Stephen Saad is an expat and Thai language learning enthusiast. He's also written a wonderful book called "100 Thai Words That Make You Sound Thai". Ajarn met Steve for coffee and talked about all things Thai language.
Stephen, welcome to the Ajarn hot seat. You are one very enthusiastic Thai language learner but firstly how long have you actually lived in Thailand and how long have you been studying Thai?
I had been to Thailand a couple of times for short holidays before I moved here to take up a role in a banking software company in 2003. I left that company and then moved back to the UK at the end of 2006 and have now returned to Thailand after over ten years away.
So in total I have only lived here for a little over four years even though it feels like over 15 years because I am married to a Thai lady and have come here many times over the years.
As for learning Thai, I initially studied from 'Essential Thai' by James Higbie and 'Teach Yourself Thai' by David Smyth – and practised what I had learnt in the first year I started work here.
By the end of the second year, I had improved a lot and was more or less fluent in conversational Thai and used the books and the dictionary (fairly often) to look things up and so in the third year I was not really ‘studying’ anymore.
So I guess you could say I actively studied Thai for about two years, if that. But my passive learning continues to this day and even now I pick up words and phrases from overhearing people or on TV and I ask my wife to explain if I do not fully understand the context.
But the fact that I stopped studying once I had reached intermediate to advanced level means I haven’t progressed much beyond that and so although I am fluent in everyday Thai, I would struggle to speak formally and I certainly could not read the news in Thai. I have probably reached my 'plateau', as everyone does eventually.
Ah, the dreaded plateau. I know it well. So your background is in banking and finance? Another man who wanted to break away from the corporate shackles and enjoy a more peaceful life in Asia I assume?
Yes, banking has changed since the 2008 crisis and everything is about regulations now in that industry. Implementing regulatory projects can be quite detail-oriented and unglamorous work (but very well paid, of course), so I just felt I wanted a break.
I had the idea to write the Thai language book and luckily, my wife, who was also in banking, was also getting sick of her role within an investment bank in London. So we worked out our finances, realised we could live in Thailand without working (albeit being limited to a simple lifestyle) and decided to both resign and go for it! So far it was the best decision I ever made.
I don’t rule out ever going back to banking in Singapore or Hong Kong but for now I am happy here and live a more interesting, varied and fulfilling life than I did in London. I have nothing against the UK and I do miss many things about the British lifestyle such as cool weather, walking in the park and good TV, etc.
I was so excited when I heard about your book - "100 Thai Words That Make You Sound Thai" because this was a book aimed at the likes of me - someone who had reached intermediate level. I haven't been in a Thai bookshop for quite a while but there were always shelves and shelves of books aimed at the beginner and the tourist but Thai language books for the intermediate level learner was always something of a wasteland. I guess that's why you wrote this particular book, right?
Absolutely! I had the same impression as you and like you I have not surveyed every Thai language book out there in the market. But my intuition and research online told me that the intermediate and advanced books that were available dealt in Thai that nobody actually ever uses in day to day life. It's often an obscure, overly formal Thai that is absolutely correct but not used in spoken Thai and also too much of a jump from where most Westerners are, which is quite basic Thai.
What I wanted to write was a book that would help people go from speaking in short, staccato responses and questions to being able to form sentences and convey thoughts and feelings and opinions i.e. real conversation, not just responding to a Thai person asking “Do you like Thailand?” and “Can you eat spicy food?”
To do that, if you think about it in terms of English, you need to use words (or phrases) like ‘even though’, ‘which is why’, ‘it seems like’, ‘perhaps’, ‘it depends on’, ‘and then’, ‘well…’ and so on. These expressions link all the nouns, adjectives and verbs that basic speakers know, to allow sentence formation and most importantly, a speaker to sound natural.
So my definition of intermediate is maybe not the same as others’. I focus on intermediate in the context of everyday spoken Thai (which includes Thai TV Thai, Thai song Thai but excludes Thai news Thai or Thai novel Thai). So, for example, I could give this interview in Thai and it would be somewhere between intermediate and advanced Thai but in the context of a conversation.
We should mention that you have in fact dipped your toes in the water where the beginner / tourist market is concerned? Your first Thai book was aimed at them?
I actually wrote the intermediate one first and then my wife convinced me that I should also write a beginner book.
At first I was a bit snobby about writing a beginner book and also, I made the argument that the market is saturated already. But she convinced me that it would be worthwhile and as I looked into it, again, I saw a gap in the market.
There are lots of phrasebooks out there but Thai is a very difficult language to recite out of a phrasebook because it is tonal. Also, with a phrasebook, you hardly ever really understand the context, you are just parroting things out of a book. Conversely, beginner coursebooks put a lot of people off because they have no intention of becoming a student of Thai.
So I wrote a book that fills that gap – more context and explanation than a phrasebook but not the basic Thai that many absolute beginners will never use anyway such as colours or telling time in Thai. The beginner book has been on Asia Books’ bestseller list twice so far.
Well done! Now I might upset a few people here but in all my years in Thailand, I've gone through probably half a dozen Thai teachers with little or no success.
I always found it nigh on impossible to find a teacher who would teach me the Thai language that people actually spoke 'on the street' as it were. I didn't want to end up sounding like some overly formal newsreader.
I'm convinced this is one of the biggest hurdles that an expat Thai language learner has to face. Would you agree?
Yes, I totally agree. I strongly suspect (based on my experience of dealing with, not learning from, Thai nationality Thai teachers) that Thai teachers feel that they need to teach more formal Thai for two main reasons.
Firstly, they focus on the fact that it is correct Thai, as Thai is written, and they do not want to teach ‘wrong’ (which most people call colloquial) Thai.
Secondly, they automatically go into a mode of ‘I am a representative of Thai people and need to teach the farang’, which inevitably leads to teaching formal, awkward Thai. And all of this is in spite of the fact that these very same teachers use colloquial Thai when they themselves speak to their mates or family or whatever!
This is why many people say that the best Thai teachers are usually either Thais who are fluent (and I mean fluent!) in English and maybe have lived in the UK or USA or whatever or Westerners who speak perfect Thai. So, for example, Adam Bradshaw would be an amazing Thai teacher because he can explain Thai to a Westerner in terms the Westerner understands.
You use spoken Thai a lot in your daily life Steve. Where do you always like to pitch your conversation formality at - or is it a case of judging each situation on its merit?
That’s a good question and rather tough to answer because I know how to do it instinctively. Conversely, I also realise that, in many situations, if I try to be as formal as a Thai would be, it would create more awkwardness and the Thai person may assume I cannot speak Thai because I had spent so much effort trying to be formal.
But anyway, to give some examples, I might use “mâi sâap wâa” as a polite prefix when I want to enquire something of someone to whom I want to show respect e.g. a client who is older than me or a government official or even a taxi driver with whom I want to be overly respectful to gain his respect back. Even with a shop owner, I might say, “mâi sâap wâa ráan bpìd gee mohng krúp?”
But in many cases, I might not bother if I felt that speaking ‘sa-baai sa-baai’ was fine so I might say, “Bpâa krúp, bpìd gee mohng krúp?” if it was a shop or stall by the street.
By the way, you need to be careful who you call “bpâa” (auntie) as I found out recently when the woman was quite clearly over 50 and to my mind, old enough to be called “bpâa” but she took offence (albeit hid it well in a jokey way).
My wife explained that if I am 42, a 50-something woman may take offence in being called auntie (because they still have delusions that they are young and beautiful) so I need to look at the relative age difference, not her absolute age.
Similarly, the other day I was talking to a waitress who I knew well and asked her about her ‘pŭa’ and another waitress who overheard butted in and told me I should have used ‘săa-mee’.
I knew perfectly well which word to use and the other waitress did not know that I was friends with the first waitress so was on a casual speaking basis with her. Still, it shows that you have to be careful about formality when speaking a foreign language because native speakers are, rightly, sensitive about how you speak it and do not want you to abuse their language.
In most cases, unless I am speaking with a client (in my case, Asia Books, for whom I now distribute other authors’ books as well) or to someone on the phone e.g. from True, I would generally speak in a polite but casual style. This means I would use the most obvious and common words that Thai people would use and always and often use ‘krúp’ with people I do not know well.
During our very nice chat over coffee, you said something that made my heart jump for joy because I have taken a lot of criticism for not being able to read or write Thai.
A lot of those farangs who can speak, read AND write Thai have said that you are wasting your time learning to speak if you don't study reading and writing as well.
But you are a fierce opponent of this mindset, Steve? You DO think it's possible to speak very decent Thai without ever knowing a single Thai character?
I am totally and utterly opposed to this snobbish attitude, not just because it is elitist and excludes the vast majority of foreigners in Thailand who do not necessarily want to spend all their spare time studying Thai but because it is plain wrong! These snobs could not be more wrong.
Most of the best speakers have learnt through listening and speaking, so you often find husbands of Thai women who live out in Isaan somewhere who can speak fantastic Thai – spot on pronunciation, word selection and cadence.
Conversely, these Thai language snobs spend a lot of time studying to read obscure Thai, writing even more obscure Thai online to show off their skills, texting in Thai and feeling undeservedly proud of themselves and writing long articles and debating on forums the intricacies and minutiae of Thai pronunciation while not speaking Thai that well or naturally.
All of this is in a bid to distinguish themselves from the common foreigners so that they can look down their nose at them. So, these Thai language snobs, would, I bet, find a way to be snobbish about foreigners who have married an Isaan girl and speak perfect, natural, full-flow Thai.
It is entirely possible to learn Thai from transliterated Thai and then take that out into the real world and practise by speaking to a wide range of Thai people, note down where you went wrong, go back and check the books and repeat the process ad infinitum.
That, for me, is the best way to learn Thai in the beginner to intermediate stage. Especially in initial stages, you do not want the added burden of having to learn a new and exotic script. Don’t let anybody or any book fool you, Thai grammar and spelling is not ‘easy’. It is not impossible either so any sensible person would start with transliterated Thai and if inclined, learn to read when they had already reached beginner level.
If not inclined, that is fine but the key to learning from transliterated Thai is to ensure you fully understand the transliteration system and can map the sounds accurately. Many books have a CD that helps.
The main problem is that most learners skip the chapter that explains the transliteration and pronunciation system and do not pay attention when they hear Thai being spoken. So, for example, I still hear people say ‘pad Thai’ said with an ‘a’ like ‘bad’, not like ‘pud Thai’, which is how it should be pronounced.
The fault is with the learner who does not spend enough time laying the foundations that are required to pronounce Thai properly and also with some books that do not map the sound properly e.g. my book and James Higbie’s book are two of the few books that identify a short vowel and a long vowel in the transliteration system. The fault is not with the concept of learning Thai from transliteration.
And, yes, you can explain ALL Thai sounds in English terms to an English speaking reader. Yes, some sounds are tricky and yes, there are some intricate subtleties but these do not invalidate the use of transliteration; they are used by language snobs to condemn the plebs who are not as enlightened as them.
I would urge, as a new generation of Thai language teachers such as Kru Mod are doing, to have a go and reject the snobbery and perfectionist views of those who seek to exclude people. I do not encourage speaking bad Thai, certainly not. Learners need to put in a lot of effort to really listen and pronounce Thai well but this can be done without needing to learn to read.
Finally, I do NOT discourage people learning to read, far from it. Reading DOES help your Thai but you do not NEED to do so, that is all. And if you have learnt to write, great, happy for you but please stop showing off to bar-girls that you can write her name in Thai – it's pathetic.
Focus on speaking Thai and see if you can run a meeting or do a business deal or sell your property, only and credibly, in Thai. If you can’t, sort out your speaking and stop telling people your theories on how to learn Thai.
I think I touched a nerve there Steve, hahaha. But I think you're spot on because the Thai language snobbery aspect does piss you off.
How did we get here, Phil? Some of it stems from the previous generation of learners and I suspect, some of it is based in Chiang Mai where you get the more middle-class snobbish expat who has total contempt for those expats who do not learn Thai or speak Thai badly and jumps to the conclusion that the only way is to be a perfectionist and nothing less than that is acceptable.
It is the equivalent of TV chefs telling the public that unless people learn to cook properly and know all the ingredients and spices backwards and sideways, they might as well not bother cooking because they will never be able to cook.
Can you imagine that? In the UK, we have had a cooking revolution over the last twenty years or so because of TV programmes encouraging people to give it a go and learn and improve as they go along.
It is the same with Thai – give it a go and improve as you go along.
Let's get back to the intermediate edition of '100 Thai Words'. You rate each of your 100 words or phrases with a 'feminine rating'. What you are saying is using these words or phrases can make a male speaker sound 'girly' or perhaps a tad 'theatrical' - and indeed, I was guilty of using a couple of them myself. Give our readers an example of what you mean?
Well, firstly, it is important to say that most expats in Thailand are male and most of these men learn Thai from women – not necessarily always women in romantic relationships with these men but sometimes women in the office who volunteer to show the new expat around town or waitresses or HR women who accompany the foreigner to the immigration office and so on.
Expat men almost never speak to Thai men at any length apart from maybe in the taxi. So, these expats often don't realise that they have subconsciously picked up a 'woman's way' of speaking Thai, which is different to men's.
One example would be exclaiming, “châng mun tèuh” but the concept extends to being more expressive in general. So you will notice women use more ‘verys' and use double adjectives more and normally use more excitable or descriptive or emotional speech.
Thai men, on the other hand, are like old-school Western men (although metrosexuality is prevalent in Thailand these days) and speak a lot less excitably and in shorter but more confident sentences with less emotion and more ‘manliness’. Whether you agree with this or think it is ridiculous and old-fashioned, that is the way Thai men usually speak.
Western men rarely notice this because they rarely speak to Thai men and they do not even realise they sound a little feminine. Obviously, it is only a subtle difference and there are no language rules so you are not wrong per se but if you start sounding like a bar-girl in your office meeting, your colleagues will give each other knowing looks about where you learnt your Thai and you will probably still not notice!
Finally, do NOT refer to yourself by your name as girls do. Trust me, stop saying “Dave mâi châwp”. Adam Bradshaw does this sometimes but he can, because he speaks Thai perfectly and says it ironically and girls find it cute. Until you get to his level, leave it out.
Phil khaw jai khap. Oh, sorry! A Thai word I learned a while back was 'oo-gaat' meaning opportunity, chance or benefit. I seem to now use this word ten times a day in conversation and I'm left wondering how I survived for twenty years without it. Do you have a Thai word or three that you tend to perhaps 'overuse'?
I don’t know about overuse but I can tell you about a few words that learners of Thai should be using more and probably do not even realise they have heard many, many times.
The first example is, “paw dee”, which is used a lot but people may not even hear it because it is often said very quickly at the start of sentences e.g. “paw dee pêung séu rót maa…” is something you might say to explain to the security guard the fact that you have just bought your car and haven’t acquired the parking sticker from the condo management yet. It is used in many sentences like this to explain yourself or explain a situation and the word does not have much of a meaning of its own. In other usages, it means ‘just right’ or ‘perfect’ e.g. a perfect fit.
Another example of a word that is used very, very commonly in Thai but is probably not picked up by learners, much less used, is ‘gâw’, which means ‘well’ in some usages and has no meaning but functions as a filler word for adding cadence to a sentence in other usages. I talk about how often this word is used in the book so I won’t spend more time explaining it here. Suffice to say, it is worth learning the words I have labelled as ‘Thai-ness’ in the book. They make you sound Thai.
We've all met the long-term expat who has made no attempt whatsoever to learn the Thai language beyond 'kob khun khap'. "You don't need to learn Thai because there is usually / always someone around that can put some English together" is a fairly common mantra. Those guys have a fair point I guess but for me, speaking Thai well (or as well as you can) often means you command respect.
I was in a new barber's shop the other day and I'm sure I got a much better haircut because I was chatting to the barber in Thai and taking an interest in his business and the province where he came from. What for you are the main advantages of being a decent Thai speaker?
As you said, the main benefit is that you can only really connect to Thai people when you speak Thai. Of course, the exception is when you are speaking with Thais who have studied, worked or lived abroad and can speak good English, which is often the case with Westerners working alongside Thais in Bangkok.
Speak Thai and you do not have to struggle in everyday situations where trying to speak in English makes the simplest thing an ordeal or a comedy of errors. And probably the subtlest benefit is that Thai people will a) be able to answer your questions more fully and b) be more willing to talk to you.
When you go around Thailand speaking English, you may think there is no drawback and to a certain extent that is true, but there are situations where, if you had spoken Thai, the person could have given you a tip or some insight or more explanation or context that their level of English simply does not allow. So you may well still achieve your end goal speaking English but possibly, unwittingly, had a tougher time getting there than if you had spoken in Thai.
When you speak Thai, you can live in Thailand as you lived back home. One or two examples are – 1) you can pass an assistant in a supermarket and ask a question and then have a bit of banter or chat her up (if that is your predilection) or 2) you can deal with difficult situations such as misunderstandings or social faux pas better when you can speak Thai. There are many, many more examples.
Finally, there are many, many situations where speaking Thai often makes things MORE difficult and you would have had it easier if you had just spoken English. I won’t list them but most expats will know many of these situations.
So, I try to adopt a ‘live and let live’ mindset because there are paradoxes where you are in ignorant bliss by not speaking Thai.
So how about those taxi driver conversations that we all have to endure? "How long have you lived in Thailand?", "Do you think Thai ladies are beautiful?" etc, etc. Do you go along with it or just bury your head in your smartphone and hope it goes away?
I do get slightly tired of those conversations sometimes but most of the time, I have to admit I quite like chatting to taxi drivers. Not the ones who only want to talk about Thai girls but the ones where the guy is quite intelligent and knows about economics and politics, etc.
I have had conversations on decommissioning cars after ten years (as Singapore does) in relation to the traffic problems here, conversations on how Thailand is getting left behind by neighbouring countries economically and so on. I also often try to turn the conversation around and start asking the guy about him, which province he is from, whether he has ever flown abroad and so on.
I try to spend at least half an hour a day improving my Thai but on those days I can't get in front of a computer for 30 minutes, one of my favourite language learning techniques is to describe situations in my head as I'm walking along the street. "That old gate needs painting" or "that guy is trying to park his car in an impossibly tight space" and I make a mental note of which words or phrases I don't know so I can look them up or ask for help when I get home. Have you got any favourite learning techniques, Steve?
It is easier to say which techniques are not so good. Learning by asking your Thai girlfriend does not help that much unless you really are paying attention and don’t let it go in one ear and out the other when she does explain.
Hence, I also say learning from a teacher is more beneficial when you have reached basic level through your own effort first. You are more invested in learning Thai then so you are not just turning up at your classes to get through them quickly and so, do not forget everything you learnt the next day after your lesson! I have never had Thai lessons; I am entirely self-taught.
My favourite technique is much the same as yours – I jot down things on my phone for me to look up in a dictionary later or write the transliterated version of what I thought I heard in Thai and again, go back and look it up in the books. The main reason this method works is because you put in the effort and you do not delegate it to someone else.
Finally, other methods that are really good are learning from Thai songs (where the transliterated lyrics are available online) and watching Thai TV. Check out Club Friday, which is a Thai chat show. All the old episodes are on Youtube and they are subtitled (in Thai admittedly).
If you think you are at an intermediate level, watching a show like this will boost you to advanced level because you have to keep up with a Thai person answering questions on his/her life and career at full speed in a normal Thai conversation format. You can rewind and pause the Youtube video and ask your Thai wife or friend to explain words and grammar style so it is a truly excellent resource.
I'll check it out. We've mentioned Adam Bradshaw, who is a well-known and respected Thai speaker. Adam has said in the past that he's often guilty of over-complicating things and not keeping communication as simple as it should be. I am also VERY guilty of this but if you've put the effort in to learn Thai to a certain level, it's surely human nature to want to 'show off' a little. Isn't it?
Yes, it really is and it is very difficult to rein that in and just keep it simple because in some situations, when you do learn how a Thai person would have said it, you are quite surprised at the simplicity of the spoken sentence because it never occurred to you to put it that way.
Subjects and objects are often omitted in Thai when it is obvious to the people in the situation who is being spoken about and who is being spoken to.
On the other hand, being more verbose is usually closely correlated with being more polite and formal. So, for example, using personal pronouns adds formality. So, it is all very well speaking simply and briefly but bear in mind that being too brief and familiar can have (barely perceptible) repercussions when a more verbose approach would have been more appropriate with someone you do not know that well.
Well, I've enjoyed our chat Steve and I'm definitely going to watch out for those 'feminine' words in future and make sure I avoid them. Finally, I hear there is another book in the pipeline. Will this be a follow-up to the intermediate version of '100 words'?
Yes, as soon as I get my current book on expat life in Thailand done, I am going to start on the second set of '100 Thai Words That Make You Sound Thai' (one of which will be the word ‘paw dee’ as I mentioned earlier).
I have about 150 new words so far so there may even be a third book in the series. And I have half an idea about a fourth book that will take real conversations from real life and break them down for readers. So that might be the final one in the series.
OK you guys, don't forget to check out Steve's books on Amazon. I found the intermediate one so useful and a joy to read.