Hi, my name is Ben. I began my new life in Thailand for about 2 years ago and have faced many challenges whilst being here, including the language and my struggle to feel a part of the community. I live in Tak, a more rural area of Thailand.
A place which not many foreigners live and one that feels a bit more traditional than the metropolitan areas of Chiang Mai or Bangkok.
I have had to force myself to learn because of my location and I have made many mistakes along the way as a self-taught language learner who has had literally 0 formal Thai language classes.
I am writing this article to give you tips, tricks, and resources, and to go over the mistakes I made at first so that you can get a head start in your learning process.
I will tell you what I think is important, why it is important, and how it helped me in my gradual and continuous uphill climb to being able to have conversations in my new community and making new friends.
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Being in a foreign country can be difficult, but learning the language makes you feel more connected to the environment around you, even if it seems scary and impossible.
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- 1. Is Thai Hard to Learn?
- 2. Do I Need to Learn How to Read Thai?
- 3. Why Reading?
- 3.1. Pronunciation
- 3.2. Listening Comprehension
- 3.3. Remembering Vocabulary More Effectively
- 4. Recommended Resources
- 4.1. ThaiPod101
- 4.2. Learn Thai from a White Guy
- 5. Additional Free Resources
- 5.1. ThaiPod101
- 5.2. Anki
- 5.3. Memrise
- 6. Spaced Repetition
- 7. Maintaining and Cementing Your Reading Skills
- 8. Final Words
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Is Thai Hard to Learn?
Learning a new language is always hard. If you want to become fluent, or even conversational, you need to learn thousands of words, new grammar rules, new phonetics, understand new phrases and idioms, and more.
It is a daunting task when you have to start from 0. The smaller cultural reach of a language like Thai can make it feel like there are limited resources for you to use, but that is simply not true.
There is a wealth of resources out there. You just have to know where to look, how to use them, and understand the steps you need to take in order to take full advantage of what you have to work with before throwing yourself into the language.
Was Thai hard to learn? Yes. The Foreign Service Institute categorizes languages based on how difficult they are for a native English speaker to learn. There are 5 categories, the higher the number the more difficult it is. Thai is classified as a category 4 language.
You would be forgiven for thinking that only those gifted in language learning could handle such a beast. It may feel impossible, but believe me it is not and anyone can do it, provided you actually put the effort in. I did it, and continue to do so, and I do not consider myself a master of languages.
But I am not here to scare you, I have some good news too. There are quite a few things that make this language actually quite easy to tackle in some areas.
For one, the grammar rules can be simple. Anyone who had to learn French or Spanish in school has probably come to the realization that learning new verb conjugation rules and tenses can be incredibly confusing and frustrating.
The good news with Thai is that you don’t need to bother with this. There is no messing around with verb conjugations like go, went, gone, going. You learn a verb and that is it! Done.
This makes the vocabulary learning process much quicker as there is only one form of each verb to learn, unlike Spanish or French where you have to learn 60+.
Do I Need to Learn How to Read Thai?
I have heard a lot of people say that you shouldn’t learn to read a foreign script until you are proficient in the language. From my experience, this is not helpful.
There are 4 skills you have to master to truly get to grips with a language; speaking, listening, reading and writing.
On the surface, it may feel like speaking and listening are the most important skills to focus on, as that is how you will be communicating with people out in the streets, in the markets, and doing day to day activities like shopping and asking for help.
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While this is true, and you definitely should constantly be working on your speaking and your listening, you should not discount the importance of reading and writing.
When I first moved to Thailand, I knew 0 Thai, not even “hello”. This was not out of ignorance, but because I only had 1 month to prepare myself for my new life out here. I fell into the trap of thinking that listening and speaking were what I should focus on.
My language learning for the first 6 months here felt very slow, pronunciation was hard, the tones were impossible and remembering words was difficult because they were so phonetically alien to me. That is until one day I had the idea to try my hand at learning to read the script.
There are a lot of sounds in Thai that we are not used to hearing or producing. If you only focus on speaking and listening, these sounds will throw you off balance. You won’t know what you are hearing, you won’t know how to imitate it and so you will hinder yourself.
Learning to read helps you to learn the sounds. The nice thing about Thai is that, for the most part, words are spelled the way they sound. There are a few confusing rules in which the writing system works, but they are manageable with practice and patience.
The nice thing about reading is that all of the sounds that are unfamiliar to you will become more familiar through slow, progressive, and purposeful learning of the phonetics of the language.
Thai is a phonetic language; unlike Chinese or Japanese. If you can see, hear and practice the sound of a letter singled out and alone, then you are actually practicing your listening and speaking comprehension at the same time.
Being able to recognize and produce these sounds is very important for communication. As native speakers of English, we hear a lot of accents all the time, but there are always cases of hearing an accent that is difficult to understand.
A common case in English is the difficulty some Asian people have with their R’s and L’s. Your accent will be very strong and difficult to understand for some Thais when you first get here, just as theirs can be when speaking English.
Some words can be muddled up when speaking and listening if you don’t practice the phonemes first. Think of words like correct and collect, grass and glass or fry and fly. It can be confusing for an English speaker to hear these words mixed up and pronounced incorrectly.
You will do the same in Thai, with sounds that cannot be spelled out accurately using our writing system. Learning to read is also learning to listen and speak the language, just in small steps, which is exactly what you need in a difficult language like Thai.
Remembering Vocabulary More Effectively
Moreover, learning to read is very useful in your day to day life. Reading menus, road signs and products in supermarkets is not only essential but can help you pick up more vocabulary.
You don’t know the word for snacks? You can learn it by looking at the aisle signs of a supermarket. Keep forgetting the word for chicken or pork? You can always refresh your memory by seeing it on a menu. Did you eat a delicious new meal that you would love to eat again but cannot remember what the server called it? Read their food cart.
Learning to read is important and it helps you to take baby steps in pronunciation and recognising unfamiliar sounds in spoken language, but how do you do it? Isn’t it a long and lengthy process? I learned to read in just 1 month.
At first, I could only do it very slowly but now I can recognize words and read them as I would read the Latin script. I also took my time with it, so it is definitely possible to do it faster. So how did I do it? With a website called Thaipod101.
ThaiPod101 has a free resource section on its website with vocabulary lists for various situations.
Their Thai Alphabet Made Easy lesson is a good way to get started learning the Thai alphabet, vowels, and numbers. The lesson is broken down into 25 videos.
If you pin the tab in your browser, watch only 1 or 2 of those lessons a day, and continue this process, you will be able to read and write in just a few weeks. It is done in a really easy to manage way and I couldn’t recommend it enough.
To really cement the information from the lessons, you should keep a notebook for all of the characters that you learn. Write down the symbols, the advice that you are given to remember their shapes and sounds, and practice each character several times.
Writing the symbol helped me retain the memory of the shape as it became a part of my muscle memory. I also wrote the symbols on a separate page at the back of my notebook with no notes. I then used this page for revision to see if I could remember the sound of the symbol I am reading, using my notes to check my answers.
The video does go over revision, but I found it helpful to be able to revise any time I liked.
Although the lessons are only available to paid members, you can start the free 1-week trial and actually complete the reading course in the amount of time it takes for that free trial to finish.
The website doesn’t ask for credit card details when starting the free trial, so they cannot automatically sign you up and make you start paying without you realizing it, like some websites do.
To access the rest of the reading course, set your level to absolute beginner, click the lessons tab at the top of the website, click lessons library, and then search for “ultimate video getting started”.
From here you can find the lesson they left you off at and continue to learn to read. To really make full use of your free trial, you will need to do 2 or 3 lessons a day and make notes.
This will ensure that you will complete the course and have the notes forever to refer to. You may have to leave the reading numbers courses alone so as to not overload your brain, but these are easily learnable with a google search.
Once you are done with their reading course, you can move ahead and learn other courses in the absolute beginner level and then move on to the higher levels. If you finish all of the ThaiPod101 main courses, you should be able to speak Thai in your daily life.
Learn Thai from a White Guy
If learning through videos and audio aren’t your style, you can check out Learn Thai from a White Guy.
The founder of the course was in my shoes before. He struggled with learning Thai at first until he found the secret to be fluent in Thai, which is learning the Thai script.
Their Thai courses are mainly about teaching you how to read the Thai script before moving on to common sentence patterns and structures in Thai, which gives you a solid foundation in the Thai language.
One great thing I found from their courses is the lesson explanations, which are on point and cover problems similar to the ones I had before.
Learn Thai from a White Guy is a good alternative for learning Thai for beginners. Once you finish their courses, you can use ThaiPod101’s intermediate and advanced lessons to further improve your Thai skills.
Additional Free Resources
Learning to read also opens up a whole wealth of resources to you to improve your speaking and listening. A lot of resources use the Thai script due to the limitations the Latin script has phonetically spelling out Thai words.
The first resource you should use is, again, the Thaipod101 free Youtube channel. On there are great videos on essential verbs to learn. This is great as Thai people don’t say things like “can I have x” but instead just say “want x”, so learning verbs like this is essential for you to be able to do simple things like picking food from a street food cart.
With your ability to read the menu and using verbs to ask for things, you are already 1 step closer to being able to survive your new environment in weeks.
The Thaipod101 Youtube also has a large number of videos for you to scroll through and expand your vocabulary, but if you truly want to use that resource to it’s full potential then you can buy a subscription to navigate their main website which has even more!
Now you can read and can survive in Thailand, you can begin to expand your vocabulary.
I used “Thai for Beginners – Becker“, “Thai for Intermediate Learners – With Audio – Becker” and “Thai vocabulary frequency 4000“. Other decks are available too like “Thai 1000 Common Wordsords” if 4,000 words seems too large of a deck to you.
You have the options to pick and choose what suits you best, but I really would recommend the 2 Becker decks as they have some very useful pieces of vocabulary in them.
Do the decks one by one, in the order that I listed them. It has helped me to cement the vocabulary and it even gives you extra reading practice as the flash cards are written in Thai.
Don’t try to do them all of the decks at once, as it is too much information to take in and will cause you to not retain information. Complete one deck, then move onto another.
I also change the settings a little too by clicking the little cog icon next to a deck, pressing options, clicking the “Lapses” tag and changing “Leech action” to “Tag only”.
If you don’t do this the program will take out words that it thinks you struggle too much with and you won’t see them again unless you trawl through the cards and re-select them. I don’t find this useful because I want to learn all of the vocabulary, no matter how many times it takes me.
You can also change the number of words you learn each day according to your ability.
Another great free resource is Memrise. This website works in a similar way to Anki, but needs you to write the word correctly using the Thai script. This not only expands your vocabulary; it reinforces your reading even more as well as your writing.
I would say that once you have completed the “Thai for Intermediate learners: Becker” then you will be ready to juggle both Memrise and Anki at the same time.
Classifiers are important so it is good you learn them through this website. They are words for numbering nouns correctly.
All 3 of these courses are great for expanding your vocabulary but, just as with the Anki decks, you should do them one by one to retain the information. Memrise groups their vocabulary into groups of 5, so you can learn new words according to your ability.
Memrise and Anki both use a technique called “spaced repetition”. What this means is that you will see vocabulary that you find hard to remember more often. Each time you remember it correctly, it will take longer for you to revisit that vocabulary. I found this technique to be great as it trains your short term and your long-term memory.
With Memrise, you need to make sure that you visit the vocabulary using the classic or speed review functions every day as it is not automatic.
To really get the most out of this technique, you have to use each app every single day. Although that sounds like a lot, it has never taken me over an hour a day. It can even be as short as 15 minutes a day.
Once you get good with using this technique with single pieces of vocabulary, you can move onto sentences and phrases. Memrise has a great course called “Contempory Thai Expressions”. You can use this course once you get really comfortable with the learning technique and the vocabulary that you have already learned.
The sentence structure of Thai is completely different to English, so this is a great tool for learning common phrases to communicate with Thai people and begin your first steps into conversational fluency.
Maintaining and Cementing Your Reading Skills
One last piece of advice I have for learning to read and write is to spell out names of people or places in your country using the Thai alphabet.
This really helps cement the rules of the writing system both phonetically and with the order of writing. I say this because the writing system is not as simple as writing left to right like with the Latin script.
The symbols all follow the same pattern each time though, so it is not as difficult as it sounds. I would also focus on the symbols and phonetics more than the tone rules.
The tone rules can really hinder your learning progress. Tones will come more naturally to you than the rest, so focus your efforts on what is necessary. I hindered myself at first with the tone rules and had to learn this the hard way.
My final words and piece of advice is to not only rely on these resources. You need to be out with the locals every day to practice what you have learned and read everything you can see.
Do not be afraid to talk to people. Thai people are actually very welcoming and appreciative of you learning their language, which makes it so much easier for you and also makes you feel part of the community (which is what this is all for).
If you do not have access to local people, then you should sign up to italki. This resource is excellent as it lets you talk to real natives from the comfort of your own home. You can even pick and choose your teachers and conversationalists.
italki would be the perfect partner resource to use with everything I have listed to really perfect your speaking and listening practice before coming to Thailand. Speaking and listening to locals is the most important step and test of your knowledge and ability, so you need to do it.
Learning the language is the best window into this wonderful, unique, and exciting culture. Being part of the community is the best thing you can do, and learning the language is necessary to achieve this goal.