Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language…

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (insert laughs) I know this is a corny joke; however this joke holds the key to great success in language learning and in life. No one becomes an expert overnight and no one can become fluent by tomorrow. Just as the character, Bob Wiley, learned in the movie ‘What about Bob?’, we need to take baby steps to get where we want in life. Anything that seems beyond our ability to accomplish is possible as long as we take it one step at a time.

I first learned how this can be applied to language learning when I studied Thai as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As many young men of my church do, I volunteered to serve a two year mission, to wherever my church had need of me. Luckily, I was called to serve in Thailand. And that’s when my love affair with the Thai language began.

Two Months of Thai…

Funny enough this Thai language love affair didn’t start in Thailand. It started in the college town of Provo, Utah. Provo is where the Missionary Training Center is located and where my two months of 8-9 hour days of language study began. It was intense! The first day we were given a huge orange bound book, the textbook created by the church to teach missionaries Thai. I later called it ‘The Orange Book of Death.’

After getting this and a few other important things I would need, including a vaccination shot for Japanese encephalitis, I eventually made it to my classroom, my home away from home for the next two months. My teachers introduced themselves, shared why they were chosen to teach us Thai, and then the main teacher turned to the black board and wrote the phrase that changed my life.

Speak Your Language…

Speak Your Language? What does that mean? I’ve been told to watch my language, is that what it means? They quickly answered: “We are phasing out your English. From now on, once you learn something in Thai, you can no longer use English.”


They can’t be serious! I’m not ready to start speaking Thai! I haven’t even learned to say “Hello” yet! How can I start speaking Thai?!?

They weren’t joking. As soon as we learned a Thai word, our teachers no longer understood the English equivalent. And once we learned a Thai grammar pattern, we couldn’t use the English grammar pattern.

After a few weeks this is what our sentences were like: ผมไป get a drink, can ไหม? ห้องน้ำ is where?

As weird as that seems, it ended up being one of the best language learning tools on my journey to learning Thai.

How does speaking Thaiglish help?…

Firstly, this method allowed us to continue speaking without as many pauses.

New language learners pause because they try to think of words to say what they want to say, while at the same time trying to remember the grammar they need to say it with. This constant pausing is made worse by the fact that learners sometimes forget what they wanted to say in the first place. With ‘Speak Your Language’ we were speaking what we knew and didn’t have to worry about what we didn’t, so we didn’t have as many frustrating pauses typical of new language learners.

Secondly, the method showed us what we needed to know.

So much of our time in learning a language is often wasted learning words we don’t need right away. I had friends in high school who could name every animal known to God in Spanish, but couldn’t say “I would like that pencil please.” I learned how to say ‘even though’ in Thai, before I learned how to say ‘pineapple’. This wasn’t because the ‘Orange book of Death’ was so well written. It was because I heard myself saying ‘even though’ in English a lot so finally looked it up, and then started saying it in Thai.

The joke that changed everything…

The third thing that helped me was something the teachers didn’t intended on happening. As a joke, students in my class would speak English using Thai grammar. To give you an idea, here is an example:

“I think the following language Thai hard to enter heart, but I still excited that was called the church to go to Thailand. You eat already or still?”

This was when I realized that vocabulary and grammar are two separate skills. It’s what makes learning to speak Thai, or any language, so hard. You are trying to do two things at once and your brain is having a difficult time keeping up. I liken it to learning to play the piano with two hands. To think about two hands playing different rhythms and different notes at the same time can be overwhelming.

This variation of ‘Speak Your Language’, which started as a joke, unlocked a key to language learning for me. I would take Thai grammar structures foreign to English, like the noun+quantity+classifier, and practice using English vocabulary. Later on I would learn any needed Thai vocabulary. Once I was confident with both the sentence structure and the vocabulary, I would put the two together, in Thai.

The method is similar to how some piano players practice using one hand at a time, and then once he/she is more confident, combine both hands.

And eventually, just like a piano player, I didn’t have to separate the grammar from the vocabulary; I could just speak it.

In a flash two months went by and I stepped into the terminal at Don Muang Airport! No, I wasn’t fluent yet, but I was much stronger and capable at speaking Thai than I ever thought I possibly could be in a mere 2 months.

So, to paraphrase my earlier joke, how do you learn Thai? One word at a time.

Justin Travis Mair
I Want To Speak Thai
Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

10 thoughts on “Learn Thai by Speaking Your Language”

  1. The best way to learn a new language is to be around the people who speak it. It is amazing how fast that missionaries pick up foreign languages while traveling the world. A big part of learning is being immersed in the culture. Of course this isn’t always possible, but if given the option this would be the way to go. You can certainly learn a new language without being inundated in the culture, but I think your rate or learning will be somewhat slower and like anything else…you need to use it or you will lose it. Or at least you’ll get real rusty…
    : )

  2. “I knew a couple who would go on “english fasts” when learning a language together, but all that happened was they stopped talking to eachother. ”

    That’d make for a mighty quiet weekend (bliss? 😉

    Even with ‘Speak Your Language’, starting out with just one day during the week or weekend might be a good way to ease into it. Either that or limit how many words you add each week. Twenty? Fifty? One hundred?

    To improve English in Thai students, Thailand has dedicated one day a week to English speaking (but I haven’t heard how it’s shaking out).

  3. Danyelle, good on ya for learning Thai! Thai is much more attainable than some people my feel when they look and hear it for the first time. Just start with what you know and work your way from there. I am starting a course based off of this system. Over at my blog is a link to my course testing site. You will will hear much more about it soon there.

  4. I agree with you about that when we want to learn speaking other language we must speak first our own language. One of the languages that are so hard to learn is Thai and I think it takes a long time for me to learn it. 🙂

  5. Susan, This is definitely great at home. What I like the most, is that it encourages you to keep speaking even if you don’t know the word. It also shows you which words you thought you knew but quickly forgot. The other thing is that, sometimes we discourage our self from not speaking at all because we don’t yet know how to say this or that in Thai. I knew a couple who would go on “english fasts” when learning a language together, but all that happened was they stopped talking to eachother. With SYL you can at least still communicate.

  6. Kaewmala, after the two months we understood most of the patterns and had a strong enough vocabulary that we could communicate around the words we didn’t know. For example, I didn’t know what a Tuuyen was when I first got there but I could ask to put something in the machine that makes food cold. I think at about 4 or 5 months it was natural feeling where I finally felt everything flowed naturally. Then from there is was really just vocabulary building and learning more colloqial patterns.

    Dan, of course we, the students and teachers, were human. Sometimes they would forget that we didn’t know a word yet or would let us get away with English. That said, the same class followed the same schedule over and over again so the teachers were also experienced with which patterns were taught when. From the Teachers perspective, they weren’t obligated to the same rules of SYL. They would move from Full on English, to explain certain topics to us, to full on Thai to push us to listen.

    SYL was for us to more than anything to encourage us to Speak, even if we didn’t know the words yet. It was a group effort as well. We encouraged each other to SYL as we would say. I hope that helps explains it more clearly.

  7. “We are phasing out your English. From now on, once you learn something in Thai, you can no longer use English.”

    It’s an interesting idea but does it really work in practice? Just tracking which words should at any moment be in English and which in Thai must impose extraordinarily high cognitive demands. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a teacher to keep those lists in mind at the same time as introducing new language.

  8. I love this method! My partner and I take Thai lessons, but as soon as we’re back in the apartment it’s English all the way. Seems like this would be a good way to continue some level of language learning at home…

  9. A very interesting post. Quite a radical and creative learning technique. It evidently works in your case. How long did it take for you to achieve a natural flow in speaking Thai (i.e. with almost no English words), Justin?


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