Learning Thai in Chiang Mai

June 5, 2010

About 100 years ago, and in a former life it seems, I was the director of the AUA Language Center in Chiang Mai (really it was the early 1980s). Starting out, AUA, or the American University Alumni Association, was THE place for Thais who wanted to study English.  Although the English teaching competition has grown lately, AUA is still going strong.  But now it is one of the more popular places for Expats to study Thai.

I am a big advocate of Expats or all ages learning as much Thai as possible, especially if we want to retire and live here.  I don’t advocate any one method of study or any specific school.  I do prefer classes over studying individually because language is the ultimate social tool and the give and take in the classroom setting seems to make learning the language more realistic and meaningful.

Below I interview Mr. John Gunther, a friend, and long-time director of AUA Chiang Mai about studying Thai in Chiang Mai.

Hugh:  Why do you think it is important for Expats to study Thai?

John:  First, Hugh, thanks for giving me the chance to talk about this subject — the study of Thai language at AUA in Chiang Mai.  Briefly, many Expats have decided to make Chiang Mai their home– whether that be for one year or the rest of their lives and, because of that commitment, wouldn’t it be to their advantage to live here as comfortably and enjoyably as possible?

In addition,  I know that many Expats want to make or are making valuable contributions to their new home.  So learning about the culture, the customs, and learning how to get along with their new “neighbors” in a sense, will make their lives more comfortable, enjoyable and their contributions more meaningful.

The best way to accomplish those goals is to be able to speak with and understand their Thai friends and colleagues. Being able to speak Thai will enrich their social and professional lives in so many ways.

Hugh:  What does AUA have to offer the student of Thai?

John:  A lot.  We have both group and private/individual classes in speaking, conversation and reading and writing. The group classes meet for six weeks, Mondays to Fridays, in the mornings (10 am to noon) and afternoons ( 1 to 3 pm), so students have a choice of when to study.  The classes are small, ranging in size from 5 to 12 and averaging about 8 students.  The cost is reasonable;  I like to think it’s good value for the money at Bht. 4,200 per 60-hour class.

There are 4 graded speaking/ conversation books and two reading and writing books in our curriculum. By studying one 60-hour book per six week term, a student could complete the entire 6 book program in about 9 months.  Students can also choose to study individually or with a partner or a group of up to 4 friends at our location or at the student’s home or office.  The times and dates of the individual classes are flexible, based on the students’ needs and schedules.  Again, the cost is very reasonable with hourly rates starting at Bht. 320 per hour for one or two students studying at AUA.

As added value, we have a small but very unique Thai studies library with dozens of books (in English) for further study of the language, culture and society.  Thai course students pay Bht. 100 per year for a membership but anyone in the Chiang Mai community can join for a membership fee of Bht. 400 per year.

I’d like to point out that AUA is a Thai, non-profit, educational institute so we really try our best to keep our fees down.

Hugh: How does the AUA Chiang Mai curriculum differ from that taught in Bangkok?  Please describe the AUA Thai courses.

John:    It differs a lot.  The approach in Chiang Mai is one of “focused practice”, which basically means that students are expected to speak– produce the language — from the first day.  Because Thai is a tonal language, if the student cannot speak the tones correctly, the listener will have great difficulty understanding.  Therefore, we focus on tones, as well as grammar and communicative conversational strategies during the class.

Some might think that the method is old fashioned, but it does work!  It recognizes that, as adults, we have something to say, we need to say it, and we have the ability to say it.  This is very different than the ALG (“Automatic Language Growth”, aka “comprehension” or “natural”) approach taught at AUA in Bangkok.

There, students listen to two teachers having a conversation about a pre-determined topic or situation;  for example, buying fruit in the market. The teachers use the vocabulary and structures related to the function of buying something and they speak to each other as they would in the “real world”.  They sometimes look at the students to gauge the students’ understanding of the situation and the language, but they do not require the students to interact or speak.

This continues with various situations or function for hundreds of hours of class.  The theory is that this is the way children learn their native language — by only listening to those around them that speak the language and at some point they then start to speak and eventually become fluent or native speakers– so that method can be transferred to adults learning a foreign language.  This is a very simplified description of the approach, but you get the idea, and the essential difference between Chiang Mai’s “focused practice” and Bangkok’s “natural approach”.

I realize that learners have different styles and there are different paths to language acquisition so I do not judge either method.  We have chosen a different path in Chiang Mai based on what our students have told us they want and their learning needs.  For more information about the ALG approach:   http://www.algworld.com/approach.php

Hugh: Many Thai language schools now are offering help with obtaining visas.  Does AUA help with this and how long is the visa good for?

John:  This is a very “hot” topic now in Thailand.  Yes, we offer visa assistance, and have been doing so for many years.  It’s just a matter of the type of assistance on offer.  Just recently the Thai authorities have allowed students to apply for and be granted a visa extension that could be up to one year based upon support from a language school or institute.

What AUA can offer is this:  If a student abroad wants to study Thai with us and needs visa assistance, we can issue them a letter stating that the student is enrolled in the Thai course for specific study dates.  The student would present this letter when applying for a visa at a Thai embassy or consulate abroad.  Since the Consular section recognizes AUA as a reputable school, they have been kind enough to grant an appropriate visa, usually a non-immigrant visa, that is valid for three months upon entry. Once that three month period is up, we now can have that visa extended, based on the student’s record of attendance at AUA and desired length of study, for up to 9 more months.  We’re just starting this procedure and have to work out some things, especially for those students already in country on a tourist visa, and set appropriate fees, but we feel that this can be very helpful for many who want to study Thai at AUA.

I should emphasize that we are a licensed school under the Thai Ministry of Education, and we  take that accreditation and responsibility seriously and would not issue visa support to anyone not honestly committed to studying Thai at AUA.

Hugh:  How long do you think one would need to study before being able to speak Thai well?

John:  Speak Thai well!?!  You’re asking the wrong person!  I’m a good example of a bad student who after all these years doesn’t speak Thai well.  According to my wife, I’m a buffalo in Thai!

I guess it depends on what you mean by “ability to speak Thai well.”   Seriously, I’d say you need several months of pretty intensive study of say 2 to 4 hours per day before you can feel comfortable outside the classroom to be understood and contribute in conversations.  I’ve known people who speak Thai well after only a few years of study and living close to the Thai community.  And remember, to be considered good at Thai language, you have to be able to read basic Thai, which will help your pronunciation, vocabulary development and cultural awareness.

Knowing a language requires a multi-skill investment.  You’re not getting your full money’s worth if all you can do is speak.  In investment terms, speaking is the principal, but reading is the dividend.

Hugh:  What advice can you give for the beginning student of Thai?

John:  One of my favorite jokes is the one about the passenger in a NYC taxi asking the driver, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and the punch line is “Practice, practice, practice”.   This is so true about learning languages in general and Thai in particular.  But the practice has to have a focus to start with.  And I’m not just saying this because I run a language school, but I believe initially Thai is best studied with a good teacher (at AUA we have experienced, trained and dedicated teachers) in a “formal” situation.

What I mean by that is, NOT just hanging out with Thai family or  friends and “picking up” the language — which is okay, too– but in a setting conducive for learning — a classroom or a quite area of your house undisturbed or distracted by what’s going on around you, so you can focus.  Another avenue to success is to set aside time each day to study, doesn’t matter when; some people’s minds are more “awake” in the morning, others in the afternoon or evenings.  Whatever time is good for you, stick to it every day to review what you’ve been learning “in class”.  Also, remember that learning means making mistakes.  Don’t be afraid to try out those new words and tones outside the classroom in the real world.

I know, having lived in several countries and having tried to speak their languages, that it takes a brave heart to step up to someone and talk to them in a strange language, but the rewards can be unlimited.  Thai can be a tough language but fortunately the Thais just love it when a western face speaks to them. They are so thrilled and accommodating that the experience is usually a very pleasant and positive one for you, the Thai learner.

Another tip:  Back in the day, I learned a lot of Thai by watching Thai soap operas on TV, and while that is still an effective way to learn, today there are lots of self study resources on the web so be sure to look there, too.  I know you have some great links on your site to Thai language resources as well, Hugh.  The final important tip is: Don’t Give Up.

Hugh, thanks for the opportunity to answer these questions.  Now, for the unabashed plug;  If you’d like more information about AUA classes, you can find us at  www.learnthaiinchiangmai.com .

9 Responses to “Learning Thai in Chiang Mai”

  1. Catherine said

    Excellent post Hugh. I had heard about the differences between AUA Chiangmai and Bangkok, but it’s still helpful to get a full explanation.

  2. Damitri said

    Thank you Hugh, this gave me more than enough about Thai language…

  3. Shima An said

    Thank you for the great post. I am also interested in Chiang Mai and Thai language.

    • A really good site for people interested in the Thai language is womenlearnthai.com (and some men too). Lots of good stuff on language and culture. Oh!, and I write for them too.

      Lots of luck.

  4. Snap said

    Hugh, I’ve been documenting my experiences (so far) with CMU’s Language Institute, in regards to their One Year Thai course, on my blog. I know this may be a conflict of interest for you, but was wondering if you knew of anyone who has attended that course, and has written about it online?

    I’ve already paid my non refundable deposit:( so my options are set, but I’d still like to know of other student’s experiences.

  5. Hugh Leong said

    Good info on CMU’s Language Institute. I have no horses in the race. I was once the director of AUA Chiang Mai but I also taught at CMU for 4 years.

    Studies have been done on language learning to determine what variables make for a better experience, school, teacher, textbooks, methodology, etc. They found that the variable with the most influence on how well we learn is the student’s motivation. I believe that the “right” teacher for you is also important.

    You can probably learn Thai from any Thai speaker, taxi driver, mother-in-law, bar-girl. But you will do best when you find the teacher that is best for you. I studied martial arts for many years and we had a saying that when you were ready your real teacher would find you. Lots of luck and keep the motivation high and your teacher will find you

  6. […] for Snap, Hugh is the former director of AUA in Chiang Mai and knows the lay of the land she’s landing […]

  7. That’s very cool technigue dude.
    I enrolled in the Payap program in January and was disappointed in the level available (level 5). I have been studying for a few years now and I want to take my language to the next level. I am waiting to see if they will have level 6 or not but it depends on having enough students. I went to a trial class and it was ok. It seemed good for grasping basic fundamentals and structure but not sure beyond that. It is hard to judge on such a limited basis. On other hand, I have been seeing Kru Simon for the last month and am pleased with the results so far. Lessons are less structured but helpful if you see him regularly. He is like having a good Thai friend who is also a teacher and not too krengjai to correct you and make suggestions.


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