Successful Thai Language Learner: Daniel Whitehouse

Successful Thai Language Learner: Daniel Whitehouse

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Daniel Whitehouse
Nationality: British
Age range: 26
Sex: Male 
Location: Bangkok
Profession: Teacher and occasional TV presenter
Website: No website yet but if you have twitter please feel free to add me @thaiwhitehouse

What is your Thai level?

Always a tough question, this. I have an undergraduate degree that says I can speak Thai but I’m constantly learning new phrases and words and even now I occasionally find myself stumped if I want need to produce some particularly complex narrative.

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

As I learned my very first Thai words at a university in England, for a while my sole register was rather formal and a little stiff (the only time I spoke time was for presentations or talking to ajarns). This began to change during my second year which was in Chiang Mai University, during which I had more Thai friends and I was exposed to informal spoken Thai. However, the fact that I studied Thai in an academic institution rather than a less formal setting has influenced how I speak Thai to this day, as I still feel very uncomfortable using language that could be considered impolite. Despite occasionally meeting some farangs who feel very comfortable speaking like this.

What were your reasons for learning Thai? 

I knew I wanted to learn a language at University and Thai was available. A scandalously low amount of thought went into the decision.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive? 


I now live here ‘full-time’. I first came as a tourist in 2005, then as a student in 2008. After that I was a social anthropology researcher in Nan in 2012, then finally to live in 2013.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language? 

Since 2007.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach? 

Yes. As it was my degree I did it full-time from the first day.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Not at first. But I began to realise that I am someone who needs to write and visualise words before I can remember them. I am not the type of learner who can just listen and retain. Therefore, I began to set aside time to study with a pen and paper in which I would write down words in phrases in order to memorise them.

Did one method stand out over all others? 

There are many methods and some are more useful for beginners, some for intermediates and some for advanced. One great way to learn vocabulary and the alphabet is with flash cards. They really do help. Also, if there are more than one of you learning Thai together you could do a ‘Vocab Bank’. This is best done on an excel spreadsheet and involves that weeks designated ‘vocab banker’ creating a list of 30 (or however many you have time for) new words, their definition and an example usage. He or she then emails the others the spreadsheet. The group can then meet once a week and do a test together in which the banker will read out some of the words (or definitions) and the others must write the word (spelling, of course, should be correct).

If you are more advanced, Youtube is a great resource. I like watching people like Note Udom (a genuinely funny Thai comedian) and pausing after every single sentence to write what he said and then translate any unknown words. This works on many levels, you are learning new word collocations, discovering why the audience is laughing and learning which subject are ripe for comedy in Thailand.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai? 

From day one. We never used transliterations and to this day I loathe them. You will never speak clear Thai by relying on transliterations. This is not a point of snobbery, it is purely practical. Learning to read and write is essential.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult? 

Not especially. At first the alphabet seemed insurmountable, but you quickly realised that you rarely use a lot of the letters and knowing which tone each word takes is not as tough as it seems.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment? 

I think you have them at every stage but maybe my first was when I was talking to a teacher who didn’t speak any English and I came away from a twenty minute conversation realising I had spoken Thai the whole time and had said everything that I had wanted to say without over thinking every single syllable.

What are your strengths and weaknesses? 

I think my accent is my strongest point. My weakest point is that I rely on stock phrases a lot and am less creative with the language as I wish I could be.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai? 

I think the biggest misconception is that the tonal system is more like an accent. It isn’t. It is an integral part of the language. If you are saying the word with an incorrect tone you are not saying that word. You are saying another word or saying a word that doesn’t exist. Make listening and recognising tones your number one priority when you are first learning Thai. It is the foundations upon which you will build every aspect of your Thai. Phrases and vocab learning can come later.

Can you make your way around any other languages? 

Absolutely none!

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


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

Pretty much what I have already said;

  • Don’t rush through getting the tones right.
  • Become accustomed to the vowel sounds that we don’t have in English. Especially be aware that you are saying the vowel for the right amount of time. A long vowel should sound different from a short vowel.
  • Learn to read and write from the very beginning (if you haven’t started yet, start right now…however difficult it may seem it will definitely pay off).
  • Use your Thai whenever you can. Thais are very patient with non-natives who have a crack at Thai. Don’t be discouraged if they laugh at you a bit. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn. Remind yourself that you are a native speaker and that mistakes are inevitable.
  • Have fun. Thai is a beautiful and constantly evolving language. And when you speak Thai your experience in this country will be even more pleasurable and fun than you can imagine.

Daniel Whitehouse,
Twitter: @thaiwhitehouse

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

6 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Daniel Whitehouse”

  1. I enjoyed this interview. It’s nice to see other people who have struggled with the same issues as me.

    I do agree with him about the Thai alphabet. Every time I look at a different book, they all have a different romanization system. Learning all of the various short cut romanization systems ends up taking longer than just learning the Thai alphabet.

    I actually feel that the Thai alphabet is about the same difficulty as the English alphabet. It really has a lot of the same problems: split vowel digraphs (and trigraphs), vowel complexity, and morphophonemic spelling.

    I think most English speakers would agree that learning the English alphabet is a wise first move when learning English, I’m sure we can think of some very good reasons. I think we can convince ourselves to learn the Thai alphabet by using the same arguments.

  2. Get up on the wrong side of the bed again Todd?

    This is an interview, not scientific research. I ask questions and people reply with their opinions, not yours. See how that works?

    If you have the time to devote to the subject, have at it. I’d be willing to publish your findings.

  3. Again, the same old beat to death, “transliteration versus thai script” song and dance.

    I just gotta ask, Daniel knows a person will “never speak clear thai by relying on transliteration” how again?

    Does he have ANY real data or hard facts to support this theory other than the way he learned thai?

    I don’t think there’re any studies out there which compare the spoken language ability between people who learned thai via karaoke versus people who learned straight off thai script!

    I think it’d be good to get some foreign speakers of thai together who learned by those two opposing methods and have a panel of native speakers judge their ability in spoken thai by several categories like; grammar, intonation, structure, etc.

    You reach the masses Cat; try to put something together that actually “tests” these assertions; rather than having them be purely speculation between the two camps of learners…

    Still, it’s always good to read about how people learned thai.

  4. Thanks Kru Can! I thought Daniel was especially diplomatic about learning to read Thai right away.

    From day one. We never used transliterations and to this day I loathe them. You will never speak clear Thai by relying on transliterations. This is not a point of snobbery, it is purely practical. Learning to read and write is essential.

    He’s right. It is practical but some like to believe otherwise.

  5. Great interview! I like the advice giving to anyone who wants to learn Thai especially “Don’t rush through getting the tones right.”


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