Maa, maa, maa? Thai tones and beginning language learning
September 16, 2012 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking a beginning Thai language class, with an emphasis on oral communication. Is it vital to learn the tones/alphabet first?

I am taking a low-cost Thai language class in the DC area. In the first class, we learned a lot of phrases for telling time, numbers, addresses, etc. We were told how to pronounce certain words (si for 4 is a certain tone and NOT another tone which makes it a bad word...). When another student asked the teacher if we were going to learn the tones, she said we had to learn the alphabet first, and she wasn't going to teach us the alphabet this semester.

Is it worth continuing learning Thai in this type of learning environment/classroom if we're not going to learn the tones right off the bat? I have taken Chinese for a few years so I'm familiar with tonal systems in general, but of course haven't mastered Thai's 5 tones. I'm not seriously invested in learning Thai right now but would like to gain proficiency eventually; I'm just worried that taking this class will mess up my learning if I became serious about it in the future.

Thanks for your help!
posted by elisse to Education (6 answers total)
I've studied Chinese, too, and I can't imagine trying to learn a tonal language without focusing on the differences between the tones. It seems like really sloppy pedagogy.

I'd definitely be worried about insufficiently rigorous instruction leading to engrained mistakes you'll have to unlearn later. Is the instructor strict about pronunciation drills, or does she have an "eh, that's close enough" attitude?
posted by zjacreman at 12:54 PM on September 16, 2012

The Thai alphabet is deeply linked to its tonal system; each consonant is of a certain class that affects the tones of the vowels around it. As a result there are several letters that make the same consonant noise but produce a different tone when combined with different vowels and tone markings. I think it'd be extremely confusing to learn the alphabet without knowing the tones first. That being said there are only 5 tones and you could probably learn them from a YouTube video or something - you'll be hearing them over and over again in the phrases you are being taught. I can recommend the books by Benjawan Poomsan Becker, I learned the Thai alphabet from them and to this day I still remember how all the different consonants and tones work together to produce different tones despite never using it in my daily life.
posted by pravit at 1:13 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I absolutely disagree with your teacher. As a student of a number of languages, including tonal ones (but not Thai), I think that tones are the first thing that need to be nailed down in learning any tonal language. Your teacher's method is an excellent way to develop bad habits and to become incomprehensible. I am sure you appreciate this from your study of Chinese (by which I assume you mean Mandarin).

As an example (and great free resource), please check out the FSI Thai Basic Course. Note that the Introduction to Thai Phonology, which comes before Lesson 1, contains 19 tapes. The companion text should also be of help.

I know that FSI can get pretty dry, but I think that these comparative tone drills are a boon. They are free, public domain materials designed to develop fast proficiency, and I highly recommend them as a part of a language learning program.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:17 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I learned to speak Thai just from listening to people speak Thai, and a little phoenetic phrasebook and I really regretted not learning to read and write first because the way it's written has rules that kind of explain what tone to use, whereas I'd just tried to memorise how I'd heard the people around me say words (I knew the tones but its harder to pick them out of speech than to learn what to use by understanding the rules of the language I think), which made me a pretty crappy speaker.
posted by lifethatihavenotlivedyet at 2:15 PM on September 16, 2012

I get the idea that your teacher is making corrections if words are pronounced with an incorrect tone; is that true?

Learning the numbers gives you all five tones to practice. Low, rising, and falling fall in the first ten numbers and their two-digit combos. Roi - hundred - is high tone, and phan -thousand - is mid.

One of my early teachers said to produce the high tone between the eyebrows, mid tone mid tone at the throat, and low tone at the sternum... if that helps. Obviously hearing them modeled and receiving feedback on how you are producing them is the best. Is your teacher doing that or not really?

I would want active instruction on how to produce words with the correct tone (even if not reinforced by learning written Thai immediately), and not just correction when a mistake is made.
posted by jaruwaan at 6:11 PM on September 16, 2012

The tonal issue aside, I'm of the opinion that a language learning program which teaches in transliteration for any length of time is doing its students a serious disservice (logographic written systems like Chinese as a sole exception). If you learn in transliteration and then have to re-learn what those words actually look like, you're ultimately putting in un-necessary extra work. To me, this is one of the countless marks of sub-par educational materials that ostensibly make learning 'easier' but are actually very counter-productive.

I don't know much about Thai but this is speaking from a lot of experience learning other languages and earning a linguistics degree.
posted by threeants at 6:20 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

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