20 Jul 2009

How to Learn Any Language in One Hour: Thai

Learn a language in just one hour? Must be a joke or a cheap sales pitch, right? Well, the full title is "How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour", so this isn't a miracle method but rather one intense hour dissecting the basics of your chosen target language. With just six simple phrases translated from English plus a look at your target alphabet and pronunciation should be able to answer one simple yet fundamental question: can I learn this language quickly?

This simple exercise will also highlight any serious problems that can arise. For example, I am fluent in English and Italian and proficient in a couple of other European languages. However, I'm currently trying to learn Thai, which is totally alien. So let's learn some Thai in one hour!

Completely different script - OK, that can be learnt.

Although the script is read left-to-right words are constructed as 'consonant clusters' so that a vowel spoken after a consonant may actually we written before it, or even above it! OK, that can be learnt too but is a bit weird!

The grammar is relatively straightforward - phew!!

Thai is a tonal language with 5 different tones - nightmare!! This needs some serious immersion as it is almost impossible to distinguish many words that to a European ear sound identical. For the casual tourist it may be worth forgetting to learn Thai at this point and just learn enough to get by. If living in Thailand then the logical consequence of this is to learn the Thai script. The written language includes tone marks so one can start to group together words with the same tone. Most Thais will forgive the lax foreigner as the correct word can often be guessed from the context. Trying to learn Thai just using the English transliterations is a waste of time.

Thus a quick analysis of Thai immediately reveals how to best proceed with learning it: learn the script and chat to Thai friends who will appreciate you're learning their language while they have a good laugh at the mess you'll make of the five tones.

One other consequence of this analysis is that the syntax of Thai is more similar to Italian than to English; for example, "red bus" becomes "bus red". Sadly, I don't have a 'learn Thai for Italians' book!

Is anybody else learning a fiendishly difficult language?

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