Successful Thai Language Learner: Nils Bastedo

Successful Thai Language Learner: Nils Bastedo

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Nils Bastedo
Nationality: United States and Sweden
Age: 39
Sex: Male
Location: Arkansas, USA
Profession: Currently a martial arts instructor
Website: Lstk
Products: Book – Tenses for Thais only in e-format as of today, but I hope for hardcopy versions as soon as questions concerning distribution can be resolved.

What is your Thai level?

Thais tend to praise my abilities and suggest that I speak very well, but I am afraid that I may sound better than I really am since I copy sounds more easily than the average student of Thai. I am able to carry on simple conversations, but my reading is at a very basic stage and my writing practically non-existant. Since I am able to converse and communicate orally, I would label myself as ‘Intermediate’.

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

I have been lucky in that the Thais I have met have chosen to teach me nice language, and Thais often say that I phrase myself nicely. I do not speak Isan, but since the people I taught at Bumrungrad International represented very many different backgrounds and people from all over Thailand, I probably have a blend of ‘street talk’ and professional language.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I decided to leave Sweden for the tropics as early as 2002, thereby doing what so many say they wish they could. I had met some people who had lived in the tropics and quickly realized that, though talented, they were not exactly superhuman. They were just people who had had the gumption to get up and go. The reason I picked Thailand was of course that I had fallen in love with a Thai woman. When I decided to learn more about Thailand, I went there and felt immediately ‘at home’ in ‘The Land of Smiles’.

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


I first visited Thailand in 2000 and lived and worked there from August 2005 until January 2009.

If you live elsewhere, how often are you in Thailand?

At this time, I teach martial arts full-time in the United States. I have not been back since January 2010, but am planning to return and establish permanent residence in 2011 or possibly 2012.

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

I started to learn single words in 1998. Back then, my language was limited to saying thank you, please, you’re welcome, tastes good, and the names of various kinds of food. My language stayed fairly simple until I decided to move to Thailand in 2002. I then studied a little at the University of Lund and started associating with Thai expatriates in order to prepare myself for a move whilst at the same time preparing my Taekwondo students to keep the club I had started in Sweden (LSTK) functioning without me.

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

Well, learning a language is hardly done overnight. I started with very limited phrases, and stayed at that level fairly long before deciding to actually go to Thailand. Once that decision was made, I tried many approaches, from searching out Thai expats to studying at the university for the 2nd half of a semester to buying several CDs, tapes and books. I will be studying Thai once again when I return, focusing more on reading and writing this time around.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

Unfortunately, no. I have learned new vocab only through use and there has been little structure to my studies, which is of course not very good. As a language teacher teaching 4.5 or even 6 hours per day, I must also admit that my energy for learning Thai was at a low point after returning from work. When in Thailand, I did not associate much with Westerners, which was good, but as an English teacher I did not speak as much Thai as I would have liked at work. One thing which was very useful for my own improvement was explain English to my Thai students by using Thai examples and explanations for tenses and pronunciation.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I have tried books, CDs, practical conversation and even private lessons. As many others, I found that studying on my own by using books or computers was challenging. Having worked with a few outside institutions when at Bumrungrad, I have realized that what makes computer based learning at places like Wall Street Institute relatively successful is that they are good at helping their students study regularly and stick to it. However, based on the students I had at Bumrungrad, it seems that improvement is slower with even the best of programs than with a real-life teacher. I do feel that working with a person is always better than any other approach, though the person you learn from should be chosen with care. Combining personal tutoring with computer-based learning and/or books may offer the best of all words, but practical application – speaking with another person – must take the most prominent place. Without practical application and real-life responses, language training loses its most vital dimension.

Did one method stand out over all others?

The book ‘Teach Yourself Thai’ was very useful. It contains sections on different situations, and I found the romanized script they used very intuitive. Before going out on early excursions, I would look up the vocabulary for the task I wanted to do in advance (giving directions to taxi drivers, buying fruit, and so on) and then go out and implement the knowledge. I had one CD in particular which, though extremely limited, was very helpful for helping with basic vocabulary. I don’t remember the name, but it offered short quizzes on limited topics. Seeing scores like 8/10 stimulated me to re-do the tests and ‘nail them’. Wanting to get the best in e-learning, I spent a lot of money getting Rosetta Stone, but with an instruction booklet in Thai and starting with phrases such as ‘The plane flies over the clouds’ or ‘The boy is under the table’ instead of ‘Where is the bank’ or even ‘Hello, how are you?’ I have few positive memories of that particular product. Besides, merely showing Thai script without giving explanations on the writing system is … not the best possible approach.

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

I started with the alphabet in 2002 and quickly got to the level where I could make my way around Thai menus, but I didn’t delve deeper into written Thai until 2008. I must admit that my own frustration at the complex script hindered me. I kept thinking thing like “Why not have one class of consonants, eliminate duplicates of same sounds, and have one tone marker for each tone instead of making tone dependent on consonant class”. Example: ‘mai eek’ could always be low tone, ‘mai dtoh’ always rising, etc. My experience conversing with Taxi drivers and other staff at Bumrungrad brought me to the realization that many Thais, even supposedly highly educated ones, quickly became unsure of spelling when venturing beyond their everyday vocabulary. This in turn made me consider how the system could be simplified rather than focusing on accepting it and learning. I am afraid the experience had me ranting about how things ought to be changed rather than humbly digging into what I needed to learn.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

Yes. Not having spaces between words, memorizing not only the extended alphabet but also consonant classes, adjusting to vowels being placed non-sequentially and in complex combinations makes written Thai difficult. Not that English is that much better, it is the only European language I know where the sound of a word can not be seen immediately from the writing. English vowel sounds vary greatly, which must be frustrating to Thais, whose vowel system leaves no room for doubt. The student of Thai needs to memorize individual word spelling since identical tones can be made with different combinations. Being raised seeing writing as a code for replicating spoken sounds, I was as frustrated with having to memorize the writing of individual Thai words as Thais must be having to memorize the pronunciation of individual words in English.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

I think very early when I first used the language successfully, probably when ordering a meal in a restaurant and then saying ‘thank you, tastes very good’ and eliciting a friendly smile.

How do you learn languages?

I learned Swedish as a native speaker. English as a native speaker and as a foreign language. French for 6 years in grade and high-school and again at Harvard, where I became certified by the Paris Chamber of Commerce. Spanish 3 years in high in school and one semester at Harvard as well. Danish by ear and by watching subtitled Danish TV growing up. Norwegian (Oslo dialect) since it is close to Swedish and Danish. I also get by in other European languages (German, Italian) fairly well by using the languages I have to figure out what things mean and to make myself understood. When working as a consultant in Belgium, I was mistaken for French quite frequently, which was of course very flattering.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

One strength is that I am good at mimicking sounds, though I must admit that tonality is still quite difficult. My basic programming, using tones for emotion and emphasis, is hard to disregard, and the habit of listening for tones in the way you need to when speaking a tonal language requires much practice. One major problem was that the word ‘tone’ mislead me for a long time. It was not until I looked at the relative length of the vowel sounds in the Thai tonality that my ear for tonality improved. Not starting by combining spoken and written Thai was also a mistake that hampered perfect learning. Sitting in a school bench and learning from scratch consonant classes, memorizing words, and building a varied vocabulary may sound boring, but it certainly is effective. besides, with a good teacher it can probably be a lot of fun.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I think that every person is unique in this aspect. Since Thais tend to praise and don’t expect much from foreigners, one can gain a false sense of achievement. Remain humble. You will be advanced when you can watch Thai movies and newscasts with ease and read books and newspapers. If you cannot read a newspaper, you are intermediate at best.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

Yes, I speak several other languages, several of them very well. Speaking the local language when traveling in another country is a great experience.

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

I can’t say that I was, but I have friends in many countries and tend to use several languages on a regular basis.

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

No. When it comes to computers I am a good example of someone who sees them as ready-to-use tools. I have worked with them a lot, but programming … No.

Do you have a passion for music and or you play an instrument?

I love music, dancing and singing, but am not a musician. I have used music to teach English to Thais and learning a few Thai songs was a great experience.

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

Learn basic questions and answers to begin with. Get out there and try to implement what you have as you are studying it. Doing a task or even helping others learn is a great way to achieve good retention. Roman script can be useful when learning Thai, but it can never fully portray Thai pronunciation as Thai writing, so dip into the Thai writing system right away starting with a few basic words, the alphabet, the consonants, the consonant classes and tonality.

Nils Bastedo
Tenses for Thais | Lstk

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.

11 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Nils Bastedo”

  1. Hi, everybody. May I be allowed to offer some points in language learning to everyone here? I am a Thai citizen who had a wonderful opportunity to meet Mr. Bastedo when I went to his office one day many years ago. I have great respect and admiration for his professionalism and academic thinking through his explanation of language learning and teaching of English to Thai people during our one-hour-long conversation. He’s a special teacher, I would say.

    Our Thai language is not too difficult to learn. We don’t have tenses or verb inflections like those in English. The only difficulty is the tones, but that is much easier to learn than all the English tenses and possible verb conjugation, let alone the word and sentence stress in English, I think.

    Thai people are mostly shy–they almost always never talk to strangers unless they spend some time abroad or learn another language! But once they know you, it will be difficult to stop them.

    I can recall one incident during my bus trip to the Northeast of Thailand. Because the trip took more than 8 hours, the bus company offered a late free meal to all passengers. It was about 2 am. when a Thai mother and her daughter of about 12 were sitting at a table ready to have the meal. A bus officer in charge asked them to join other people at another table so that seats at her table could be saved for other passengers. The mother was very angry. She took her daughter and stormed away without looking back!

    The reasons I have been in love with English are these. I was so terrible in all other subjects in school that only English would offer me a safe haven from all humiliations. Besides, my grandma would keep telling me every day that “Each English word is worth one dollar!” She also taught me to think of, in, and about English all the time! Looking back at her two rules of conduct, I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that she was a godsend.

    Every week she would also command me to sing Thai songs (karaoke fashion) and whenever I made a slight distortion of a single consonant or vowel sound or even wander away from a certain musical note–from that of the original singer, she’d hit me with a bamboo rod, which is the most commonly available hardwood in Thailand. As you may well guess, I had to sing and cry at the same time on many occasions! That’s why I cannot totally enjoy karaoke singing with my family nowadays although my pronunciation of English is often praised by Americans and other international teachers alike. I can definitely say that music can definitely benefit pronunciation in a way beyond our imagination.

    In short, I have found that learning a language is not from BOOKS. The key is PEOPLE! Another interesting conclusion is that GRAMMAR is too complicated for most early language learners to grasp. Most children will spit out the food that the mothers feed them if they don’t like it or if they feel that it is too much more than they can chew. Likewise, language acquisition always goes together with language DEacquisition, may I make an observation? Our brain is too smart; it cannot be fooled to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

    Sadly enough, the learning and teaching of English in Thailand will never ever be successfully acquired in schools or universities, because GRAMMAR is falsely believed by most Thai teachers of English is very important to speak English well. We have to learn English OUTSIDE THE BOX! If I said this to most English teachers in Thailand, I’ll be killed! Sorry to end my observation with such a sad statement.

  2. Talen, if I was a different person and starting from the beginning, then I’d try AUA. Using the ALG method they don’t start off reading. But as I’m not that person, I had to learn to read. I’m one of those types of people who just has to ‘know’. And there is that hermit thing too…

  3. Cat, another fine interview and another great nudge for me to study.

    I do think that actually using the learned Thai on a daily basis is definitely key to keep it going. And learning to read has definitely been the key to tones for me.

  4. Hi Vern, apologies for my absence, I’ve been traveling extensively (Nov/Dec) and then had a drat cold on my return, so it’s taking me a bit of time to catch up with everything. The 7D is great but I believe I need a tripod for a lot of the work I do. Especially for videos of birds. It’s heavier than the KISS and just might be too heavy for me.

    Gene, welcome to WLT 🙂 the reason I ask ‘are you a computer programmer’ is because programming is a language too, and in the early days of the interviews it turned out that there were quite a few professional programmers who were highly successful at learning Thai. Those musically inclined started showing up as well, so to see if there was a pattern I added that question as well. I’ll be collating the interviews this year, so a pattern or lack of one will be made apparent. Question – do you feel that your programming knack has given you an insight into learning Thai?

  5. Paul, I also appreciated the point he made about humility and I would add a sense of humour as well. Laughter can get you out of many a situation with grace.

    Snap, Teach Yourself Thai is indeed a decent course. I had it checked out and it’s the real deal.

    Martyn, I was wondering what happened to your first run at writing. I’m sure Wilai appreciated the effort nonetheless! I remember an article awhile back about singing and speaking a tonal language but I can’t lay my finger on it at the moment. Give me a bit and I’ll see.

    Chris, for what I’m doing, listening comes into it too. When I started to read, the books I stuck with came with audio files. For a tonal language such as Thai, I don’t see it happening any other way. And for me, knowing the alphabet is a big help when it comes to speaking Thai.

  6. I think writing and reading is becoming the “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question. I will be putting a lot of thought and feedback into that question in a few months time. But starter for 10…..

    Can you remember a series of new sounds? The calls of various birds perhaps? Lots of bits of music that you head is full of? various mobile phone ringtones, advertising jingles that you would recognise immediately?

    I bet you can, and most if not all of these sounds cannot be written down. You know them though and some you could mimic or describe (within the limits of your vocal system).

    Surely no written language is more than an approximation of the sounds of a language and the sounds of the words flowing together (and some like Chinese are much less than that even). The intention in writing is usually to represent the sounds that you already know, and as your reading gets better in your mother tongue you may be able to go straight to meaning.

    How can you learn the sounds of a phonetic system first, before you actually know the sounds of the language, and assuming you learn the system imperfectly at first (you have no choice but to learn it imperfectly if you don’t have any of the language yet), then how can you apply that imperfect reading to learn the sounds of words?

    I see it so often, once we become literate in our mother tongue we have a short cut to learn new words in our own language, but that doesn’t mean that the same short cut works from the start in a new language.

  7. First time posting here. You may have answered this in the past but I am not familiar with your website. Why do you ask “Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?”? Are you researching second language acquisition by IT people? I ask because I have been programming computers since about 11 years old, a portion of my career has been in information security….and I study Thai of course. So I’m curious. Thx

  8. Cat! How are things – I haven’t seen you around my blog for a bit and that’s understandable since I’ve been writing some downright negative stuff for a bit. Will get on the upswing here shortly.

    I love the interview series – it’s a good way to meet other quality people in Thailand. I was glad to be part of the series.

    Are you still in-country then? Still sticking around? Zap me an email if you feel like and let me know what you’re up to – long time no writey.

    How’s the 7d treating you?

  9. Catherine and Nils, once again the need to learn how to read and write Thai from the start of learning the language has raised its head above the post title once again. Nils final answer emphasises that point.

    My own efforts to show Wilai I could write a Thai word went wrong when I froze and had a complete mental blackout when trying to write the word ‘come’. I’ll get it right and a few more words next time.

    Nils strength in the language field ….”One strength is that I am good at mimicking sounds”… is one I’d love to have but sadly lack. I’m a terrible singer and I think that element ties in with the ability to simulate Thai words.

    Does anyone have an opinion on a link between singing ability and mimicking Thai tonal sounds?

  10. “‘Teach Yourself Thai’ was very useful for some situations. I would look up the vocabulary for a task I wanted to do in advance (giving directions to taxi drivers, buying fruit, and so on) and then go out and implement.”

    That makes perfect sense, I find words stick better if I use them in real life situations. It also made me smile, because the night before my first Thai class of the week, I look up how to tell the teacher what I’ve been up to over the weekend 🙂

  11. Another great interview Catherine. I’m sure Nils will inspire Thai language learners who don’t live here. I like what he said about humility when it comes to speaking Thai – very important.


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