Interview: Greg Jorgensen is Getting by with Learning Thai

Interview Greg Jorgensen is Getting by with Learning Thai

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Greg Jorgensen is getting by with learning Thai…

Name: Greg Jorgensen
Nationality: Canadian
Age range: 35
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Writer, podcaster, exporter of goodwill.
Web: Greg to Differ | Bangkok Podcast | twitter: @bkkgreg

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

Sadly, somewhere just below intermediate. I can usually get my ideas across okay and if I concentrate, I can usually catch the gist of most conversations.

What percentage of conversational Thai do you understand?

If I concentrate on a conversation, say at work or with friends or something, then I can usually understand the topic of the conversation and what direction they’re taking it (happy about this, impatient about that, yesterday I went here, etc). But as I said, laziness is my biggest weakness and I often just let the Thai fade into the background buzz.

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

I would say street Thai, which is to say, Thai I mostly learned from friends and people in Bangkok.

What were your reasons for learning the Thai language?


I feel unqualified to answer beyond the obvious reasons of that is just makes life easier.

When did you become a student of the Thai language?

I preface this with the statement that I’m fully aware of how ignorant this sounds, but I took my first official Thai course 6 months ago, 8 years after arriving here. Before that it was just casual learning.

How much time do you currently spend learning Thai?

I attend Thai class twice per week for two hours at a time, but besides that, almost zero, as I’m usually too busy. I know it’s a crappy excuse, but really, I have so little free time that the last thing I want to do is spend it studying. Good lord, this is getting embarrassing.

Do you stick to a regular study schedule?

See above.

What Thai language learning methods are you using?

I attend Language Express at Phloen Chit, as it’s close to my office. I also have a few apps on my iPhone (Wordpower and Thai (no longer online) plus the usual collection of dictionaries and books laying around my house.

Does one method stand out over all others?

For me, it’s repetition. Saying a word as I write it, and doing that twenty or thirty times. Even then, I might do it 50 times and forget it, but on the 51st time, it will stick for some reason.

Have you started reading and writing Thai yet?

I’m at the point where I can muddle my way through most signs and short sentences to get an idea of what’s going on. Writing Thai is very difficult for me though, as I’m usually not sure which similar-sounding consonants/vowels to use.

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

Learning to read is actually surprisingly easy, but writing for me simply comes down to remembering which words use which letters and vowels, which I haven’t gotten into yet.

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

Once I know a word I usually try it out whenever I can; the problem is I don’t learn new words fast enough. I’m usually not shy trying out short little bursts here and there if I know what I’m going to say, but I get strangely flustered in non-social situations attempting to use words or phrases I may not be so familiar with. For instance, with friends or something it’s no problem, but at the office around a meeting table, I’m very shy. Strange, considering I used to be a stand-up comedian (although that was in English, which some say I can use fairly well).

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

My first task was learning about fifteen words I thought were vital (yes, no, 1-10, left, right, stop, how much, a few food dishes, etc). I think I was able to get my ideas across fairly quickly, but with the help of sign language.

What are your most embarrassing moments when speaking Thai?

I somehow manage (completely randomly, I assure you!) to say the one word in the one way that will give it a terrible meaning. Past mistakes have included nam jim (dipping sauce/vagina water), hoy men (sea urchin/smelly vagina), hom yai (onion/large penis), and several others. It blows my mind that something so regular can be turned into something so bad with a simple mistake in pronunciation. I think the earliest Thai speakers did it on purpose as a joke.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I feel a bit hypocritical saying this, but that it’s too hard to understand. It’s not so different from English actually – certain shapes make certain sounds, and go from there.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

When I could hear and repeat the different tones. What still baffles me is how many Thais can’t answer me when I ask which tone they use.

How do you learn languages?

Repetition, and immersion. Sadly, both are lacking for me through no one’s fault but my own. I try to blame my girlfriend, as she speaks excellent English, but she won’t have any of that.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths: I can pretty easily mimic the tones and sound like I speak Thai much better than I do. Weakness: Laziness, pure and simple. As I said, I have very little free time; if I was really motivated I’m sure I could find 15 minutes a day to drill myself, but I don’t.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

English and Canadian.

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

It’s certainly given me an appreciation of what else is out there and, in a very broad sense, how they all fit (and don’t fit) together.

How many foreign languages have you attempted to use (while abroad, or talking to native speakers of the language at home, even armed with a phrase book)?

Not many. Jeez, I’m starting to realize how little experience with languages I have. I can beat anyone at movie trivia though, that’ll be my consolation.

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


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

I’ve been here since 2001.

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

I could make a cursor draw neat-o shapes on a BASIC terminal in grade 9, and I’m really good at video games. Other than that, no.

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

I am to the cow bell what Miles Davis was to trumpet.

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

Don’t do what I did and say “Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it later.” Dive in right away and when you try to speak it, remember that the giggles you get are usually the Thais laughing with you and not at you, and they appreciate the effort.

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

I’ll be pushing myself to self-study, even if it’s only learning one new vowel at a time. I want to get all the vowels down over the next few months, because they can really throw you when you’re reading. However, I have a very busy few months ahead of me (and a lot of good TV to watch), so we’ll see how it goes 😀

And the clincher: Do you agree to report back with your progress in six months? Sometime in July?


Greg Jorgensen
Greg to Differ | Bangkok Podcast | twitter: @bkkgreg

Getting by in Thai…

Thank you Greg. And for others out there – if you’d like be involved in the Getting by With Learning Thai series, contact me. And please remember the clincher: the idea for the series is interview those getting by as well as regenerate an interest in learning Thai.

12 thoughts on “Interview: Greg Jorgensen is Getting by with Learning Thai”

  1. Marco, I hear you. When it comes to learning a language, we each have our own way so we just have to do what suits us. Tonal languages were mostly an unknown to me so I wasn’t sure what to do in the beginning. It took a bit of stumbling before I knew what was right for me. As for drive… I wish they’d bottle that part of the language learning process! Sloooooooooooooow as she goes…

  2. I dont doubt the value in learning……only my will power to do the necessary grunt work! I’ve met some students who are totally against it, and I’m not one of those.. I’ll get stuck into it down the track….really….truly….

  3. Thanks Greg and Catherine fo that article. It might be heresy to say it, but I actually prefer to use the transcriptions. I am just starting out (at LX) and would rather get talking straight away. I can see the benefits in learning to read Thai script but right now I‘d rather get put my time into learning to say some basic words and sentences. They have both Thai and Transactions in the books and a fair percentage of the class is focused on learning to read and write it. Maybe I’m too lazy, but I just want to speak right now. I’ll probably do what a lot of students seem to do, that is, put the energy into speaking and take the reading/writing sections at a slower pace. ….I’ll get back to you in a few months and tell you how it went:)

  4. I think simply “getting by” in Thai is an achievement worthy of note. Congrats are in order! And keep up the good work. 🙂

  5. Hi Greg – I’ll have to admit that I’ve been admiring your face on and off all morning. Nice 🙂

    ‘Balance beam Thai’ – what a great phrase. I’ll have to beg your forgiveness for stealing it at some point.

    Transliteration styles are all over the place. Seems everyone with a Thai course book insists on inventing their own. And with all of the different styles out there, it becomes tedious learning new so it’s easier to teach yourself how to read Thai script.

    As you know, I seriously dislike transliteration. If someone throws it at me, I ask for real Thai. Always. But what you might not know is that there are styles that I totally detest. Seriously. As in spitting. I was showing one in the detest range to a smart guy I know and he loved it! He kept going on about how logical it was. Arghhhh 😀

  6. Thanks Catherine, always happy to see my giant face graffiti-ing up a website. 🙂
    I assure you, ‘intermediate’ would be the maximum level I’ve achieved on a good day. I speak what my friend aptly describes as ‘balance beam Thai’ – within three inches either way I’m fluent, but stray even half an inch away from the norm and I’m flailing in mid-air.
    An update – I’m not going to classes anymore as my term expired (plus I’m just too busy lately). One thing I didn’t like about Language Express (which does not only apply to them) was the insistence on learning Thai via transliteration with the weird tone marks – ^ / and so on. This confused me even more than I would have been, and I found it to be little more than reading gibberish sounds that had no context and little effect.
    I did, however, download the TalkingThai iPhone app, which is fantastic, and it’s been very helpful to me already.
    Onward and upward…

  7. Four hours does sound a lot, but it might be down to how Language Express is set up. Todd reviewed LE (coming soon). At LE, it’s not all cramming vocabulary and phrases into your head at high speed. For one hour you study, then the next hour is situational conversation where the phrases and vocabulary are brought into play.

    On Greg’s modesty – I’m not sure. Judging just where people are in their Thai studies has many variables so I’ve left it up to each to place themselves. I might change that later, but I’d need advice.


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