Visitor’s Guide to This Site: Where to Begin
Professor John Hartmann
jhartman@niu.edu

Thai Language and Culture [www.seasite.niu.edu/thai] is an information-rich, multimedia, interactive web site that is being developed for a very wide audience. Because of the complexity of the site, a few words on how to use the site are in order.  In addition to this narrative overview, an alternative assist is found in a navigational outline of the contents of this site.  The newcomer should welcome some guidance on where to begin in order to avoid getting needlessly lost in a web of pages. On subsequent visits to the site, simply go to the angel-decorated door, and open it - after downloading the Thai fonts from the fonts link placed on the Thai Language and Culture Homepage or the SEAsite Homepage.

The Casual Visitor

For the casual browser, we have compiled information on food, travel, news, and "Quick Thai" - a list of basic phrases and practical information on culture. Three slide shows provide colorful glimpses with brief descriptions of traditional rice farming, a village ordination, and annual festivals.  A brief flash presentation of the popular April water-splashing festival called Songkran shows Thais having having fun in the hot season.  Under Art and Architecture, you will be treated to a serious lecture written in English and illustrated with color slides on a historically significant Thai temple. Another flash presentation, Ancient Market, takes the viewer on a tour of a typical urban market of a century or more ago, complete with now outlawed opium dens.  The explanatory text is in Thai, with rollover vocabulary translation into English provided for the intermediate reader. Most of the pages, however are designed for long-term, serious study and maintenance of the Thai language. 

The Serious Novice Learner

The Thai alphabet itself, which some students may wish to learn before tackling reading connected text, is presented on a separate set of pages of "language" details, beginning with the consonants, then the vowels, and finally tone marks and numerals.  Because tones are the most critical feature of that language that determines changes of meaning, a tone discrimination self-assessment test is available and should be accessed as soon as possible. 

The same "language" page includes information on using the Thai dictionary, a chart showing the relationship between syllable type, spelling, and spoken tones. Pages contrasting the dictionary order, similarity in shape, and keyboard layout of letters can be printed out. A photo at the top of the language page can be enlarged on-screen to reveal the inside view of a typical Thai elementary schoolroom with photos of the King and Queen and charts used to teach the alphabet. In addition, the text of the Ram Khamhaeng Inscription is presented in four ways: 1) images of the original four sides of the inscription, 2) Sukhothai script transliterated into modern Thai script to reflect the original placement of graphemes, 3) the text in modern Thai script,  and 4) the English translation.

New students of the language are advised to begin learning to read the language in context by clicking on the rotating "Maanii" icon on the Home Page. This will lead to a series of forty lessons based on an authentic Thai primer published by the Thai Ministry of Education and used for years in Thai primary schools. Each lesson introduces a carefully controlled inventory of elements in the writing system. Using the multimedia capacity of the internet, we have added playable speeches so that letters and words can be matched to sound. Carrying this capacity a step further, we have added Java exercises and quizzes to teach, test, and provide feedback in perception of changes in lexical tone, meaning, and syntax. Because Thai is a tonal language, it is imperative to gain control over tonal contrasts, first as a listener, then as reader, writer, and speaker. Each Maanii lesson begins with a few lines of narrative that provide an authentic context for introducing spoken sounds and written symbols. The sequencing follows principles of simplicity and learning through author-intended contrasts in sounds, letters, and word shapes.  Once the Maanii materials have been mastered, the learner can move on to the interactive lessons of the Thai Reader of Mary Haas. LLS (Language Learning Strategies) offers guidance in learning to read efficiently.

Authenticity is brought to the task of learning to read words and phrases through separate pages of signs, restaurant menus, fruits, vegetables grown in a kitchen garden, maps, currency, and colorful proverbs.  A train schedule has been posted for the intermediate reader of authentic Thai materials.

The task of learning to speak Thai is managed on several levels. "Quick Thai" is a separate page designed for travelers who want to learn some of the basics of Thai in a short time. This page introduces the traveler to a brief overview of Thai culture and includes a handful of links to news, currency, food, and travel sites.

A step above is a series of short conversations composed of and illustrated with attractive photos by an undergraduate student who went to live in Bangkok after only one year of classroom Thai at Northern Illinois University. Her camera takes us into taxis, noodle shops, apartment foyers, and out on to the streets of the metropolis. A complete course in Spoken Thai based on the classic text by the great pioneer in Thai linguistics, Mary Haas, is a sure path to basic command of the language, provided the learner is dedicated, motivated, and willing to spend hundreds of hours in focused practice and production.


From the Comic, to the Romantic, to the Serious: Literature and The Arts

The link to Thai literature reveals a belief that literature and the arts do not need to be limited to the classics. However, we do recognize the centrality of the classic tale of the Indian prince Rama in Thai culture. The Thai version of the ancient epic is the Ramakian. Here, the truly serious student can read and listen to a large portion of the text in poetic form (in Thai script and English translation); the episode dealing with the abduction of Rama’s wife, Sita, is quite popular with the Thais themselves. The story has been brought to life by Thai artists in the beautiful murals at Bangkok’s Temple of The Emerald Buddha and the khon masks worn by dancers on stage. An English-only text is available as both an introduction to and summary of the epic. For English-speaking young people, the Indian version of the Ramayana is accessible as an e-text, beautifully illustrated with colored drawings.  On a more popular and modern level, a touching poem entitled "Missing Bananas" and presented in Thai and an English translation, combines the humor of the figure of a monkey with a note of unexpected sadness of poverty and hunger in a surprise ending.

Popular forms for conveying Thai culture include cartoons and comics. Comic books are especially good for their portrayal of everyday speech and social relationships. In one, the life of a rural teacher is portrayed; in another, the dilemma faced by a young Thai guy who has AIDS. Folktales and story telling add another dimension to transmitting culture through entertaining stories. Pop songs are without doubt the cultural form that dominates the performing arts, replacing earlier forms of popular entertainment, such as the shadow puppet theatres, which are still tenuously alive in southernmost Thailand.  


Short Stories for Everyone

For both the student of the Thai language and those who want to read translated works of literature that reflect modern life, short stories centering on the theme of urban experience have been selected from the writings of a gifted male writer, Wanich Jarungittanand, and an equally talented female author, Sri Dao Ruang. The latter has written a short story about a Bangkok mother of three who has been abandoned by her husband. Her name is Matsii, the name of the wife of the Buddha-to-be, Prince Wetsandorn (Vessantara), who figures in a jataka tale of the same name: The Vessantara Jataka, summarized and illustrated here as well. Other short stories in bilingual form are being added as well. Portions of novels (e.g., Red Bamboo by Khukrit Pramoj) will be appearing in the future.

News and Links

News - radio and t.v. - about Thailand can be accessed directly from the icons  (Voice of America, British Broadcasting, Asia Source) on the opening page or from the link inside the left door.  Several newspapers can be read online in Thai or English.  It will be necessary to download fonts to read the newspapers.  Links to numerous sites are updated from time to time.   We recommend that you go to the University of Massachusetts site for video clips of everyday scenes in Thailand that present useful information for tourists and foreigners who plan to take up residence in the country. 

Caution about Browsers

Internet Explorer seems to work well, but can present problems in displaying Thai fonts depending on the age and brand of your computer.  So please be advised to experiment with other browsers and different generations - old and new.  Finally, don't neglect to visit "Gibby" via the gibbon icon.  She is our site mascot and guardian of the Thai ecosystem and the culture built around it. 

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