The key to learning Thai
Listening and speaking – it’s that simple!
Over the 15+ years I have been speaking Thai, the question and consequent conversation I have had most often in Thailand is how I learnt Thai and how I can speak Thai so naturally and sound like I am Thai.
I addressed this question in the interview I did for Phil on this site and also in both of my ‘100 Thai words’ books but I thought it would be helpful to explain it again using some examples from my life. And at the same time, I will comment on where people go wrong when trying to learn Thai.
Note: When I refer to “people”, I mean expats / foreigners / Westerners / farangs but I did not want to use any of those labels as they all have their shortcomings.
Wanting to learn Thai
When I first came to Thailand, having been hired in the UK and flown over here, I had already spent countless hours studying my two books – Essential Thai by James Higbie and Teach Yourself Thai (the old version) by David Smyth - and cross-referencing them. I had the excitement that I was going to move to Thailand and the interest and drive to start learning Thai in advance.
Why do I mention the above? Because, if most people are honest with themselves, they do not really want to learn Thai. While many people will protest at this, their actions speak far louder than their protests. They say they want to learn Thai but when you ask them for more detail on what they have done to learn, they give a list of piecemeal efforts such as online sites, getting a tutor and so on and so on but each one is a half-hearted effort and there is no consistent, concerted and sustained effort to learn.
And while I am on this, let me cover off something I have mentioned before on using Thai personal tuition. I think many people use this option as an alternative to doing any hard work – just turn up (or turn Skype on) and repeat after the teacher and forget 70% of what was taught by the time of the next lesson.
Many companies send their employees to this kind of tuition and invariably, the student learns hardly anything by the end of the course that stays with them six months or a year later, especially if the employee works in an English-speaking environment in Bangkok or any other big city. As I have said before, tuition is best taken on when the learner is already at basic level from his or her own hard work and is mentally invested enough in Thailand and learning Thai, for the lessons to be worthwhile.
Lesson after lesson spent mispronouncing tones and having them corrected is not productive!
Listening to Thai
When I got to my new office, I knew two or three Thai employees from when they had come over to the UK office but nobody else. The Thais I already knew spoke good English and I had always spoken in English with them in the UK office on their business trips. The rest of the employees in the Thai office would (obviously) all talk in Thai with each other, in meetings and also with the English boss (who had been in Thailand for decades and spoke perfect Thai).
When I turned up, they offered to switch to English in meetings for my benefit but I declined and asked them to carry on in Thai and assured them that over time I would pick it up. And I did. In two years I was fluent.
The second example of listening I remember (from over 15 years ago now) was during my time sitting next to the sales guy in my team. He would often use the expression “rian săai Khun…” and it would constantly bug me that the first word sounded like the word for ‘to study’ or ‘to learn’. So one day I asked the guy about it (in broken Thai / English) and learnt that it basically means “Can I please speak to…” (note: ‘săai’ means ‘line’, as in telephone line in this context) and also means “Dear” in written communication, as in “Dear Mr…”.
And from memory, that was one of dozens of questions on Thai I had for that sales guy over the three years we worked together and sitting next to each other.
Why do I mention these examples? Most people do not listen. They hear but they do not listen – and there's a big difference.
There is plenty of Thai being spoken around them, even at English language schools, not to mention their life outside work but they simply do not listen. Why? The uncomfortable truth is that they really do not care. We are back to the first point I made above – most people do not actually want to learn Thai. If they are truly honest with themselves, they do not want to do the hard work required to learn a difficult tonal language, especially if they are here for a couple of years teaching English amongst Thais who are used to working with English speaking people.
This is why they hear Thai but do not listen and so they just hear noise, not words spoken in Thai. The reality is these people have already heard many Thai words but they are not paying any attention and so these words are never logged in the brain and therefore, they do not pick up on these words when spoken by others on a sky-train, for example. Therefore, they cannot extrapolate and guess even a phrase or a sentence in a conversation being spoken around them.
I should, at this point, make it crystal clear that by no means am I judging or criticising those people who do the above and not want to learn Thai or not listen. It is perfectly understandable from their point of view. Thai is a difficult language to learn – do not let anyone trot out the complete garbage about the simple grammar making it an easy language to learn – and for many people, especially those who are a bit on the older side, learning a new and tricky language is a nightmare. And for many, it is simply not necessary if they can survive in English and plan to move on to another Asian city in a few years anyway.
What I do have a problem with however, are the delusional and disingenuous people who claim that they have tried to learn Thai but can’t understand why they don’t make progress. These people have a look on their face as if I have performed some kind of miracle when I am speaking Thai fluently and I am always at pains to tell them that I am not a linguist and I have no God given talent – I just tried…and I listened.
The number of times I have heard an English person hear a Thai word or repeat a Thai word I have just said to them and reproduce it in a monotone English accent!
And that leads me to my third point that gets my blood boiling more than both of the above points.
When I learnt Thai, the most consistent thing I did was attempt to actually speak Thai. More to the point, it was not a case of blindly just blurting out any old awful sounding Thai and thinking I had done well and congratulating myself on making an effort. I practised active speaking by which I mean, I spoke, I checked the facial expression of the Thai person I was speaking to for an indication of how well or badly I had executed the phrase or sentence. I asked for feedback (which sometimes led to more confusion) and I wrote down, at the first opportunity, what I had learnt from the interaction.
In contrast, there are many people who spend all their time learning to read instead of speaking – often because they have heard that the only way to learn Thai is to learn to read, which is not quite correct – and never actually going out and speaking.
Learning to read in the comfort of their home where they will not be criticised or ridiculed or receive confused looks or be in an awkward social situation is an easy cop-out. When these people go out in Thailand and do speak Thai, they often speak awful Thai and to make matters worse, they often think they are speaking decent Thai.
There is a big crossover between these people and the people who write theses online on the finer points of Thai grammar; they are intellectuals and like most intellectuals, have an unjustified high opinion of themselves and little self-awareness and ability to communicate naturally.
Some of the best Thai speakers I know and know of have learnt Thai in very similar ways to myself – hard work, listening, speaking, jotting down, memorising and repeating ad nauseam.
These people are often married to a Thai spouse, been in Thailand for a length of time in an environment where the vast majority of people do not speak good English and they have learnt by listening and speaking.
I once knew the husband of a Thai convenience store owner who was Italian, I think, and he spoke truly amazing Thai – he sounded exactly like Thai people speaking Thai. Finally, if any further evidence was needed, probably the most famous foreign Thai speaker, Adam Bradshaw, learnt Thai in a similar way to my method above. He discusses it in the interview he did for Catherine Wentworth’s site: womenlearnthai.com.
To emphasise the points above further, imagine learning to swim – I cannot swim and have ‘tried’ a couple of times in my life since leaving school where the experience of swimming lessons probably put me off swimming for life. If I am honest with myself, both of my attempts to learn as an adult were half-hearted and I gave up after a couple of lessons each time.
However, at least I did not try to learn to swim by watching a lot of Youtube videos on how to swim and reading books on it and so on.
The best way to learn to swim is to get in the pool and learn to swim. The discomfort of being off balance, chlorinated water up your nose and all the rest is part of the learning curve and if I had carried on with the lessons, I may have finally learnt.
My advice to anyone wanting to learn Thai would be to do the opposite of what a foreign Thai language intellectual advises. First, ask yourself if you really want to learn Thai. Don’t kid yourself and if the answer is no, don’t beat yourself up over it during your stay in Thailand. Admit you don’t want to learn and be happy to pick up a word or two every now and then.
Second, if your answer to the first question was genuinely yes, start listening …... and that means really, really listening to every single piece of Thai you come across. For example, the automated instructions you hear on the skytrain connected with holding onto the strap, the next station, don’t lean against the handrail and so on. You hear it every day but how many of the words do you know in Thai and would you recognise when spoken in a different context?
Third, stop obsessing on the finer points of Thai grammar if you cannot speak decent basic Thai yet. Learning to read is, of course, good but it is not critical to being able to speak and is certainly not a substitute for being brave enough to face Thai people and hold a conversation (in Thai!). Just an in English, and probably any language, book Thai and spoken Thai are quite different.
If you have spent months and months learning to read (and even more misguidedly, to write) and reproduce your hard-learned, staccato, awkward, overly formal Thai (and still told by Thai people that you speak good Thai, which they would say if you can say more than hello!), you need to stop!
Get out there and listen and you will hear real Thai. Speak, make mistakes, be embarrassed, humiliated and come out of the process much, much stronger. To speak Thai naturally, stop being an academic and mix with Thai people in non-customer / enquirer contexts and you will speak fantastic Thai over time.
The final point worth mentioning is the difficulty most people have with the tones. Just like with learning to swim, where you will feel self-conscious, speaking in a tonal language will push you out of your comfort zone.
You will not get away with mumbling or half-attempting the tones or even worse, speaking in a default mid-tone. It might be embarrassing, at first, to attempt the falling tone but you have to get out of your English speaking mentality and think in Thai.
Best of luck!
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On the first point, I meant people often do not really bother to listen and nor do they let go of their own accent / speech pattern of their mother tongue. The sooner a learner of any language, not just Thai (but probably more so for Thai because it is a tonal language), lets go of their own language, the sooner they can hear what they should be hearing and repeat accurately. The key is to get out of English mode, otherwise he will always just get to the closest approximation of what he thought he heard and that does not work in Thai because you are not just slightly mispronouncing (as you would be if it were English) but you are either saying nothing at all or a completely different word. And that is why Thai people look totally confused when foreigners speak Thai, thinking they have got pretty close to what they should be saying.
Having said all that, yes, I agree, it is important to have a go rather than just retract and hide away from awkward situations when learning Thai.
As for AUA, I am entirely self-taught and prefer that approach to being taught but I do know people who have learnt from proper Thai courses such as from Chulalongkorn University and, apparently, it is very good. But, like with my comments on tuition, don't do it if you are not fully committed mentally. Being taught will teach you the language much more thoroughly, like learning French or German at school but it will be more formal than learning Thai from books and practicing with Thai people. But the two are not mutually exclusive so you could do both if you are keen.
The good news is once things start to click, you can quite quick progress with Thai, especially because words are often short (one to two syllables) so you can pick up words quite easily).
By Steve, Bangkok (3rd September 2018)
Great article and very honest. You mentioned you were frustrated with an american who repeated something you said , but monotone.. Why would you be upset if he is trying to repeat what you said. sure the tones are off, but isnt your point to listen and speak as well? What are your thoughts on the AUA language school as its all just input
By soidogcowboy, NYC & Bangkok (2nd September 2018)