Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair

This article was originally posted on

  • Get your FREE Thailand Cheat Sheet ​by entering your email below. The ​Sheet, based on ​our experience with living and working in ​Thailand for 10+ years, shows you how to ​save time and money and ​gives you the tools the thrive in Thailand.

Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Justin Travis Mair
Nationality: American
Age range: 30
Sex: Male
Location: New Zealand
Profession: Student/Father/Receptionist
Website/blog: I Want To Speak Thai

What is your Thai level?

I say I am fluent, but I let my vocabulary fall to an intermediate level. I am currently bringing my Thai back up to an advanced level.

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

Mostly street Thai with a bit of professional mixed in.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I was a missionary for my Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). I didn’t choose where I was sent, but I am lucky I got called to where I did. We were expected to talk and teach about our church to those who were interested. We also taught English classes for free at our local churches. To do this we had to learn Thai.

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


I don’t currently live in Thailand, but I lived there from February of 2001 to December 2002. While I was there the Sept 11 attacked occurred in New York. Coming home was such a drastic change in Airport security it felt like a different country.

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

During the 2 years of living in Thailand I was studying all the time. Any 5 mins I found available I would be doing something to improve my Thai. When I came home, I tried to keep that intensity. Unfortunately, life happens and I eventually stopped.

Recently I started a blog to help me learn Spanish and I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I had let my Thai deteriorate so much. So I am now looking to bring my Thai, not just back to its former glory, but also to a higher level than I ever had it before.

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

I learned Thai right away. We had no other choice as missionaries other than to just jump in and embrace this new language and culture.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

As a missionary I had a 2 months intensive course(8 hours or more a day) all in Thai. After that I would would study Thai 30 mins every morning. Then I would spend the rest of my day full immersed in Thai, talking to Thais or just studying in the 5 mins I found I was free. Basically, my life was a constant language study.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I mentioned the 2 months course already, this was created by my church specifically for teaching missionaries Thai. It is surprisingly similar to the FSI Thai Basic course and since they were both created around the same time period, I have a feeling that there may be some common authors in there. Though I have no way of knowing.

During the 2 months we were encouraged to S.Y.L. or Speak Your Language. Meaning as soon as you learn the word in Thai, we have to stop using the English word. This meant we spoke a lot of Thaiglish, but it was surprisingly helpful. We got used to using Thai grammar and patterns. A common joke we would do as missionaries was to speak English using Thai grammar. It was funny, but it actually solidified the Thai grammar in our head even though it was a joke.

Other than that, it was pretty much the sink or swim method. I had to go and communicate in Thai all day everyday. I did have the help from other missionaries, but for the most part they would only help you to save you from drowning. We all knew the best way to learn was to go and do.

Did one method stand out over all others?

The sink or swim method and the SYL were the biggest things that helped me I think.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

One of the last days in the 2 month course, we were given a one hour primer on how to read Thai. They basically showed us how to sound out the words. After that I kinda waited a month or two before starting to really try and read Thai.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

I did find it hard to differentiate the words, due to the fact that Thai script is written with very few spaces. Eventually it just became normal. It’s kinda like having a conversation in a noisy room, at first it is hard to talk to your neighbors, but after awhile you adjust and it seems normal.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

There was just one day I talked to a man and we had a good 10 minute conversation. Afterwards, I realized that I didn’t have to ask him to repeat anything and he never once asked me to repeat myself. We just talked. I was on cloud 9 the rest of that day!

How do you learn languages?

I am a systematic person. I like to follow recipes and create plans. Right now I developed a system for me to learn Spanish, mostly to satisfy my desire to follow formulas.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

My strengths are that I love to learn new things and I am totally willing to admit I am not good at something. It does me no good to learn things if I think I already know everything.

I think a weakness would have to be follow through. I get so excited to do things that unless I have a responsibility partner or some sort, I would easily get distracted and start 10 projects and finish none.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That it is TOO hard. Learning any language is difficult and Thai can seem even harder since there is little in common with English. That said, It is very attainable and I don’t think it is beyond anyone who is willing to try to be able to become fluent in Thai.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

I started learning Spanish about 5 months ago and I am now capable of getting myself in trouble. Still have a ways to go before I consider myself fluent in Spanish.

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

I took a computer science class in High school and we learned to program in Basic. I got an A+ since I created an very simple animation of a dragon breathing fire all while having Baby Elephant Walk by Henry Mancini playing in the background. I was also part of the first Internet class in my High school. This may make me sound dated, but until my Junior year, we had dial-up internet access and it was so unreliable that they couldn’t teach a class around it. That class taught us to make webpages using HTML code and notepad. It was fun, but I haven’t done anything like that since.

Do you have a passion for music?

I definitely have a passion for music. I was in Choir, band, marching band, orchestra, and Jazz band in High school. I received the Louis Armstrong Jazz award in High school as well. When I came back from Thailand, my Brothers and I started an a cappella group, like the Warblers on Glee though not as good. I was the Vocal percussionist for the group. I can also play the Bass guitar so I am often asked to join bands. I learned the piano as a kid from my mom, but I wouldn’t put me at a high level of piano playing. Recently I have taken up playing the Ukulele.

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

I have never learned another language before learning Thai and I don’t know who I would have learned Thai if I was trying to learn another one at the same time. I am sure there are those out there that can, but I doubt I could have done it.

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

Don’t be afraid to fall on your face. The first day in Thailand I had a guy laugh at me every moment I talked. Every time I felt cocky about my Thai I would be reminded that I still have much to learn. Thai people can be very direct sometimes. You just need to brush it off and keep trying.

Justin Travis Mair
I Want To Speak Thai

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.

8 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Justin Travis Mair”

  1. Anthea, It’s not just true for new learners either. You will fall on your face as a more experience speaker as well. In way it almost hurts even more. Just the same, you can either be humble about the fact you messed up or get upset. Being humble is alot better.

    Hugh, that is amazing to talk to someone who actually knew the two elders. A lot of urban legend gets thrown around about them among the missionaries. As for urban legends go, I don’t believe anything unless I have heard it from someone who was there. The only other person I had ever talked to told me how all the missionaries around the country had to be brought in to be interviewed and no one knew what was going to happen for several days. I also had been told about the police arresting them, but I did not know there was a mob ready to hurt them aswell. No they were not good representatives of my church, but I am glad they have proven to be the exception.

    Tod, fantastic job in learning Thai at any level. A world opens up that you didn’t even know existed. I remember when I was finally starting to ‘get’ how to read Thai. All of a sudden signs ment something. There was a stain on a wall and some kid had spraypainted, ยิงกระต่าย, right above it. I would never have been able to laugh at that little joke until I learned to read. You become apart of the community when you can speak Thai. I remember signing a petition to build a floating bridge closer to our neighborhood. If I didn’t speak Thai, I would never have been asked and I would never have been given that opportunity to participate. So good on ya Tod, keep up the good work

  2. I agree with the last statement Travis made in his post. A foreigner can certainly “get by pretty well” without learning Thai, especially in ANY larger city. Most Thais are versed enough in English to talk about the things related to their occupation when dealing with foreigners.

    However it wasn’t until I learned to understand, read and speak Thai that this country literally opened up for me. Suddenly I could comprehend the daily conversations going on around me (which used to sound like angry bees buzzing). I could read signage, interact with the people on a level which had been totally “out of my reach”. It started to change the “isolation” I felt by not knowing Thai into an eagerness to get out there and interact with or just listen to Thais.

    Learning Thai for me hasn’t been particularly easy nor has it been all that much “fun”, (on my “scale of fun” I often equate it to getting a filling with a very dull drill and no novocaine).

    Still I’m glad I invested the time to learn Thai even at the piss-poor level I currently possess. It has given a great return on investment, especially enjoyment-wise.

  3. Travis,

    I knew the two Mormon missionaries you mentioned who sat on a Buddha statue’s head. This was in Sukothai back in the ’70s and they got caught when they sent their pictures in for processing. After the photo shop’s guy saw the pictures a lynch mob formed and would have done them serious damage but lucky for them the police came and arrested them. They were given jail time and were lucky to have survived.

    I knew them because they asked me to play on their basketball team against the Chiang Mai city team. We played in the middle of the old city then. They began cheating by goal tending the Chiang team’s shots, and since the referees had never seen goal tending back then (Thais were much shorter and the missionary boys were all well over 6′)they didn’t realize it was an infraction. I did though, and before the first half was over I walked off the court in shame and never heard from them again until I read the Buddha sitting account in the newspaper.

    Yes, I agree that these guys were not very good representatives of your group.

    But, I have always felt that as a group the Mormon missionaries were the best Thai speakers in country.

  4. “Don’t be afraid to fall on your face.” Such wise words from a great person. I believe that you are bound to commit errors when you are still learning a language; the way out of it is to continue suing the language without hesitations.

  5. No there isn’t “doors” to knock on (of course Thai’s have doors or at least most do). Most homes in Bangkok are enclosed in a concrete fense with a metal gate in the front. Many of those concrete fences have broken beer bottles cemented into the top. So we didn’t have access to the door of the house. Many had doorbells wired next to the gate so I could have rang the door bell, but there was one catch: Our rule was we weren’t supposed to.

    According to the legal advisor for the Church in Thailand, there is an obscure law that, depending on how the wording is interpreted, could make doorbell ringing or even just calling out the person from inside house illegal for missionaries to do. Since, the church really didn’t want to chance being on the wrong side of that law(esspecially since two mormon missionaries almost got us banned from the country by sitting on a budda’s head) so are rules was if we could see them we could talk to them.

    I applaud your determination to go head first. It is true, in probably any country you go to, that you are only a hop skip and a jump away form English. You could probably get by pretty well in Thailand and never learn the language, I have met many a farang who has. But You get so much more out of the culture and people if you even at least TRY to speak Thai. Yes good on ya!

  6. Travis and Catherine – Of all the approaches to learning Thai I think the sink or swim one would probably be best suited to me. The problem I and many other tourists have is that we’re only a whistle or two away from our mother tongue. Many of us quite wrongly take the approach “I’ve got the bucks so let’s talk about things in my language”. That sounds awful but unfortunately it’s true. When the day comes and I do move to Thailand I swear to God (no offence) I’m going to pinch my nose, jump in the water and swim like a fish language-wise. That approach really appeals to me.

    Mormons in Thailand?…surely there’s no doors to knock on as they’re always open and no people peering through small gaps in window curtains. That must have been a lovely change for you.

  7. It’s true my religious vocabulary was and probably still is much higher than your average joe learner. You learn what you talk about and there wasn’t much more than religion that I would talk about during the 2 year adventure.

    I am suprised to hear that they have to renew their visas themselves again. Prior to me comming to Thailand they had to renew their Proselyting visa every 90 days by leaving the country, but they had negotiated to allow us to renew them through a 3rd party with out leaving the country during my time there. They must have changed the rules again.

    As for converting budhists, yeah its tough on many fronts. Thats ok. I’m not too worried about budhists that much. Most are kind and loving people and I learned so much more by being with them than I could have ever taught them. A few people even saw what we were doing similar to being a monk and they respected us as such. It really makes you think about who you are and how people see what you are doing in those circumstances.

  8. Great interview;

    When I make my frequent trips out to Changwattana for my hobby stuff, I routinely run into the “Mormons on a mission contingent” as I call ’em.

    There’s usually a whole ‘herd’ of ’em all getting their visas extended at the same time. Those kids are some wicked good foreign Thai speakers (I think even Adam Bradshaw mighta learned this way). They got religious words really nailed down, and know far more words of that nature than I’d care to learn.

    Still they’re fun to interact with, and seem to take things in stride when I joke around with them a little. Last time I saw ’em all standing outside the door before Immigrations opened back up after lunch I walked up and said, “Am I still in Bangkok Thailand or did I just arrive at a Mormon Convention in Salt Lake City?”

    Actually to a person all of them I’ve met have been pretty good kids all around. Face it convertin’ buddhists to mormons is a pretty tough row to hoe. I give them kudos for their Thai ability and for believing in something enough to actually do it.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.