A recent comment thread on another post got me to think about a major stumbling block most of us (certainly me) might have when learning Thai or any other language. In the other post we were talking about the difference between using the word กิน to mean “have” as in, “I want to have rice.” I don’t agree with this interpretation at all, but the subsequent discussion did bring up some interesting thoughts.

I’m still very much aware that my Thai language skills are not that great, but I think most of it has to do with the fact that I’m still thinking and trying to learn in English…

In regard to the conversation in the Pimsleur thread, the issue stems from the fact that กิน doesn’t mean “to have,” it means “to eat.” But, in English, we very often use the word “have” to mean “eat.”  When someone in English says, “I want to have rice” we all understand what the speaker means, but when you break it down it’s not exactly correct English. The actual, more correct way to say that would be, “I want to eat rice.”

Have” — especially by a non-native English speaker — could very easily be interpreted to mean that you want to own rice, not necessarily eat it.

Semantics?

Perhaps, but I think it’s a very important distinction to make when we’re talking about learning another language. For example, Thai speakers will often use the word “how” instead of “where” when talking about going somewhere. Translated into English this sounds very awkward.

So Why Think in English?

Well, of course, the answer seems rather obvious but it’s not necessarily the right answer. We shouldn’t be thinking in English, we should be thinking in Thai. This can be a problem, however, especially when we are studying/learning on our own. Is there a perfect solution? I don’t think there is ever a perfect solution, but there are some things that will help:

  1. Listen to a lot of Thai — songs, movies, the news, TV… whatever you can. Listen, listen, listen!
  2. Talk to Thai people as much as possible. Don’t try to get everything perfect; just go with the flow and try and to concentrate on just talking without perfecting; that will come naturally.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff! Seriously. One of the great things about the Thai language is that it’s very forgiving. You can screw it up pretty well and people will still understand what you mean. The more dirt time you put into it (as with anything you do) the better you will get, but don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed with nailing it all perfectly. There’s something to be said for just “going for it” and learning on the fly.