Thai Language Hut School interview with Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Benjawan Poomsan Becker is a highly respected interpreter and awarding winning author of Thai language-learning media. She is also the founder and president of Paiboon Publishing, the number one publisher for Southeastern Asian languages. Benjawan is the author of the wide range of Thai language learning materials used by Thai Language Hut School. These professional language materials are unrivaled by any other publisher for the range of levels and the variety of media available. Paiboon Publishing’s products allow our Thai language students to learn Thai using many types of convenient media, books, CDs, Videos and Smartphone Apps using the same phonic system. This provides a huge benefit to learners of Thai.
The market for learning languages is moving away from printed hardcopy to softcopy and Smartphone apps, as customers are demanding a more immediate and personalized experience. Both Paiboon Publishing and Thai Language Hut School are addressing this trend by providing these services.
The questions for this interview originated from our teachers and students at the end of 2012 who were interested in learning more about Benjawan’s motivations and interests and the future of foreign language learning, particularly Thai.
Question 1: Why do you have such a burning interest in languages and interpretation? What motivated you to become an interpreter?
In my book The Interpreter’s Journal, which is my memoir about becoming a professional interpreter, I talk about my early interest in learning languages. I grew up in rural Thailand hearing my father speaking English. He learned to speak English when he was in the Thai army and he became the most accomplished speaker of English in our area of Thailand. I started to dream about traveling to the exotic foreign countries where they spoke English. I quickly realized that the key to being able to travel and communicate would be to learn the language. So, I started my English learning program at an early age.
By the time I was a teenager I was helping the other kids in our village with their English lessons. As I point out in my book, I earned my first 200 baht spending two hours translating love letters for a young Thai woman when I was fifteen. “A lot of people around here would have to work for days to earn that much. I started to get the idea that this might be a good career to pursue.”
Question 2: What motivated you to become a Thai language expert?
I have studied the Thai language extensively and understand how people learn a new language. I have personally developed over 25 Thai language-learning products for non-Thai speakers and would consider myself highly knowledgeable about the Thai language. I am also fluent in the Lao language.
I love to learn new words and new languages. After working for hours on inputting new words and definitions into our Talking Thai-English dictionary app, my way to relax is to play online word games on my iPad for a while before going back to work on word definitions. I feel lucky to be able to get paid to work with words, which is what I love to do.
As a publisher we have developed other Southeast Asian language-learning materials, including the Burmese, Lao, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Cambodian languages. My goal with Paiboon Publishing was to become the best publisher in the niche market of Southeast Asian language learning materials. We don’t have the huge marketing budget like the other large publishers so our materials have to be better and less expensive. The depth of the Thai language materials we produce is unmatched by any other publisher. I’m not sure exactly why it happened, but Rosetta Stone stopped selling their Thai language program a few years ago. When customers experience the high quality of our language products they tend to purchase additional materials from us and not buy other publisher’s products.
Question 3: What are the main problems you find with interpreting between one language and another?
In my book, The Interpreter’s Journal, I devote an entire chapter to “Mistakes and Misinterpretations.”
When an interpreter is working to convey one person’s words into another language, there are many elements conspiring to disrupt the flow of accurate information. The exact meaning of words, slang terms, noise distractions, accents, speech defects, and fatigue can all play a part in interrupting the precise meaning from being communicated. I have many interesting examples where the wrong word or phrase can have a huge influence on the outcome of a case. “The Thai expression mai ruu suk dtua can have different meanings, and I initially chose the wrong definition for the context of the testimony in this particular case. In this instance my misinterpretation was easy for me to identify because, as the prosecutor continued his questioning, the scenario didn’t make sense. “You mean that he was trying to force you to have sex with him while he was unconscious?” I needed to correct my interpretation immediately.” This example wasn’t necessarily a mistake, but rather the wrong choice from a number of similar options.
During a deposition there was a loud brief noise and I had a hard time hearing the question…”an attorney was questioning the deponent, and I heard him ask: “Does your daughter have any problems with your nation?” The deponent was surprised when he heard that in Thai, so he asked back in Thai, “What do you mean?” The attorney then clarified in English: “Whether she has problems in the bathroom or urinating at night.” In this situation the confusion was the difference from hearing “your nation” and “urination.”
The most common reasons for misinterpretation are that the interpreter doesn’t understand the source language well enough, the interpreter is unfamiliar with the subject, or the interpreter doesn’t know all the definitions of a particular word.
For words that have multiple, dissimilar meanings, an interpreter needs to be diligent in selecting the most precise word or expression to accurately relate what a person is saying. If you take the word “glass,” it can mean a glass for drinking, a mirror, a windowpane, even a barometer or a spyglass.
Question 4: Why did you take the step to write language materials for foreign language learners?
It started when I was going to school in Japan and was asked to teach Thai part-time at Berlitz and at the Thailand – Japan Trade Association. I developed some Thai language-learning materials, which I typed up and handed out. My materials became popular and I found the students photocopying my work and giving the handouts to their friends. When I moved to the US I was asked to teach Thai to English speakers so I did the same thing and wrote up Thai language-learning materials and provided them to my students. Soon I was being asked to create a Thai language-learning book since my students and their friends were having trouble managing all the photocopied pages.
Question 5: What was your key motivation to develop and then continue developing language-learning materials for Thai Language learners?
The key-motivating factor for me in developing Thai language-learning materials is my passion for learning languages and my desire to help people communicate. I wanted to create user-friendly, high-quality, low cost materials that anyone could afford to own. My idea was to create a phonetic system of transliteration that would help the student pronounce the Thai words without having to be able to read the Thai script. I have a strong background in phonetics and a very good ear for hearing sounds. I might go so far as to say I was gifted in my ability to hear sounds. This allowed me to be able to develop the Paiboon transliteration system for the Thai language. As we published materials for other languages I used the Paiboon system to develop transliterations for the words and phrases in the books and now Smartphone apps for many languages beyond Thai. I can apply my ability to hear sounds and use the Paiboon system to create a transliteration for many languages. We currently have this available for Mandarin Chinese, Burmese, Cambodian and Lao. If you start your language studies using our Paiboon products for one language it’s easy to pick up a second language because the transliteration system in all of our products is the same or very close.
I can safely say Paiboon Publishing is the number one publisher of Thai language-learning materials for English speakers and we have no competition in the depth and quality of the Thai materials we offer. We have products from beginning Thai to Intermediate, Advance and focus on specialized areas of the language with our Speak like a Thai series. And our dictionary app reference material has no equal for the quality it provides. The exciting news is that our soon-to-be-released Talking Thai-English Phrasebook app and the upgrade to our dictionary app is going to blow people’s minds with the features and content they will have.
We expect sales of our Paiboon Publishing Thai language Smartphone and Tablet apps to skyrocket in 2015 with the ASEAN Economic Community coming. Many more foreign speakers will be conducting business in Thailand and will need to talk with Thai speaking businesspeople. Our apps will be the easiest and most convenient way for people to speak to each other and conduct business, thus fulfilling my desire to help people communicate.
Question 6: What in your experience are the main problems language learners experience when attempting to learn a new language?
Again my book, The Interpreter’s Journal addresses these issues. If you decide that you’re interested in learning a new language, your first step is to determine what level of competence you’re looking to achieve and what you intend to do with your newly acquired language skills. A few simple phrases for a one-week trip to Paris, or do you intend to become a serious student of the language and maybe secure a position as a tour guide or work for a multi-national company overseas? Each of these goals requires a certain amount of time and effort to achieve.
To become proficient in any language takes effort, determination, and years of serious study. It never really ends, and there are no real shortcuts. If you see a language book that has “fast,” “easy,” or “simple,” in the title, beware. If you want to advance in any language to a high degree, you have to be able to listen, speak, read and write in that language. Listening also means comprehending. To become a good listener, pay attention to native speakers and mimic their pronunciation. Try to understand every word they say. Look up words you don’t know. Speaking goes hand-in-hand with listening. You have to practice speaking. Don’t be shy about making mistakes. Mistakes are normal. People make mistakes when they speak all the time, even in their own language. Reading becomes important when you want to achieve a higher level of comprehension. When you only speak the language, you’re limited to the knowledge of the people you speak to. But if you can read, you’ll be able to know the thoughts of the Shakespeare or Einstein of that culture.
Writing is the most difficult of all the four skills to develop, especially for non-Romanized languages. If you learn how to write in your new language, it will force you to concentrate on each letter, which should improve your pronunciation and help you retain your vocabulary longer. All of the Thai, Lao, Burmese, Vietnamese and Cambodian language-learning materials from Paiboon Publishing that we developed teach all four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. To successfully learn and use a new language, it’s necessary to recognize and memorize lots of new words. With a limited vocabulary, you can’t adequately express your needs or intentions. You’ll need to recognize new sentence structure, grammar and exceptions to rules.
Another consideration when learning a language is what materials to use. If you want to learn a tonal language like Thai, it’s impossible to learn without having audio examples for the spoken sounds. All of our Paiboon Publishing Southeast Asian language materials come with audio CDs and all of our Smartphone apps have high-quality audio recordings for every word or phrase. One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is to instill in them with an interest in languages. Like it or not, we all now live in a global economy, and the ability to speak a second language might be considered superior to, and possibly more useful than, a college education – and is considerably cheaper to obtain.
Question 7: Why your books as opposed to others, what is unique?
I design my language products in the format that I would like to learn from, so you can say I create my language-learning materials for myself. In fact, I probably use my Talking Thai-English dictionary app more than any of our customers. I don’t follow other author’s works or use formats that I have seen in other books. From the initial design of Thai for Beginners back in 1996 I thought about what items I would want to learn first, what should be second and so on.
The reason our Paiboon Publishing language materials are so popular is that they are practical. I start with basic but important information like counting, basic grammar and vocabulary and present it in a way that people can see it being useful to them. The words and phrases that are presented can be used immediately; there is nothing esoteric about it and I don’t make it intimidating. My language materials are a balance of being not too difficult but also not being too easy or the student would be bored. Students need to have a sense of accomplishment that gives them the impetus to continue studying and learning the language. Everything I teach builds on what has already been learned in previous chapters. The student can see what they have learned in the previous chapter and how it can be applied to the new material. They see the practical application of the learning process.
Question 8: You started Paiboon Publishing 1996, what changes have you seen in the Asian language-learning marketplace?
When I started Paiboon Publishing the only way to learn a language was with books and audiocassettes. We moved on to audio CDs, DVDs and computer software products. Now the trend is for Smartphone and Tablet apps. Technology continues to evolve and as a publisher we advance with the changes to remain competitive and to continue to be the leader in the Southeast Asian language market.
When I want to learn something new I search YouTube and usually find an explanation of what I’m looking for. One-to-one learning with a teacher is always best and Thai Language Hut School with their Skype sessions is on the leading edge of using the new technology. Language tutors are now available via Skype and YouTube from all over the world. You no longer have to depend on the local Wat or language school for your limited choice of language classes. You can also schedule your classes at times that are convenient for you.
With the coming of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 and the recent reforms in Burma the world will be focused on Southeast Asia in the coming years. The desire and actual need to learn Southeast Asian languages will enlarge dramatically. The necessity for English speakers to communicate with Southeast Asians will increase. People will need to have their language-learning materials available at their fingertips. Paiboon Publishing’s language app products are here to fill all of those needs.
Our goal in creating our apps is to make the best possible language apps at affordable prices. Granted our apps are not inexpensive, but as one reviewer stated, “You get what you pay for!” We spend a considerable amount of time, effort and money in the development of our apps. I have many years of experience in the language learning business and have a successful record of product development that we use for the content development for our apps. We have sophisticated software developers to implement and create features that no other app developer is capable of creating. By taking the best language content and fusing it with the best way to access, assemble and display that content we have been able to create the highest quality language learning experience for our customers.
Currently our Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian for Beginners apps are revolutionizing how people are able to learn a new language. Our Talking Thai-English dictionary app is blowing away the competition and soon we will release an update that will expand the existing 150,000 entries and add more features requested by our customers. No dictionary app on the market can compare to the features in our dictionary app, and that goes for any language not just Thai.
Our Talking Thai-English Phrasebook app will be launching soon and will raise the benchmark for phrasebook apps with the amount of content and features it will provide. And branching out to the huge Chinese market we will soon be launching our Talking Mandarin Chinese Phrasebook app, which we aim to become the high water mark for Chinese language apps.
As the size and influence of the Southeast Asian market continues to grow people will more and more realize the importance of good communication and the need to invest in high quality language materials to be able to conduct their business transactions and guide them through their journeys in these oriental countries. Paiboon Publishing’s reputation will shine even brighter as we continue to create new products to meet the demand of an ever-changing world.