Resources and Reviews
There are so many books and courses and schools – all promising to make learning Thai quick and fun and easy. Well, most of them do not.
In this section, I will highlight products that I recommend to supplement your learning, and inform you of some of the benefits and limitations of various major courses and schools available in Thailand.
TALKING THAI DICTIONARY
Throw away all your print dictionaries, they are completely useless!
This is a useful dictionary for immediate reference for use on your smartphone or tablet. All words are spoken, ideal for pronunciation. The layout is clean and clear. Most importantly, the idiomatic meanings and usage of each word is described quite extensively. A useful feature is to be able to look up the words inside for complex or compound words.
It is available for IOS only at the moment (There might still be an old Android app but it is out of date and clunky, so avoid for now). Make sure to buy the bundle with the Thai phrases, because then you can see sample sentences using the word you looked up in context.
Cons. The updated version for IOS is excellent. The developer, Chris Pirazzi, more-or-less implemented all the changes I recommended several years ago. However, the Android and Windows versions haven’t been updated and still have fairly awful interfaces.
In fact, Talking Thai for IOS is so good and so useful, I recommend buying a basic iPhone even if only as a dedicated Thai dictionary. You can get factory refurbished ones at Lazada for around ฿5,000.
Suggestions. Switch off transliteration in the settings. It’s useful to select “Simple Thai” to help you sound out complex words. Also, get used to reading sentences without spaces. There are enough demarcation clues to help you mentally separate out words in a sentence anyway. (Contact me if you haven’t got the list of demarcation clues yet.)
This online dictionary is probably one of the best and most comprehensive tool for learning and understanding Thai. Unfortunately, it is no longer available as a standalone/offline app. We are waiting for this to become available with bated breath.
Thai2English will list suggested words as you type and then display not just the definitions of the word you select (plus audio in most cases) but also give you sample sentences so that you can see how the word is used in context (or how to convey the same meaning idiomatically), plus variations in meaning as well as similar-sounding and similarly-spelled words, not to mention a reverse search.
It comes with a translation section where you can copy and paste in text to get a word-for-word breakdown. And there are several useful reference articles about reading and understanding Thai.
Moreover, you can create personal lists of words to study and memorize. If you are learning a language then this is an essential feature. (This feature is not available online, but will be available in the app.)
Cons. The software hasn’t been updated for a long time; there are a few mistakes; and some important omissions (e.g. most Northern Thai words). Some words don’t appear when you search for them, but they are nonetheless in the dictionary (usually as a reverse-search). It would be useful to be able to add notes to a word you’ve looked up, or add your own.
Suggestions. Go to preferences and select “Use phonetic Thai script instead of transliteration”. Get into the habit of never looking at transliterations or tone schema because then your mind will work through the process of decoding a word. And, like a muscle, the more often you do it, the quicker and easier it becomes. Transliterations are mostly wrong anyway and you will end up pronouncing many words incorrectly, even if you can already read!
An essential tool for learning any language is a “spaced-repetition” electronic flash card system. Anki is the best because of how flexible and customizable it is (which is also its Achilees’ Heel). All the Rapid courses come with Anki flashcard decks, but you can also download several lists from the public resource (for any language) or make your own.
The critical feature of Anki is that you only focus on learning the words you don’t know. Words that you do know are gradually pushed lower and lower down the deck so that you never waste time on them again. Anki uses “spaced repetition” to show you each word repeatedly at gradually increasing intervals. In the beginning, you might need to be exposed to a word frequently to help you remember it, but then you will need to refresh your memory after a week or a month or more. Anki manages the scheduling of the vocabulary cards automatically for you.
Cons. It is complicated to install and to setup. It’s designed by a technical person who has prioritized functionality over easy of use. However, once correctly configured, it is (relatively) easy to use. The ergonomic design is plain and functional, which could be improved upon. The interface can be redesigned to your liking, but it requires fairly sophisticated CSS and HTML programming skills.
There are other flashcard systems available, many of them look nicer and are easier to use. However they are not so effective. I will update this review as soon as I find a more suitable product to recommend.
Suggestions. Go to study options and reduce the number of new cards from 20 down to about 12 or 15 (don’t do too much or you will eventually burn out). Also reduce the number of review cards from 100 down to about 30-40.
PICKUP THAI PODCASTS
Once you can read, an excellent way to build up your conversational (and listening) skills is to closely study real conversations. Less is more. It is better to fully understand and memorize the text and vocabulary of a few typical conversations rather than listen to people or the radio or TV indiscriminately in the hope that you’ll pick up something.
Pickup Thai podcasts is a series of short conversations that gradually increase in complexity. They come with audio in three forms: natural speed, slowed down, with English translation; as well as a transcription in PDF or Word formats.
Cons. The podcasts are not interactive. So it’s hard to go back and listen to a particular phrase or sentence repeatedly until you hear it clearly and can comprehend it fully. This is somewhat inefficient. You just need to soldier on and repeat the whole thing several times over the course of several days to eventually get to master each conversation.
Suggestions. Don’t bother to download the transliterated documents. Read the transcriptions in Thai text only.
TALKING THAI AUDIOBOOK – Learn Thai from a White Guy
Not to be confused with the smartphone dictionary app above, this is a series of colloquial conversations that you can study and listen to, developed by Brett Whiteside of Learn Thai from a White Guy. Very similar to Pickup Thai Podcasts, it comes with a PDF consisting of the Thai conversation on one page and the English translation on the opposite page (so you can view them side by side) and an audiofile for each conversation. The focus is on typical, everyday conversation amongst young people – so plenty of slang and colloquialisms. You also get a vocabulary spreadsheet listing the words used on each conversation page.
Cons. Also not interactive, so you just have to follow the conversation as best you can. Both speakers also tend to speak quite fast (which is normal speed for Thais, of course).
It’s also now only part of a much more expensive “inner circle” program with products you don’t need and which aren’t particularly effective (e.g. Read Thai in Two Weeks). However, as part of the full package you get additional packages, such as “high frequency sentences”, etc.
Some of the content is quite useful, but my impression is that Everyday Thai for Beginners is a far more comprehensive and well-thought-out conversational course than Brett’s material or any other course that exists on the market so far (and, believe me, I’ve looked)!
A very comprehensive self-study course in Thai, albeit from a somewhat academic/linguistic approach. There are two products available, starting with Cracking Thai Fundamentals – which takes you from zero to being able to read and pronounce Thai accurately using very similar techniques as in the Rapid Method. The focus is on understanding meaning, rather than simply learning vocabulary and grammar and phrases.
The next phase is to sign up to Thai Bites, which gives you details and insights into various aspects of understanding and speaking Thai, including correct pronunciation.
The author, Stuart Raj, knows what he’s stuff. He speaks over a dozen languages fluently.
Cons. There’s a lot! And some feel that the amount of material available and the approach is a bit overwhelming. The lessons involve a lot of detail and comparisons with other Indic or South East Asian regional languages. If you’re only interested in Thai and nothing else then this may feel like a sledgehammer approach. However, if you think you might end up visiting places like Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, etc. then there’s a good chance that the Jcademy courses will help you to more easily encompass these other languages with Thai as your starting point.
Suggestions. Learn to read Thai with the Rapid Method first and then sign up for Jcademy as a complement to your continuing (conversational) studies, along with Everyday Thai for Beginners and one or two of the recommended courses above.
WOMEN LEARNING THAI
Despite the fact that the author, Catherine Wentworth, dislikes me (and/or the Rapid Method) fervently, there is no reason why I shouldn’t recommend this very comprehensive resource for learning Thai. It is chock-full of reviews and resources for learning Thai.
Cons. Being so comprehensive, many of the resources recommended are in fact not so effective. Catherine seems to prefer the conventional, old-school approach, so anything that does not follow the well-trodden approaches to learning Thai will be excluded from the website (this is perhaps why the Rapid Method does not appear there, not even in the form of a negative review). There is an advantage to the conventional approach: you can buy any book or course or join any language class and fit in immediately. So if you also prefer the approach that is followed by most other schools or language text books then this resource will help you to select the most appropriate products for you.
THAI FOR BEGINNERS BY BENJAWAN POOMSAN BECKER (PAIBOON)
I’m afraid I don’t like this book at all. And it’s probably made me a lot of enemies because of that. I feel I need to review it because it is probably the singularly most popular book for learning Thai. Nearly everyone who starts Thai will buy this book. I started on this book, also, and I even used it as a reference guide to ensure that the Rapid Method was linguistically correct.
What can I say in its defence? Well, it is thorough and complete. It comes with a CD of audio files with all the sentences and vocabulary spoken in a clear and articulate voice. I used to play through these vocabulary while travelling on the skytrain to and from work every day, trying to remember and anticipate the meanings for each word. Most Thai language schools will follow a variant of the approach followed in this book, not to mention the transliteration scheme has become almost the official translitation standard in Thailand.
Cons. However, it relies almost entirely on phonetic transliterations. The follow-on books (Thai for Intermediate Learners and Thai for Advanced Readers) start to introduce the Thai writing scheme, but in a strange order and in my opinion somewhat erratically. The audio is cumbersome because the page number and item number is announced before each word (who cares!?), which means that it takes ages to listen to the material. I edited the audio tracks using Audacity, cutting out the commentary. But even then, I found that I had to plow through the words I already knew in order to get to the words I still needed to memorize… that’s when I discovered Anki, and threw away the Becker audio files!
The other aggravation I had was that the material is very formal and actually quite dated. It’s a school textbook for learning “examination” Thai. There were topics or vocabulary introduced that I had absolutely no need for as a beginner. (For example, the intermediate book starts with the names of the festivals and all the 76+1 provinces in Thailand. Sure, useful to know at some point, but not while I’m still figuring out how to talk to someone about their interests and feelings, or how to find my way on the trains and buses.)
Suggestions. There are better and more modern books available. If you insist on focusing on speaking-before-reading (and so must rely on transliterations) then start off with something like Instant Thai or Thai Beginner’s Course.
– review to follow
High Speed Thai www.highspeedthai.com
- review to follow
- overwhelming – unless you particularly want a mass of material (1,000 A4 pages!)
- reading course is a knock-off of Thai Alphabet in a Day (and mostly wrong)
- have to install incompatible, older version of Anki
- audio/video quality quite bad
AUA LANGUAGE SCHOOL
– review to follow
- excellent as an “ear training” resource
- it’s fun and requires little effort (just sit back, relax and listen)
- don’t jump in from scratch (their idea is you absorb by listening like a child: that takes way too long and is fuzzy)
- learn to read separately, learn basic conversational Thai and then attend the AUA classes at the level below the one they suggest, so that you can just enjoy the experience of listening and understanding (you’re not trying to learn anything new, which is what they will urge you to do)
PRO LANGUAGE LANGUAGE SCHOOL
– review to follow
- a decent, conventional school
- a little dull and traditional, but solid – especially at the intermediate/advanced levels
- the lessons move fast, so be prepared to do a lot of self-study before and after lessons in order to memorize the content thoroughly.
WALEN LANGUAGE SCHOOL
– review to follow
- a strange method, a kind of literary version of ALG: read the same text (even before you’ve learnt to read) over and over again with your teacher out loud – i.e. repeating the same course 3-4 times – until it kind of sinks in.
- it’s based on question-and-answer conversations, usually about everyday situations, the theory being that you will eventually remember the formulaic sentences for the situation at hand.
BOOKS OR COURSES TO AVOID
– list (and reasons) to follow