"For someone who's been here over twenty years, your Thai is not very good is it?"
Those would be cruel words coming from just about anybody, but when they come from a Bangkok taxi driver, they hurt even more. I've had Bangkok cabbies praise my linguistic ability just by hearing me say "bpai Sayam Sakwaa" (can you take me to Siam Square?) so when you get a driver telling you that your spoken Thai is rubbish, you know instantly that this guy isn't fooling around.
It had started innocently enough with the usual, time-honored favorites such as "which country do you come from?" and "do you have a Thai wife?" but once the pleasantries were over and the conversation shifted to shall we say, the lower intermediate level, I felt seriously out of my depth.
The cold, hard truth
I felt myself go a shade of red and shifted uneasily in the front passenger seat. We continued the rest of the short journey in silence and when we reached our destination, I slunk from the cab a broken man. But the guy was right on the money. For someone who had lived in Thailand for over two decades, my spoken Thai was becoming an embarrassment to me. Something had to be done.
Before I go any further, I should point out that I'm probably being a little hard on myself here. I'm my own fiercest critic. Truth is my Thai was not really that bad. The taxi driver just caught me on one of those days when I couldn't string a sentence together. I was constantly reaching for words that I knew were in my vocabulary bank somewhere but they had chosen to hide themselves in the deepest recesses of my brain and refuse to come out. Surely even the most fluent Thai speakers must have days like those.
Actually, I had a head start on most foreigners when I first came to live in Thailand. Realizing that I wanted to move here for an extended period and knowing that learning the Thai language would be priceless, I invested a large sum of money (well it felt like a large sum of money at the time) in the excellent Linguaphone Thai course.
I remember calling Linguaphone one morning just to make enquiries and ask if they indeed had a course in Thai, but their sales staff did such a wonderful job on me that two days later, the postman was knocking on the door with a parcel containing three text books and six cassettes - all packaged beautifully in their own presentation case.
I attacked the course with great gusto. I had twelve months before I was due to fly to Thailand and there wasn't a moment to lose! I had an hour's bus journey to work each morning and an hour back in the evening, and I would spend the whole commute with the tapes playing in my Sony Walkman (remember those) and annoying the passengers around me as I tried to master the Thai tones.
I even had my mother test me on the vocabulary lists, which used to annoy the hell out her if she was plowing through a pile of ironing or trying to watch Celebrity Squares.
Still a great course
I loved that Linguaphone course. Even though it's twenty-five years old, I still blow the dust off the textbooks now and again and chuckle at the adventures of the three main characters whose day-to-day stories run for over forty lessons.
There's Khun Tom, a foreign businessman with a twinkle in his eye, who runs a small company in Bangkok and enjoys the odd weekend in Pattaya. Then there's his loyal secretary, Khun Ooy, who I always suspected Tom secretly fancied. And finally Khun Tawat, Tom's personal driver, who never said a great deal but had a penchant for chewing matchsticks and wearing his sunglasses indoors.
It's still a terrific course for the beginner and on occasion, when someone has ever asked me if I've studied the Linguaphone Thai program, I usually reply with "studied it!? I've got a black belt in it!"
Speaking Thai from day one
So when I arrived in Thailand, it's fair to say I could already hold a basic conversation. Many Thai friends from those early days couldn't believe it when I used to pull their legs and tell them what Thai I could speak was only what I had ‘picked up' on the flight over.
For the first five years here, I would say my Thai improved steadily. Both my vocabulary range and my speaking confidence increased and my listening comprehension improved a lot. I never felt the need to take any formal Thai lessons. The Bangkok streets were my classroom.
The dreaded ceiling
Then something happened which I think happens to a lot of long-term expats who live here and start learning the Thai language with the very best intentions - I hit a ceiling. I got to a point where my spoken Thai became ‘as good as it was going to get'. If I was going to take my speaking ability to the next level, it would require a lot more effort on my part. Unfortunately for me, that's when sheer laziness crept in.
I could order food in a restaurant. I could negotiate prices in a market. I could ask for details about my Thai friend's plans for the weekend. I could discuss my family and work. I could ask what time the next bus to Khorat left. I could function perfectly well in most daily situations. Sure, it would have been nice to hold lengthy exchanges on Thai politics with my Thai friends and understand the TV news, but frankly I could live without all that.
So for the next fifteen years, with regards to improving my Thai language skills, I did almost nothing!
I say almost nothing. I did enroll at a couple of Thai language schools for a trial period and I did try exchanging English language lessons for Thai lessons with a Thai teacher in a corner of McDonalds but all of these experiences just left me with feelings of frustration.
I suppose it's because I was a teacher myself for many years that I probably set the standards too high. I got annoyed when Thai teachers would use Thai vocabulary and sentence structures that many Thai speakers would deem as ‘over-polite' - and I got frustrated when Thai teachers wouldn't correct my pronunciation even though I knew myself I was saying a word incorrectly.
It just wasn't working for me.
But to go back to the taxi driver at the beginning of the story (remember him?) When he told me in no uncertain terms how bad my Thai was, it lit a fire under my ass. I knew I had to do something about it and I had to take full responsibility for my own progress.
I hatched a plan and decided to turn to my Thai family for help. I enlisted the help of both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law and said "guess what? You're going to be my Thai teachers"
In part two, I'll tell you how I've progressed in the last four years since that fateful conversation with the Bangkok taxi driver. Why studying with my mother-in-law just didn't work out. Why a few hours study a week just wasn't enough. And some of the techniques I've used to help me get closer to speaking Thai well.