5 Improvements in My Approach to Learning Thai


I am now at the end of week three of my six month challenge to become fluent in Thai. The most surprising thing so far is how much of my time is spent going back over the fundamentals. I’ve even had to revisit the Thai alphabet because I’ve been reproducing some of these sounds in the wrong parts of my mouth.

Despite my need to focus so much on the basics at the moment, I don’t feel like I’m back at square one. This work is causing a ripple effect because it is allowing my brain to make connections with the stuff I’ve learned in the past. Things are just starting to fall into place, and there have been a few times recently when I’ve enjoyed the wonderful feeling of ‘I’m getting this’.

I hit a language plateau in the Thai language about 10 years ago. My failure to fully master the basics meant I couldn’t make any further progress beyond the intermediate level. I picked up lots of additional vocabulary after, but if I’m honest, this only improved my ability to read – it did nothing to help me communicate better.

A decade is a long time to be stuck, so I’m so grateful to still have a passion to learn Thai. I have no difficulty understanding why some of expats just give up. It is so easy to interpret lack of progress as evidence of an inability to learn the language.

I’m confident that I’ve found the key for breaking through the barrier between intermediate and fluent Thai. It is a long road ahead for me but this isn’t so bad because at least I know I’m now going in the right direction. There are six improvements in my approach to learning Thai that are responsible for this breakthrough:

1. I No Longer Feel Ashamed about My Weaknesses in Thai

Anyone with more than a basic level of Thai is going to recognize there are obvious problems with the way I speak the language. In the past, I felt embarrassed about this, and it meant I tried to hide my deficiencies. I became so focused on protecting my ego that I avoided any situation where I might actually learn something.

I’m grateful that Stuart Jay Raj used me as an example in one of his recent videos. It feels good to openly admit that this is the level I’m at now, and I need some help to progress. There is nothing embarrassing about wanting to improve, but it does require being open about what needs to be improved. In future, I’m going to be as honest as I can be about my weaknesses in Thai – not only to other people but also to myself.

2. I Have a Goal I Feel Passionate About

I make addiction recovery videos and I put these on YouTube. My efforts are a bit amateurish, but I enjoy it as a hobby. It is my goal that within one year, I’ll be putting out videos in the Thai language as well as the ones in English. This is my dream, and I’m passionate about making it happen. There might not be even one Thai person interested in what I have to say, but I know it will give me so much pleasure to do this.

My motives for learning Thai in the past have always been a bit vague. Without something solid to aim for, my approach was haphazard and completely undisciplined. It is hardly surprising I didn’t get anywhere because I didn’t have an actual goal. I now have a clear destination for my studies, and this is going to help me focus and stay committed.

3. I Have Enough Humility to Learn

I see myself as a student of the Thai language, and this means my job is to learn. I don’t need to worry about protecting my ego or trying to impress other people, and it’s definitely not my job to teach – although, I’m willing to share anything I learn along the way. I believe humility may be more important when it comes to learning a language than any natural talent.

4. I’ve Raised My Expectations

I didn’t learn to drive a car until I was 37 years of age – I seriously used to look people who could drive as having an almost magical ability. I’ve felt the same type of awe around westerners who can speak fluent Thai. I didn’t think it would ever be possible for me to be like them, so I set my goals much lower.

Working with Stuart Jay Raj has helped me see there is nothing magical about speaking Thai. It’s just a case of getting the muscles around the mouth to perform the right actions. It does take practice, hard work, and persistence, but I’ve raised my expectations – I now aim to speak Thai like a Thai.

5. I’m Enjoying the Process of Improving My Thai

I do not view this period of intensive learning as something I need to get out of the way so I can get what I want. I look forward to studying each day because it’s just so exciting and rewarding in itself. I love it when I remember to use a new word in conversation, and I experience a childish glee when this same word can help me make sense of a paragraph of writing that would have previously baffled me – it’s better than any video game. My son loves correcting my bad Thai, and it is something fun we can do together. I’m getting as much more from this experience of learning Thai than I will from achieving the goal (the goal is only there to give shape to the process).

Other posts in this series on learning Thai

Week 0- My Quest to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months
Week 1 -Creating the Right Mental Conditions for Learning Thai
Week 2- Maybe Just Getting Out There and Speaking Thai is Not Enough
Week 4 – Generating Enough Passion to Learn Thai
Week 5 – Undoing the Damage from Speaking Thai Badly for Thirteen Years
Week 6 – Early Impressions of Glossika Thai Fluency Course
Week 7 – Introverts Can Learn Thai Too
Week 8 – Winning Strategy for Achieving Fluency in Thai
Week- 9 – Thai Fluency in 10,000 Sentences

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8 thoughts on “5 Improvements in My Approach to Learning Thai

  1. Hello Paul, I’ve been following your progress and I hope you reach your goal. Your blog really struck a chord with me because I feel like I’m in the exact same position. I always seem to be learning new vocabulary and yet my level of speaking remains the same. Every day I think ‘right I’m going to speak more today!’ but when the time comes I’ve got nothing to talk about. 4 years now and I wonder if I’ll ever achieve fluency. But anyways I’d like to know how you get along any tips would be appreciated!


    1. Hi James, it can be a bit frustrating to slog away at building up a vocabulary but not be able to use it in conversation. I might start drilling pretend conversations (where I play all the parts) so that I become more comfortable using new words in a more natural way.

  2. “2. I Have a Goal I Feel Passionate About … It is my goal that within one year, I’ll be putting out videos in the Thai language … This is my dream, and I’m passionate about making it happen. There might not be even one Thai person interested in what I have to say, but I know it will give me so much pleasure to do this.”

    This point seriously resonates with me. Seems to me, the motivating factor should be something tangible, not mysterious or “because it’s the thing to do”.

    As a chronic insomniac, I have to keep motivating myself anew to get back to my studies after a particularly bad episode of not sleeping. When I first started learning Thai it was because I lived in the country (seemed like a good enough reason to me). Further in, it lost power, so I needed to find something else.

    Now that many pushes have been and gone (I’ve forgotten most of my motivational jingles) I do know that I need to find a stronger reason for attaining a higher skill level in Thai. Something similar to what you’ve come up with (it’s perfect for you).

    Don’t laugh, but I’ve bought “Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn”. The book is blinking 2″ thick so it’ll be awhile before I can get back to you on its value to me personally.

    Thank you for writing those posts Paul. I do believe you’ll be pulling me along with you on this quest to fluency (hope, hope).

    1. That book sounds interesting Catherine – I hope you write a post on some of the things you learn from it.

      I remember when I first came to Thailand, I was so obsessed with the culture and this gave me plenty of motivation to learn Thai. This level of passion didn’t last once I had lived here for a bit of time. My new reason for improving my Thai seems far more solid.

      I watched a TEDX talk a few weeks ago by Chris Lonsdale. He talks about rapid language acquistion, and how he managed to become fluent in Chinese in 6 months http://youtu.be/d0yGdNEWdn0

  3. Paul, I met Stu Jay Raj shortly after moving to Thailand. Stu is a fun loving guy, but he got serious when warning that it’s important to take advantage of that rush we get from landing in a new country. It’s almost like the buzz from a double expresso, so might as well get all the milage we can out of it.

    And it makes sense that getting serious about our Thai studies right away would save us a lot of time and grief later. He also mentioned that many who don’t grab that early opportunity give up and never learn Thai properly. Hindsight, even forewarned, is a bitch, yes?

    I didn’t waste all that time, as I’m sure you didn’t either. I plodded along in dribs and drabs and spurts and such. And I do agree with you that a mature (?) reason for learning a language has a good likelihood of lasting through any downtime we might run into (life being what it is).

  4. Ive heard Adam Bradshaw talk about how he used to read out loud for an hour a day. It’s amazingly effective and yet I can’t seem to get the motivation to do it regularly!

    1. Wow – reading out loud for an hour every day is pretty hardcore, but I could see how it would work. Maybe I’ll give that a go as one once I’m satisfied the basics are sorted out. Thanks James

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