Thai Language Thai Culture: How I Learn Thai

Thai Language

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How I Learn Thai…

A reader asked me recently if I would write about how I went about learning Thai. It was a great question because in fact I had never even thought about that before. So I started thinking back on how I went about trying to learn this ridiculously difficult language, and I came up with the following thoughts.

First, some of the most frequently asked questions I have come across about learning Thai:

  1. What textbook do you recommend?
  2. Which Thai grammar is the best?
  3. How do you remember all the written tone rules?
  4. What’s the best language school?
  5. What language learning method do you use?

Here are my answers:

  1. I have never used a textbook.
  2. I have never even opened a Thai grammar and couldn’t tell you any Thai grammar rules.
  3. I have never learned the written tone rules. I have tried a few times but each time I try my eyes glaze over about 15 seconds into reading them and I just give up. I got further trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses.
  4. I have never attended a language school.
  5. Method? I have thought hard about this question and the only answer I can come up with is to coin the phrase: The “work-your-a$$-off” method.

So let me elaborate a bit and walk through some of my language learning history. Note that I don’t recommend any specific Thai learning methodology. You’ll need to find the method that works for you. But I think that “working-your-a$$-off” would probably benefit you whatever method you employ.

The beginning…

I first was introduced to the Thai language during Peace Corps training. This was an intensive 3 months, 6 hours a day, 6 days a week course. At the time we used the Audio-Lingual method which was all the rage. This is where you listen and repeat, ad infinitum, even when you have no idea what you are saying. Some of us were heard repeating Thai language substitution drills in our sleep.


BTW, another popular term for the Audio-Lingual method is the Oral-Aural method. The interesting thing about this is that the words “Oral” (speaking) and “Aural” (listening) are a special pair of English words in that they are spelled very differently but are pronounced exactly the same, and they mean the opposite of each other. I always loved this pair because of that.

Our Thai teachers never once used an English word in the classroom. So a lot of the time we didn’t even know the meaning of the things we were saying. What I got out of the training was

  1. Familiarity with hearing and differentiating the 5 Thai tones, and the ability to mimic them after hearing them.
  2. Knowledge of basic Thai language patterns that I could build on – simple subject/verb/object, present/past/future tenses, use of adjectives, asking questions, simple answers. Really, to get by in everyday life, that’s all you need to know.

After the training most of us could say a few pat phrases but were nowhere able to hold a real conversation. But we did have the basics down, tones and patterns. We were taught to continually add to our basic knowledge, which I still try to do today.

Besides those three months I never took another formal class again.

Further Studies…

Later I hired a teacher to come to my home a few times a week to help tutor me. Basically I would have a set of questions for him (i.e. How do you say …?, What does … mean?, etc.). Being a language teacher it was easy for me to make up my own lesson plan for him to follow. That way everything we covered had specific meaning for me and I could put to use right away. He would answer my questions and I would try to repeat exactly what he said.

I made sure that my teacher was very strict with me and if I made any mistakes, especially in tones or pronunciation, that he would have to correct me. He must have said, “No, repeat again.” at least 10,000 times, for which I remain eternally grateful. After 40+ years my tutor, now a director of a big NGO, is still a close friend. And whenever I introduce him to someone I say, “This is the guy who taught me to speak Thai.”

If you get a tutor he/she must be a really good linguistic informant. That means they have to be able to explain the “what” of the language. The “why” was never important to me and it never was, and still isn’t, a question I asked. (For example: Try answering the question, “Why are ‘oral’ and ‘aural’ pronounced the same, and why do they mean the opposite of each other?” See how far you get.)

I studied with my tutor for about a year, after which I never took another lesson. But the one rule I still keep is that I don’t ever say anything I haven’t already heard a native Thai speaker say. So now everyone is my teacher.

Later I began to learn how to read. I did this on my own and considered learning the alphabet and putting it all together as sort of fun puzzle solving. Because I knew a lot of vocabulary already, reading came easier. So I think it is a good idea to learn how to read after building up some basics in the language. I try to read a little every day now and as I did before, when I don’t know a word or term, which is almost all the time, I go to the handy dictionary and I write down the answer.


Many may disagree with these next observations of mine, and if you do please add a comment below. There are lots of ways to skin a cat.

  1. I feel that the exchanging of language lessons, “You teach me Thai/I teach you English”, is a huge waste of time for everyone (unless you have a non-linguistic agenda of course – read #2 below to see why that might be a bad idea too). I have never seen the lesson-exchanging system work for anyone – the English learner or the Thai learner. Both parties usually quit after only a few meetings.
  2. Learning Thai from your girlfriend/boyfriend, wife/husband is worse. I have always said that if you want to stay together never try to teach your partner anything (especially driving a car, playing golf, or speaking a language). I should know. My wife was a Thai teacher for 15 years. She has always been there to answer my questions but I never took a lesson from her. That, and the fact that I hired someone to teach her how to drive, is the major reason why we just celebrated our 41st anniversary.
  3. The best language teacher is one you pay.

Here’s what works for me…

I study Thai every day, still do. Early on I would note any time I wanted to say something in Thai and couldn’t find the right word, or any time I heard a Thai word I didn’t understand. I would write it down in a notebook and then off I’d go to a good dictionary, or to a person who would be able to help.

For example, if I were in a hardware store and wanted to buy screws I would hold up a screw, show it to the clerk and say “What do you call this in Thai?” เรียกว่าอะไรภาษาไทย /rîak wâa a-rai paa-săa tai/. Then I would write the answer down in my ever present notebook. (Answer: ตะปูเกลียว /dtà~bpoo-glieow/ “nail with threads”).

If someone said something I didn’t understand, something like ไม่สะดวก /mâi-sà~dùak/ I would write that down phonetically (“my sa do uk”) and then find someone who knew enough English and repeat it to him/her and say, “What does this mean in English?” ภาษาอังกฤษ “my sa do uk” แปลว่าอะไร /paa-sǎa-ang-grìt “my sa do uk” bplae wâa à~rai/ (Answer: inconvenient).

Some other thoughts…

(Again, many will disagree with these)

  1. I think that learning Thai written tone rules helps one know what a tone is supposed to be. It doesn’t help you say the tone correctly. The only way to do that is to hear a native Thai say it and then repeat it exactly as they do.
  2. Reading is great and I have benefitted from it very much. But it probably should not be the first thing one does when learning a language. I don’t think I know of anyone who says that they learned their first language by reading first and then speaking later. It is my opinion that learning a second language is probably the same.
    Reading is a passive activity whereas speaking is actively doing. They are so different as to not even share the same hemisphere. It’s the same difference as watching golf on TV and playing yourself. On TV you can sit back and choose which club the golfer should use and whether he should lay up or not. When you are playing, then you are the one who is doing. Sitting back and reading is a pretty safe activity. Putting yourself out there in the real world and speaking, that’s the real doing.
  3. It is my opinion that studying grammar is “learning about a language”, not “learning the language”. It is a great way to become more fluent, not a great way to begin your studies.
  4. I use basic patterns and substitute appropriate vocabulary as I learn them. The basic patterns often come first and are as important as the vocabulary that goes into them.
  5. I say only what I have heard a native speaker say. Probably using the sentence or phrase in the same context that the native speaker did would also be a good idea.
  6. I make as many mistakes as I possibly can so that I can learn from them. Making mistakes is probably the best way to learn just about anything.

As an example of #6 I’ll conclude with my latest Thai language faux pas.

Another Faux Pas…

We had taken one of our rabbits to the veterinarian. She (the rabbit, not the vet) had a common skin condition that was treated and she got well very quickly. But on our first visit I wanted to describe one of the symptoms to her (the vet not the rabbit). The front paws sometimes were trembling. So I said to the vet that our rabbit had ขาสั้น /kǎa sân/. Everyone in the office looked at me with those “you have made a very strange statement” looks that indicate that I have again said something stupid.

I learned later that the word I used สั้น /sân/ should have been สั่น /sàn/, low tone instead of falling tone. ขาสั่น /kǎa sàn/, with the low tone means “shaking or trembling leg”. What I said, ขาสั้น /kǎa sân/, with the falling tone means “short leg”. No wonder the vet and everyone else at the clinic stared at me funny. I was complaining that my rabbit had short legs.

Looks like I still have a long way to go. I guess that I will need to continue to “work-my-a$$-off” trying to learn Thai. I know I’ll be fine though since I am sure there will be lots more faux pas to come.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
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