The “I’m Good Enough at Thai to Know I Suck” Stage

Good Enough at Thai to Know I Suck

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Yeah, I really suck at Thai…

There comes a point in almost everyone’s attempt at learning a language where they gain enough proficiency to know, well… to realize that they pretty much suck at it!

This can be due to a variety of reasons, especially for a tonal language such as Thai, with its rigid vowel lengths.

Usually the main reason is “mother language interference”. This is where you’re speaking Thai and suddenly start using the English sentence order for words, which yields a lotta gibberish. Or you forget to use the question tag (ไหม / มั้ย) and instead use a rising tone on the last word, changing it into another one.

Now, I seemed to have reached a point where not only my spoken ability has come up to speed but also comprehension of what’s said back to me. I outlined this leap in The Magical Tipping Point of Thai.

I want to touch on the comprehension part of it a little. There is no way a person can learn Thai without having both their ability in spoken Thai and comprehension of what’s said back. It’s two sides of the same coin. Saying things without comprehending what’s said back isn’t speaking Thai.

Case in point. The other day I met a foreigner who spoke Thai with such good clarity and enunciation that I was so ashamed of my Thai that I wouldn’t speak Thai around him. He had the phrozen phrasez and rote sentence constructs down perfectly. As an aside, I could tell he was a Union Clone student because they teach two identifying constructs. One is สมมุติว่า (suppose that..) and the other is มีปากมีเสียงกัน (an antiquated construct for argue w/someone that Union schools teach instead of ทะเลาะกัน). But he’d nearly eliminated his thick Aussie accent in his spoken Thai (no small feat seeing as his accent was so thick I had to really concentrate to understand his English).


As I sat there listening to him interact with Thais it became apparent there was a disconnect when Thais didn’t respond with the appropriate pre-programmed response. He then had to ask them to repeat what they’d said, sometimes a coupla times. Now, sometimes the Thais deviation was only slight (and even I could make the leap in logic to what they’d said). However, with other times, the Thais would shorten a phrase or reply in a contemporary slangy way, so it was not the way he was programmed to receive replies.

I found this conundrum quite interesting, seeing as his Thai was really clear and not nearly as muddy (or perhaps “muddled” is a better word) as my spoken Thai.

We talked about his lack of comprehension and he mentioned that the run-o-the-mill Thai on the street didn’t speak as clearly as his Thai language teacher did. Well, I got news for everyone out there studying Thai. Not many Thais speak as clear or slow as your Thai language teacher! Nor will they waste the time it takes to spoon-feed when they’re talkin’ to you.

You can get Thais to slow down by saying พูดช้า ๆ หน่อย or พูดช้า ๆ สิ. But, sometimes it takes a couple of times for it to sink into their heads. Conversely, you can always do what I do and say in Thai, “either slow down or we’re gonna speak in English.” I’ve never had that not work in getting a Thai to slow down their staccato or warp speed Thai EVER! Given that many Thais fear speaking English, it’s effective. And better yet, to have them dial their speed back it only needs to be said once.

Back on track… It also became apparent to me that while this guy had a TON of good usable Thai vocabulary, constructs and phrases, he was unable to use them to build his own sentences. Instead, he relied on rote dialog (the same mind-numbing stuff I hear repeated in many Thai language schools in Bangkok).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not casting dispersions (errr aspersions) at this guy’s Thai. My spoken Thai language ability is NOTHING to write home about and I have more than my fair share of “fox paws” (faux pas) almost every time I converse with Thais in Thai. I’m not denigrating his ability, only pointing out some of my observations.

I always reply to foreigners who ask if I can speak Thai the exact same way: “I speak Thai well enough to know that I suck at it.” It’s the truth. I can converse about anything I have an interest in, and I am wicked good at understanding what Thais say to me, just as long as I’m in the driver’s seat. Also, for the most part, it appears that Thais understand what I’m talking about even if my intonation is muddy and my structure spotty.

Once you reach a level of proficiency as far as high frequency usable vocab and constructs go, the next phase is applying it ALL the time, in every situation, tryin’ to get off the rote dialog and more onto free flowing speech. For myself, I eavesdrop on Thais all the time. I also take notes. I do this to change how I learned Thai to how things are actually said by Thais. I also practice some of the new dialog I’ve overheard with Thai friends in sort of a “throw it against the wall and see if it sticks” method. Do they comprehend what I’m saying? Is it appropriate in the context I used it in? Does it make Thais understand me easier? In an effort to morph my Thai into a less foreign sounding Thai I currently speak, these are all things I look for.

This stage in your Thai language acquisition is when books like Thai: An Essential Grammar (by David Smyth), and Thai Reference Grammar (by James Higbie and Snea Thinsan) come in handy. Neither of these books lend themselves to a “sit down and read ‘em cover to cover” sort of endeavor. In fact, early on it’s mostly waste of time when studying the Thai language because there’s simply too much material covered in both. They’re not designed as text books to learn Thai. They are created as reference materials for specific questions about the application of words, phrases, and correct word order in constructs, once you have some Thai under your belt.

When I hear something in Thai that I haven’t used before, I jot it down in a small notebook. Once I get back home I look it up in one or both of those grammar books. Sometimes I hafta Google to find the real way things are spelled or said versus the colloquial way. And I can usually find the base construct even if the Thai version was slang-i-fied. By using Thai: Essential Grammar and Thai Reference Grammar, I can locate the correct words, related phrases, and appropriate usage.

Now, sometimes some of the constructs I come up with just don’t fly. And that’s when Thais look at me like I’ve got a horn growing outta my forehead (believe me, I’ve grown used to that look after 7+ years in Thailand). While other constructs work so well that it seems Thais are surprised a foreigner would spit something out that sounds so very Thai.

It’s moments like those that make me realize that all the time, hard work and effort I’ve put into this language is beginning to bear fruit. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever get past the “I’m good enough at Thai to know I suck at speaking Thai” stage. What I’m not letting it do is get me down or dampen my desire to learn more about the language. I have no problem discarding what doesn’t work, and I try to incorporate what does work into my usable vocabulary. In short, I just keep on trudging forward in my learning.

I think what I’m tryin’ to say is this: you too will reach a point where you’re good enough in Thai to know you’re not really very good at Thai. It’s a natural part of the process and it shouldn’t get you down. Instead, it should give you the satisfaction knowing that you’ve come a long way in your learning experience. And once you can see your own shortcomings in this language, it becomes easier to implement self corrections without someone spoon-feeding you.

Good luck. And keep at it. Remember no one eats an elephant at one sitting. It’s done one mouthful at a time. Bite by bite. Same with learning languages, take one bite at a time and you’ll get there.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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5 thoughts on “The “I’m Good Enough at Thai to Know I Suck” Stage”

  1. How long was that union student in Thailand? I am a union-clone student and I think I was ever in that stage. My pronunciation used to be much better when I still went to school and I very much relied on the fixed construction I had learned. At that time my comprehension was still poor. I think comprehension takes time and you need to practice talking to many different people. This is not the mistake of the union school, it’s just a fact. I still have a very hard time understanding some people from the Isaan region (even if they speak central Thai), simple because I don’t have enough experience listening to them.

    Today, I talk like you. I make lots of mistakes and my sentence constructions are not that good anymore, but my understanding improved. I can have conversations about most subjects. Still, I feel sorry I forgot so many of the fixed constructions, because I believe they are essential to reach the next level of talking Thai. That is a level where Thai people don’t need to focus when listening to what you’re saying and where your speech is correct and sounds natural and coherent (even though they can still hear you’re a foreigner because of your accent).

  2. That sounds about right. Narrowing down the possibilities your listener has to sort through has got to make understanding easier.

    One time my teacher had a bit of a sniffle and I asked her if she was ขาดจมูก (instead of คัดจมูก). She thought it was funny. 🙂

  3. Quite an interesting point about Thais correcting our spoken Thai mistakes less and less.

    The Thais who interact with me on a daily basis have grown accustomed to my whacky accent. I think they’re better at understanding what I said first time around and at correcting only glaring errors in my pronunciation or structure. Now “strange Thais”, are another kettle of fish and it takes a few good minutes of conversation until they stop askin’ me to repeat what I said and they start to “get” my accent.

    About the only time a Thai who knows me will correct me anymore is if I totally massacre a word to the point where it can’t be “figured out in context”. More often than not it’s one of those words/phrases Thais call สองแง่สองง่าม or what we’d call a “double-entendre”; words with a normal meaning and then usually a sexual one too. Sometimes the results of my “fox-paws” are so funny that when the Thai explains what they thought I said, even I hafta laugh at it. Believe me Thai has more than it’s fair share of these terms and more are comin’ into use almost daily from the Thai youth of today. They’re well worth learning IF you can find a native speaker who’s willing to teach ’em to you.

    I forgot to say in my original piece that I went thru a really prolonged “silent phase” (months and months of it) where I listened and rarely spoke, in fact I didn’t speak at all.

    Now, even though I speak errantly toned and foreign accented Thai it’s constructed close to the way Thais would say things. It helps the person listening to me and their comprehension is way up because it’s said in the way they’re used to hearing it.

    Glad you like the post.

  4. Ha! Then I am way ahead of you. I have known that my Thai has sucked from the very beginning, and know still does! 😉

    I empathize with that Union-clone student you met. I can understand my teacher far better than anyone else because she speaks slowly and tends to use words she knows I know. On sort of the flip side, a monk told me that he understood English far better when it was spoken by a Thai than when it was spoken by a native speaker (or maybe it was that American accent).

    But I have heard that one milestone is reaching the point where Thais start correcting you — or sometimes even misunderstanding you — when you misspeak a tone or vowel length. Perhaps that means one’s errors are becoming anomalies rather than the norm.

    Thanks as always for an interesting post!

  5. It’s obvious that they don’t teach “improve” at the union schools. It’s like the ice berg concept, where most is underwater. You eventually start to realize that this journey into another language is one that will continue all your life, so enjoy the ride! Nice posts.


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