Foreigners coming to live in Thailand may find living here a tad uncomfortable or even difficult if they cannot speak Thai.
Many say there are obstacles preventing them from doing so - finding a Thai teacher, locating the best Thai language school, giving it a try only to be discouraged by the many tones - and give up in the end.
These are some of the reasons why "Sumaa Language and Culture Institute" was founded.
Established in November 2005, the institute has been offering standard Thai language courses which aim to ensure that students will be able to communicate in a proficient, natural manner and with confidence.
"Our aim is to make Thai language learning fun and easy," said Sasithorn Pityaratstian, principal of the institute. "We designed our courses to be simple for everyone and practical. We hope our foreign students can better communicate and understand Thai and live more easily in a Thai community."
A textbook used at the school.
How did Sumaa start?
Sasithorn said the institute was started by Suvanna Kriengkraipetch, former head of the Department of Thai, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, who also initiated the Intensive Thai Programme for foreigners decades earlier. The programme was taught in the university, with the curriculum being revised and improved from time to time.
Four years ago, the then-retired Suvanna decided to team up with a group of Chulalongkorn academics, including Sasithorn, who had earlier also been involved in developing the Intensive Thai curriculum.
"After gaining more experience from the programme, I felt it was time to advance my teaching from what was an established curriculum to something more variable and adaptable for learners," Sasithorn said.
They set up a Thai language learning centre of their own, and named it "Sumaa", which comes from the names of the key individuals instrumental in founding the centre - "su" from Suvanna, and "maa" from Maturot Pensri, another member of the academic team.
The word "Sumaa" means "moon", which is also the same meaning as the name "Sasithorn". It is no surprise then that the moon became the logo of the institute.
"While the university's Intensive Thai Programme has set a high academic standard, producing excellent students, we want our Thai courses to be easier and less stressful for the learners," said Sasithorn.
What makes Sumaa different?
Because it was founded by a group of language experts and linguists, the institute says it positions itself as a provider of "academic Thai" courses.
"This means both the instructors and content of the course are academic in nature. The instructors follow linguistic rules during every step of teaching, while the content is based on the principles of the Thai language which have been taught as part of the Chulalongkorn curriculum," said Sasithorn.
Jeremy from France is seeing positve results.
She noted Sumaa is unlike other Thai language schools which teach basic Thai just for simple street talk.
"If you only want a simple conversation, we'll teach you what's correct which can be practically used in real life situations," she said.
Thai language is complicated and has several details to comprehend, she explained. For example, the words tawn , por, muea in Thai mean "when", but they are used differently in varying contexts.
Another classic example is the two commonly asked questions among Thais - pai-nai-maa which literally means "where have you been?", and ja-pai-nai which literally means "Where are you going?"
"These questions may be interpreted by many foreigners as being nosy, but I would explain to my students that these are used as a greeting commonly used among friends. Beyond their literal meaning, these questions carry with them good wishes and a sense of concern for the well-being of the person who is being addressed," said Sasithorn.
Feedback from former students.
To make her students better understand Thai culture, she gives another example: the question kin khao ru yang (Have you eaten?) which she describes as a Thai way of expressing their hospitality.
Apart from learning culture, the question pai-nai-maa also indicates the complexity of the language.
"Only two simple words, pai [go] and maa [come], have to be really understood. Let's take pai-nai-maa for example. What does it actually mean? Why we use both pai and maa in the same question?" said Sasithorn.
"Our explanation is that the Thai language has a direction of action. When we ask pai-nai-maa, the meaning is 'Where did you go before you came here?' This is only one example. Actually, the words pai and maa are used frequently in other contexts," she said.
The team of instructors.
Besides Thai language lessons, the institute also offers what's called an Academic Support course, which is designed for foreign students or scholars who want deeper Thai knowledge on particular issues, such as those who are doing academic research and need help with difficult Thai textbooks.
Students applying for this course are required to have a strong foundation in the Thai language. They should at least be able to speak and read general Thai text before going into something more complicated.
"This course will be tailor-made to each student's needs. However, we do insist that we place emphasis on the language rather than the particular subjects. If a student needs help on a legal topic, we can help them to better understand social background and the intricately written text, but it's impossible for us to know legal aspects better than people who study it," she explained.
Thai teachers and foreign students.
The five instructors were carefully screened before undergoing written tests, teaching practise, and an interview to find out more about their personalities and cultural knowledge.
"The most important qualification for a teacher is compassion. Students come to us seeking knowledge. If we have compassion for them, we will give them what they require and even more than what they expect," she said.
Neither too hard nor too easy to achieve
Sasithorn said students who come to Sumaa show marked signs of improvement. Most can speak more fluently both in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Although many make initial mistakes, they will know immediately what they said is incorrect.
During conversations in class, the teachers will take notes and at the end will help correct students' mistakes. Students who keep making the same errors, are guided to correct them.
"An evaluation test is not necessary as most of our classes are private. Teachers usually give feedback at the end of each hour. Every week, we'll talk to the students about what improvements they make or obstacles they encounter, while we advise what weaknesses need to be improved. Teachers will help the students to evaluate themselves," she said.
She also urges her students to keep practising outside the classroom.
"Since they are learning Thai, and are in Thailand, I tell them to always look for Thais to practise speaking with. If not, what they can do is record voices and listen as often as possible to get familiar with the tones of the language," she said.
After a certain period of time, if students don't show any sign of progress, they can even be rejected.
"If they seem uncooperative in improving themselves, if they don't practise or revise a lesson when out of class, and are never ready for the next chapter, I will simply tell them to quit, and come back when they have the time to take things seriously. It's not worth their money nor our time," she said.
Jeremy, a 23-year-old Frenchman, has only been at the institute for two weeks and hopes to be fluent in Thai.
"Living here is a lot easier if you can speak Thai," he said.
Jeremy has been in Thailand for nearly a year, working as a freelance special effects expert for the film industry. His job often sees him working with Thai colleagues who can't speak a word of English, making it very hard to communicate.
Jeremy said he has seen some positive results after two weeks at the school.
"I feel that conversation is easier and more advanced. Before I could talk no longer than five minutes with Thai people. Now it's getting better," he said.
COURSES ON OFFER
The institute's curriculum comprises eight courses, including Beginner 1-2, Intermediate 1-2, Upper Intermediate 1-2, and Advanced 1-2. Each course lasts 60 hours.
Sasithorn said beginners start from basic conversation with the use of phonetic alphabets. The text for this level is all written in English to allow better understanding.
''This level is to make learners more familiar with the tones, vocabulary and sentence structure in the Thai language,'' she said.
The Beginner 2 level puts emphasis on Thai grammatical rules. Students will be able to create more sentences of their own. After progressing to intermediate level, students will get to know the Thai consonants and tones more, and begin to practise writing.
Once they understand the tones, and learn to combine the sounds and tones of consonants, vowels and intonation, it will be easier to write.
More intense teaching will be provided as the students advance to more higher levels.
The classes on offer include classes every day, three hours a day at 250 baht per hour, and private lessons where students can choose the date and time, at 450 baht per hour. The academic support course also allows students to choose the date and time, with a fee of 300 baht per hour.
People interested in these courses are welcome to a two-hour free trial.
Sasithorn added the institute has recently introduced online remote teaching through Skype. This started when one of her students had to move back to Hawaii and wanted to continue the lessons.
''He said he didn't want to forget what he'd learn, and suggested we try doing it on Skype. It works quite well, though it's not as good as learning in a real classroom, but at least my student won't lose his skills while he is away,'' said Sasithorn.
There are about five students currently learning on Skype. The fee is also 450 baht per hour _ the same as a private lesson.
For more information, visit www.sumaa.net