Week 4 of My Six Month Challenge to Become Fluent in Thai
For the last few years, I’ve often had to deal with pangs of guilt over my lack of progress in the Thai language. These episodes of shame have become more frequent since my son Timmy stated school because he now says things in Thai that I can’t understand – I swore this would never happen.
I’ve all these great reasons for why I ‘should’ be making more of an effort to learn Thai, but the reality is that ‘should’ is a lousy reason to do anything. It just makes me feel bad about myself, and it reduces my motivation to learn even further. Let’s be honest here, the word ‘should’ is just a shitty stick that too many of us use to beat ourselves up with.
My First Love Affair with Thai
During my first couple of years in Thailand, I had plenty of passion for learning Thai. I’d study for at least a couple of hours most days, and I’d make use of every opportunity to practice talking with native speakers. Back then, I worked for a teaching agency, so I’d be sent out to schools all around Bangkok. I spent many hours traveling around by Skytrain, songthaew, or bus, and I would use that time to listen to Thai language cassette tapes (this was back in 2001 before mp3s). It all felt so exciting and new, and studying didn’t require any effort because I was so desperate to learn.
I found it much easier to speak Thai during those first years. This was partly due to my enthusiasm for alcohol consumption, but I also had a passion for the language that couldn’t be stopped. My level of Thai was still at the beginner level, so I was only using words that the local people were used to hearing farang get wrong, and they were able to make allowances. These were the glory days of my Thai language adventure, and it seemed like every day at least one person would reward me with an encouraging ‘phut Thai geng’ (this roughly translates as ‘you speak Thai like a god’).
My first love affair with Thai began to fade once it became obvious that lots of the people who were rewarding me with a ‘phut Thai geng’ could barely understand a word I was saying. I realized the polite smile wasn’t one of comprehension but more like a plea for me to please stop talking – it was the look of panic in their eyes that gave them away. I became disheartened and my passion went downhill from there on in.
Intermediate Thai and Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a fancy word that describes the discomfort we experience if there are two conflicting beliefs/ideas in our brain at the same time. I developed cognitive dissonance around my lack of progress in Thai – it felt important that I should speak it, but I also became convinced this wasn’t going to be possible. The only way I could resolve this dissonance was to create a reasonable rationalization. I decided that I’d no skill for languages, and that I was tone deaf. This meant that I could still remain a ‘good guy’ in my own mind despite the fact that I’d stop trying to learn Thai.
My excuse for giving up on this language might have easily lasted for the rest of my life. I could rationalize my way out of the ‘you should be learning Thai’ moments by remembering my lousy reputation for languages and my immunity to tones. There are lots of other non-Thai speaking expats out there who I’m sure would be happy to offer me reassurance comments like –
“Yeah, I had to give up on Thai as well because I’m completely tone deaf. It’s an impossible language. Anyway, the Thais don’t want us to understand them, and you can get all the UK and US TV stations over here now using the internet. Why would I even want to learn Thai? Everyone wants to speak English!”
Making the Most of the Initial Passion to Learn Thai
When people first arrive in Thailand, they are usually going to have plenty of passion to learn the language. This enthusiasm is a precious commodity, but it only has a limited shelf-life. Those lucky few individuals who have a special talent for languages may find that this initial burst of energy is enough to get them well on the way to fluency, but it seems for most of us, it is only enough to get us to the intermediate stage. If we don’t have a way to re-energize our motivation at this point, we are likely to become stuck.
Entrepreneurs in the US have a saying I really like – “you can’t get there from here”. It is a reminder that the things we did to get to our current stage in life might not be enough to get us to a higher stage. We need to change tactics and find new sources of motivation if we hope to progress. If we want to be able to speak Thai like a Thai, we need to power this goal by attaching it to deeper passions than just the novelty of being in a new country.
The Return of My Passion for Thai
I’ve been able to reignite my passion for Thai, by associating it with my deepest yearnings. I enjoy making YouTube videos, and from next year, I’m going to start making some episodes in the Thai language. It is a huge challenge, but my passion for this is so high that I know I’m going to make it happen. It doesn’t matter that up until a few weeks ago, I felt convinced I’d no talent for languages and that I was tone deaf.
All of us are going to have passions that we can probably tap into if we want to re-energize our efforts to learn the language. If you love football, maybe you could start a website about your favorite team where it is all written in Thai – imagine how nice it would be to connect to local fans. If you enjoy cooking, why not make videos where you teach Thai people to make western recipes?
If you just can’t seem to be able to feel passionate about learning Thai that’s okay too. You don’t have to know the language and punishing yourself with ‘should’ thoughts is just a form of self-abuse.
My Progress towards Thai Fluency
I’m continuing to use any free time I have for learning Thai. Surprisingly, I don’t miss English TV, English music, or English books. I manage to study for about six hours a day, but there are times when it doesn’t feel like I’m getting much done. I have moments when I feel like a Thai-speaking god again, but I also have plenty of moments where it feels like I’m going backwards. I think this is just part of the process – although, I did feel disappointed to completely mess up a simple ‘thank you’ in Thai while shopping the other day (I suppose this is to be expected as I said it wrong at least 10 times per day for the last 13 years).
I had a fun lesson with Stu Jay Raj this week. He says I’m definitely improving, but he is pushing me to sound much more Thai-like by speeding things up. He has also got me doing drills to improve my ability to pronounce non-voiced consonants. The way he explains things is fantastic, and he used a funny story yesterday to imbed the tone rules for middle consonants into my head – apparently these stories are going to be used in module six of the Cracking Thai Fundamentals Course.
I’ve also been spending a lot of time on the Pantip Web Forum. I think the nice thing about reading posts on comments there is that people tend to write in a similar way to how they speak. I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to health and personal-development stuff, and the Pantip is treasure trove of this type of content. I cut and paste each post into a Word document, so I’m better able to dissect the vocabulary. I’m also using these posts to find phrases that I want to practice.
I can’t believe I’m almost a month into this challenge. I am making progress, but there is so much more to be done.
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 3 – 5 Improvements in My Approach to Learning 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