Interview: Tod Daniels is Getting by With Learning Thai

Interview Tod Daniels is Getting by in Thai

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Tod Daniels is getting by in Thai…

Name: Tod Daniels
Nationality: USA
Age range: 52
Sex: Male
Location: Bangkok, Lower Sukhumvit
Profession: Retired
Web: Reviewing Thai Language Schools in Bangkok

Update: Todd has been elevated to the Successful Thai Language Learners series.

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

I’d like to think my Thai is at least at an “Intermediate ++” level. Perhaps I’m “grading on a curve” or participating in the Thai educational way of “no child left behind”, where everyone gets a passing grade 555+.

What percentage of conversational Thai do you understand?

Most times I can certainly understand the overall gist of the conversation. If I pay attention or have an interest in the topic I can understand 95+%, the idiomatic stuff, etc. Many times I go to food courts and purposely sit near a group of Thais just to eavesdrop on the conversation. Really some of the stuff they talk about is quite risqué. Then again, most Thais don’t think a foreigner can understand Thai. Given the HUGE percentage of foreigners living here I’ve met, who couldn’t string 3 Thai words together, I’d hafta concur with their take on things. The Thais are pretty open when they’re talkin’ around a foreigner so I take advantage of that to increase my comprehension of Thai spoken at a normal speed.

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


I try to gauge how I speak Thai to the people I’m speaking Thai to. Dealing with officials in the Police, governmental agencies, businesses I cone in contact with, etc, I try to speak ultra polite semi-professional Thai. With run-of-the-mill Thais, street sellers, my Thai friends, etc, I adjust how I speak to match what ever level they’re speaking. I found early on if you try to speak a higher level of Thai than is being spoken by everyone else, you can come across as pretentious.

Nope, I can’t speak more than a couple phrases in Issan Thai. Having spent time touring Issan it was my experience EVERYONE under about 50 y/o can understand and speak Bangkokian (Central) Thai just fine. I’ve got more than enough trouble keeping the Central Thai vocab stuck inside my head. I don’t need to throw a wrench in the gears of progress, no matter how slowly they’re turning.

What were your reasons for learning the Thai language?

Initially I compelled the Thais I interacted with to speak English. However, that got old awfully fast, and I was limited to predominantly tourist or foreign dominated areas, speaking about what ever it was they were selling, etc. Seeing as I have very few foreigners who are what I would truly call friends – partly out of loneliness but more out of the need to communicate something besides daily pleasantries or mindless Thai ‘phrozen-phrases’ – I finally realized to get bang-4-the-baht out of my life here I’d need to learn Thai.

When did you become a student of the Thai language?

I became a Thai student after being here about 4 months. I took one of those ‘crash’ 60 hour courses offered at a well-known school. That’s the kind where you go 3 hours a day, 5 days a week for 4 weeks. I got less than ZERO out of that class, (then again my class was TOTALLY full of Christian missionaries set on converting the heathen Thais to Christianity, and it was a total buzz-kill). That bad experience put me off learning Thai for quite a while. Now I’ve self studied Thai on and off for about the last 3 years. I also attended a well-known, (yet un-named) private Thai language school for 180 hours or a year’s worth of lessons.

How much time do you currently spend learning Thai?

If I totaled up the time during the day it’s probably 3–4 hours scattered throughout the day. Mostly looking up words I don’t know, reading magazines, reading books written in Thai which teach English (really HIGH value as far as learning Thai). Stuff like that mostly.

Do you stick to a regular study schedule?

I used to early on. I’d set a block of 2 or 3 hours and just review vocabulary, etc. But now, not so much. I do carry a notebook/pen to jot down words I’m unfamiliar with to look up later. Doing nothing here helps too, as I can study or review when ever I want to. In fact I’m so busy doing nothing all the time I’m gonna buy a day minder!

What Thai language learning methods are you using?

Heck, I’ve got more Thai language learning resources than I’m willing to admit. Benjawan Becker’s books &, C/D’s , Mathew Courage’s DVD, Rosetta Stone, many ‘borrowed’ copies of private Thai language schools material, countless books by other authors about learning Thai, etc.

I’m using an unconventional method for learning insofar as I taught myself to read/understand Thai before I could speak or understand spoken Thai all that well. I could recognize written Thai words, know their meanings, even if I couldn’t accurately reproduce the toning of them when I spoke Thai.

Does one method stand out over all others?

I have to say, of all the methods I’ve been exposed to learning the Thai language that ‘situational based’ learning is by far the one which provides me with the most bang-4-the-baht. By situational based I mean you learn sentence constructs based on the needs of a particular situation: post office, food court, doctor’s office, in a taxi, etc. These are things you do every day here, over and over, so getting a grasp on what you need to say and where you’re likely to say it is the ‘key’ to beginning to ‘unlock’ this country for a foreigner. Between that and constantly increasing your vocabulary in high frequency words, a person can do quite well.

Have you started reading and writing Thai yet?

I started learning to read before I could even speak more than two-word-tourist-Thai or even simple ‘phrozen-phrases’ in Thai. I can write Thai, but my handwriting looks like a kindergarten kid. I did teach myself how to touch type Thai on a keyboard using all my fingers. That is no small feat in itself, seeing as the ‘finger load’ when typing Thai is skewed to one hand and more so to the two outside fingers on that hand. Not to mention there’s a lotta ‘shifty business’ and excessive reaching for keys which aren’t used in English typing all that often.

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

I found learning to read Thai (the way I chose to teach myself) was FAR easier than speaking clearly. When I started teaching myself to read I didn’t try to learn the tones (and still suffer from that oversight) or the consonant classes. At first I didn’t even learn the words associated with the Thai letters. Instead I broke it down to things like: Thai has 6 letters which make close to a “T” sound in English, they are; ฐ, ฑ, ฒ, ท, ธ, ถ. So when ever I saw those characters I immediately associated it with a “T” sound. Same for the 5 “K” sounds and the 4 “S” sounds in Thai.

I found the vowels a little tough at first, especially the ones which change or morph appearance due to being followed by a consonant. However, once you get the vowels down fairly well as far as long and short duration, they’re pretty consistent throughout the Thai language. Unlike English where vowels have little consistency due to the hodge-podge of languages English is based on.

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

Sheesh, I’m still reticent in engaging Thais in Thai to this day. Unless I’m with my Thai friends, or people I know, I’ll compel Thais to speak as much English as they can before I’ll switch into Thai. I know that sounds bad, but in reality it’s not as bad as it reads on the page.

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

Once I really started I could do “phrozen-phrases”, greetings, and basic questions pretty good. However if the conversation went “off script” I was lost.

What are your most embarrassing moments when speaking Thai?

OMG, there’s been oh-so many!! One that comes to mind is the time I was at a street stall buying sunglasses แว่นตากันแดด but instead pronounced the last word like แตด!!

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That learning to read and understand what you’re reading in Thai is beyond them. It takes time, and countless hours of word memorization, review but for me, it’s far easier to read/understand things written in Thai than it is to speak clear Thai as a foreigner.

Also the old lame excuse, I can’t speak Thai because I’m tone deaf and can’t hear the differences in similar sounding yet differently toned words. In the beginning I couldn’t either and nearly gave up. Then I started learning the different tones in high frequency words I’d use: white, rice, shirt, mat, tiger, etc, (although I rarely talk about tigers as a rule!) Finally I actually began to hear the toning when Thais spoke to me. I also concentrated ONLY on the falling and rising tone as the other three can pretty much be blurred in colloquial speech with no loss in comprehension to a Thai.

I think ANYONE who puts their mind to it can learn to be at least conversational in Thai, get their point across and conduct their routine daily interactions in Thai.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

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.

How do you learn languages?

As soon as I learn one (other than my native tongue of American English) where I feel comfortable with it, I’ll get back to you!

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My strengths are reading, understanding compound Thai words where the meaning isn’t always what the stand alone words would mean separately, knowing a TON of common idiomatic expressions. Typing Thai is another thing I feel is a strength, even though I can transcribe Thai quite fast (as in type something from a book into a document). My typing on the fly is far behind that due to my errant spelling, although MSN and other chat sites are bringing me up to speed on that.

My weaknesses are my erratic toning of words in my spoken Thai. I’m okay with vowel lengths now and my pronunciation of beginning/ending sounds are pretty clear. Unfortunately due to the way I taught myself to read (forgoing any consonant classes or learning the tone rules), I’m finding it’s way harder to ‘un-learn’ an improper pronunciation than it would have been learning it the right way first time outta the gate.

If I approach unfamiliar Thais who I need to talk to, I’ll use what I call the ‘Thai Language Dance’. In Thai I’ll say, “Hello, how are you, can you speak English, I can speak Thai a little bit, can you understand me?” This does two things, first it makes the Thai you’re engaging switch their ears from listening for English words, back into listening for Thai, and it lets them get a handle on how accented and poorly pronounced your spoken Thai is. Believe me EVERY foreigner here speaks Thai with a foreign accent, no matter how much the Thais praise your abilities.

(FWIW; take ANY praise about your Thai language skills from a Thai and discount it completely. If I had a baht every time a Thai praised my spoken Thai ability I’d be a billionaire here.)

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Umm, maybe English, but I’ll hafta get back to you on that one.

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

It made me realize just how hard it is for non-native speakers to learn to speak, read and write the English language. I found learning Thai quite straightforward once I got a handle on how things all fit together in Thai.

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)?

Hmm, I think this is the first one I’ve tried. I’m American and when I traveled I just had that holier than thou attitude “WTF do you mean you don’t speak English!”

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

I’m currently dabbling in learning to read the Lao language.

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

Yep, I’ve lived here continually for almost 6 years.

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


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

I like what is probably now called 70’s rock music, although when I started listening to it, it was cutting edge; KISS, Judas Priest, Styx, Queen, Heart, Ted Nugent, Poison, Def Lepard, etc. I also really like Thai rock, Loso, Micro, Body Slam, Big Ass, Asanee-Wasan, even ‘aunty’ Bird Thongchai.

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

DON’T get discouraged, don’t give up, and don’t put the idea in your mind that Thai is too hard for you to learn! It does take time, constant practice, and there is no magic method of learning Thai, no magic pill you can take and suddenly start speaking in tongues, err in Thai. The Thais have the same idiomatic expression we have in English; “Learn from your mistakes”, but theirs is ผิดเป็นครู (mistakes are your teacher).

You’re gonna make mistakes MANY many mistakes! You’re gonna say things which will make the Thais laugh out loud at you, but it’s part of the process. Get over yourself, laugh about the mistakes and take them in stride as its all part of the process in learning Thai.

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

I’d like to get to a level where I could take the Thai proficiency exam they give (which replaced the ป.๖ exam) at the end of the year. I’m also now studying grammatical terms, etc, as I think there is a real value in being able to teach English to Thais using a combination of Thai/English and phonetics. Much like Andrew Biggs and Christopher Wright do now in the teach English for Thais in the market now.

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

If I’m still alive and kickin’ you have my word on it. I swear on KISS I will.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com
Reviewing Thai Language Schools in Bangkok
(who BTW: is NOT affiliated with any Thai language school)

Getting by in Thai…

Thank you Tod, Snap, Talen and Greg. And for others out there – if you’d like be involved in the Getting by in 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.

7 thoughts on “Interview: Tod Daniels is Getting by With Learning Thai”

  1. Thanks Snap. What’s great about this series is that those interviewed do all the work. I only have to code and fiddle with the pretty pictures.

    “magical learning trick” if you ever find any, let me know. The only secret I’ve come across is study, study, study. And stay awake. Staying awake is the ultimate secret.

    Josh, I also went for reading first (my writing is still cacca). For how I learn, it seemed the logical way to tackle Thai. Seems I’m not alone!

    Martyn, “a packet of cigarettes and a small bottle of Beer Chang” your comments always make me smile. Thanks 🙂

    Tod, having the OCD gene suits learning Thai. It does take a huge effort to repeatedly get back into the learning saddle (I’m overdue for another round soon).

  2. Catherine and Tod

    A smashing interview and a lesson to us all in that if you try, try and try again then slowly but surely you’ll make progress.

    “….take ANY praise about your Thai language skills from a Thai and discount it completely. If I had a baht every time a Thai praised my spoken Thai ability I’d be a billionaire here.”

    I think I’d have about enough for a packet of cigarettes and a small bottle of Beer Chang.

  3. Thank you all for the kind responses.

    For me, as far as the way I best learn things and retain them, it’s been an up-hill battle almost all the way, lol. At least where I am now, I can often see the logic behind why something is structured or spoken a particular way in Thai and that’s a BIG help.

    So many times I’d reach a plateau or hit a brick wall where things just wouldn’t sink into my thick skull. I just wanted to give up on it and make a bonfire with my Thai language materials. However, I’d take a break from it for a few days then go back and hit the books again.

    Thankfully, I seem to have some definite OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) tendencies. If I set my mind to accomplishing something I’ll compulsively stick with it until I’m able to do it

    I’m ever so thankful I stuck with it this far.
    Thanx again

  4. I really like this interview. Tod seems to have learned the same way as me, so I know there is hope for me yet. I learned how to read and write Thai before being able to speak very well at all. If I could only figure out how to memorize the darn vocabulary…

    Thanks, Tod. I’ve gotten some inspiration from reading this interview.

  5. Catherine, another interesting interview. It’s always good to read how others tackle learning Thai…just in case they know of some sort of magical learning trick, I haven’t happened upon. No such luck yet, blast!

    “When I started teaching myself to read I didn’t try to learn the tones (and still suffer from that oversight) or the consonant classes.” Tod, I’ve just hit this brick wall and am going back and reteach myself…well, I should say, finish teaching myself. I still don’t know some of those rarely used funny looking consonants are. Kudos to you for touch typing in Thai!

  6. Thanks Talen. Tod has put in an admirable amount of time to learn Thai. He’s made great inroads into the language and is a tribute to us seasoned peeps. Now if I only had half his energy!

  7. Great interview, Cat. Tod seems to have a good handle on learning and this series is really a boon to anyone thinking about or actively learning the Thai language.

    Tod, love your taste in music…Body Slam and Big Ass are among my favorites!


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