Language Acquisition

In order to be a good language teacher, I figure you must also know something of what it’s like to be a language learner. I’ve always enjoyed learning about different languages, and I like to think I’m pretty good in German, French and Italian. But Thai will be a challenge.

Since I get embarrassed speaking nonsense to strangers, I like to try to learn language by reading. In the past, I’ve begun German studies by slogging through Grimm’s fairy tales, and learned rudimentary Spanish by proofreading translated 401(k) brochures at work. In order to help me learn Thai, I looked around for a book that I knew well enough already so that I wouldn’t be confused by the plot. I found The Return of the King by Tolkien, an ideal choice in terms of my familiarity with the material, but probably about a thousand pages too long for my purposes. Undeterred, I bought it and started right in. Let the grand project begin!

The Thai version of the series title is, oddly, the same as the English one; it actually says, more or less, LORD AAF DAA RINGS in Thai letters. You’d think they could have come up with their own version.

The book also came with a removable map. Thai pretty much looks like some kind of mutant Elvish already, so seeing Tolkien’s map actually in Thai letters is fascinating. Those big letters say GONDOR.

I just spent about an hour translating the first sentence. Thai has no spaces between words, and the vowel notations are a bit obscure to me at this point, so to my untrained eye, after figuring out what I thought the letters were in English, the first sentence in the book looked like this:


Not very promising. But wait! PPPN? KNDLF? I know those rascals! Things snowballed from there, if snowball is the right verb to describe an hour of agonizing dictionary research. Soon I had produced the following translation:

“Pippin watch pass through out come from under dressing gown of Gandalf.”

Not exactly a masterpiece of lucid prose, right? I must have gone wrong somewhere, right? Nope! It’s pretty much on target. The English version is:

“Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf’s cloak.”

I was close! Apparently, I can translate Tolkien from Thai. One sentence down, many, many thousand to go.

3 thoughts on “Language Acquisition

  1. This was posted a long time ago, as a new arrival to Thailand who is starting learning how to speak the language first off, I’d love to know how this has progressed.

    Am going to wait a little before taking on Thai script, unless you can persuade me otherwise!

  2. No, you have the right idea – trying to learn to speak Thai first would definitely have been both easier and more sensible. If I really want to learn Thai before the next geologic era begins, I probably should have gone out and struck up conversations from Day 1.

    As it is now, over a year later, I can read most Thai letters, but since I don’t really know the language yet, this mainly allows me to decipher street signs and brand-name advertisements. My command of the spoken language is progressing, but very, very slowly. So slowly that my most meaningful conversation thus far was with a four-year-old, and involved whether sharks or T-Rexes have bigger teeth, and whether or not he liked the origami bird I’d just made him. (He did not.)

    However, there have been several times where I’ve gotten to look way smarter than I am in front of my friends by being able to decipher street signs and things like “Pad Thai” and “Doritos” in the Thai lettering, so in that sense the couple of hours I took to learn most of the alphabet was time well spent.

  3. Ha, i can certainly identify with the geological era time-frame. I’m all about looking smarter than I really am so might look into the alphabet, although I won’t be using Tolkein!

    Thanks for the advice though and good luck mastering Thai.

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