Creating the Right Mental Conditions for Learning Thai

One of the toughest obstacles I’m facing in my mission to become fluent in Thai is my introversion. I feel uncomfortable in social situations because of my habit of being overly focused on my own inner-dialogue (‘does she like me?’, ‘am I talking too much?’…). I walk away from most conversations, even in my native language, feeling like I’ve said the wrong thing, so it is hardly surprising I feel reluctant about speaking in Thai.

Motorbike Taxi People Pimboon

A good example of how my inner-chatter gets in the way of my ability to speak Thai happened last Wednesday during a Skype call with Stuart Jay Raj (I’ll be talking more about Stu below). He asked me to speak in Thai and tell him about my life. I’d been expecting this request, but it turned out to be a surprisingly nerve-wrecking challenge because of my negative internal dialogue which had gone into overdrive – “I bet he doesn’t believe I’ve spent years learning Thai’, ‘he thinks I’m an idiot”, and ‘he’s going to tell me I’ve zero talent for foreign languages’.

This negative chatter not only reduces my motivation to speak, but it also interferes with communication because I’m trying to operate in two languages at the same time – maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if my inner-dialogue was in Thai? It is clear to me that I need to stop this negative soundtrack if I am to have any hope of becoming fluent in six months.

How to Deal with a Negative Soundtrack in the Mind

Four years ago, I needed to go back to Ireland to do some promotional work. My publisher (I’m not a particularly successful book writer, or anything, so using the words ‘my publisher’ here might sound a bit delusional) had arranged for me to go on some radio and TV shows and give a public talk. I felt a bit like Stephen King right up until I gave my first radio interview. It turned out to be a total disaster. I muttered throughout, and I felt so nervous I couldn’t remember anything I’d written in my book (something of an accomplishment considering it was a memoir).

I felt so embarrassed after that first interview, but I’d barely scratched the surface of my humiliation. I’d been booked to appear on the most popular breakfast show in Ireland, and the producer just wanted to chat with me beforehand (just a formality). We talked on the phone and my muttering and spluttering was so bad that he decided to cancel the interview. I felt devastated and the publisher was angry because a lot of effort had gone into getting plenty of promotion for my book release.

I remember having a long talk with the publisher on the phone late into the night. We practiced interview techniques, but it just wasn’t happening. I still had 14 radio interviews (one of them where I’d be there for two hours), a TV show, and a public talk to go. I just wanted to run away, but I went for a three-hour hike instead. As I walked, my sense of panic started to settle down, and I was able to start identify the reason I was fucking up so badly – the problem was I focused too much on my own inner-dialogue.

I did much better with my next radio interview. I was able to stop my inner mental-chatter and just stay focused on my environment – I didn’t even make an effort to think about what I was going to say beforehand. Words just started to appear like magic, and by my forth interview, I actually felt impressed by my own answers to questions (wow – that sounded good). By the time of my TV interview (you can see this here), I felt completely at ease being interviewed.

Speak Thai without the Mental Chatter

If I stop the mental chit-chat, and just stay focused on the present moment, my ability to speak Thai improves significantly. The words I want to say just seem to appear without me having to put as much effort into it. I usually anchor myself initially by focusing my attention on an area around my chest (I also do this when trying to wai Thai people because it makes me more mindful of the gesture). If I can get more into this habit of stopping the mental chatter, and bringing my full focus to the present moment, I’m sure I’ll be able to overcome my fear of talking in Thai.

I’ve also found that this ability to stop the inner-dialogue improves my ability to learn Thai in other ways too. It means that if I’m listening to audio, or reading a Thai book, I absorb far more because my brain isn’t operating in two languages at once. I used to believe that by just having something in the Thai language playing in the background, it would somehow enter my subconscious, and allow me to pick up the language effortlessly, but I now suspect this is fanciful nonsense that gives false comfort to lazy people. I only learn effectively by giving my full attention to what I’m doing and that requires being fully present in the moment.

Learning to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months with Stuart Jay Raj

My post last week about my plan to become fluent in Thai within six months got a wonderful response. Thanks to Catherine from Women Learning Thai and everyone else who took the time to give me support and advice. One of the most exciting developments was that Stuart Jay Raj offered to help me achieve my goal. He is a polyglot who speaks Thai like a native, and he has promised to help me to the same.

I’ve using his Cracking Thai Fundamentals Course to improve my ability to accurately reproduce Thai sounds. During our chat, it became obvious to Stu that I still often rely on English sounds when producing Thai words, and this is why I sort of sound like an Irish guy speaking Thai (Irishthai?). I’ve only been doing using his stuff for a few days, but it is making a huge difference to the way I speak already (Oa is even impressed). I’m now starting to really understand what Thai people are doing with their lips, tongue, and throat when speaking, and it’s completely changing my approach to the language (I’ll do a proper review of Stu’s course in the future because it’s ‘frickin’ amazing).

I’m almost at the end of my first week of intensive Thai. I’m managing to set aside about six hours per day, and I’m loving every second of it. All the excitement I had when first starting to learn this language 13 years ago is back. I did plan on using a whole bunch of resources from the beginning, but I’m so absorbed in the Cracking Thai Fundamentals course that I’m spending about 80 per cent of my time on that at the moment (my guess is that it is time well spent).

Is Becoming Fluent in Six Months a Reasonable Goal?

My post on moving from intermediate Thai to fluency in six months generated some wonderful comments on social media. I’d like to thank everyone who replied. Some people did feel that my goal is overambitious, and I do understand this argument – my brain has already come up with a million reasons for why I won’t be able to do it. The thing is that I do want to stick to this goal because it is only by setting myself tough challenges that I can discover my potential. I’m going to do my very best to become fluent in six months – I’m not interested in why I can’t do it, I only want to know how I can do it.

I also found a fantastic Facebook group for any interested in learning Thai called Farang Can Learn Thai

Other posts in this series on learning Thai

Week 0- My Quest to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months
Week 2- Maybe Just Getting Out There and Speaking Thai is Not Enough
Week 3 – 5 Improvements in My Approach to Learning Thai
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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11 thoughts on “Creating the Right Mental Conditions for Learning Thai

  1. I’m sorry I missed your previous (and apparently ambitious) post! It’s really interesting how much you seem to fight w/ the dark side/inner dialogue. I wonder why you do that? Self-sabotage is an fascinating habit, isn’t it? I’m sure we all do it from time to time.

    The best advice I can give (cause you asked for it, right?:P) is to not take yourself too seriously. I had walked into that trap w/ a particular class and now that I recognize myself doing it, I’ve since mentally backed away.

    Good luck. I understand the struggles of learning Thai. I really do. Big hug from the Rai.

    1. Me – take myself too seriously? I can’t believe you just said that. Now I’m going to sulk for 2 days:)

      You’re definitely right Lani, and I’m trying to make this as fun as possible.

  2. Hey man, this is an awesome quest. I would consider myself one of the people stuck at that plateau… I can speak pretty well, and my accent is good, but I definitely have hit a point that it is hard to get past, and long ago lost the desire to really go after it. Very shameful, I know.

    I wanted to mention to you something that has really helped me overcome my own dark side/inner dialogue. Have you read Yogani’s ‘Deep Meditation’? Reading that book and following the – very simple and clear – instructions changed my life. I read it in January, and nearly instantly became a better teacher, better speaker, and even better photographer and football player. Simple meditation can go a long way toward shutting that inner voice down. Maybe you’ve tried it already, but just thought I would share something that worked very well for me in achieving the goal you speak of.

    1. Hi Alex, I have been using meditation to overcome my inner-dialogue. I’ve mostly focusing on metta meditation recently, but I’ll check out ‘Deep Meditation’

      1. Cool! Good luck with your quest. If I decide to stick around this country for awhile I’ll probably have to do the same.

  3. How in the world are you finding 6 hours a day to study Paul? Have you cut back significantly on your writing? The only way I can imagine having 6 hours a day to study anything would be to cut back to 2 hours a night on sleep and there’s no way that is happening!

    1. Hi Steve, I’ve basically cut out a lot of stuff, and I’ve doubled-up on things. Here is a rough description of my current routine:

      -I wake up at 5:00am and read a Thai eBook for half-an hour (I’ve been finding some excellent ebooks using the Ookbee app)
      -I work from 5:30 to 15:00.
      -I exercise (steps/skipping) from 15:30 to 16:30, and I also use this time to practice my pronunciation of Thai words. I’m going back over Pimsleur Thai for this at the moment (I know all the vocabulary, but I’m just focusing on getting the right sounds)
      – 16:30 to 18:00 I focus on material from Stu Jay Raj
      – 18:00 to 19:00 I focus on real Thai media or chat with Thai neighbors
      – 19:00 to 20:30 More Stu Jay Raj stuff and BYKI flash cards
      – 20:30 to 22:00 Thai TV or Thai movie

      I also have the Thai radio on when I’m working, and I now try to only speak to my wife in Thai when my son isn’t around.

  4. By the way Paul, have you ever used the recordings on the site. If so what do you think of them?



    1. Hi Matthew, you’re the second person to mention to me. I’ve bookmarked the site, but I haven’t really gotten around to listening to any of the recordings. I’ll have to have a look. What do you think of it?

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