Successful Thai Language Learner: Jeff Volling

Successful Thai Language Learner

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Jeff Volling
Nationality: American
Age: 31
Sex: Male 
Location: The Philippines
Profession: Translator/Content Creator

What is your Thai level?

I’d have to go with a combo of all three. It really depends on the topic of discussion. I would say that for my daily needs and what I needed language for while I lived in Thailand, I was fluent.

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

What I speak probably leans more towards professional Thai, but there are elements of street Thai as well. I can only string together a few sentences/phrases in Issan.

What were your reasons for learning Thai? 

My main reason for learning was survival. I didn’t have the patience to try explaining things to Thais who can’t understand English (and where I lived, nobody spoke English ). I realize the irony in learning an entire language because of not wanting to constantly make hand gestures.

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


No. I was in Thailand from 2009-2015.

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


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

I dove right in after an initial period (maybe a couple weeks or so) of traveling. There were some periods during my 6 years in Thailand when I would study for several hours in a day and times when I wouldn’t study at all of weeks (even months) on end.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

No, I did not.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I combined textbook study with full-on immersion. When I was first starting out, I was more or less a hermit, studying Thai via various books – in particular, the Thai for __ series by Benjawan Poomsan Becker. I’d then use whatever I learned in real life situations whenever the opportunity arose. I also learned Thai by “necessity.” If there was a particular phrase I needed to say and couldn’t – I’d learn it.

Did one method stand out over all others? 

For me, all the methods worked well. However, I do like the “needs-based” learning approach in that it is a good way to quickly learn what is most important.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai? 

Immediately. I don’t believe in being illiterate.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult? 

Yes. I’m probably a bit slower than some others in this series in that it took me about 2 solid months of studying at least 2 hours per day to come to terms with it.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment? 

Realizing that I could say just about anything in Thai that I’d normally talk about in English.

How do you learn languages? 

Textbook study combined with immersion (actual or virtual). If the immersion option is not available, I talk to myself.

What are your strengths and weaknesses? 

Strengths: grammar and vocabulary; weakness: not sure, but I found pronunciation and tones quite difficult.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai? 

Tones matter. I realize a lot of people will disagree with me here – but the fact is that in 6 years of living in Thailand, if I got a tone wrong, I never had any problem being understood and conversation was never halted. More important than tones is stress. Besides, in conversation, words often just carry the middle tone anyhow, with the most important word(s) getting their natural tone.

Can you make your way around any other languages? 

English (native speaker)
German (fluent; near-native fluency in reading)
French (upper-intermediate/advanced)
Tagalog (advanced basic/low intermediate)
Norwegian – an online test said I read it at a B2 level, but I would say basic. It is rather easy to read, though.
Spanish – a bit rusty, but I’m conversational enough and can read with little problem
Croatian – just enough to get by if I ever get there.

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

Yes, several. I dabble a lot – but was focused mainly on Tagalog, Norwegian, and Croatian.

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

Find what works for you. Use the language as often as possible and try to not think of it as studying. Language is a vehicle for communicating ideas – so just talk about whatever you like. Being “fluent” isn’t knowing every word or being able to talk about anything – it’s being able to comfortably express your own thoughts and ideas and to understand others in the topics that are relevant to you.

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you’d like to read more interviews the entire series is here: 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.

5 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Jeff Volling”

  1. Hah! Rereading my reply, I can see what you mean. But really, it was more along the lines of … “Sigh. Yet another suggestion to change a question in an interview series that’s been around since 2009?” 😉

    And since my previous reply was short sans fluff (it was first thing in the morning for me) here’s a longer explanation:

    When I put the questions together, it wasn’t just me throwing stuff around. I asked ‘those in the know’ for suggestions and corrections. That one did cause concern but to keep that particular question short, those three were chosen as the most commonly recognised. Not very academic but that wasn’t the aim.

    I’m not sure you realise this, but the answers are the same for each interview because they are later added to a spreadsheet to make quick comparisons. I can’t keep going back to ask those who contributed to please resend their replies to new/tweaked questions. Well, I could, but some are no longer around (this being the eighth year of the series) and others wouldn’t be too thrilled about it. Plus, I feel awfully lucky/grateful to get the responses I have so far and I do not want to push it.

    EDIT: After I reach the 100 mark (almost there) I’ll consider a new lot of questions if I’m still around (just not now).

  2. I know you can you be a bit sensitive Catherine but this is just a light-hearted response. Your reply reminds me of Hormones series 1 episode 1 where the kids keep asking why they have to wear a school uniform but the only response they get is that the school has had this rule for a very long time (เป็นสิบๆปี). The more the teachers repeat that the more frustrated the students get and demand a good reason.

  3. That’s the criteria I laid out when I started the series in 2009. The question has been understood – no need changing it (or any others) at this point. This is not an academic series. If those being interviewed want to clarify, they can do so in their answers.

  4. Why is the question ‘Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?’ As Luke Bauer pointed out, this is a totally illogical question. It suggests that there are three types of Thai: street Thai, Issan Thai and professional Thai, whereas in reality street Thai and professional Thai are linguistic styles. ‘Issan Thai’ doesn’t really exist as there are a variety of languages and dialects spoken in that region. You possibly mean the dialect of Lao spoken by most people there, but then why not also mention the dialects in the north and south of Thailand?

  5. David, thank you so much for your kind words. AUA Thai language, Cracking Thai Fundamentals, and Benjawan’s books are all great resources. It’s wonderful how much we have available to us now compared to when I started this site. Good luck!


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