Learning Thai (for the shy)

Learning Thai (for the Shy)

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Are you a shy Thai learner?…

Back when I was much younger, I’d shrink from meeting new people, and sometimes people I knew. One time, I even burst into tears when a male teacher focused on me too intently in class. But years later, I am no longer what I would consider painfully shy.

Learning Thai (for the Shy) Now older and more comfortable within myself, I still resist getting out. Even so, over the years I’ve taught courses, performed on stage in front of hundreds, and acted in TV commercials meant for an audience of thousands.

But my preference is keeping my own company. Why? Because when I’m in my own little world, cosy and quiet, I thrive. When I’m alone I read, I write, I take photos, and I carry on correspondence with interesting people around the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy being around people, but in small doses. Perhaps more than most, I need quiet time to reenergize, to recover and replenish my reserves. And I’ve long known that if I’ve been overly social, I’m like a baby held much too much at a family reunion. I get cranky and fuss, and find excuses to escape.

And that is why I smile patiently at those who jump up and down while insisting that to learn a language you need to be gregarious. That you absolutely need to get out there and accost every native you meet. That you need to immerse yourself in their country, their lives, and their culture. And you need to talk, talk, talk to everyone. And then talk some more.


Because no matter how logical I know that theory is, I also know that it’s not going to happen with me. I can no more deal with a saturation of people, than extroverts could hide themselves away for weeks and months on end.

What’s a shy Thai learner supposed to do?…

Ok. So let’s say that you are a quiet person as well, and you want to learn a language. You want to learn Thai for instance. So, what are your choices? Do you crumble under the plethora of advice and put yourself out there? Or do you search out methods that suit your own skin?

Looking around, there are many options for quiet people: Online courses, courses with books and CDs, Skype teachers, and Skype communities. And then there is the life you are living in your very own head.

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment…”

I’ve long been fascinated with the concept of mindfulness. Basically, what you do is keep yourself in the moment. As you go through your day, you describe to yourself what you are doing: I’m sitting down, I’m walking to the store, all along my arm hairs I’m getting a sensation of air movement from the overhead fan.

Learning Thai (for the Shy) As a hermit I live in my head a fair amount of time, so the concept of mindfulness holds a special attraction for me. And that’s why I thought that using the concept of mindfulness, but replacing our English thoughts with Thai phrases, would work for the shy learning Thai.

Here’s a suggestion: Walk around your world for a week, jotting down notes of your experiences. When the week is over, pare down the results to the phrases used most often. If you are a basic beginner at Thai, simplify the phrases to suit what you can handle.

Then, when you have fifty or so phrases, grab a Thai friend or Thai teacher to help turn your thoughts into Thai. Have your Thai source write down the phrases and record them as well. And while you are at it (also important), get your pronunciation checked and corrected.

Btw – An alternative for getting the correct pronunciation down would be to use Chris’ Voice Viewer.

Each week, add new phrases to your repertoire. And soon you’ll have a wonderful, rich vocabulary that means something to you.

That’s right. No more “Khun Somchai works at the small barber shop behind the big hotel”. Instead you’ll have, “I’m carefully putting my small D’Avesn elephant vase behind the large Charles Catteau flamingo pot”.

28 thoughts on “Learning Thai (for the shy)”

  1. Tod, you are right, I hadn’t thought of you as shy 😀 But I do understand that being thrown into an uncomfortable situation like speaking a foreign language would make anyone talk wobbly. I’m studying Thai more with reading and writing as well (not that I’m grand at either). So my chatter isn’t what it should be.

    And btw – a six foot + westerner wearing a KISS t-shirt, sitting outside on a stoop chatting with local Thais, is a sight I keep looking for in BKK. Hah!

    Thank you for the kind words. And please do not worry about long posts, as they are totally welcome here! The more the merrier.

  2. My posting penchants on some forums are all too well known, and I come across to most people as confident and comfortable in my own skin. However, I still have extreme reticence and reluctance in interacting in thai with thais more than is absolutely necessary. Then again I see the exact same reticence and reluctance with thais when they are confronted with a 6+ foot tall foreigner who rarely smiles, wearing a KISS t-shirt, and walking with a cane which looks more like a club as well.

    I go thru the pre-memorized ‘mini-speech’ when I hafta speak to ‘new thais’. Asking in thai if they can speak english, and when I get the ‘pat’ response from them of “พูดภาษาอังกฤษได้นิดหน่อย’, I can answer back in thai, “Oh good, I speak thai at that level too, maybe we can talk, what do you think?” It’s been an ice breaker so many times when I deal with or talk to thais I don’t already know.

    I think it’s the shy-ness factor why I’ve spent so much time concentrating on learning to read and type thai, instead of speaking. Not that my speaking skills are pathetic but my reluctance to speak overrides my skill; often times giving me poor diction and/or clarity.

    I too find eavesdropping on thais useful in language acquisition and do it in coffee shops, on the sky train, in food courts, just about anywhere really. I’ve also taken to recording thai conversations surreptitiously, especially the group of middle aged, thai guys I sit with outside my apartment at nite. I play them back to see if I understood what they were saying the first time around. What amazes me; when a thai speaks, even when they’re is piss drunk, and their mouth is stuffed with food, the other thais have no problem understanding them, while I’m sitting there dumb as a proverbial post.

    Enough self bloviation. (sorry for the long post!) ..

    Love your blog, and your topics, keep up the great work! !!

  3. Lucosity – I just checked Anki and I see there is a free version. But he does warn that it’s difficult to set up. Maybe ask on one of the Thai language forums? (links in my sidebar).

    I have not bought the Anki iPhone app. And at £14.99 I’m going to pass. That is a ridiculus price for an iPhone app and I refuse to entertain the notion. Fine that the guy has given his time up to now, but why slam iPhone users with the bill?

    iPhone dictionary apps with Thai script only – as my target for reviewing Thai dictionaries was for the English – Thai market, I did not review Thai-Thai dictionaries.

    Thai TV Drama is here (odd, I couldn’t find it by searching iTunes).

  4. Thanks Catherine.

    The Anki site says it is a free download…. its on the Anki site… but I cant get it to work – but as you may have guessed im a rookie with technology. I just got the phone a few days ago. You can go directly to the Anki site, then scroll down to Anki for iphones…. right there is a link to a free version of iAnki – the only fault is that it doesnt support audio on apple devices – but if you’re using it purely for vocab building/memorisation and can read Thai script with the correct tones (i.e intermediate learner) it’d still be useful. But, like I said – I cant get it to work. I take it you paid for Anki at the apps store?

    Please give me the link to this new app!
    By the way, i’ve been reading your page for a while (i looked at the iphone apps for Thai). Is there one particular dictionary you recommend Catherine?

    I want one for advanced Thai, just Thai script is fine (i.e a Thai to Thai dictionary), but I dont want one with transaliteration or a travel based-app.

    And, could you point me in the direction of the Thai-TV app – thanks – and when will I be able to get this new app you speak of??!!!

    Sorry if this is off topic again – I don’t mean to hijack your thread. Feel free to email me if its better, delete this post, or move it. Thanks so much!

  5. Lucosity, welcome to WLT 🙂 I love AJATT. It was one of the first language learning blogs I started reading (he rambles on a bit, but he makes a lot of sense and knows what he’s talking about).

    All, if you don’t know of his site, here’s the link: AJATT: All Japanese All The Time

    I’m in Thailand, so I’m not sure if the Thai TV app works elsewhere. All I know is that it’s slow here because our Internet connection is cacca. Anyone else?

    I wasn’t aware there was a free version of Anki for the iPhone. Doesn’t he charge for the app? If there is a free app out there, or another way, could you please leave the url? (you won’t see it here until I code it in – there are posting restrictions in place even for me).

    Btw – if you can’t get Anki, I have something better… It’ll be in the next iPhone review, but before that I’ll post a single review with just the app. Yes, it’s that good.

  6. Hi everyone on this forum. I am def. a shy Thai learner, but a very good listener and imitator of people, so that helped my Thai greatly – just going home and doing imitations of people to my close friends, or paying close attention to their quirks and speech habits.

    There is a site called ‘All Japanese All The Time’ which basically advocates that if you really want to learn a language (in this case Japanese) you should just spend as much time as possible around and in (the realm of) the langauge – that means just surrounding yourself with Thai things like TV and everything. Checkout the site, it may give you some ideas.

    Anyway, I think Catherine said that there is an iPhone app to allow you to watch Thai TV – does this work in other countries? Also I have been really struggling to get Anki on my iphone (the free version) because my iPhone is not hooked up to the Wifi (only when im in a hotel lobby or coffeeshop) – could someone please guide me through the process of getting either of these great sounding language learning applications on the phone. Sorry to go off topic. Great site,


  7. Hi Christopher, being able to practice typing/reading Thai is a great idea. But perhaps a forum with people signed up to assist would be better suited. The existing Thai forums are in my sidebar: Thaivisa, ThailandQA, and thai-language.com. But let me ask around to see what the alternatives are.

    (great going btw!)

  8. เรียนคนที่อยู่ในโลกของส่วนตัว:

    ถ้าคุณสามารถอ่านประโยคนี้ได้ (และเป็นฝรั่งเหมือนผมนะครับ) ไปชื่นชมตัวเองเหอะ แล้วพอเสร็จกลับมาตอบอะไรติ๊งต๊องสักข้อเดียวครับ ผมก็ทราบว่าไม่ใช่ทุกคนในที่นี่อ่านกะเขียนได้นะครับ แต่ผมว่าเราน่าจะส่งข้อความภาษาไทยต่อกันบ้าง ถ้าเป้าหมายของเราคล้ายกันยังงี้ครับ ใช่ไหมล่ะ ถ้าผิดก็ผิด เราช่วยกันได้นะครับ เราก็คงไม่อายเลยตอนเราคุยกะเพื่อนฝรั่งในที่นี่นะครับ
    อย่างไรก็ตามถ้ามีใครสนใจ ส่งมันมาเลยครับ โทษทีครับ ที่ผมตื่นเต้นหน่อย

    โอเคนะ ทำตัวสบายครับ ผมไปก่อน


    โอ้…เชิญแก้ประโยคของผมครับ ผมพิมพ์ผิดถี่ๆ จะตาย ฮิๆ

  9. Cat, I do seem more outgoing online and in fact I am more outgoing in Thailand whereas in the states I am much like a hermit…Thailand seems to bring out the best in me for some reason.

  10. Thanks Christopher. I found a Power Buy at Central Ladprao. MBK, as you mentioned, is too crowded. There is no room to move and shoppers are always stopping dead still in the middle of the aisles for no other reason than to talk on their phones.

    So now you know why I love Paragon 😉

  11. It appears I have the WS-550M. There was one a step below it, but the recording quality just wasn’t going to work. Beyond that (based on what was available in the store), it seemed that the upgrades were in the recording capacity. The model I own holds 2 g, and on moderate recording quality mode, it holds something like 20+ hours. It also has a USB jack that slides out of the bottom of the thing; it’s a little tacky, but it makes the process of actually moving things on your computer that much easier.

    The Power Buy I went to was in MBK; I study fairly often around Chula, so it seemed like the place to go. If you haven’t ever been, I’m guessing it would be the kind of large crowd that would wear you out. It really is kind of an awful place. Beware.


  12. Christopher, you are right, it does say that I’m trying to improve my ability to speak their language. Thanks!

    Power Buy? I’ve never been or even seen one (but after googling, I know they are in Thailand). Which Olympus recorder did you get? I’ve had my eye on this one at amazon.com: Olympus Digital Voice Recorder DM-520

  13. Catherine:

    I don’t beleive recording people’s conversations to the end of educating yourself is unethical. In fact, it strikes me as being quite respectful; it says to me: I want to learn your language.

    I recently bought an Olympus digital voice recorder at Power Buy for about 5000 baht. It does the job remarkably well.



  14. Hi Talen. Taking a shot… your personality online comes off as a lot more outgoing for longer than mine. But our people watching skills are about the same. This coming Xmas I’m aiming at a pocket recorder to catch Thai conversations (is that even ethical?) I have the iPhone, but for going around Thailand I’d prefer a product that doesn’t look like a huge black brick yelling ‘STEAL ME QUICK!’

    Hi Martyn. You are the first one to mention that header. Thanks! I picked that particular photo because shy/quiet people are not boring, scuttling creatures afraid of their own shadows. We laugh, shout, and even get crazy wild sometimes. Now that I’m older there is not so much crazy wild going on, but I still laugh a lot.

    I did take you for being a reserved person. And reading what you wrote, I now know that you are more so than I am. Once I’m out and about I often participate. It’s just getting me from my cave to there that is the struggle. Depending, I enjoy talking to people, but I do need some distance. And I’m done long before others are.

    Is it the fear of letting go that controls us? Or is it the fear of not being perfect? Because if there is any country that’s makes it easy to let go, Thailand is it. I’m more comfortable talking Thai to Thais than I ever was talking French in France. Talk about night and day! With an encouraging audience, sometimes the conversation just trips out. The only thing I tripped over in France was my tongue.

    Rereading what Steve the Linguist had to say, I too feel that extroverts will get out of the gate faster. But introverts, with their ability to internalise, will eventually catch up.

  15. Catherine the post header really caught my eye, I love the upturned nose and shades. A cool pic.

    I don’t know what kind of a person my blog posts make me out to be but I am actually quite a shy person. I build a wall around myself when meeting new people and don’t expect them to try and climb over it. That really freaks me out if they do.

    I think one of the problems with being shy and learning Thai (or any other language) is actually letting yourself go. By that I mean forcing yourself to speak to people in their language. It’s the fear of making a complete fool of yourself. People are shy for many different reasons and a lack of self confidence is a major one. I think you can learn a language in an introverted way but the extrovert is generally going to learn a lot faster by his or her natural compulsion to interact with others.

    Who would make the better footballer (generally speaking), the kid who always practises on his own or the one who kicks a ball around with his mates. The shy kid is normally sat on the substitutes bench. I think language learning is a bit like that.

  16. “Or do you search out methods that suit your own skin?”

    Great post Cat and I am much like the above quote…I don’t bother much with what works for others but look for what suits me. While I do generally jump right in and talk with the locals I am also from a very long line of people watchers and that serves me well also.

    You can learn a lot by watching people as they go about their every day life and I found that listening in I have learned a lot more Thai, correct pronunciation and correct usage of words.

  17. Paul, Fabulous! Btw – you are well versed in meditation, so is there any chance of you writing a post about using mindfulness for learning Thai? I would love more input from someone with actual experience.

    Shy doesn’t exactly fit for me anymore, so I started looking around for a better fit. Introvert was closer and the personality tests closer still. Amongst the many tips to stop being shy, there are a few jewels.

    Are introverts better language learners?
    …introverts are able to stimulate themselves to learn while extroverts require external stimulus. It sort of made me think of language learning with a focus on input. People who have interests, and follow these interests in another language, can acquire a great vocabulary and familiarity with another language without actually interacting with native speakers, until a later stage. This can be an advantage. At first the extroverts win out, because they want to use the language more, but introverts may be the eventual winners, in a tortoise and the hare race.

    It’s Okay to Just Shut Up: Understanding Introversion (spot on explanation)

    Caring for Your Introvert (a bit snarly for my tastes – sort of like what we often receive as a response – but the information is there)

    Shy and Introverted Process the World Differently (check out the comments)

    Confessions of an Introverted Traveler

    In Defense of the Introverted Traveler

  18. Wow Catherine, you have really described my experiences with Thai -scary. I can come across as confident when I need to, but basically I too am a hermit – albeit one with a family. I love reading Thai, and my vocabularly is reasonably good, but talking can be more of a struggle. I listen to Thai radio and watch Thai TV and can understand, but I just don’t like the idea of striking up a conversation. I’m the exact same in English and that’s my native lanugage.

    I agree with you about using mindfulness as a way to learn Thai. I used this techninique to help me beat the booze, so it should certainly work for learning a language.

    They sometimes say that when the student is ready the teacher appears; I think you have just moved me further along the path – Thanks Catherine.

  19. Sophie, I thought you’d be interested 🙂 Skimming through David’s new course, with a little bit of adjustment there are a lot of phrases you could use for walking around town or staying in your cabin in the woods even.

    Holding conversations with Thais in your head is a good idea, and might not be as limited as me talking to myself or to my cats. But I do have some wild subjects bouncing around! Just going for a walk in the park this morning gave me more phrases to source (the taxi driver coming back was a honker – and with his erratic driving, soon every car dodging us were honkers as well).

    Christopher is an introvert who likes to be amongst crowds of Thais. And I do as well, for pretty much the same reasons – I’m invisible if I want to be. But as soon as the level of expats increase, I fade into myself. When the Red Shirts first arrived in Bangkok I was out every day with them. Talking. Laughing. Taking a zillion of photos. I saw maybe one or two expats a day during those times. At a distance. And even though there were crowds lining up to watch the parades, I was easy in my mind. Because there are crowds, and there are crowds.

    Movies are grand too. And now there is an iPhone app with Thai TV channels. I used to watch soaps but my favourite ended and that was that.

    Christopher, I don’t have Harry Potter, but I do have books for kids to teens and on up. Another bit of fun is the complete CD set of Tin Tin in Thai. And then AUA has many videos on YouTube (I spent several days downloading them all).

    Why should the shy study Thai? Well, why not? I realise that outgoing people might be shaking their heads in our direction. I mean, haven’t they told us over and over just what to do? And here we go, ignoring them… sigh… once again…

    But you see, this is the thing – language learners are not all made from the same mold.

    And while the advice to get out and talk, talk, talk is great for those who crave the contant company of others – and I even include it in posts on WLT – it does not suit everyone.

  20. Cat, Well, this post certainly caught my attention. From a hermit who lives in the woods and resists heading into town except for food, I can so relate. I know three Thai women at a little restaurant in town. I have visited them twice. Excellent opportunity for me to practice, but do I go? No. It would mean actually interacting with someone which, like you, I find draining. I prefer the solitary road. I spend a lot of time with David Smyth. Well, not actually with him, but his Thai course. It’s quiet, solitary and his method really works for me. I also have Thai videos and CDs that I sing along with and Thai Hits Vol.I that I really love. I walk through the woods singing about Bangkok,the City of Angels. I have imaginary conversations with people in Thai, but truth be told, that is the way I like it. So, why study Thai, why bother to learn if I will not be talking to anyone? Good question. I enjoy it and it allows me to spend most of my time exactly where I want to be…..in my head. I actually know very little Thai. More will come though as I just continue to plod along. Someone said here a while back…”learning a new language is a lifelong endeavor.” Indeed. Anyway, what’s the hurry? It’s not like I’m going to be meeting or talking to anyone!

  21. Hi Christopher. Thank you for your comments. I assumed that there would be more quiet people like me around, and it’s great to get feedback.

    I agree that one needs to get out and converse – I’d die of boredom if I didn’t – but for me it’s the degree.

    And I agree about the CD courses and even Thai teachers teaching expat Thai, so we do need to be diligent. But I believe with the right sources we can learn to talk correctly even before trying different phrases out in the real word.

    There is a possibility that by getting it all natural in our heads first would make speaking Thai second nature. And for quiet people, that would be a plus.

    And what’s to stop us from talking to ourselves out loud as well? Or like Betti mentioned, stray cats even. My cats are vocal so I know they’d natter back, regardless. And it’s hilarious how long I can keep a conversation going with them as it is.

    Today while out shopping I started paying attention to the phrases I’d like in my head. Just for starters, there are many types of plants I know the English words for, but not the Thai. And if by doing this I can switch my English thoughts over to Thai, all the better for my progress.

    Anyway, as I suggested in my post, I’m going to start jotting down what I’m doing. And I might just throw some questions in as well. So it’d be the full whack of me talking to myself. And why not? It sounds fun actually.

  22. Having said that, I wanted to share what has worked for me on my lonesome. I like studying; I like coffee; I am the kind of introvert that finds peace in large crowds of Thai people in the busiest parts of the city. I can get lost in there. No one knows me, and no one pays that much attention. I like eavesdropping. I like sitting under the stairs of the skytrain and on the stoops of storefronts at night. I carry my books around all the time.

    There are a couple of things I have found useful for self-study. Novels and movies. After I was here for six months, I bought Harry Potter แฮร์รี่ พอตเตอร์ (as I recall Rikker Dockum did the same thing). My teacher told me it would be too hard; in fact, several people mentioned that… It just wasn’t true though. I didn’t understand about 30-50% of the vocabulary. But that just didn’t bother me. It was entertaining; I loved it. I took me a month to get through it, and then I bought Harry Potter 2. This time I decided — as Rikker did on the first go — to look up every word I didn’t know. It has been great, but I needed a fun book to go along with it — where I would not look up anything. I went for คำพิพากษา (ชาติ กอบจิตติ, this one was hard for me, but still fun เต็มไปด้วยคำโบราณ) and now, I’m reading Twilight (Stephenie Meyer, yep, the vampire story).

    The other aid has been movies. Thai movies and foreign movies with the Thai soundtrack on. Sometimes I turn on the Thai subtitles, and sometimes I don’t. When I first came to Thailand, I went straight to the first copied movie vendor I found (สะพานพุทธ ที่ตลาดนัดข้างล่างสะพาน I don’t know what to call it… Bhudda Bridge at the market with all the teenagers. Take bus 8 all the way. The discs are around 80 baht a pop.) and bought a bunch of stuff. I would watch them and not understand anything. Sometimes I would stop the movie and repeat lines. Sometimes, I would try to transcribe everything. In the end, movies are entertaining even when you don’t get all the dialouge. In fact, there were a couple months when I got absolutely nothing. But it is an incredible amount of input — even when it is the same two dubbers that do almost every foreign movie in Thailand.)

    I don’t want to deceive anyone. I’m pretty much an absolute hack; probably I’m scratching at the door of intermediate. I can get around the language a bit, but I wouldn’t impress anyone with it. I’m getting better though, and I think these methods helped. I’m sorry to use so much of your time; I’m curious to here what the other loners do for their study time.

    สู้ๆ นะเพื่อน

    คริส Chris

  23. Just the title of this post got me excited. I identify with this perspective. I’ve been here (eh, in Bangkok, I mean) for about ten months now, and the “you’ve got to get out and blah, blah, blah” is a script I’ve got running in backround all the time. I agree 100% that for those of us who have trouble in the public spectrum — let us say — there is a lot that can get done within our own head. That being said, I believe that we’ve also got to force the issue of interacting with people — at least to some degree. I suppose it depends on the focus of our language learning. I don’t really know what my focus is; I love the language. Ultimately, I want to sound like a Thai person. That, I think, just can’t happen exclusively in our head. I’m not talking tones. (Tones I believe are perfected in the proverbial woodshed; it’s you and the recording and whatever time it takes.) What I am talking about is, for example, the way people greet each other here. They really just don’t say “Hello, how are you.” They say “where are you coming from” or “have you eaten.” I believe English speakers and Thai speakers have the same sentiment when greeting though: I don’t know, like “hey, it’s good to see you.” If you didn’t ever go out, however, the script in your mind would say: “วันนี้ คุณสบายดีหรือฮะ” “how are you doing today?” You see what I’m after? Let me know what you think. (Oh, I know as well as you that I’m an awful writer. Sorry.)

  24. ‘not enough space in my mind’ makes total sense to me. There are times when I’m searching for a Thai word and a French word pops out instead!

    Talking to cats is a great idea (and one I will try as well). My cats will be a bit lost in the beginning, but they’ll survive (I’ll let you know how it goes).

  25. 🙂
    I remember when I was forcing myself to think in English for weeks, months, as a teenager trying to internalise the language, come to terms with it. 20 years on, I dream in English, I live in English – but these two languages have taken over my mind so completely that any other in addition would take away from my mother tongue or from my English, and I cannot risk that. not enough space in my mind. if that makes sense.
    I talk to the stray cats in Thai. that is funny.


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