The vowel transliterated as ay is said to be as in "may" - but that must be wrong, since – if I can hear it well – it is NOT a dipthong. One of my "favourites" is the Thai word ker-ee... I will give a large bottle of Singha to anyone who could guess how it should be pronounced! No? Well, it is the one syllable long, common Thai word sometimes translated as "ever": mai(F) ker-ee bpai tee-o(F) chai ta-lay ("(I) have never been to the sea-coast"). I could go on with problems with the romanization, but I will stop and rather present it from the bright side – perhaps the awful transliteration was used on purpose in order to make the learner feel that he simply HAS to learn Thai script. Well, it did have this effect on me any way.
     Well, how well does the textbook manage in the task of teaching the Thai script? If I am in anyway typical, I would say: "So-so". This time I cannot find formal flaws in the method (except occasional typos where there is mismatch between the Thai and the transcription, e.g. p. 18) – which doesn’t mean that there are none, being a 1-st grader in Thai reading and writing I am simply unable to judge. My main problem was that I experienced a kind of learning overflow...
     The final two sections of each unit are devoted to learning the Thai script: in "Reading and writing" new letters, tones and rules are introduced and given if Thai words – often pronounced in the tape and in "Reading exercises", one is given, well, reading exercises. The pace in which one was expected to progress, was however, well beyond me. Unit one introduces the 7 sonorant consonants (in the transcription n, m, ng, l, r, w, y) + 6 common vowels, Unit 2 presents 7 more consonants (the "mid-class") + 7 more vowels. So far we are still in the mid-tones, but Unit 3 begins with the other tones and introduces "live" and "dead syllables", and the tone rules dependent on the class of the initial consonant and the length of the vowel - OK, I am still hanging on... But, unit 4 gives 6 more consonants and 4 vowels; Unit 5 9 more high-class consonants – with new tone rules... and I start losing track... I found that thinking about the tone rules etc. was interfering with oral language skills; my memory for new expressions was poor – I would stand at a vendor and forget the words for "cheap" and "bananas", and the local restaurant waitresses would laugh at my ineptitude to order anything but fried rice with chicken. Is short: I gave up learning the script the "proper way" – with rules and all. What I have done since is to try to "memorize Thai script spellings rather than romanized spellings" for whole words, and the most frequent patterns, without worrying about the tones for the time being. And I am re-reading Smyths dialogues, along side with listening to the tape – no crutch this time!
     And I am also looking for an "intermediary" course – teaching yourself may be cheap and convenient, but... its not the real thing.

Jordan Zlatev


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