Bangkok Phil

My struggles with the Thai language part 3

I've finally reached the dizzy heights of upper-intermediate

Wow! Has it really been two years since I wrote a couple of blogs on the topic of my trying to finally get to grips with the Thai language?

The first instalment focused on my motivation for taking Thai language study a lot more seriously - the much-needed kick-up-the-arse if you like. The second blog was the story of finding the ‘right' Thai teacher and coming up with some effective learning strategies.

So, two years on, I think it's time for ‘My Struggles with the Thai Language Part Three'  - how far have I managed to get?

Still modest

According to the on-line Thai course that I have been using, I've now reached the dizzy heights of ‘upper intermediate', and while I would never have the audacity to consider myself fluent at that level, I'd like to think I've become a very solid and competent ‘intermediate level speaker'. I can hold a decent conversation - and frequently do!

I've reached the stage where communicating in Thai gives me so much pleasure. And I think the more you learn and the better your range of expression becomes, so your ‘thirst for knowledge' increases. What Thai slang words can I learn today? What expressions can I slip into my conversations that will make my communication that bit more colourful, not to mention more impressive to the Thai listener?

I really should have developed this attitude and done this years ago, instead of muddling along for so long and not being able to express myself as well as I needed to in so many situations.

Language exposure

Although I no longer set aside time each day to sit in front of my computer and plow through my on-line course as I did religiously in the past, I still strive to get at least thirty minutes of exposure to the Thai language every day without fail. It might be just having a casual conversation with the local fruit-seller or it may be just playing around with Paiboon's brilliant English-Thai talking dictionary (the best 700 baht you will ever spend) but getting that daily exposure to the language is so important I feel.

One new learning strategy I've taken up is to carry around two small notebooks and a stubby pencil. Whenever I have a conversation in Thai, I'll make a mental note of which vocabulary I needed to help that conversation go more smoothly - but vocabulary I either simply didn't know or had studied before and forgotten. Once I'm alone with my thoughts, I'll write that vocabulary - in English - in one of the notebooks. And then later in the day, I'll look up the words in Thai and write them down in my second notebook.

I referred to it as a ‘new learning strategy' but of course the idea of carrying around a vocabulary notebook is as old as time. I can remember having a vocab book when I was an infant school student in short trousers. But it's a study tool that works! I've built up a collection of probably a thousand new words (well, new to me anyway) and every time I get a spare ten minutes, I'll read through a few pages of my notebook and refresh my memory. It's all part of that daily exposure to the language.

Learning difficulties

Reaching upper-intermediate level hasn't been all plain sailing though and there are still hurdles to constantly overcome.

My biggest issue is still deciphering which words Thai speakers actually use in everyday conversation and very often - believe it or not - Thai native speakers themselves only cloud the issue even further.

Let's say I look up a completely new and more ‘challenging' word using the English - Thai talking dictionary, only to find that there are three Thai language translations. Which one of those three translations is used more commonly in everyday speech?

If I'm really unsure of which one to use, I'll turn to my three Thai sounding boards - my wife, my sister-in-law and my gym trainer.

However, all too often, presented with the three Thai translations, my wife might say ‘number one is easily the most commonly used and no one ever uses number three'. My sister-in-law will then overrule her and say ‘number two and number three are the best choices' and finally my gym trainer will tell me that all three translations are acceptable.

You can see the problem. Frankly speaking, I'm none the wiser. This happens an awful lot I find.

Keep it simple, stupid!

Another interesting point - and maybe not one I agree with - is that my wife has criticized my spoken Thai for being ‘over-complicated'. I'm guilty of trying to be too clever for my own good. I'm not going for the easy option when I should be. There are many examples I could give you to illustrate the problem but here's just one.

My wife and I were enjoying a spot of lunch at one of our favorite Thai restaurants in Samut Prakarn. There are two sections to the restaurant - a cheerless air-conditioned section which I would describe as ‘a clinic with windows'. And then an outdoor section where you're surrounded by well-established tropical plants and all of nature's glorious bounty. Even on a steamy hot day, we'll invariably opt to sit in the outdoor area.

Admiring the plants as I often do, I asked my wife how one would use Thai language to say "the environment is conducive to healthy plants'

"A Thai person would never say that" came the disappointing and not unexpected response. "A Thai person would say the plants look beautiful - and leave it that"

"But I don't want to say the plants look beautiful" I snapped, "I know how to say that already. The word ‘conducive' is a lovely word. There's nothing wrong with it. ‘The plants look beautiful' and ‘the environment is conducive to healthy plants' are two entirely different ideas"

There's no stopping me when I'm in that sort of cantankerous mood.

But my wife was adamant. I was trying to be too clever. I was overcomplicating things unnecessarily. I should just stick to what I know.

So what happens is that I'm left feeling deflated. I had years and years of travelling around Thailand on the same ten adjectives and their negatives - expensive, beautiful, delicious, good, hot, far - I'm boring myself even typing them out, let alone when I'm saying them. What's wrong with wanting to spread my linguistic wings?

Anyway, all the very best of luck with your Thai studies.


Thank you for this excellent article. It is incredibly beneficial for those of us learning Thai.

By Bhie Thai Tutor, Singapore (28th May 2024)

"I downloaded the free samples from pickupthai dot com. However Thai friends of mine are in agreement that the main male speaker they used is very hard to understand and speaks at break-neck speed"

I wouldn't disagree with you Stuart, not now that I've had a couple of weeks to play around with the two free samples from the highest level.

My wife also said that the guy speaks way too fast when she heard me listening to the conversation in the massage shop / fish spa.

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (30th June 2016)

As someone who's also keen to improve his Thai after many years of just 'getting by' I downloaded the free samples from pickupthai dot com. However Thai friends of mine are in agreement that the main male speaker they used is very hard to understand and speaks at break-neck speed. Even in the slowed down speech replay provided with each mp3 he sounds faster than normal!

I was so close to buying that course but by using someone (probably a close friend) who is so hard to understand the makers made a critical mistake. Re-record with someone who my Thai friends and I can follow and they'll get my custom.

By Stuart, Bangkok (30th June 2016)

" Paiboon's brilliant English-Thai talking dictionary" ... Until you decide to get serious and spend 5-6 weeks learning to read Thai ... stop boring us with your "Upper Intermediate" crap.

By MarkCM, Sydney (24th June 2016)

Nice informative article Phil. Oh, you randomly showed a few well known books and then slipped thai101 in with it. That wouldn't be anything to do with You Phillip would It?

By pete, uk (17th June 2016)

Congrats Phil on your progress, learning and speaking in a foreign language is a real challenge, at least for most of us. I have been studying Thai for 20 years and I am still far from fluent.

Something to keep in mind when we have the desire to criticize the language skills of our students.

By Jack, In front of my computer (16th June 2016)

Hi Phil, As an upper-intermediate Thai learner, I believe you already have all the ingredients to string an elegant sentence in Thai. The expression you were looking for: ต้นไม้สมบูรณ์ดีเพราะอยู่ในสภาพแวดล้อมที่เหมาะสม [Plants look healthy because they live in conducive environment] This sounds quite natural. If you want to sound more academic, you'd say: สภาพแวดล้อมที่เหมาะสมทำให้ต้นไม้งอกงามดี [the environment is conducive to healthy plants]. I hope this helps.

By Thana, Bangkok (11th June 2016)

Hi Birdie,

For two years I've been using the Thai pod 101 course and I have studied from upper beginner level to upper intermediate. Although I find it difficult to criticize a course that has got me so far, it's not without its flaws.

- Too much of the vocabulary taught is very low frequency or what you would call 'written, formal Thai. It's too often NOT the vocab that's used in everyday communication.
- The upper beginner level is ridiculously difficult.
- The website can be tricky to navigate. The drop-down menu system is confusing.
- the 'marketing' is a bit aggressive and kind of gets rammed down your throat at every turn.

However, there are some great study tools within the program like the flash cards and word bank, etc.

I've now started using another on-line course called pick-up Thai dot com and it's exactly what I'm looking for. Everyday folk using everyday speech in common situations. It's perfect for my needs!

The only downside that I can see (purely from my point of view) is that there is little in the way of English translation. But that's the way the course has been designed - to totally immerse you in spoken Thai, rather like you would learn a language purely from say, watching movies.

By Phil (, Samut Prakarn (11th June 2016)

Hi Phil, what's the online course you have used and would you recommend it ?

By Birdie Frost, Bangkok (11th June 2016)

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