The Magical Tipping Point in Thai

The Magical Tipping Point in Thai

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There’s a tipping point when learning Thai…

I’ve studied the Thai language for about 4 years now. I can speak about anything which I wanna talk about with Thais in something which resembles Thai enough that the Thais seem to understand and reply in kind. I can read far above my spoken level, write Thai, but can type it better.

Most of the time I’ve invested has been self study, so it was hit and miss early on. I’d start down a path only to find it was a dead end, or not a viable way to learn, forcing me to backtrack and start down yet another path. Honestly, a LOT of the paths I took early on were dead ends or took way more time for results than I felt was appropriate.

Finally I canned the speaking Thai part of learning and concentrated on teaching myself to read. Now, I believe this is totally out of sequence to how people normally acquire a second language (especially one as disparate from English as Thai is – with their own alphabet, the fact they write in continuous script, etc.) Still, I wouldn’t trade in my ability to read Thai even if someone could guarantee I’d speak like a native Thai speaker. Being able to read Thai has opened the entire country to me. Things that were previously meaningless scribbles on signage suddenly came alive. I could read about jobs on offer, about where busses went, about sales and promotions, etc. Truly, an eye-opening experience.

My speaking has progressed markedly since the early days too. While I take with a grain of salt anything the over complimentary Thais say about my ability to speak their language, at least now they seem to understand me on the first go round. Before, I’d have to try several intonations. I even started to say things in a sing-songy voice hoping to blindly catch a correct tone here or there (which, just as an FYI, yields minimal results and often sounds like Katherine Hepburn in the later stages of whatever disease gave her that sing-songy manner of speaking). Still, I’m now able to converse in Thai to Thais. And that’s why we acquire additional languages, isn’t it?

What I’ve been amazed with is my ability to eavesdrop on Thais and understand what they’re saying. It has skyrocketed within the last 6 months. Before I’d have to tell them that they either needed to slow down or I was gonna switch to English (a sure-fire way to get Thais to dial the speed of their spoken Thai back).


What I didn’t realize was that listening Thai talk radio, watching Thai movies, etc, slowly honed my ears to hear what was being said at regular speed. It didn’t dawn on me this was even happening until I realized I hadn’t had to ask Thais to slow their speech in a long time.

I was suddenly able to hear and understand conversations which were going on around me, like on the Sky Train or in the Food Courts. I felt like Antonio Banderas in the movie “The 13th Warrior”. Suddenly, without even trying, I understood that the group of Thais at the next table had an @hole for a boss who was making them work on Saturday while he took the day off. Granted, not the keys to the kingdom sort of revelation. But still, I understood without really trying to listen.

The constant background buzz like a hive of droning of bees (that I’d programmed myself to tune out) became honest to goodness Thai conversations that I’d magically catch snippets of (or more if I lingered around). The side street sellers’ inane babble became the most in-depth gossip of every inhabitant on the Soi. Just by hanging around listening, I found out things about people I’d seen for years.

What I’m getting at is finally after studying this language for 4 years, I reached the “tipping point” where things I’d picked up along the way started to gel together in a cohesive fashion; where my comprehension of spoken Thai went way, way up.

And to think I was going to throw in the towel on learning Thai!

You see, before this happened I’d gotten to the point where I felt dejected and downhearted. Or, as Thais say, หมดกำลังใจ or I was fresh out of กำลัง. What changed my mind was reading a book IN Thai about another foreigner’s trials and tribulations learning this language. In the book he explained the fox paws he’d committed in the Thai language, his frustration with hearing tones, and the problems with replicating them. But he got thru it.

The book is called “Steel Noodles” ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเส้นเหล็ก, by Andrew Biggs. The title is a wordplay on pronouncing the word “small” เล็ก with the incorrect tone so that it comes out like “steel” เหล็ก.

Reading Steel Noodles gave me a second wind. I mean, if Andrew Biggs himself (possibly the most famous foreign speaker of Thai in the entire country) went thru it and was able to come out the other side just fine, why couldn’t I do it too?

It was the most encouraged I’ve felt since starting to learn Thai. And now that I’ve reached the “magical tipping point”, while it won’t be all downhill from here, it also won’t be climbing a mountain where the peak is always just out of reach.

Everyday Thais see me studying Thai, reading books in Thai, writing Thai, etc. And they always ask, “is it fun to learn Thai?” And I tell them, “NO, it ain’t fun and it hasn’t been fun even a single day of learning this language”. In fact, early on I’d rather have teeth pulled without anesthetic any day of the week than invest more time studying Thai.

I honestly doubt there’s ever a point to learning anything where you say, “Well, I’ve learned all I can, so that’s that.” I know that I’ll continue to be amazed at the creativity Thais use in their word compounds, at their idiomatic expressions, the slang, and the way it all fits together.

In this post I mostly just wanted to let people know that hey, if I can learn to read, write, understand and speak something close enough to Thai that I’m understood, ANYONE can.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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