Hubert Burda Media

Tongue Thai-ed: Tomiko Roberts

As part of a series, prominent international fluent Thai speakers tell Prestige how they got where they are today.

Tomiko Roberts

First Secretary at the Australian Embassy Tomiko Roberts already spoke Japanese and Bahasa Malaysia as well as her native English when she moved to Bangkok. But she says it would have been a “waste of opportunity” if she were limited to the English-only expatriate lifestyle. Her deep interest in getting to know a variety of people from all walks of life has enriched her and made her feel part of the community.

How did Thai first sound to you, and what were your first impressions?

I have to be honest, Thai sounded quite harsh and strange to my ear at first. When I found out I would be living in Thailand, I immediately downloaded a Thai news podcast. I remember feeling a sense of bewilderment at what I was hearing; to me, the language sounded like a series of short yet indistinguishable noises. My first thoughts were, “I am never going to be able to make sense of that, and I am never going to be able to sound like that.” Then something amazing happened – one day, about four months into my language training, I realised that Thai sounded beautiful to my ear. I now perceive Thai as being a gentle and melodic language, and the tones, particularly the falling tone, sound beautiful to me. It’s amazing how my perception of Thai has changed so much over time, as my ability to understand and speak the language has developed.

 What was your journey to this point – how long did it take, what strategies did you use, and what’s your study routine?

It has now been 15 months since I first started learning Thai, and while I think I have a broad vocabulary and a pretty good handle of the grammar and syntax, I still have a long way to go to build my fluency. I studied Thai intensively, one-on-one with a tutor for over 12 months in order to attain a level of proficiency for my work. I had three contact hours with my tutor per day, Monday to Friday, and spent the rest of the day reviewing and practicing.  I have three small children and so found that I was not able to study effectively from home. I would therefore stay at my language school all day to study – this had the added benefit of giving me full-time access to my tutors.

Apart from the classroom lessons, my language school arranged excursions to markets, temples and museums for cultural enrichment and also to give me the opportunity to use my Thai outside the classroom. I also attended a terrific lecture at Chulalongkorn University on the linguistic roots of Thai (in Thai.) One of the best things I did was to use my 50-minute round-trip walk to-and-from my school to listen to Thai news podcasts. I listened to Voice of America, NHK news, SBS Thai podcast, and of course the local Thai radio. This really improved my listening comprehension.

What is your best advice for anyone setting out to learn the language?

Learn how to read as early as you can! It’s not as daunting as it looks. While the alphabet is larger than English, it’s manageable. Don’t be daunted by the number of vowels there are – learning to read the vowels makes it much easier to recognise them in speech and say them out loud. In fact, there are no more vowel sounds in Thai than English, they are just more clearly written in Thai than in English.

Also, make use of all the amazing resources online. There are online dictionaries, language podcasts, online tutorials, news podcasts, etc.

Watch Thai movies and TV without putting pressure on yourself to understand them. You will find that over time you naturally pick up vocabulary, expressions and sentence structure – all the while being entertained! Of course, as everyone would advise: actually use the language outside the classroom. Speak Thai all the time, to everyone, for everything. I find people appreciate the effort to speak to them in their own language in their own country, and are generally very patient. Finally, don’t be afraid of the tones – they are truly beautiful.

Photography by Kaan Suchanin