Thai Language Thai Culture: Thai Learning Techniques: Part 1

Thai Language

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Outing the Energy – Thai Learning Techniques…

Unless you are someone who picks up languages by simply breathing, like the famed English explorer Sir Richard Burton, then your journey to becoming fluent in Thai will be a long, hard (but in my opinion, enjoyable) struggle.

Wikipedia tells us that by the end of his life, Burton had mastered at least 25 languages – or 40, if distinct dialects are counted. They even list them. I didn’t know there was a language called “Egba”, did you? I’ve known a few people like Sir Richard (don’t you just hate them?)

As for me, learning Thai, the one foreign language I do know, has been one long slog. Along the way I’ve picked up a few techniques that made the slog easier, so I’ve listed a few techniques that helped my language journey. They’ve been put into the categories “Vocabulary Training”, “Fluency Exercises”, “Reading Work Out”, and “Writing Aerobics”.

Note: The words Training, Exercise, Work Out and sometimes even Aerobics can all be categorized under the Thai phrase ออกกำลัง /òk-gam-lang/ or literally: “out the energy”.

So let’s begin to out some energy.


Vocabulary Training…

Foreign language learners seem to be on the lookout for the perfect vocabulary list. You know the one. It includes all the words we need to develop a grasp of everyday speaking. Do a Google search on “Thai vocabulary lists” and you’ll find lots. Search around and find what works best for you.

The list I like comes from (whose creator, Glenn Slayden, was interviewed on WLT). It includes over 1,100 pretty useful words.

But now that you have your list, what do you do with it?

Most vocabulary lists will have the word in Thai script, plus phonetic transcription (one of many dozens), and then a English translation as well. The first thing to do besides learning the English meaning is to learn how to say the word. Because as you well know, Thai pronunciation is a bugaboo we all have to deal with.

I don’t know about you, but of the dozens of phonetic transcriptions I’ve learned over the years, none really does the job. Not completely. And just think about it. Writing in any language is merely an approximation of what a person says and a phonetic transcription is more like an approximation of an approximation. No wonder we have problems.

So what’s a poor Thai learner to do? Use 21st Century technology, of course.

Many Thai language sites and dictionaries ( being one of them) include audio recordings. The one I prefer is the software version of the Thai-English English-Thai Three Way Dictionary for PCs, by Paiboon Publishing and Word in Hand.

In order for you to hear exactly what the word sounds like, every word in the dictionary is accompanied by audio files. So go to the vocabulary word in question, highlight (double click) and copy it (Ctrl/C), go to the dictionary and paste (Ctrl/V) it into the search box, and when the definition of the word comes up simply click on the speaker icon and listen to the word. You can now click on the speaker icon to practice until you’ve got the pronunciation down.

Of course, you then have to use the word to make it yours. And that, is the next exercise.

Fluency Exercises…

If we are ever going to be fluent in Thai then we need to use the language every chance we get. I do this by “walking and talking”.

Here is an exercise I do to get myself to use Thai more. Often, when I encounter people on the street, in the market, just about anywhere, whether I know the person or not I try to say something. This might be difficult for the shy ones among us but you’ll just have to get over it. And I’ll bet Sir Richard Burton wasn’t shy.

I try to do this exercise when I go for my morning walks. I start with a rhetorical question or one that has an obvious answer to it. I do it this way because the other person will usually come back with an expected response (making comprehension easier). To prepare, I often plan entire dialogs before leaving the house.

Ok, here’s a good way to break the ice. And even if you are shy, or have studied Thai for a mere few hours, you can feel comfortable using these to questions.

If the person looks like they are going somewhere:

bpai nǎi
Where are you going?

Or if the person looks like they are coming back from something:

bpai nǎi maa
Where are you coming from?

These two are the most common greetings in Thai so no one would think you are imposing when you burst out with “Where are you going?” They might even beat you to it by asking the same question, but in English.

These basic greetings don’t need to be answered honestly; you can just make something up – because they are really just ways to say “Hello”, or ทัก /ták/ – to greet someone.

Some answers I hear a lot are:

mâi bpai nǎi
Not going anywhere / just hanging out.


bpai séu kǒng
Going to buy something / going shopping.


bpai dtà-làat
Going to the market.


bpai tîeow
Going out (to have fun/enjoy myself, etc.)

Note: If someone answers your question and you have no clue what they just said, no problem. Just smile, shake your head up and down, say “ดีมาก” /dee-mâak / (very good). Or you can simply say “ครับ” /kráp/ or “ค่ะ” /kâ/ and go on your way.

The following are two actual examples of “walking and talking” that I used on my morning walk just this morning.

I met my neighbor walking his cows out to pasture. There were 4 adult cows and 2 small calves.

Me: สวัสดีครับคุณลุง
sà-wàt-dee-kráp kun lung
Hi, uncle.

hôie mee lôok-wua gèe dtua
Wow! How many calves do you have?

Uncle: มีสองตัวครับ
mee sǒng dtua kráp
I have two.

Me: มันเพิ่งเกิดหรือ
man pêrng gèrt rěu
Were they just born?

Uncle: ครับ

Me: โชคดีจริงๆ
chôhk-dee jing-jing
You’re really lucky.

Uncle: ครับ
Yes, I am.

Later in my walk I ran into a woman getting out of her car holding 2 foo-foo dogs with 3 more dogs at her feet. It looked like she was getting ready to take them for a walk too.

Me: โอ้โหหมาน่ารักจริง
ôh-hǒh mǎa nâa-rák jing
Wow! Those are cute dogs.

She: ขอบคุณค่ะ
kòp-kun kâ
Thank you.

Me: คุณมีหมาทั้งหมดกี่ตัว
kun mee mǎa táng-mòt gèe dtua
How many dogs do you have all together?

She: มีแต่แค่นี้ค่ะ
mee dtàe kâe née kâ
I have just these (5).

Me: ดีมาก
Very good.

So I had a good “work out” this morning.

As usual I am getting a little long-winded here so let’s take a break, shower down, and postpone “Reading Work Out” and “Writing Aerobics” for next time. My ending advice is this: don’t forget to “out your energy” whenever you can!

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog

4 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Thai Learning Techniques: Part 1”

  1. Hugh, I first read ‘Outing the energy’ as ‘Out of energy’ and thought you might be inside my head. Some days, as much as I rehearse, it still doesn’t come out of my mouth. HOWEVER! I’m happy that recently I found a few Thai friends that enjoy (torturing me) teaching me Thai 🙂 and don’t resort back to speaking English at every drop of the hat.

    Downside: 6 weeks and counting until we leave.

  2. Josh, I really liked hearing how Hugh would prepare sentences before going out on his walks. As a shy child, I used to do similar with English and I guess I still do in a way. Sentence preparation does indeed help with confidence.

    Lani, Hugh is a gem! I learn something new pretty much every post he writes.

  3. Enjoy reading your posts Hugh and Cat is sooooo generous to allow you to post 😛 Looking forward to part two…

  4. Awesome article, Cat! I started to do the “planned conversations” thing recently as well. The Thai take-out place near my office is the opportunity I use to start even just a small conversation. I usually learn one or two tidbits from speaking with the owners.

    I haven’t really used a vocab list yet, but me thinks I probably should.


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