And the Award for Slowest Ever Thai Language Learner Goes To…

I have the books...

If there was ever an award for the slowest Thai language learner I’m fairly confident that I’d be in with a shot of winnnig. My journey to become proficient at Thai began when I moved here almost a decade ago – it still feels that I’ve a long way to go though. I’ve reached a plateau and might be destined to move no further.

My stagnation with the local language is only made worse by the fact that many of those in the Thai blogosphere are currently discussing their own language achievements. Johnny Foreigner got the ball rolling a couple of weeks ago with his ‘my long journey learning Thai’ blog entry (I’ll tell you what slow learning really means mate). This week though, it seems like there is some type of ‘Thai learning disease’ being passed around with Talen teaching the Thai consonants Megan explaining her mastery of the word ‘why’ in Thai, and Snap dissecting the elephant song – it is like these people are trying to make me feel bad. The final straw though was Catherine form Women Learning Thai who has just produced a long list of Thai resources that I’m not using.

During my first few years living in Thailand I really did put a lot of effort into learning the language -in some ways this has paid off. I have a fairly large vocabulary and I can understand most conversations around me. My greatest achievement though has probably been the improvement in my ability to read Thai. One of my main reasons for wanting to learn the language in the beginning was a desire to be able to understand the local meditation texts in their original language – I’ve succeeded quite well at this I think.

You must be Fluent in Thai by This Stage

When I go on holidays back to Ireland or speak to tourists here they will sometimes make the comment, “you must be fluent in Thai by this stage”. I always feel a bit uncomfortable answering this question; I don’t want to sound lazy, or too ignorant to want to learn the local language, but I also want to be truthful. A few years ago I’d have no problem claiming to be fluent, but my idea of what fluent means has now changed- I now have a different standard to compare myself with. I am fairly confident that my Thai language skills could impress a newcomer, but I doubt they would impress those non-native Thai speakers that I admire.

What Has Gone Wrong With My Thai Language Ambitions?

Over the years I’ve bought so many books and courses on Thai; it has cost me an absolute fortune. There comes a stage though where these course books can no longer help you. It is relatively easy to become competent at Thai but to get from there to completely fluent takes a lot of effort – at least this has been my experience anyway. I just don’t have the time anymore, and if I’m honest with myself I’m probably also lacking a bit in motivation. I now know enough Thai to do the things that I want to do – at least on a practical level anyway. I think we all have to make choices about how we use this precious resource of time; at the moment Thai is getting a raw deal.

While my ability to read Thai continues to improve my ability to converse remains fairly constant. I used to think that my reluctance to speak Thai was to do with being shy, but my recent publicity exploits seem to indicate that I’m far from this. I think it would be truer to say that I just don’t like talking to strangers – although it is hard to shut me up once I get going.

When I worked as a teacher I spoke Thai every day with the students – my main subject was Health Studies and this meant that just using English was almost impossible. When I lived in rural Thailand there were also a couple of hours each day when I’d have some of the local monks or neighbors drop by for a chat. Nowadays though, I don’t need to converse so much. Since my son was born we only speak English in the house. I used to always pick up new vocabulary from watching Thai TV but I just don’t have the time for this anymore – I hardly ever turn on the box and in the evenings my son takes charge of the remote anyway. I have Thai radio on all day, but that is only because it is less disruptive to my concentration.

My Thai Language Future

Although things have gone off track a bit in recent years I do hope to take Thai more seriously again in the future. One motivating factor is my son; I don’t like the idea of there ever being a communication barrier between us -as his Thai vocabulary increases I hope to be able to keep up. I know that there are a lot of ex-pats who fall into a similar trap as I have; satisfied with enough to get by. I would like to get beyond this though even if my progress continues to be slow.

I am interested to hear how other people feel about this so please feel free to leave a comment.

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20 thoughts on “And the Award for Slowest Ever Thai Language Learner Goes To…

  1. Paul, motivation is everything. For me I have dual motivation …I am paying for classes and I am on a student visa so I will be tested at some point at immigration.

    I hope to be fluent one day and Buddha knows that will probably take more than a decade but I would settle for competent. It’s cool right now being able to pick words and phrases out of conversations I hear but I would love to fast forward and be able to decipher it all.

    I think you have the best motivator in your son, on that will be with you for a lifetime.
    Talen recently posted..Learning the Thai Language- The Consonants

    1. Hi Talen, seeing your posts on learning Thai is motivating. I hope you keep them up; even though they sometimes make me feel guilty. Some people pick up languages a lot easier than others but I’m sure we can all become fluent with the right motivation.

  2. Paul, when your post heading first appeared in my Google Reader, I thought it may have been about me!

    ‘it is like these people are trying to make me feel bad’ I feel like this too, when I slack off on learning Thai and I’ve barely just begun.

    I couldn’t agree more about dual languages in the household. My mother came from Russia, but only spoke Russian with her parents. Despite some very short Russian lessons, I never leart to speak more than a handful of words. I think that was a shame as I couldn’t communicate with my grandmother, who refused to speak English (odd, I know) and, it would have been wonderful to know a second language.

    1. Hi Snap, did you think you had won a prize 🙂
      It is a bit of a shame that you didn’t get to become fluent in Russian – fascinating country. I would feel bad if my son couldn’t speak to my family at home. I want him to be proud of his Irish blood as well as his Thai.
      I think that the real benefit of learning a second language in childhood is that it probably makes it easier to pick up language later.

  3. I stay here about a year now and am able to speak a 1000 words, but that will be counting from 1 till 1000 only 🙂
    No, picking up a new word every 2 or 3 days, without using books, I think I know about a 100 words by now, so keeping this pace I would be able to master a 1000 words after 10 years, but since I’m not tied to Thailand, I’m not sure and motivated that much to start learning the language seriously. Once I decide to settle down one day, I would probably be much more motivated to learn the local language.
    I-nomad recently posted..Micro Dutch expat community in Patong and my special positive food

    1. Hi I-nomad – I always thought that Dutch people were naturally gifted when it came to languages? Maybe I’m just relying too much on stereotypes – after all, not all Irish people can manage 20 pints of Guinness in one sitting. I admire those who do try to pick up a bit of the language even though they are only staying in Thailand for a year or two – 2 or 3 new words a day isn’t bad at all.

    1. Hi Megan – don’t you be making excuses for my laziness 🙂 I’ve been bad and I deserved to be ridiculed. Seriously though, I just want to be as good as people like Andrew Biggs without putting too much effort in – maybe I could try subliminal learning while I’m sleeping.

  4. Hi Paul,

    I’ve met people who’ve lived in Thailand for 15 & 20 years and still have problems stringing basic sentences together, so don’t be too hard on yourself!

    Sometimes the problems start when you are placed in an environment where English is used. Eg.. Teaching English at schools, your spouse speaks it with you. In these situations it’s easier just to be lazy and communicate in English.

    As for self study options. There’s a lot of Thai courses out there for the learner to try. Though many of them barely take you past beginners level, and the language is virtually the same in most of the courses.

    A good course which I have personally used and completed is the linguaphone Thai course. After that I tried Thai for advanced readers which is also good. I just wish that someone out there would bring out an advanced Thai conversation course or something, there is certainly a gap in the market.

    Failing that Paul, you could always give up on Thai and learn Esperanto! The international language 🙂
    Mark recently posted..Live in Thailand- no visa or work permit needed!

  5. Paul, this sounds a lot like the stages of French and Arabic language learning people go through here in Morocco.

    When I first came here, it was before the internet, and the only thing available in English to read was Newsweek or Time once a week. That really helped me to learn French, and I am now able to converse on any subject / understand TV / read print media with a reasonably good understanding, although I do massacre the grammar.

    Arabic, however, has been much harder as languages are difficult for me. I’ve never been able to make much progress beyond basic words such as names of foods, although I can give taxi directions. I keep hoping…

    When one is working full-time, and in an English-language environment (as I did for the past 15 years) there is little energy or time left over for language learning, unlike the early years in which I came to Morocco.
    Mary recently posted..Marrakesh Jack-O-Lanterns

    1. Hi Mary, I previously worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia. We were encouraged to learn Arabic but I never got past the basics – luckily we had plenty of interpreters to help out. My history with languages is far from impressive – I only now a few words in Irish (Gaelic) even though it is our national language.

  6. Paul! At least you don’t look like me! People expect me to know Thai and I feel (okay I got over it) bad when I don’t meet their expectations.

    I think L2 comes and goes in spurts and stages. I think if you are giving yourself a hard time (which I completely understand) then you just needed a break. It’s not a race!

    1. I would imagine there is a lot more pressure on you Lani. I used to feel a bit sorry for my Filipino colleagues because there seemed to be higer expectations on them – maybe because it is easy to mistake them for Thai. You are right about it not being a race as long as I keep moving.

  7. Paul I’ll be landing in Thailand next month so you’d best parcel up your award and post it to Udon Thani. I’ve had about 11 years of trying to learn Thai and my skills are still very basic. My reading ability is zilch and yet I know that’s the area I have to start again from. Time and motivation are the things holding me back.

    I think you need to look at it as your understanding of Buddhism is way above most expats and your language ability is beneath some. You can’t always have the best of both worlds and still live an everyday life. There are people out there who’d love to learn about Thai Buddhism but………they haven’t got the time or motivation.

    I’m sure the next ten years will see you conquer the Thai language to a level which meets your own approval. I can see the Bangkok Post headline in 2020:

    ‘TV Station Sacks Andrew Biggs and Paul Garrigan Takes Over Prime Saturday Night Slot.’
    Martyn recently posted..Thailand Blogs – October 2010 Review

    1. Hi Martyn, I think it is a good idea to start with reading; although I’ve focused too much on this over the years. I have found reading so much easier because there is nobody staring back blankly at me if I make a mistake. I think when you move to Thailand you will get a new motivation for the language; you might want to take advantage of this motivation because it probably won’t last. I suppose I do know quite a lot about Thai Buddhism, but only because this is something that I’ve been interested in since my teens. I would hope that my language skills will be much improved by 2020 or I’ll have to demand some type of recognition for my slow learning 🙂

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