Interview Compilation: What Was Your First Thai ‘Ah Hah!’ Moment?

Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners

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Successful Thai Language Learners Compilation…

Most of my Thai ‘ah hah!’ moments occur in the backseat of Bangkok taxis. The first ‘ah hah!’ came at a traffic light. Bored, I found myself reading a street sign. Out loud. Whooooh. I can read? From there we drove to the expressway tollbooth where the red บาท /bàat/ sign was shining bright. Yeah! I can read!

What a great feeling. From then on I sounded out the Thai on signs, billboards, licence plates, stickers, whatever. But it had to be in traditional Thai script (the funky stuff came much later – some never).

I continue to experience the odd ‘ah hah’ Thai moments. My latest? Song lyrics. You?

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?…

Aaron Handel

Aaron Handel: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Aaron: I do remember my ‘ah hah!’ moment. I was alone in my room, practicing tones. There were some Thai people lurking outside in the hallway. They could hear me stumbling and struggling. Suddenly, the Thai people out in the hallway began clapping and cheering me on! Somehow, I had managed to hit the sweet spots of the five tones.

Adam Bradshaw

Adam Bradshaw: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Adam: After being in the country for about a year, I remember sitting in a Taxi that had a news radio station blaring. Usually I would listen to the radio and be able to pick up a good 60 percent of what was being said, but I remember listening on this particular occasion and thinking, “wow I can understand almost everything being said!”

Andrew Biggs

Andrew Biggs: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Andrew: I was in Kanchanaburi one year after arriving here, doing a story for The Nation when all my stuff got stolen. I raced into the nearest police station and blurted out, in Thai, that all my stuff had been stolen. I screamed for about five minutes. At the end of it I realized it was the first time I’d been fluent.

Chris Pirazzi

Chris Pirazzi: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Chris Pirazzi: I guess for me there was no such moment. I just kept learning a little bit at a time. It helped that my study of Thai was linked with an escape from the soul-sucking grind of engineering work in Silicon Valley, so I was motivated.

Colin Cotterill

Colin Cotterill: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Colin: Not many of those I’m afraid. Perhaps it was the first time I had a ‘friend’ with whom our only communication was in Thai. You wake up one day and you realize that, but for the language you’re learning, you wouldn’t know that person at all. Or, perhaps it was the first time I gave a public address. It wasn’t exactly Obama but at least the Lion’s Club feigned comprehension long enough to make me proud of myself. A few beers helped there.

Daniel B Fraser

Daniel B Fraser: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Daniel: I landed a movie role speaking Thai in 2003 after only being here 2.5 years. My script was all in Thai, and despite being somewhat terrified at the prospects of learning it, I found that by practicing and practicing, it became more natural and then I could actually envision myself speaking like that all the time. Ah hah!

David Smyth

David Smyth: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners David: I’m afraid that I tend to remember only the ‘how-could-I-have-possibly- said/mispronounced/misunderstood-that-and why-wouldn’t-the-earth-swallow-me-up-moments?’

Don Sena

Don Sena: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Don: It was probably when I found that I could handwrite a letter (in Thai) and receive back a type-written letter (also in Thai) in response.


Doug: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Doug: Realization that Thais could not see extremely fine letter distinctions any better than I, and were reading on the basis of shape / secondary or tertiary letter characteristics, and context.

Gareth Marshall

Gareth Marshall: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Gareth: Sitting on a bus going to work riding the whole length of Ratchada-Pisek road on the no. 136 and finally being able to read a billboard.

Grace Robinson

Grace Robinson: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Grace: Being able to read menus and signs at Thai street food stalls, ordering in Thai and thinking this is well worth it!

Hamish Chalmers

Hamish Chalmers: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Hamish: Albeit tone-free, it was reading the inscription over the archway leading into the market outside Phra Pathom Chedi, and understanding it. It was at that moment that all these squiggles became words that could be put together to communicate a distinct thought.

After that I have had loads of little ah hah moments. Most recent was when I read the tiny sign next to the Withayu/Sukumvit junction that says you can go straight over if you are going to the expressway and you don’t have to turn left like all the pictorial signs say you must. I’ve been getting lost navigating my way around that particular one-way system for ages! A while ago another little ah hah moment was at Nan provincial museum where a sign proudly states ‘Entrance 30 baht’ above another sign which says ‘คนละ๑๐บาท’. The joy at knowing what the sign meant was easily worth the twenty baht.

Hardie Karges

Hardie Karges: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Hardie: Riding a bus through the outback and reading a sign that said, phonetically in Thai, ‘Eddie Money’, apparently playing at the local equivalent of a Thai county fair a decade or so ago. It may have been an ‘uh oh’ moment for him.

Herb Purnell

Herb Purnell: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Herb: After living in the north and disliking Thai, considering it sort of like Latin, I went with my wife and son to Chainat to await the birth of our second child. It soon registered with me that people were speaking Thai all the time, and to each other, not just to foreigners like me. Then it hit me that this was a real language that could be learned and even enjoyed. While staying just outside the hospital waiting for our baby to arrive, I was asked to interact with patients and their relatives on some of the wards. Suddenly I had to start using this language that I had so eagerly cast aside up north. That was a challenge, but it forced me to be much more serious about learning and using Thai.

Hugh Leong

Hugh Leong: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Hugh: A while back I was writing some English pronunciation exercises for an upcoming book and I was working on a chapter on sentence intonation. I realized that English also had its tones. The difference is that they are at the sentence level. If you take the simple sentence “John’s going to the market.” and stress the word “John’s” then the sentence answers the question “Who’s going to the market?” If you stress the word “market” you answer the question “Where is John going?” The sentence takes on additional meaning when the intonation changes.

Both Thai and English are “tone” languages. The tones in English are on the sentence level and the tones in Thai are on the word level. A change in English tones usually adds to a meaning of a sentence. A change in Thai tones changes the meaning of a word.

I started to call this “the music of the language”. Just like songs, languages have words and music, and you must know them both before you can get it right. If you have trouble with tones try this. Listen to what the Thai person is saying and then try to hum it back, without using words, just a hum. The words, with their meanings, consonants, and vowels, won’t get in your way. All you will hear is the “music” of Thai. Those are the tones. After humming the sentence next try adding the words. Don’t forget to use the same music as before. This works whether we are learning Thai or English or any language. All languages have their own music.

Ian Fereday

Ian Fereday: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Ian: After weeks of struggling over obscure squiggles masquerading as letters, they all suddenly ‘clicked’ one day. It was as if I could suddenly read, when the day before I couldn’t. I have heard many people say they have experienced the same thing when it all just comes together.

James (Jim) Higbie

James (Jim) Higbie: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Jim: I was in the North and a bus went by going to Phan. On the front were just three letters – “p, ah, n” and I thought “wow, I can read Thai”.

Joe Cummings

Joe Cummings: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Joe: I had a major ah hah moment when I flew back to Thailand after 18 months at Berkeley, coupled with all the translation work I’d been doing. Suddenly I could understand almost everything around me, spoken or written. It was like rebirth in a new life, but in the same world. And it felt like I was supposed to be here. I knew Thailand would always be my home after that.

John Boegehold

John Boegehold: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners John: That pronouncing “mai” with different tones and vowel lengths was actually several different words rather than the same word pronounced several different ways. That realization made a lot of things fall into place for me.

Jonathan Thames

Jonathan Thames: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Jonathan: Saying a sentence while in Dallas to a Thai friend and having her understand me! She was shocked at how well I was learning from the Teach Yourself book; although looking back on my abilities at that point, I’m sure it was mostly just shock and innate Thai exuberance for any Thai language-learner.

Justin Travis Mair

Justin Travis Mair: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Justin: There was just one day I talked to a man and we had a good 10 minute conversation. Afterwards, I realized that I didn’t have to ask him to repeat anything and he never once asked me to repeat myself. We just talked. I was on cloud 9 the rest of that day!

Larry Daks

Larry Daks: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Larry: I can’t recall any one particular moment where I reached Thai linguistic nirvana. However, I found that when I was motivated when I set goals for myself. For example, after seeing my first Thai language movie, perhaps a month or so after arriving in Bangkok, I thought to myself that at the end of two years I would like to be able to understand a Thai film on a par with my comprehension of an English language film track. Perhaps I reached about 70% of that goal.

Luke Cassady-Dorion

Luke Cassady-Dorion: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Luke: Hmmm, how about two? One was being able to sit at a table of eight or so friends and keep track of all the conversation threads (this took around nine months). The second was when people who used to not have patience to speak Thai with me, suddenly started to speak to me in Thai. It’s not hard to find someone to tell you that you speak beautiful Thai when you can only mangle twenty or so words, but these people are of little help. You need to find Thais who want to speak English, who can’t be bothered to figure out what you are saying with your bad accent and have no desire to be a teacher or a stroker of egos. These people will be your metric for success, once they feel more comfortable speaking to you in Thai then they do in English, you’ll know that you’re finally getting it.

Mark Hollow

Mark Hollow: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Mark: I don’t really think I’ve had any big ‘ah hah’ moments, just a gradual progression. I remember a “ขายยา” sign outside a pharmacy was probably the first multi-word sign that I read in the wild. Being able to do that put a smile on my face. Getting through the Ministry of Education’s Thai Language Competency Exam was a milestone too.

I do find that I go through a cycles of optimism and then pessimism about my studies and abilities. Usually the pessimism arises if I try to push myself too hard, eg. reading about a specialised topic when I know very little of the vocabulary. Documents about religious or royal subjects can easily do this. I think it’s important to understand your limits and not push yourself too hard.

Martin Clutterbuck

Martin Clutterbuck: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Martin: I had at least 2 distinct ‘ah hah!’ moments.

The first was when I realized how the writing system captures the tones and became able to produce that sequence: Ga Ga1 Ga2 Ga3 Ga4, and from then on, had no problem hearing and distinguishing tones.

The second was when I realized that the consonant order follows a phonological pattern established by the script’s Indian ancestors, somewhat like the periodic table of chemistry, which also captures the class of the consonant, and thus helps with the tones, and is a surefire thing for remembering the order, useful if you want to consult a dictionary.

Nils Bastedo

Nils Bastedo: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Nils: I think very early when I first used the language successfully, probably when ordering a meal in a restaurant and then saying ‘thank you, tastes very good’ and eliciting a friendly smile.

Paul Garrigan

Paul Garrigan: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Paul: I have had lots of times when it felt like I am really getting it. I can understand all that is going on around me and they seem to understand every word I say in Thai. During the first few years I would mistake this for being fluent, but now I’m less optimistic about my abilities.

Peter Montalbano

Peter Montalbano: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Peter: When I was 21, it was the first time I walked into the class in Hawaii all those years ago and heard the language: love at first listen, I was hooked. The tones, the lack of tenses, cases, singulars and plurals, it was like having the door opened on a new, beautiful, and mysterious universe.

Rikker Dockum

Rikker Dockum: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Rikker: When the Thai found on endless signs and advertisements stopped looking like mangled English. I recall the McDonald’s logo being particularly perplexing to me: แม็คโดนัลด์ in yellow on red background. The font is very modern and reductive, typical of the “difficult” Thai typefaces. Once the written word surrounding me started making sense, everything began to click.

Ryan Zander

Ryan Zander: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Ryan: Maybe not one specific moment, but when I started to see that a lot of Thai words are just Sanskrit with altered pronunciation I really got a lot of satisfaction out of that. Like “aa-jaan” (teacher) is just the word “acharya”, or “mon” (prayer) is just the word “mantra”.

A lot of place names make more sense, too, like Phitsanulok is from “Bhishnu-loka” (Vishnu’s world). But the most interesting I think is the term “song-saan”, which in Thai means “to pity”. It is actually just the Sanskrit word “samsara”, which anyone who’s studied Buddhism would know is the term for the endless cycle of death and rebirth–quite a pitiful situation to be stuck in indeed.

Scott Earle

Scott Earle: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Scott: When I was able to order something from a menu for the first time – and answer the questions asked as a result. It was about a year and a half after I first came here, so it really did take a long time!

Stephen Thomas

Stephen Thomas: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Stephen: There have been a few. The first I recall was when I was watching Mum on TV and understood something he said. I don’t remember what it was now, but that was definitely a moment comparable to waving a bone in front of The Monolith.

I also recall going into the Omyai market to buy some fruit one morning and the vendor eyeing me with trepidation. When I asked for papaya in Thai she called out to someone, “Hey, this farang speaks Thai!” I responded and she said even more surprised, “He understands Thai too!”

More recently and on a higher level we were rehearsing a show to perform in front of hundreds of very young school kids. We came up with the idea of a kind of choose-it-yourself adventure where we’d let the kids decide between 2 possible routes during each scene. One outcome led to a wizard who would then transform us into animals of the children’s choosing. During rehearsal someone called out, “Maa” which depending on the tone could mean horse or dog. My partner in this endeavour was luk kreung and has much more experience with Thai than I do, so when I saw him act like a dog I thought, “Damn, I was sure he said horse.” The actor playing the wizard watched us prancing about, barking an yapping, and said casually, “Actually, I said horse.” That was a breakthrough moment for me.


Stickman: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Stickman: One of my memories is from mid 2000. I was sitting at a food vendor at lunch time waiting for whatever it was I had ordered and it was taking forever to come. Next to me were a bunch of pretty office girls chatting away the whole time. The arrival of my food coincided with them leaving. It didn’t dawn on me until they left that I had understood everything they had been talking about and had not had to translate anything into English. That was a real breakthrough moment.

Stuart (Stu) Jay Raj

Stuart (Stu) Jay Raj: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Stu: Realising that the sound / writing system and tone rules are based on the Indic Sound System / Map of the mouth.

Terry Fredrickson

Terry Fredrickson: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Terry: Hearing the word “bird’s nest” (rang nok) after reading it the day before. I am sure I had heard it, and many other words, previously, but they had just passed by because I hadn’t been reading.

Tod Daniels

Tod Daniels: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Tod: I think it was when I first got a handle on Thai word order with the adjective after the noun, a classifier if it’s multiples (unless the classifier is the same word as the noun), adverbs after verbs, time markers to denote tensing or the ‘when’ of an event, ending particles to convey emotion, and the word order differences between statements and questions.

Vern Lovic

Vern Lovic: Compilation Series: Successful Thai Language Learners Vern: I was talking to a guy I’d just met at a nearby tourist attraction. We were talking back and forth and there was a silence for a few seconds as we both were looking at the view… I realized that I had been talking and thinking in Thai, not translating it to English to respond. A very cool moment!

The series: Successful Thai Language Learners Compilation…

Stay tuned. There are many more questions to come!


4 thoughts on “Interview Compilation: What Was Your First Thai ‘Ah Hah!’ Moment?”

  1. Martyn, this is one of my favourite questions too. For me, it’s the “ah ha’s” that keep me going. I especially enjoy breaking down Thai words into their components to get to the ah haa of their meaning. Simple things like that.

  2. Catherine – This question has always been my favourite among the many you ask in your Successful Thai Language Learners series. Reading through the answers your interviewees have given I can understand why I like this question most. I think Andrew Biggs first ‘ah aah’ moment must have made the losing of his documents almost worthwhile. I wonder if he ever got them back.

  3. Addison, I absolutely love it when I come across misspellings in Thai. It’s never anything complicated but I get chuffed all the same. But being able to read backwards? That’s truly fabulous! Now I’m dying to see if I can pull off the same 🙂

  4. I haven’t had an epiphany yet but I’ve had several little ‘ah ha’ moments that prove to me that all those hours of dogged study and repetition are actually accomplishing something. Once I was reading some Thai and noticed a spelling mistake that was confirmed by my Thai friend. Ah ha! I felt pretty proud of myself. Another time I was sitting in a restaurant and found I could read the sign on the glass door, backwards! Ah ha again!


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