Why I Learned to Speak Thai
I am a strong proponent of learning the Thai language as some of you may know if you have read any of my writing on a handful of other Thai related sites. If I am to live amongst Thai people in their country, I feel as if I have an obligation to at least attempt to learn the language. It is very shallow minded on my part to expect Thai people to know English, and I am really hurting my overall experience if I limit my affiliations to only those who can speak English.
Why I Wanted to Learn
Being a very independent person, I don’t like the idea of relying on other people too much. So you can imagine that not being able to speak or understand any Thai was frustrating to no end. I was forced to rely 100% on the translations of my girlfriend for every situation that I found myself in. This was the primary reason that I wanted to learn to speak Thai. Not to mention, I always wanted to learn a foreign language so I could listen in on people talking about me and pretend that I don’t understand. That would be more fun than anything.
Another reason I wanted to learn was due to the cultural implications present in language. Let me explain. Language is an ever evolving entity much like the culture of a people. The two are independent of one another, but they are also intimately related. An understanding of the Thai language gives one a unique perspective on Thai culture. Just look to the levels of politeness in the language as well as the overly complex (by English standards) use of family relations. These two things alone show me that respect towards elders and family relationships are both central aspects of Thai cultural values.
Struggling with Organized Learning
So after I had made the decision to learn the language, it was back to school for me. I paid for a year’s worth of classes and was issued an ED Visa for free. This was a great added benefit as I had previously been living solely on Tourist Visas and the government was about to crack down on those. So it was a win-win situation for me. I got to study the Thai language and I didn’t need to go on any more of the dreaded Visa runs.
In the following years that I have been studying the Thai language, I have been to a number of different schools. I found that each school offers a somewhat unique approach to teaching the language, which is good, but all the schools I have attended fall short in the same area, which is bad. Maybe it is a result of lazy students or people just buying their ED Visas instead of legitimately wanting to learn the language. At every school I attended, the group classes always fell apart and it was difficult to exceed a certain level of education at the schools.
It is almost as if 6 – 12 months was the limit for people studying Thai. After that amount of Thai almost all of the students would drop out or revert back to the beginning. For someone who was ready to move on, this was extremely frustrating. This is more than likely just bad luck on my part, as I cannot imagine that all schools are the same as this. With school kind of hitting a wall, I really had no choice but to educate myself.
Learning Thai Solo
I was lucky enough to insist that I learn to read and write Thai at school before anything else, so I was off to a good start when I decided to teach myself Thai. If I hadn’t learned to read before going solo, I would have needed to rely on the Thai phonetically written in English. This is a huge crutch and makes solo learning near impossible. Without the ability to read, I would need to constantly ask a Thai person how to properly pronounce a phonetic Thai word because there is no 100% true way to write Thai into English phonetics.
The biggest problem with self-study, is not knowing what it is you should be studying. I have studied what I thought was necessary, but half the time, what I studied wasn’t very useful. Sure, it expanded my knowledge of the language as a whole, but I would have much rather learned something that I would actually use on a daily basis. I also bought up a number of Thai language books. Some of which were useful, others not so much. I am a big fan of Benjawan Poomsan Becker and especially of her Thai for Beginners book. However, trying to leap into the Thai for Intermediate Learners in the same series was too large of a leap for me.
My biggest success came when I began to journal in Thai. It forced me to think about and actually learn the words that I used on a daily basis. This was a big step forward for me, although admittedly, I am very lazy to journal consistently and I find it very repetitive as my days aren’t typically too different from one another.
As I stand now, I still attend classes, although for the most part they are below my level of understanding. I try to study as often as possible, but I find myself getting lazy at times with the language which stunts my progress overall. Although I know a lot of Thai compared to the beginners, I have gaping holes in my knowledge that I can blame on my solo learning. After three years of learning off and on, I am probably an advanced beginner, or a beginning intermediate if you want to put a label on it. It’s really nothing to brag about, but at least it is something. Despite all the setbacks, I do speak more Thai than 90% of the foreigners here, which is something to be proud of.
The Road Goes Ever On
I am really happy with my progress in the Thai language so far, despite the fact that I know less than I would have originally hoped. I can understand a lot of what I hear and when I speak, people are beginning to understand what I am saying. In the past it seemed as if speaking Thai was the same as talking with a mouth full of peanut butter. Even so, I have a long way to go. I am nowhere near the level that I hope to be and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I actually know.
Thai is a daunting task to undertake, but if you break it up into small, manageable pieces, it is something that anyone can succeed at. I spent a lot of my time looking for the big trick to learning a language, some shortcut that would accelerate me forward. In all my searching I realized that there is no trick, only perseverance and outright stubbornness. Instead of looking for the shortcut, just study, study and study some more. Before you know it, you’ll begin to understand the language around you and although the task is huge, it will no longer feel impossible.