Bangkok Phil

My struggles with the Thai language part 2

My past four years of Thai study and how I have motivated myself

Many thanks to all the people who gave me positive feedback on part one of ‘My Struggles with the Thai Language'. It seems that a lot of other Thai learners out there have gone through similar experiences to mine. They hit what I call ‘the ceiling' and realized that it would take a tremendous effort to take their spoken Thai onto the next level. If you're someone who's in that boat, you certainly have my sympathy.

So just to refresh your memory, a chance conversation with a Bangkok taxi driver had forced me to admit that my spoken Thai had improved very little in fifteen years. For someone who had lived in Thailand for so long, my Thai was nowhere near the standard that it should have been. I had to do something about it. So I turned to two people very close to home - my mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

I suppose you might say this is the story of the past four years.

Family Thais

My sister-in-law runs a small handicraft shop on a large housing estate (or ‘moobaan' as Thais call them) It's almost the classic Thai ‘vanity business' - one of those businesses you see a lot here where the owner makes just enough money to cover the rent and a bit of pocket money on top. Although she has a steady stream of regular customers, she's never what you would call ‘rushed off her feet'. She has plenty of time on her hands. We had a chat about me studying Thai with her and we agreed to meet at the shop, once a week on a Wednesday morning for two hours.

Because I was ‘family', my sister-in-law was reluctant to charge me anything for her time but I insisted she take something. You often find that when you engage someone's services - even a family member - and you don't reward them for their time, their motivation levels go down very quickly. I offered my sister-in-law 500 baht for two hours of Thai study and she gratefully accepted. It's not a lot of money I know but it's more than she sometimes takes in one day sitting behind the counter of her shop.

My mother-in-law was also very enthusiastic about becoming my part-time Thai teacher. She's a retired nursing sister in her mid-70s, but still very sharp of mind and young at heart. However, since she stopped working at the hospital some twenty years ago, most of her days at home are spent curled up on the sofa watching TV or reading books - with no one to keep her company.

When I told her three children (one being my wife of course) about my plan to study Thai with their mom, I got a thumbs-up from all three. "It will give mom something to look forward to and keep her brain active" they all said. I was apprehensive about offering any money for the lessons so I asked my wife about the best course of action. I was told in no uncertain terms that mother would be deeply offended if I suggested any kind of payment. Now that's my kind of Thai teacher!

So I agreed to study with her twice a week on Tuesday and Friday mornings for just one hour each time. No money ever changed hands, but she appreciated the small gifts of fruit or flowers from time to time.

Lesson planning

The first hurdle I faced was that neither my mother-in-law nor sister-in-law had ever done any teaching. In addition to that, neither of them had what I would call ‘a natural ability' to teach. The onus was totally on me to prepare all the lessons in advance and make full use of the study time.

I began raiding the local Thai bookshops for any materials I could use in the lessons - picture dictionaries, English conversation textbooks with Thai translations and English study textbooks with cartoons, - you name it. In no time at all I had built up quite a library. However, I soon found that it was taking more time to prepare each lesson than the actual time spent studying. Even four hours of Thai study a week (plus all the preparation) became a very time-consuming process.

So I set about studying Thai with my two family members. I should point out here that my sister-in-law is a fairly competent English speaker. She's nowhere near as good as my wife but she can hold a conversation and make herself understood. My mother-in-law's English is non-existent. She knows a handful of nouns and that's about it. I kind of liked that aspect of studying with my mother-in-law because it became a ‘total immersion' class. From the moment I sat down with her and opened my study materials, we could only ever communicate in Thai.

Two Thai languages

However it wasn't long before I hit a major obstacle. I found myself literally learning two versions of the same language. My sister-in-law was teaching me what I would call ‘street Thai' (the version that Thais use in day-to-day life and exactly what I wanted to learn) but my mother-in-law was teaching me ‘formal, almost what you might call ‘written Thai' (which was what I didn't want)

Sometimes when my wife or sister-in-law would ask me what I had studied that day with mother, I would go over some of the vocabulary and sentence structures and they would roar with laughter and say "the only Thais who use that kind of language are mom and her group of friends - and most of those friends are dead!"

I hate to say this because my mother-in-law is a wonderful person and she's been exceptionally generous to me, but I was forced to concede that the lessons with her were a waste of time. The Thai language is hard enough to learn as it is without having to learn two bloody versions of it!

Rather than tell my mother-in-law the hurtful truth, I made excuses that I was busy with work, etc and the lessons gradually fizzled out. Now we spend the time gardening together instead. She's not improving my Thai anymore but the garden looks bloomin' lovely.

I continued the Thai lessons with my sister-in-law though and I still study with her to this day. The venue has changed from her shop to her house (which is conveniently next door) and I now study with her every Sunday afternoon instead of during the week - but we still meet for two hours every time.

Progress - but not fast enough

For three and a half years (possibly more) those two-hour sessions with the sister-in-law became my only opportunity to study and practice speaking Thai. I would do my best to pick up a few more words and phrases in-between lessons - mainly by chatting with Thai friends at the gym - but it was a rather slap-dash approach to learning. There was just no structure to any of it. And as a learner of any language - not only Thai - will tell you, two hours a week just isn't enough. I began trying to learn too many new words in a single session and it became an information overload. I would learn, let's say twenty new words and expressions - and then forget 75% of them by the time the next lesson rolled around.

I hadn't been in the country very long but I remember a conversation I had with a Dutch guy in a Sukhumwit Road bar back in the early 90s. He claimed to speak six European languages fluently as well as reasonable Thai (why are the Dutch so damn good with languages?) - but he found Thai by far the most difficult to learn.

"I don't know why but Thai words just don't seem to stick in your head like they do with other languages" he remarked.

I still chuckle at that because I think he was spot-on.

And then six months ago , I heard yet another one of my foreign friends hold a fluent conversation with a Thai person - despite only living here for a few years - and this time it was the inspiration I finally needed. It was going to require a lot of commitment but I had to get more serious if I wanted to become a true intermediate level Thai speaker. OK, Phil - no messing around this time.

Going the on-line route

Perhaps a combination of self-study and a session with a ‘live teacher' once a week was the answer? On various social media platforms, I had got chatting with several capable foreign Thai speakers and they all told me that there were some great on-line Thai courses around. I did some research on the internet and was astounded at just how many in-depth Thai courses were out there.

I eventually settled on a course called Thai Podcast 101. I'm not promoting or recommending it because I'm sure there are even better choices available, but Thai Podcast 101 is the one I went for and after paying 2,000 baht for six months of study, there's no going back.

The course is not without its faults. I think some of the lessons at upper beginner and lower intermediate levels are ridiculously difficult and it tends to suffer from the ‘mother-in-law syndrome' of being over-formal. My wife overheard me studying one night and said "I know Thai people at work who couldn't come out with sentences like that"

But I'm sticking with it and my spoken Thai is coming on in leaps and bounds. The course has realistic dialogues, flashcards, self-tests, Romanized scripts and opportunities to record your own voice and have your pronunciation ‘analyzed by the system. In other words, there's enough variety there to keep me interested and more importantly, motivated.

My study strategy now is to try and do one hour a day with the on-line course (I don't always manage an hour but I try, honestly) and then I use my weekly session with the sister-in-law to review what I have learned from Monday to Friday. And it's a system that seems to be working!

Different things work for different learners. For me, I have to learn Thai in complete sentences. It just makes more sense that way. Learning isolated words is fine up to a point, but where do Thai native speakers place those words in relation to the structure of a sentence? Does it come at the beginning, the end or in the middle? Are there situations when the word is inappropriate? If so, is there a better word to use in its place.

'Sentence' strategy

So what is my sentence strategy? Let me give you an example. Last week I learned the Thai word for the verb ‘to bother or to disturb'. I will take that word and build three sentences around it.

An easy sentence to start with - e.g. Am I bothering you?

Then something a little more difficult - e.g. The noise from the air-conditioner was bothering me last night.

Then finally a sentence with at least two clauses and a conjunction e.g. - I rarely sit outside in the garden because the mosquitoes bother me.

Then when I'm pretty confident I know how to say those three sentences (or at least make a decent attempt) I will write them down in English (not Thai)

Each day, in my one hour on-line study session, I will attempt to master five new Thai words - and make up three sentences for each word. That's fifteen new sentences of Thai.

Multiply that by five days a week and If my maths is correct, that's 75 new Thai sentences.

Then in my weekly session with my Thai teacher (my sister-in-law) I will go over all of those 75 sentences that I've created, making sure the sentences make sense and the listener understands them. Remember that I am reading them from my notes in English, but speaking them in Thai. It's quite a challenge!

I don't profess to getting everything correct first time around - far from it - but it's a great way to learn from your mistakes (getting the word order wrong, etc)

I'm going to conclude this two-part blog by putting my motivational hat on and coming out with a statement of the obvious if I may.

It is so worth the effort.

Don't spend years and years like I did making no progress at all. You can do it. Go past your ‘ceiling' You'll be amazed at how quickly you pick things up once you discipline yourself and put a bit of time aside each day for study.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the local gym. I generally exercise in the early afternoon when I'm virtually the only member there. One of the Thai trainers - clearly in the mood to chat and with nothing else to do - came up to me to ask about the minimum wage in England. So I told him. Then he asked me about how much help the government gave to unemployed people. Then another couple of trainers joined in the conversation and before long I was holding a question and answer session on British culture (one guy even asked if there were many teenage pregnancies)

It felt good. I can't promise my Thai was tone perfect and I managed to get every word in the right order - but I was able to natter in Thai for a good twenty minutes and be generally understood. Four years ago,, let me correct that......six months ago - I wouldn't have got off first base.

Good luck with your Thai!

The third and final part of this blog series is here.


Very interesting and informative article. Thanks. I'm starting to learn Thai from square one. I've previously used the Linguaphone courses for European languages, and I've been very impressed. How would you rate the Linguaphone course in relation to the Thai Podcast 101 course?

By Phil, uk (11th October 2016)

I asked my Thai wife how to say the sentences you had. It turned into a discussion that once again showed me why I don't speak Thai. It went something like this. How do I say.....? Blank look from her. She then gave me several ways to say it, depending on this or that or a number of other things. OK. Then how do I say.......? Oh, you can't use that same word. yada yada yada.
The guys I have known who were able to pick up the language were not those who took lessons. They sat down with folks who didn't know any English and after several beers and such, gradually were able to speak the language. Unfortunately I am not social like that. Thanks for the article, though.

By Roy Florey, Bangkok (11th June 2016)

That was really interesting and motivating. I've been having a Thai lesson every week for more than a year with a Thai friend, but I'm still at starter level. Reading and writing are not too bad but learning vocab is so difficult. For me the big problem is that almost every Thai person I speak to can speak much better English than I can Thai, so we speak English. I'll try to follow your advice.

By Guy Johnson, Bangkok (7th August 2014)

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