Interview: Biff is Getting by in Thai

Interview: Biff

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Biff is getting by in Thai…

Name: Biff (nickname, long story!)
Nationality: English (UK citizen)
Age: 51
Sex: Male
Location: London/Chiang Rai
Profession: Railway worker (latest in a long line of occupations)

What is your Thai level? Intermediate / Intermediate + / Intermediate ++

I would say Intermediate + probably about the B1 level (in the CEFR scale) for spoken Thai and maybe B2 for written materials.

What percentage of conversational Thai do you understand?

Central Thai, I would say around 70%. Thai is all about context though, so if you jump into a conversation half way through, even native speakers will need some help! Sometimes I have to ask people to explain things again if I don’t get certain words. Vocabulary is a never ending learning curve! Kam Meuang, about 5 words, Lao Isaan a few more, but with both those dialects lots of Central Thai words and structures cross over and you can kind of botch a sentence together.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, professional Thai, or a mix?

Ok, here I think I need to expand on these definitions a little. I know they’re used throughout this interview series, but I kind of need to delve into them a little bit!

1. Street Thai. That depends where the street is! If it’s in Bangkok that could mean Isaan Thai, if it’s in Isaan then one of the many Isaan dialects (or Lao Isaan as my neighbour calls it), some of which get more and more Khmer the nearer you get to Cambodia. If it’s in the north, where I spend most of my time in Thailand, it would be one of the variants of Kam Meuang, or Northern Thai.

But lets deal with Central Thai only for a moment. There is a difference between spoken and written Thai, but ภาษาพูด (spoken language) isn’t a form of slang, or something that you hear ‘on the street’ in the sense that it’s kind of ‘working class’ language. It’s just less formal than written Thai that you might find in official documents, or reports in a workplace. It’s perfectly acceptable for use in pretty much any situation you might find yourself in.

There is something called ภาษาตลาด or ‘market language’ which is informal language that will include slang terms and might throw some Thai learners off track a little. That might be referred to as ‘street Thai’ and it can be a bit coarse sometimes 🙂 Now, as for myself, I suppose I can be caught being a bit ‘market language’ in my home with my wife and close friends. When out and about it’s definitely ภาษาพูด and I try to remember to use the more polite particles and plenty of ครับ/ครับผม and MUCH less of the เออๆ type of language. That in itself can be a challenge sometimes!

Professional Thai, as in the language you might expect to use in business emails/letters, I am starting to use that more and more these days. Purely because I’m writing business type emails and reading things that use a more formal type of language.

In our area, right up in the very north of Chiang Rai province, there are about 4 different dialects (actually, in our street!) Northern Thai (Kam Meuang) Lao (or Lao Lao, as my neighbour calls it, so as to differentiate it from Lao Isaan) Central Thai (learned at school) and my wife and her sister rabbiting on in their very own Korat dialect, which nobody else understands!

What were your reasons for learning the Thai language?


This is an easy one. So that I could speak to my wife’s family. Mainly my two lovely step daughters (11 and 13 years old) who can’t speak English beyond “Hello how are you I’m fine thank you”. I was also motivated to be able to speak to the neighbours who are, mostly, very nice decent folk. I also believe that if you are going to commit yourself to a relationship with a person, and that person has a different mother tongue to you, then it is a matter of respect that you should at the very least make an attempt to learn how to communicate in that language. I still haven’t managed that by the way. Turns out her mother tongue is the Korat dialect which I have a total of zero words in! But central Thai is the language we mostly communicate in, although we do have some very strange (to other people’s ears) conversations where she speaks English and I speak Thai!

When did you become a student of the Thai language?

I started about 5 years ago, shortly after I met my now, wife. But I suppose I started seriously applying myself around 4 years ago.

How much time do you currently spend learning Thai?

I’ve recently started to have formal lessons for the first time, so now it’s one hour per week actual one-to-one lessons and a few hours homework. Although, right from the start, I immersed myself in Thai music (nothing else is on my playlists on all my devices) Thai news articles (started with YouTube news and current affairs clips, even though I didn’t understand them!) which I ploughed through one word at a time when I first started to learn the Thai script) and generally threw myself into hearing, speaking and reading all things Thai right from the start. I used to go to sleep with the Pimsleur Thai recordings playing on my phone as I fell asleep hoping that it would somehow seep into my brain!

So, it’s an ongoing constant thing with me. Difficult to quantify. The formal lessons have definitely re-ignited my hunger for learning Thai. I felt a bit ‘stuck’ till I found the very helpful people at Thai-Style (shameless plug!)

Do you stick to a regular study schedule?

I do now, see above 🙂

What Thai language learning methods are you using?

My wonderful teacher ครูแก้ว. is my ‘go to’ dictionary on my laptop, iPhone/iPad. The fantastic FCLT Facebook group and news sites like are all resources that I use frequently.

As for methods, I would say that I’m at a stage now where I can find vocabulary, write it down or look it up in my dictionary and try to form sentences using it. I speak Thai every day, even when bumbling around the house in London talking to myself! I start trains of thought in Thai, I swear at my neighbour’s cat in Thai too! Stub my toe and Thai words come out. Not very nice Thai words, but hey, it’s all learning!

Does one method stand out over all others?

Stu Jay Raj. I haven’t mentioned him before, but when I watched his videos about changing the way you form the basic sounds that you use to speak, it was one of those eureka moments! Once you have the building blocks to make the right sounds, everything else starts to fall into place. As for regular learning methods, at the start, the Pimsleur stuff was a good foundation to get me to start putting basic sentences together. Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s Thai for Beginners was also a big boost for me.

But the main stand out method, as far as I’m concerned is speaking and listening. Speak, listen, imitate. Copy what you hear Thai people saying. Make the same sounds as they do. Change the way you use your voice. If you don’t, and you use the same sounds as you do when you speak English for example, you won’t be speaking Thai. You’ll be sort of half speaking something that kind of sounds a bit like Thai if a Thai person who’s used to hearing foreigners butcher their beautiful language really stretches their imagination 🙂

Have you started reading and writing Thai yet?

Yes, as soon as I got fed up with the transliteration ‘thing’ (didn’t take long!)

If so, do you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

No, not really. It can be a bit daunting at first I suppose. But written language is a code. Once you understand how it works, and you can crack the code, your brain takes over and it becomes language. It stops being squiggles and starts to become words. It really doesn’t take long.

How long did it take you to pluck up the courage to actually try using your Thai skills?

About ten minutes 🙂 What’s the point of learning how to say ‘hello’ if you don’t say ‘hello’ to anyone?

How soon was it before you could make yourself understood in Thai (even just a little bit)?

Longer than ten minutes! I would say maybe a month or so? It’s difficult to remember actually, but it wasn’t long. Once you understand that you have to mimic the sounds you hear, you become understandable quite quickly. The problem that that causes is that the Thai person then speaks back! So you have a few situations where you have said something, been understood, but don’t understand the reply. That’s fun 🙂

What are your most embarrassing moments when speaking Thai?

Ordering a plate of unfortunate mountains. One of the words for ‘rice’ in a restaurant is actually ‘beautiful rice’ ข้าวสวย khao suay (rice beautiful) and a similar word is เขา, mountain (which also can be transliterated as khao) and ซวย unlucky, or jinxed (also looks like suay). They are different words with different tones. I butchered the tones and asked for unlucky mountains. That made me start learning the Thai script as you don’t make those mistakes when you see the different spellings!

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

Hmmm let me think. Probably that it’s too difficult. At first it seems like there’s just so much to learn, If you’ve already been exposed to a few other languages for the same family as English (for native English speakers) like when we learn French or German at school, there are already a good few thousand words we can pick up almost at once (Latin Greek influences in all the European languages mean we share words) but Thai is a different family, so we start from scratch. But even though that may be true, it’s still possible to get going. Also, the other one is, if you have a Thai partner that they will be able to teach you. Unless they’re a language teacher, they probably won’t. Speaking a language doesn’t mean you can teach it.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

Ordering the unlucky mountains 🙂 “Ah Ha” I need to learn to read properly 🙂

How do you learn languages?

By trying to think using the language. Immersing myself in as many things as possible to do with that language. It becomes the main focus of my day, every day.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths I would say are pronunciation, being able to reproduce the sounds used to speak Thai. My memory is pretty good too, once I’ve used a word or phrase regularly enough, it kind of sticks.

Weakness, tone rules! Spelling. I was completely self-taught at first (that phrase doesn’t in any way acknowledge the huge efforts by all concerned that put together all of the learning resources that I used to learn what I learned, but I mean that I didn’t take formal lessons until about two months ago). I’m trying to get my head around them now, asking my teacher to give me more homework on them so that I can, hopefully, internalise them, finally! At the moment, I just remember how to spell words and what the tone is. That’s just not good enough!

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Some French, I had a house in France for a while. Some German too. I always loved the language and have spent a bit of time there too. My Spanish consists of being able to say “I don’t speak Spanish” which is less than useful as it confuses the person you’ve just said it to 🙂

Has learning Thai affected your knowledge of the other languages you speak?

Yes, it’s pretty much knocked them out of me completely! If I start to try to form a sentence in French, Thai words jump into it and it all goes downhill from there!

How many foreign languages have you attempted to use?

Including Thai, three.

Are you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

No. Maybe because of the way that I learn, immersing myself in the language, I don’t think that would work for me.

Do you currently live in Thailand, or have you ever lived in Thailand? If so, how long for?

No, I’m currently in the UK and the longest I’ve been in Thailand in one stretch was for 3 months. I go at least twice a year, for 4-6 weeks in the spring, and 2-4 weeks in the winter.

My wife visits London every summer for about 3 months, then it gets cold(er) and she goes home complaining bitterly that she hasn’t seen any snow!

Plans are afoot for a permanent relocation to Thailand.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?

No, although I used to be a sound engineer and produced music using computers, but no coding experience at all.

Do you have a passion for music and or you play an instrument?

Yes, always loved music and was a musician for a number of my ‘formative’ years. I played drums, bass guitar and kind of one-two fingered keyboards!

What learning advice would you give to other students of the Thai language?

Change the sounds you use to speak with. The sounds you use with your native language are not the ones you need to speak Thai with. Learn the script as soon as you can. Use the language every day, listen to the language every day. Find the beauty in the language. There are some beautiful sounds and rhythms in Thai, let them roll off your tongue, it’s magical stuff!

What is your Thai language study plan for the next six months? The next year?

Tone rules! 🙂 continue with my lessons, eat up all the vocabulary that I can, speak more, listen more, read more, understand more.


Getting by in Thai…

If you’d like be involved in the Getting by in Thai series, contact me. And please remember: the whole idea for this series is interview those who are either new to studying Thai or renewing their interest in learning Thai. It’s all good!

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