The Magical Tipping Point in Thai

The Magical Tipping Point in Thai

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


Get Expert Advice for Only $3.33 a Month
Want to save thousands of dollars and countless hours of time while setting up your life in Thailand? Become an ExpatDen Premium subscriber. When you join, you get instant access to over 100 exclusive guides written by only the most seasoned expats.

38 thoughts on “The Magical Tipping Point in Thai”

  1. I was very nervous when I first started to attempt to speak Thai to Thai people. I only ever got confused stares and a ‘huh?’ look! Then they would ask my wife ‘what did he say?’.

    I did think at one point, that I would never get the hang of it. I know you’ve persevered for a very long time, but I do hope that some of the comments on this thread will encourage you to continue, perhaps not in the way that you already have, but with a new focus on clear enunciation, and perhaps some techniques to help you relax whilst trying to speak to people.

    I wish you all the best with your endeavours.


  2. Yes, I’m probably being too hard on myself. This is probably why I am not relaxed when I try real-world Thai.

    I’ll take Vincent up on his offer to supply me with the newer materials.

    This conversation has been very helpful and has given me some valuable insight into my own behavior and psychology.

    Thanks to all.

  3. You are being way too hard on yourself.

    “But, yes, how can I, more or less, master Becker, Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone and the first half of High Speed Thai but understand almost nothing in the real world?” – I am going to say this is 100 percent normal and expected. I will spare you my comments on the first two. HighSpeedThai is a big program and I had to make it big because I did not want to dump the learner at a place where he had little real world skills. People as me why don;t I break the program into parts. The fact is to have real world skills you MUST finish the whole program. Right up until the last lesson – not before. As I said you learn critical words that you need for even basic conversations in the last lessons.

    When I knew about 1500-2000 words I met a female and we spent time together she spoke 100 percent Thai to me and I did my best to reply in both Thai and English. I was functional but could not talk about all the things I wanted to.

    Only when I spent time increasing my vocab to 5k words+ did I find it easy to talk about most topics and understand almost 100 percent of what people said to me. I put in the hard yards to learn all that vocab. I will spare you the details on how I did it as there is no good structured learning material at this level that I have found.

    But finish the program and hopefully by then I will have a new system out that will teach from 1600 to 5000 words. Once you have completed that your Thai will be good.

  4. I think the freezing up with anxiety is definitely the issue for you.

    If you could address that, I’m sure all your learning would kick in and you would be able to make progress.

  5. Mike the good news is – Language courses indeed do teach That stuff. HighSpeedThai gets you started with all that in the last 7 lessons.

    Here is an extract:

    ป่ะ = informal version of รึเปล่า
    ผมทำอะไรผิดป่ะ = Did I do something wrong?
    เธอจะไปกับฉันป่ะ = Will you come with me or not?

    One guy has been going though the program and sending me some typos and updates as he goes. He said once he finished all the movie lessons he could understand so much more of what is happening on the street.

    First you need to know how to say a sentence then once you do and have a good handle on the language you can start leaving out words. At lesson 22 you are definitely not at this level yet!

    As I said the program will get you to 1600 words which is a basic but functional level. If you want to understand the news and talk your mind you need to learn 5000 words in a structured manner and be able to use them.

    I have created a software application which will help one learn vocab really fast. Once you have a good grasp on the language learning new vocab is not that much of a big deal. Anyway my software program is done but have not created the content for Thai.

    I want a full system that will get people up to 5000 words – As I believe this is a number where you really can talk about what you want to talk without much issue.

    But I am sure that if you finish HighSpeedThai your Thai will be WAY better than what it is now. You said you have problems with production. The program now gives you practice forming 12,000 sentences. Practice these till you are good at them and practice with the fast reading sections.

  6. Of course, my only response was ไม่ได้. And then I started walking away from the counter. She reached over, grabbed my receipt and started talking. It must have been something to do with my loyalty points because she kept gesturing at the total. No idea.

    But, yes, how can I, more or less, master Becker, Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone and the first half of High Speed Thai but understand almost nothing in the real world?

    As I said earlier, I think it’s a personality problem. In real world situations I freeze up with anxiety and lose my brain power. I’m extremely shy and suffer from mild social anxiety disorder. (Oddly, I’m great in front of a crowd and have no stage fright whatsoever. It’s one on one situations that freak me out.)

    I think no amount of further language study will enable me to get through this. I guess I need a shrink.

  7. I agree, the language spoken in Thailand isn’t taught in language lessons. Pretty much in the same way that the language spoken in England isn’t taught anywhere either.

    Interestingly enough, my wife would have formed the question differently, again perhaps demonstrating the many differences in language use.

    She would more likely have asked ฉันต้องจะโทรไปจองห้องพักหรึอแกจะทำเองปะ

    I still don’t quite get how, even though we have agreed that spoken Thai is quite different from what is taught in language lessons, you don’t even get one single word of what is spoken to you but you can understand the audio from the lessons! It is different, but some of the words are identical!

    You understood when the cashier asked you if you spoke Thai, your response must, surely, have contained the phrase ไม่ได้?

    Maybe the ไม่ wasn’t clear enough and she only heard the ได้?

  8. I guess my point is that no one teaches you real spoken Thai. I’ve never seen a sentence like the one above in language learning material, but it’s the sort of thing people apparently use all the time. Ever see any language material that teaches เป่า or ปะ?

    In fact, the meaning of that sentence was: “Do you want me to call and book a room for you?” [(จะ)ให้(ฉัน)โทรศัพท์จองห้องพักให้(คุณ)หรือเปล่า]

    Very hard for me to go from language course Thai to real world Thai. I can fairly easily understand the conversation Vincent posted above. But when I get out in the real world it’s just a buzz. No words come through at all. My brain just doesn’t parse the sound into words and meaning.

    Today at the supermarket the cashier asked me if I spoke Thai. I answered, truthfully, that I do not. She then proceeded to spend two or three minutes explaining something about my cash register receipt. Not one single word meant anything to me.

  9. I read it as ‘have you called to book the room or not?’ I may have misunderstood it, but that wasn’t really the essence of my point. Which was, there are indeed differences in what it written, what is spoken, and informal use of language.

    If you are unable to tell the difference, naturally it will be difficult to converse with people.

    When I don’t understand something, which happens quite a lot, I will ask for confirmation. As in the sentence you asked me about, if I misunderstood, I would respond with what I understood, and be corrected. Then I would have made some progress.

    The language spoken in Korat, whilst similar to Isaan, is quite different in many ways.

  10. bifftastic, what do you think the original sentence (ให้โทรศัพท์จองห้องพักให้หรือเปล่า) means?

    My wife’s family is of Chinese descent. They really only speak Central Thai. Of course, they do know a few Isaan/Korat/Lao words. But my wife often has difficulty understanding Isaan people, even though she was born here in Korat. Sometimes after conversing with an Isaan person I’ll ask her what was said and she’ll reply, “I’m not really sure….”

  11. หรือเปล่า will often be shortened to เป่า or ปะ or, in that sentence, a person might say something like โทรไปจองห้องพักหรือยัง (have you called to book the room yet?) and might even leave out the หรึอ as well.

    Also, seeing as you’re in Korat, you will probably hear people speaking ภาษาโคราช as opposed to central Thai. When I was at my wife’s mum’s house, I couldn’t catch more than one or two words of what people where saying. Up in the north, where our house is, I’ve gradually grown accustomed to the, often bewildering, mixture of Lao and Northern Thai phrases that our neighbours use, but only with the help of some of the multi-lingual residents (they can speak Lao, Gam Meuang and Central Thai, but no English)

    Plus, all the particles that people use to underline their speech are often not included in the more formal sounding lessons.

  12. Thanks for the pep talk, Tod. I’m headed to the US for a few weeks. I’ll think more about this when I return.

    Vincent, I had very little trouble understanding the fast dialog for lesson 16. It has been well over a year since I looked at that lesson, so I don’t think I still have the dialog in mind.

    The quiz was a lot harder. I’m very weak at production. I have a hard time coming up with the word I need. I understood almost all of what the speaker was saying, but I had a tough time coming up with the Thai equivalent of the English words used.

    The thing is, I never hear people talk like this in the real word. The dialogs all contain complete sentences with real (non-slang) words. But, when people actually talk (or text) they tend to use incomplete sentences with words left out and a lot of slang. I can listen to Rosetta Stone and understand every single sentence. But, no one talks like that.

    For example, a few weeks ago my wife sent me the following text:


    I understood what it meant because of the context (we had been discussing an upcoming trip to Bangkok). But, this sentence is nothing like the sorts of complete sentences one sees in almost all Thai language material.

    Furthermore, I know that if my wife were speaking (instead of texting) that sentence, she would not have used หรือเปล่า at the end, but some shortened version of the same, or some alternative. (boh, loh, or ?)

    Bottom line? I like the fast version of the reading much better than the slow version which came with the original HST. It is much easier to follow than the slow version.

  13. Mike

    Please listen to this :

    This is the fast version of the reading. Which as you know is a mix of dialogs and sometimes sentences. There is both a male and female speaker. For dialogs between two females the female will read the whole dialog and vise versa.

    This is from lesson 16 which you have done. You should know every word. How much do you understand? Obviously people work up to this fast version by listening to the slow version a number of times first.

    This is the second speaking section.

    It is a mix of simple comprehension questions, replace the English word with the Thai word type questions and also silly questions where obvious questions are asked where you answer the question – Such as “What color is the sky?” You answer “Blue” – In Thai of course.

    The English is a little tinglish in some of these – I have put my voice in where the tinglish was too hard to understand. There is also a pdf with the written version.

    Have a listen and let us know how you go.

  14. Mike;
    I agree 100%; too much negative reinforcement can suck the will to live, or at least the will to invest more time into learning Thai right out of a person.

    Believe me, that you can read/write are things to be proud of, really proud of!! Heck I know foreigners who can speak circles around me with their spoken Thai yet can’t recognize a single character of the script! I mean they wouldn’t know a กอ ไก่ from a คอ ควาย if a chicken or a buffalo bit them on the leg! That you invested the time it takes to learn to read Thai (to any degree) is an accomplishment not to be taken lightly.

    I got sooo bummed out early on by the constant ไม่เข้าใจ’s, the “deer in the head-light” looks from Thais and endless corrections for the slightest errant tone or vowel length when I would say anything that I finally learned to say in Thai; “If you understand my Thai don’t correct me or I’ll switch to speaking only English!” It sure cut down the corrections, although it really is sort of a conversation killer. In fact it was those endless corrections which pushed me into my “second silent-phase” where I totally stopped speaking. I really started listening to how the Thais talk to one another, ALL the time.

    You can’t tell yourself it’s gonna be “another Thai-language failure”, because without a doubt, you’ll fail. I tried almost every wrong way known to man to learn Thai, but every one of those “dead ends”, or “wrong methods” simply showed me how NOT to go about learning it. Some days I’d come home and throw whatever book I was using at that time to learn Thai against the wall, tell myself, “F*** this language, I’m done with it!!” Then after a couple days cooling off, I’d start again. It’s been a slow process to get even to my half-a**ed level of Thai, but I’m getting there.

    The person who says they never made any mistakes in life didn’t really do much of anything. It’s our mistakes, or our finding out how “not to do something” and then finding a way which works, that defines us and make us who we are..

    Sorry, that sounded like a frickin’ motivational canned speech, and really is quite out of sorts compared to my normal cranky demeanor!!!

    I always say, “I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed” nor do I have a “gift for languages”. In fact I’m probably just average or slightly below average (depending on the people I’m hanging around with at the time).

    I call that owner of the school up in Korat as she speaks fine English. Make an appointment to go in and see if there’s some sort of course you guys could come up with. In speaking to her on the phone she seemed willing to something like that..

    I’d urge you not to throw in the towel just yet!! Take Vincent up on his offer, give it one more shot. Come on man, you can crack this nut! Heck, I don’t even know you and yet I believe in your ability. That hasta count for something right?

    Good Luck

  15. Thanks for the generous offer, Vincent.

    I’m afraid I’m done; burned out.

    I’m just not willing to set myself up for yet-another Thai language failure.

  16. Ohh ok thanks for the update. Yes at lesson 23 you have only learnt, I guess about 400-500 words out of the 1,600 taught. My close friend stopped at 21 many years back and he does pretty well in understanding what is happening and being functional in Thailand. I mean compared to most here is pretty damn good. He can not understand the news but can understand most of what his ex wife is talking about.

    I think you purchased HighSpeedThai many years ago. There are now a few new sections that you do not have. There is a normal speed speed – normal Thai speed that is version of the reading audios with both a female and male voice. These will give you invaluable practice at listening to the comprehensible Thai at a native speed. There is also a second speaking second speaking section which asks you questions in Thai and has you answer them in Thai.

    There is a massive difference between completing 22 lessons and all 48. The lessons get bigger in size as they go on. You really need to know pretty much every word in the HighSpeedThai program to have a basic conversation even at lesson 40 you learn the word เท่านั้น. In the last movie lessons you will learn a lot of slang that will really help you understand Thais talking to other Thais – The common slang is taught in those lessons.

    I really do think that if you finish all the 48 lessons you will be at a a pretty reasonable level. But like I said if you want to be able to understand most of the news a vocab of 5k words is really the aim.

    You are at lesson 22 I think before you give up with Thai you should finish all of HST and then make a decision. I have just finished making some more updates which I would be happy to send to you. Just email me your tel number and postal address and I can send them out via email.

    You mention you did a lot of reading and your reading improved. Perhaps this time you can focus on reviewing mostly by listening to the audios. There are now about 100 hours of audio in this program. My suggestion is to listen, listen, listen and then listen some more. Only listen to the audios for the lessons you have completed. Listening to incomprehensible audio is not very useful.

    So I really think you will like the features of the new version as they help you even more with the skills you are having troubles with – Listening comprehension and conversation practice.

  17. Yes, you remember correctly. I’m the one who used to live on Saipan, who can’t sing and who cannot hear the differences in the tones. (If you play two adjacent notes on a piano I will not be able to tell you which one was the highest. When I was a kid, my clarinet teacher dropped me and told me that I didn’t have what it takes to be a musician.)

    You previously suggested that I take some online hearing tests. I did and found no hearing deficit except for some slight loss at high frequencies which one can expect at my age (63). I also recently had an ear and hearing test at a local hospital. The doctor said he detected nothing wrong with either my ears or my hearing and pronounced me fit to continue scuba diving.

    I also installed some frequency analysis software on my computer and tried to use that to “see” the tones and create them by reproducing what I saw. I never got the hang of it.

    Yes, can read the Thai you posted, but I had to look up a few words. It’s two people discussing seeing a bunch of cans on the wall and that they’re going to sell them which will also protect the surroundings (environment).

    However, if someone were to read that to me I would probably understand pretty much none of it; unless, of course, they read it in Rosetta Stone style.

    I never finished High Speed Thai. I spent a great deal of time with it over a period of about six months. I put it on my iPad and did the Anki exercises and read the PDF book for many hours per week. That did improve my reading immensely, but didn’t help at all with understanding or conversation. That’s why I gave up. I just went back and looked and see that my last bookmark on the PDF file was at lesson 22. I can read that now; only needing to look up a couple of words.

    I fully acknowledge that the fault lies not with High Speed Thai but with me. It’s most likely a personality problem. Perhaps personality transplants will be available some day.

    One needs positive feedback in order to continue with any task. In all my efforts at learning Thai I’ve received tons of negative feedback (in terms of not understanding and not being able to make myself understood) and almost no positive feedback. I have absolutely zero confidence in my ability to communicate.

    I’ve really lost the will to continue.

    Let’s just leave this where it is. I really stopped studying nearly a year ago and don’t have any plans of going on.

  18. Ahh yes I do remember you and your story from many years back. I am pretty sure it was you that stated you simply could not hear the tones in Thai or in songs. You said when you sing you just sing at a flat tone if I remember correctly. I think you lived in a small island somewhere out in the middle of the ocean?

    Now with HighSpeedThai one gets practice forming 12,000 sentences before he finishes with 1600 words – In the latest version. From what I see, by the time people finish they have lots of confidence to form their own sentences and understand most central day-to-day Thai that people speak when they are together. TV is a different topic because depending on the program there will be many specialized words used.

    Did you finish HighSpeedThai?

    Can you read the following?

    ฉันจะเอามันไปขายค่ะ นี่เป็นการช่วยลดมลพิษทางสิ่งแวดล้อมอีกทางหนึ่งด้วยค่ะ
    โอ้โห ผมเพิ่งรู้ครับว่าคุณเป็นคนรักสิ่งแวดล้อม

    As for me I think once I hit a vocab of about 5000 words or so I could express my myself and talk about almost every topic.

    HighSpeedThai is not designed to teach to this level as it is designed to give you a good handle on the language. By the time you are finished you will not be able to understand the news on tv or most tv shows 1600 words is not enough. But you should be able to understand what most people are talking about in a Thai household. And if people slow down their Thai and simplify it a little you should be able to communicate – A dictionary may be of help for the words you are yet to learn.

    Having said that – The only people that I do no recommend the program to are those with hearing problems. Over the years I have found that these people have quite a hard time with the language.

    It is interesting, at the start of the program there are some Tone lessons and some find these super easy others find them hard. For those few that find them very hard. I know tell them that if they want to proceed with learning the language there is a good chance they will struggle – that is not saying it can not be done.

  19. I live in Korat. AFAIK there is exactly one language school here. I had an email discussion with them and found it to be unsuitable. They had an initial requirement that I purchase a bunch of very elementary learning material at what seemed like great expense.

    I have never studied in a classroom environment.

    My wife works. I don’t, so most of my time is spent alone. I do go out and about and always try to use Thai, and nearly always fail.

    How do you get past the first utterance?

    I say something to someone in Thai. They don’t understand. I try again using different words. They still don’t understand. What next?

    Someone says something to me in Thai. I tell them I don’t understand. They either repeat or try different words. I still don’t understand. What next?

    It’s easy to live here without knowing Thai. I have a very full life. I have many restaurants, coffee places and shops that I visit frequently. They all know me. They have all learned through experience that I can’t speak Thai. They deal with it.

    For example, there is an Isaan restaurant that I frequent. The extensive menu is all in Thai. To order, you fill out an order form that is also all in Thai. The staff knows that I can read the menu and fill out the form. They also know that if they try to say anything to me I will not understand. It’s OK.

    I’ve lived here for eight years. I have never had a conversation of any sort with anyone in Thai. Does that bother me? Yes. But I have the wisdom to understand that this is something I’m not likely to ever change, so I deal with it.

  20. I highly doubt you’re any more stupid than the rest of us. Still, that’s sure a long time to invest NOT to speak even poorly accented or poorly constructed Thai!!

    Now maybe the fact you’ve tried to learn Thai for 16 years or that you have a Thai wife who can “speak for you” has taken the edge off your motivation. I live alone and I finally realized I had to learn to speak Thai or die. I have no one I can turn to for an ‘on the spot’ translation or say, “Tell them this…”, etc. That kind of “sink or swim” motivation goes a long way towards learning..

    That instance you cited in a restaurant where the Thai service staff will automatically turn to any Thai at the table and talk to them instead, drives me totally up the wall. I finally came up with a snarky come back to it. “Oh you can’t speak Thai huh? That’s really sad…” It’s usually enough to snap the Thai staff out of “auto-pilot mode” into “listen to the foreigner speak mode”, but it doesn’t appear to win a lotta friends!!

    I dont’ see that you have studied Thai in a group with other foreigners, at a “real” Thai language school with a “live” Thai teacher. Working thru Benjawan’s books, hi-speed Thai, Rosetta Stone, or what have you isn’t gonna help you when you pronounce things wrong. Repeating what you think you hear on a recording isn’t the same as saying something and then having it corrected by a Thai or having them make you repeat again and again until it’s at least semi-understandable. What you think you hear and what you think you’re saying are sometimes horses of a different color…

    In my tour of Thai language schools I’ve met foreigners who have studied Thai for years, yet were barely understandable, and I’ve met ones who’ve studied for 6 months and talked circles around me in Thai. I have found acquiring Thai language skills has far more to do with internal motivation rather than external methodology.

    If I was to offer out a suggestion; I’d say you take one of those module based classes that any one of those Union Clone Schools offers. They’re cheap as chips, they’re intensive and I’d imagine in 60 hours you’d come away speaking something resembling Thai too, IF you didn’t wash out.

    Those Union Clone schools have some of the highest wash out rates of students that I’ve EVER seen in my life, sometimes more than 50% of the students just “vanish into thin air”. It ain’t for everyone that’s for sure, and you ain’t gonna slide thru class not putting forth effort either.. Still it can and does work.

    It’d be a cheap way to see where the disconnect is or where you’re comin’ off the rails in your learning endeavors.

    You let me know if you figure out how to “live” here without learning the language.. I’ve found about all you can really do around these people if you don’t speak Thai is “exist” here. To me that ain’t living, not by a LONG shot…

    Good Luck…

  21. I can read Thai OK. Probably at about the third or fourth grade level.

    We watch the Thai TV news every morning. I don’t understand anything that is said verbally, but I can read the SMS scroll line at the bottom of the screen and the other Thai writing that appears. I don’t understand all of the words, but most of them.

    When I hear spoken Thai it is just an unintelligible buzz. My brain doesn’t pick out any words at all. If I’m with my wife I have her repeat, in Thai, what someone has said. That’s often enough for me to understand.

    My pronunciation must be very awful because it is extremely rare for anything I say to be understood. For example, if we’re at a restaurant and I try to order something, the waitress almost always turns to my wife for an explanation as to what I have just tried to say.

    I started studying Thai in 1996. That was with the Becker books and tapes. I listened to the tapes on the way to and from work. Then I moved on to Rosetta stone which I “mastered”. Sadly, I’ve never met anyone who speaks the sort of Thai that is taught by Rosetta stone. From there I moved on to Pimsleur. I have tried many other books, YouTube videos, etc.

    When I first moved to Thailand (2005) I spent several hours per day studying over a period of several years. Since then, the continued failure makes it very hard for me to go on. Every once in a while (the introduction of High Speed Thai is a good example), I will get enthused again and start another spurt of intense studying. Eventually, the lack of progress gets me down and I quit again.

    At this point I’ve pretty much decided that it is a waste of time for me to continue to try and learn Thai. A better use of my time is to figure out how to live here without knowing the language.

  22. 16 years and you don’t understand anything? I think that must be some kind of record!

    Can you read any Thai? For instance, the words you mentioned;

    เกษียณ (gasian) and นักเรียน (nakrian). Personally, I’m at a loss as to how you can pronounce these words without anyone being able to tell them apart. The initial consonants เก GA, (or Ka, as you wrote it) and นัก NAK are pretty much completely opposite from each other. Plus the consonants that follow; ษียณ ‘sian’ and เรียน ‘rian’ are also very different.

    What kind of English accent do you have? Is it one of those kind of ‘monotone-all-the-words-get-blended-together’ accents?

    I think, if you really want to make some progress, it might be an idea to have some general diction training, in your own language.

    Then you might be able to start enunciating more clearly, if that indeed is one of the things that’s holding you back in Thai?

    If you can begin to notice the differences in the combinations of sounds in English, and emphasise those differences yourself, then those skills might be transferable to your Thai studies.

    Another thing, when you say you’ve been studying for 16 years, do you mean every day for 4 hours for 16 years, or once a month for 10 minutes for 16 years?

    I would imagine it’s somewhere in the middle of those two, rather extreme examples?

  23. I expect that I’m just incredibly stupid.

    I’ve been studying Thai for sixteen years now, including a few years with High Speed Thai.

    I still don’t understand anything that I hear and no one understands anything that I say.

    The other day I was buying mangoes and the seller asked me what work I do, I tried to tell them that I’m retired, but they concluded that I’m a student (kasian vs. nak rian?).

    It’s like that every day. I don’t understand what anyone says and no one understands anything that I say.

    It’s incredibly frustrating and I have yet to find a learning method that has anything to offer me.

    Sorry, but High Speed Thai was a failure for me.

  24. Mike Newman – You say you have used HighSpeedThai – I am the creator. I find it perplexing that you can not speak Thai to a basic level after you have used HighSpeedThai. The most recent version gives you pracice forming over 12,000 sentences. It would be pretty much impossible for someone to not to be able to speak at least basic Thai after completing HighSpeedThai. The program has been on the market a few years and I have so much positive feedback on the program I do not know what to do with it. I follow many people though the program and what happens is predictable and repeatable. By the end they have a pretty damn good grasp on the language.

    The only ones that can not do well are those with hearing problems and your name does ring a bell from 3 years ago. I think I remember talking to a guy called Mike that claimed he was tone deaf. Perhaps that was you?

    Anyway the HighSpeedThai program will not get you to a level where you can talk about space travel and politics – In my experience you need to know about 5 – 10k words to do this. The HighSpeedThai program will get you to a level where you should unserstand and be able to use day-2-day Thai. So did you complete the program? Would be interested to know.


  25. Biff, “little and often appears to be the best way” from what I’ve read about learning languages, that method comes out on top. Marathon studies stay for awhile (at least until you take a test) but little bits often stays for longer.

  26. I try my best to speak Thai to my wife. She tries her best to speak English to me! We get some very strange looks from people, both when we are in Thailand and in London, when our conversations are that way around!

    I would definitely recommend as much immersion as possible. When I go to our house up in the north of Thailand, I am immersed in about three or four different variations of the Thai language. At first it was like what Tod referred to as the ‘constant buzzing’, but after a while, things start to become clearer and I find myself understanding more and more.

    I am nowhere near the ‘tipping point’ but remain confident that it can be reached.

    I would say that I have been learning for about 2 years. I have some periods when I am very motivated and study a lot, and then there’s the times when I slack off.

    Little and often appears to be the best way, for me anyway.

  27. To find what your actual level is, hire a Thai teacher to suggest materials?

    Mike, I do know the motivation issue (I face it all the time). Sometimes I get revved up and other times progress is like moving through mud. But I figure I’m doing ok as long as I haven’t quit.

  28. I did see the Thai Recordings. They are much too hard for me. So, I guess you can tell how much progress I’ve made (not) in 16 years….

  29. I’m sure that immersion would help me, but have not been in a position to do that. My wife, who is Thai, just finished law school and now has a law license. We spent the last seven years speaking only English at home so that she would become fluent. (Her clients are all foreigners.) It worked for her; her English is now excellent. Unfortunately, it meant sacrificing my own opportunity to speak Thai full time at home.

    I suppose we could give speak-only-Thai a shot now, but old habits are tough to break.

    What I’d really like to do is find Thai language reading material that is at my level. I try scouring the Thai bookstores (Nai In, Se Ed) but almost everything I find is either way too easy or way too hard. (“Manee and Friends” is too easy, a Thai newspaper is too hard.)

  30. Hi Mike, “What next?” Have you tried a Thai Home Stay situation? No English spoken, only Thai. Immersion is lauded by many language students. It’s supposed to kick your ears/brain into the target language.

  31. I’ve lived in Thailand for seven years now. I started studying Thai way back in 1996. I’ve been through so many courses I’ve lost track: Rosetta Stone, Becker, Pimsleur, High Speed Thai, and so on.

    After sixteen years I understand almost nothing and have huge difficulty making myself understood on even the simplest level.

    I can read and, in fact, understand more of what I read than what I hear. But, I doubt I could read Andrew’s book.

    At this point I’m lost and have pretty much given up studying.

    What next?

  32. I guess I should clarify something. I’ve gotten more than a few emails (and comments) about my use of “speaking something which resembles Thai enough so that Thais understand and respond in kind”.

    What I mean by that phrase is; while I’m certainly speaking the Thai language it’s a foreign accented, errantly toned and sometimes poorly constructed version of it. (BTW: they are the same things Kris Willems pointed out as stumbling-blockz in their own Thai ability).

    The last two things (errant intonation & poor structure) can slowly come in line with more practice. However I’d imagine if I spoke Thai the rest of my life I’d still speak it with an American accent or at least in an accent that would “peg me” as a foreign speaker by ANY native speaker, within the first couple of sentences, even if talkin’ on the phone.

    I’ve yet to run across a non-native adult learner/speaker of Thai who’s speaks Thai with a “native accent”. Now some people certainly speak “like a Thai” in their structure etc and some are closer than others (Adam Bradshaw comes to mind as he speaks some really Thai sounding Thai). Still the accent (or errant structure) gives almost all of “us” away sooner or later.

    These people (the Thais) are very intuitive in discerning regional accents of people, even ones who’re all speaking Central Thai. They’re able to pin it down often to a specific area in a province. That’s the reason I use the phrase I do when referencing my spoken Thai skills.

    Anyway, I just wanted to set the record straight; I can and most definitely do speak Thai. It just sounds like a person who was raised in midwestern America (which last time I checked was where I was born, bred & corn fed!).

    A few more points;
    I’ve met more than my share of foreign speakers who are good clear Thai speakers in their own right yet who can’t read a single character of Thai. In fact most “Union Clone” schools teach 4 or even 5 modules of conversational Thai before even exposing students to the Thai alphabetic system. I wish foreigners wouldn’t be so quick to say “you need to be able to read Thai before you’ll speak it clearly”. That statement is possibly one of the biggest fallacies in learning to speak Thai out there. Learning Thai via karaoke is a cost effective way to get some really good, really understandable conversational Thai under your belt FIRST before you tackle reading. As I said, reading Thai and speaking clear Thai are horses of a different color entirely.

    Lastly, I’ve found it’s only when the Thais DON’T comment at all about your spoken Thai that you’re finally starting to “get there” in terms of speaking. The rest of the oh-so many superlatives these people so freely dish out concerning foreigners and speaking Thai are worthless in terms of judging where you are at their language.

    Still glad you liked the post. . .

  33. Very interesting post, Tod — I think the same thing is happening to me about now.

    It seems that after 3+ years, my brain has suddenly speeded up its recognition of Thai, without, as you say, having to make a conscious effort.

    For example, watching Thai soaps, I previously could understand any sentence of less than about 5 words, but that was not enough to follow the plot in detail.

    Now, a new soap has come along which I started watching, and I’m getting 80% of what’s going on.

    Tipping point is one way to describe it, another might be the snowball effect; I’m understanding spoken Thai better, which is giving me more confidence to get involved in Thai conversations, which is increasing my understanding etc etc.

    My snowball has finally begun to roll…. 🙂

  34. Thanks for a great post. It helps to hear there is a light at the end of this tunnel 🙂

    I do agree about the reading & writing.I studied on my own with Pimsleur Thai etc a couple of years. That was good & learned some words but all the Romanized books I read really did me a disservice as now that I can read & write I see why so many never understood me.

    Like you I have retraced & now feel with reading & writing I am on a better path…albeit with a long way to go.

    Thanks again as I always enjoy your posts.

  35. Very nice inspirational story. I went to about the same experience, but I feel that I am stuck at this level now and I can’t go any further without professional help. I can speak about almost any subject, and people understand me, but I am also very aware of the fact I don’t talk like Thai people. My word choice is not always the best and my accent is far from perfect. My sentence constructions are not always correct. I seem to be stuck at this level for quite a while now. Having a good enough knowledge to handle most situations kind of takes away the need to become better or really good. Also, the cost of studying on a higher level (private tutoring) and the fact that good teachers are very hard to find make it even harder. I feel like self-study will never bring me to the level where I want to be (being nearly as fluent as a native speaker). At the speed I am improving now, I’ll never reach that goal. I wonder how people like Andrew Biggs or Stuart Jay took the last steps towards being nearly as fluent as a native speaker.

  36. Being a farang, it’s seems easier to eavesdrop. Most assume you can’t understand them. My favorite day was when I was standing in the street and these two girls walked by and said, “Oh a farang! I want to snatch one up and make him my husband!” I just started laughing out loud. The best part was when someone informed her that I could speak Thai, the horror on her face is priceless.

    I agree with you, that there is an eventual tipping point where our brain has soaks in the language so much that it eventually yields to the new sounds and phrases. Even words we don’t “know” we understand. Congrats my friend!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.