How Mindfulness Can Help You Learn Thai

How Mindfulness Can Help You Learn Thai

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Mindfulness and learning Thai…

Reading a recent article by Catherine Wentworth, Learning Thai (for the shy), I hit upon a paragraph that grabbed my attention. She was talking about shy people learning languages but the thing that particularly piqued my interest was her mention of mindfulness in connection with learning Thai – I knew she was on to something.

A huge problem that I’ve had in the past when learning Thai is staying concentrated. I remember a few years back when I’d use audio Thai courses my mind just wouldn’t stay focused on the material. I’d be flicking through magazines or messing around on the computer; anything but what I was meant to be doing. I’d be doing the first lesson and turning the pages to the last lesson. I used to kid myself that I was learning subliminally, but I was more likely just wasting my time. I have since found that the most effective language learning occurs only when fully focused on the subject – I suppose this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

What is Mindfulness?…

How Mindfulness Can Help You Learn Thai The first time I about mindfulness was about twenty-five years ago. Then I was an awkward teenager struggling to make sense of life. I bought a book called ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert M. Prisig. I learnt absolutely nothing about motorbike maintenance, but this book did influence me greatly – as it probably did many other people as well. It taught me the importance of being present in the moment.

Mindfulness is something that has been of great benefit to me since then; in fact it once helped to save my life but that’s a story for a different time. I often forget to put mindfulness into practice but when I do great things can happen. To be mindful you don’t need to be sitting in any position and you don’t have to buy any equipment or become a Buddhist– you don’t even need a textbook or DVD to learn how to do it. All you need to do is be present in the moment. This might sound easy, but doing it is another matter – a lot of the time my mind is either thinking about the past or more likely planning the future.

Two Types of Mindfulness…

I have found that there are two types of mindfulness. One of them occurs naturally and one involves remembering to pay attention. For me the former is easier, because there is no effort required. I feel that the best way to encourage this natural mindfulness is through regular meditation practice – in particular concentration meditation (สมาธิ). The other method involves deliberately focusing on the moment. So if you are studying Thai you keep on returning the mind back to what you are doing every time it begins to stray – this can be a constant struggle some days for me.


How Mindfulness Can Help You Learn Thai Mindfulness can help you learn Thai in other ways as well. Just walking around focused on the moment means you absorb so much more. I work as a writer, but I sometimes struggle with descriptions. I can get around this by being mindful of my environment; that way I capture a lot more detail that I can later use. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in Thailand can walk around the streets and really be present. This way we can pick up snatches of conversation and these will stay with us because we are paying attention. When we get home we can look up what some of the new words mean in our dictionaries.

Another thing that I’ve noticed about my Thai is that I speak it a lot more fluently if I’m mindful. I can hear a lot of Thai vocabulary in my head, and if I listen to this before speaking then the tones come out a lot better. It does meant that I speak a bit slower but this is actually an advantage.

The distracted mind that so often accompanied my early Thai lessons is the complete opposite of what mindfulness is meant to be all about. When I give my full attention there is a much better chance of knowledge being absorbed and retained. Using mindfulness to learn Thai can be a great tool that will really make a huge difference.

Mindfulness Tools…

Remembering to stay mindful can be difficult. I can be away in a daydream for a long time before noticing that I’m not in the moment. This is a common problem; luckily there are some tools that can help with this. One thing that has worked for me in the past is post-it notes; I can put one of these somewhere that I’m bound to see and write something on it like, “are you here?” There are also mindfulness clocks you can buy and these will sound an alarm every so often to remind you to return to the present. Free online or downloadable mindfulness clocks (Mac and PC) can be found at Mindful Meditations. As I’ve already mentioned the easiest type of mindfulness for me has been the natural variety that comes with regular meditation practice.

Paul Garrigan
Successful Thai Language Learners: Paul Garrigan

14 thoughts on “How Mindfulness Can Help You Learn Thai”

  1. Martyn, Wow. Your project is almost done, and I’m still going through the motions. And I’ve still yet to track down an electrician for the spa bathtub with wild karaoke lighting as well. For painting, one quote was 500 baht per square metre, so I may be at this awhile… I’m going to need some meditation just to calm down.

  2. Catherine good luck.

    Just to update you, the buttermilk and chocolate living room (now finished bar a bit of touching up)looked quite nice and the magnolia hallways looked like magnolia hallways. The peppermint bathroom looked refreshing. The extra can of buttermilk paint is going to be splashed over one of the bedrooms. I nearly bought mustard but settled for my original choice. I’m now looking at laminated flooring but only the cheaper priced ones.

  3. Apparently the Buddha once claimed that if you could stay in the moment like that for seven full days you would be enlightened. I think though it is probably illegal to stare at university girls for that length of time – still, you would have a good excuse.

  4. Hi Hugh, yes indeed, you are a multi-many tasker 🙂 Presently, I’m not giving 100% when I’m multi-tasking. While I’m doing one task, I’m planning on what I’ll be doing on another and yet another as well. This has not worked with learning Thai, so you can better bet you’ll be getting emails from me asking for advice! There won’t be an equal trade of info though, as I’m clueless about little white balls. The last time I was on a golf course I spent the morning standing back to let others through.

    Hi Martyn, I’m trying to imagine how buttermilk and chocolate brown would look. Fairly good, I imagine. Partly because I’ve chosen similar just recently (but not a rich brown, just softly softly chocolate milk). I’ve been deep into a condo sprucing up myself. But after a week I’m still interviewing, getting quotes from workmen, and trying to juggle times to see each one. All I need is a bit of woodwork, painting, and the electrics done. This should have been over by now but all I’ve had so far is a screwed up schedule resulting in a pounding headache.

    As for learning how to use mindful meditation, I have confidence that us old dogs really can learn new tricks. I’m going to give it a good go anyway. And I’ve spent the past few days doing my homework to do just that. Wish me luck!

  5. Paul, it’s now fourteen minutes past eight and in roughly another 20 minutes all the young chicks will be streaming past the house. Soon the moment will arrive. I’ll be truly focused.

    I’m sure they must all be thinking ” That old bast*rd must spend all day sweeping his garden path. Every time I pass by he’s outside with the broom sweeping away. God he’s out of shape, his breathing’s real heavy”.

  6. Hi Martyn, I think you have just proved you are not a hopeless case. I would imainge that when those young women walk past you are completely in the moment 🙂 All you have to do now is apply this skill elsewhere.

  7. Paul and Catherine

    I find it very difficult staying in my present mind but I can see the benefits Paul is talking about. My problem is going to be achieving it because I’m one of life’s natural thinkers and planners. I’m trying to stay here in this moment while I write this comment but I’ve just realised I’ve made a mental note to buy some more buttermilk paint this morning for my apartment (ok,flat) which is currently being revamped. The colour of buttermilk is hard to get out of your head especially when so many people have told you it’s the wrong colour for a living room.

    Back to mindfulness…..I find the very reason I don’t progress in my Thai language learning is for the exact ones you mention… “I’d be flicking through magazines or messing around on the computer; anything but what I was meant to be doing”…….that’s going to be hard to kick out my bedroom. I don’t honestly think I’m capable of achieving a state of staying in the moment. I must also add I live outside a college (never had the brains to get in it) and some of the pretty young women who walk by would make a Buddhist monk crick his neck.

    Paul, a great post but I’m a hopeless case.

    Catherine this bit is for you….Not only buttermilk walls but I’m having the skirting painted chocolate brown. It sounds awful but luckily I don’t live there but I’m popping round this morning to see how the revamp is coming along. I got talked into magnolia (boring) for the hallways but I chose peppermint for the bathroom. Buttermilk and chocolate, someone’s going to feel real sick sat in that living room.

  8. Hi Hugh, I would imagine that we would be quite amazed by the number of people who have been influenced by that book. I think the really nice thing is that, as you say, it can be read in so many different ways. There have been so many instances in my life when I’ve referenced this book for things that were completely unrelated; everything from belief in ghosts to why thinking too much can be bad for you. I never did learn to fix a motorbike though.

  9. Paul,

    Great to hear the name of one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I have read it 4 times and each time brought away something different. Once was when I learned how to maintain my motorcycle, really it was about how to solve problems – which I later used when I became a computer programmer.


    I am a multi-tasker as you probably know already. But the interesting thing about multi-tasking is that it is a misnomer. Like computers, we can only really do one task at a time. We just switch quickly and often. Mindfulness meditation allows us to do a specific task with 100% concentration, then switch the task and put 100% of our concentration on the new task. When we switch back we, like a good computer person would do, save our work to disk, and then put 100% of our effort to the next task.

    I agree with Paul. 30 years of mindfulness meditation has helped me be able to do that. And when we can do that with speaking (any language) by clearing out our heads and placing all our concentration on the task at hand(speaking)we will be better at it.

    Now if I could only put all my concentration on that little golf ball maybe I would hit it straight.
    .-= Hugh Leong´s last blog ..The Cost of Alcohol in Thailand =-.

  10. Hi Jessi, one of the reasons I want to make mindful meditation a part of my life is to increase my concentration. Right now multi-tasking is second nature to me. And while it’s a fabulous talent to have when juggling work, it’s not too hot for studying Thai.

  11. I agree with you completely. The great thing about trying to be mindful is that it can benefit every aspect of life. This makes it well worth the effort – in my opinion.

  12. It takes a lot of effort to be mindful or to concentrate on something, but it’s worth the result.


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