How to Learn Thai the Mindful Way

I’ve come to the realisation that ten minutes of focused learning is far more effective than an hour of unfocused learning.

I’ve been promising to write this post for a while now so it’s nice to finally get around to it. I touched upon this topic previously with a blog post for Women Learning Thai (see here).

Wasted Time Learning Thai

I’ve wasted a lot of time over the years because of ineffectively learning skills; this is particularly true in my efforts to learn Thai. I’ve come to the realisation that ten minutes of focused learning is far more effective than an hour of unfocused learning. Maybe the real problem for a lot of us slow Thai learners is lack of focus; if this is the case then spending a lot of money on the latest learning software or books might not be the best solution.

I once held onto the naive assumption that picking up a language could be possible without any real effort. I’ve been a great believer in subliminal learning. If this assumption had any validity the thousands of hours with the Thai radio playing in the background would have ensured my expertise in the language– it hasn’t. The same is true of Thai television; just having the TV switched on is of little use to me unless I’m fully engaged in what is happening on screen.

If I'm Mindful I Can Gain More from Thai Conversations

The Mindful Approach for Learning Thai

The mindful approach for learning Thai doesn’t have to involve buying any more books or signing up for any new language programme. I did actually consider writing a series on this subject, but it really is surplus to requirements. All the information we need can be picked up in a few minutes, and then it is up to us to put it into practice. If we feel the need to read more on the topic, or buy a special gadget to help us be mindful, it could just be another form of procrastination.

Mindfulness is a meditation technique that involves being fully present now and focused on something of relevance to us. Some people will focus on body sensations while for other it could be the music they are playing or the Tai Chi set they are performing. When we are fully focused on something it produces remarkably different results then when we just do it half-heartedly. You may have heard about top athletes who describe being “in the zone”. This is an example of mindfulness where the athlete is fully focused on what they are doing – they have almost become the movements.

Pali – A Case Study in Mindful Language Learning

The idea of using mindfulness to master a language is not a new one. For centuries there have been Buddhist monks who were able to memorise impressive chunks of text in the Pali language; these monks took the teachings to different parts of the globe. The suttas were then passed down from one generation of monks to another. Eventually written text became standard within the temples, but they still needed to memorise the sounds. The amazing thing is that even though these Buddhist communities were isolated from each other by great distances they have managed to remain faithful to the original language over thousands of years. We can tell this by the fact that when monks in different geographical locations are compared their Pali sounds remarkably similar.

Monks responsible for remember these texts came for different cultures and countries; most of them would have had no real contact with Pali until they ordained. It does not seem reasonable to me to believe that all these monks were natural linguists; that would be too much of a coincidence. Yet, despite the fact that they had no fancy software or other high-tech resources they mastered this language. They achieved this by devloping concentration techniques which allowed them to perform impressive feats of language learning.

How to Mindfully Learn Thai

Being mindful is not rocket science, but actually doing it may be a struggle in the beginning – for many of us it is against our natural instinct. We can improve our ability to be mindful through concentration meditation; in fact mindfulness is a form of meditation and the more we do it the better we will get at it. We can’t learn Thai mindfully if we are multi-tasking; this is the mistake that I made for years. I would be trying to learn Thai vocabulary while listening to music or watching the TV at the same time – it didn’t work. Remember that mindfulness means being fully present in the moment and focused on what we are doing.

I’ve often claimed that my biggest problem with Thai is that I don’t like talk too much, but this is only half the truth; I also don’t like to listen. When people are talking I’m planning what I’m going to say; this happens in English as well as Thai. This means that I’m missing out on a golden opportunity to improve my Thai and give a relevant reply; it is also a bit disrespectful to the speaker. In order to listen I need to fully empty my mind of anything else and just focus on what is being said. The same applies if I hope to benefit from listening to Thai radio or gaining new vocabulary from Thai television.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that my internal Thai dialogue is fairly perfect. When I actually take the time to think about what I’m going to say and listen to this internal dialogue I can usually reproduce the sounds almost flawlessly. I suspect this is true for other people as well, and perhaps being mindful of our internal Thai can be a great benefit to us.

If we fully focus fully on the Thai language we can accomplish impressive results in a relatively fast time – I’m convinced of this. Learning to break the mental habits of a lifetime can be difficult, but it is possible. All we have to do is keep on bringing our focus back to what we are doing now; the more we do it the better we get at it. If we don’t learn to be more mindful and present it could mean that we waste many thousands of hours trying to learn a language and not achieving the results we expect.

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8 thoughts on “How to Learn Thai the Mindful Way

  1. When I first arrived in Thailand I too started watching as much Tv as I possibly could. The problem I found was that I just couldn’t stomach hours and hours of Thai soap operas.

    Then I tried speaking practice for half an hour everyday, but repeating the same texts over and over again just sent my mind off somewhere else. What really gets me is when you talk in Thai with 10 people and everyone understands what you are saying you feel great. That’s until you come to number 11 and that person for some unbeknown reason just hasn’t a clue what you are saying, that’s the down heartening bit for me.

    I used to get so frustrated I’d accuse them of being Lao or Khmer. I remember once I ordered a coke in carrefour. Easy enough order that I’d performed a thousand times before. Could that girl understand what I was asking for? No. I was at a loss.

    I think learning Thai should be taken slowly and one should not be afraid to practice the language as much as possible or become discouraged. Practice makes perfect!

    1. Hi Mark, I think the problem is that some Thai people decide that they don’t understand you even before we open our mouth. There are a few people who can mimic a Thai accent so well that they hardly ever have this problem, but for most of us it can be a lot harder.

  2. Paul…it’s like you’re inside my head…which is a scary place sometimes. Focus, focus! Honestly it takes me up to an hour to actually sit down and start studying from the time I decide to go and study. Ants in my pants. Totally agree tackling a little at a time is better than brain overload. Learning Thai that is relevant to my daily life also sinks into the old grey matter better.

    Listening to Thai: I’ve just started to do that, seriously, recently. Overwhelming, but satisfying when I catch the odd word here and there.

    Like Mark said, often I, or my friends, can use simple Thai phrases and be understood 99% of the time. But, then can come across a situation where the simple question (twice) ‘what is this please?’ gets a frown and screwed up face in return.

    That’s not really relevant to your post, but it is bewildering and disheartening. My friend and I told each other she must have been an out of towner 😉

    1. Hi Snap, I think what is really scary is how little control we can have over our minds; it is like our brain is a spoilt child and when we decide to do one thing it sulks and wants to do something else. The great thing about building concentration is that gives us the power to focus our minds and what we want it to be focused on.

  3. I think everything should be done mindfully the trick though is to actually do it.

    I remember hearing about how you could gain more out of a workout if you paid attention to what you were doing. Same thing. For example if you were lifting weights, to focus on your biceps or whatever muscle you were working on.

    Watching and listening to the radio and TV can be an interesting way to learn. I’ve heard about this before and we call do it to some extent. I mean how can you not when you live here? I guess it’s this passive and active learning thing.

    But your post is good reminder – pay attention to what you are doing 🙂

    1. Hi Lani, that idea of paying attention while working out makes a lot of sense. I’ve heard stories of people who were able to elevate their pulse to training levels just by imagining they were running. How cool would that be – getting fit while lying in bed 🙂

  4. Great post Paul. “I’ve come to the realisation that ten minutes of focused learning is far more effective than an hour of unfocused learning.” I’m with you here.

    But there are times when I start chewing on a word or phrase, and then wander off in different direction because I just want to ‘know’ something. Something connected. And then I don’t get done what I’d intended.

    For the mindfulness – I’m not there yet. I think I need a short course. An actual course. With real people and everything.

    1. I think it can come of a shock to find that we are not the boss of our own mind; it seems to take us where it wants to go. It does take practice but mindfulness is like a muscle and the more you do it the better you get at it – in my experience. I’d be lying if I said it was easy though; it can feel like a real struggle sometimes. I’m fairly mindful on good days, but when the brown stuff hits the fan I struggle badly – ironically this is when it is most important to be mindful. I think that over time practicing any type of mindfulness is like putting money in the bank – it will be there one day when we need it most.

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