Maybe Just Getting Out There and Speaking Thai is Not Enough

Week Two of My Challenge to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months

Bangkok market

I first started messing around with the guitar over 30 years ago, but I still can’t manage to even play one song well. I know lots of chords, and I can move my fingers between them effortlessly, but I just never bothered to learn how to strum properly. This means that no matter what I play, it sounds like this – ‘dtum,dtum,dtum,dtum’.

I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that doing something for 10,000 hours is going to make me an expert. This all sounds reasonable and fair – if I put the effort in, I’ll reap the rewards. The problem is that things aren’t that simple in reality because it isn’t just the quantity of hours that’s important but also what I do with that time.

I’ve already spent thousands of hours playing guitar, and I fear that another few thousand hours isn’t going to make much difference. There is obviously something wrong with my learning approach, and investing more time into this approach isn’t going to solve the problem – it just means I’ll get better at playing ‘dtum,dtum,dtum,dtum’ which isn’t what I’m trying to achieve. If I want to make any further progress on guitar, I need to learn how to strum properly.

From Playing Guitar to Learning Thai

There is a lot to be said for just getting out there and speaking Thai with local people, but I don’t think this is enough to guarantee fluency – or at least, I know it hasn’t been for me. I’ve become a bit more introverted in recent years, but I wasn’t always this way. During my first few years living in Thailand, I was extreme alcohol-enthusiast, and you couldn’t shut me up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my Thai neighbors actually hid in the mud when they saw me skipping through the rice fields with my trusty bottle of Singha beer by my side.

I lived in a Thai village where nobody could speak English, except for me wife, so I was definitely trying to communicate in the local language. I also turned my front room into a free-bar, so I was never short of neighbors looking to chat – my vocabulary improved, but my ability to speak Thai didn’t.

The problem with me just getting out there and speaking Thai was these encounters started to really knock my confidence and enthusiasm. When I tried anything more than simple phrases, the ones the local people were used to hearing Farang say, I’d be met with blank stares. I became increasingly frustrated with the inability of these people to understand their own language, so I started speaking less and less. I didn’t appreciate that there were fundamental issues with my Thai skills they were preventing me from making progress – just like my inability to strum properly halted my progress on the guitar.

I did spend time trying to mimic the Thai sounds, but I just wasn’t skilled enough to appreciate the difference between what I was saying and the right pronunciation. My way of speaking sounded reasonably close to native Thai to my ears, and I felt resentful because it felt like Thai people were just being overly fussy. It is only really since I’ve started getting help from Stuart Jay Raj that I’m really able to recognize there is a huge difference between the way I think that Thai words should sound and the way they actually sound.

Getting out there and speaking Thai is a must, but there also needs to be a strong focus on getting the fundamentals sorted out. If local people are struggling to understand what I’m saying, I need to assume the problem is with me and not with them.

Week Two of My Six Month Challenge to Speak Thai Fluently

I’ve been using Cracking Thai Fundamentals to help me learn how to strum in Thai. Stuart Jay Raj is making sure I get the most out of the program by giving me Skype lessons – he is a fantastic teacher and very patient. This input is already leading to significant improvements in my ability to reproduce Thai sounds. Here is a video Stu made of our progress so far:

There are parts of this video that make me cringe a little, but I don’t mind sounding bad now because I’m convinced I’ll improve significantly over the next few months. It is a great help to have this record of our lesson, and it’s really motivating me to get the pronunciation right – I hope it inspires other people too.

The two sentences I’ve been working on mostly this week with Stu were:

(I used to be a nurse but now I’m a struggling writer)
(I come from Ireland)

I’ve used the tools in Cracking Thai fundamentals to help me achieve accurate pronunciation. I can now say each word correctly on its own, but the craziness happens when I try to put everything together in a sentence – especially where I’m speaking at normal speed. It sort of seems like as soon as I sort out one problem, another one pops up. It took me hundreds of attempts to pronounce แต่ (dtee) in the first sentence correctly (I use my wife and son as judges), but then I stared messing up the word ทำ (tam).

To make things easier, I’ve recorded my wife saying these lines, and I repeat them along with her – I think they call this shadowing (I heard somebody mention this technique on Farang Can Learn Thai). This has turned out to be an excellent strategy, and I can now say these sentences correctly without the aid of the recording most of the time. I’ll keep on drilling them until I get them right every time.

Getting these two sentences reasonably correct mightn’t sound like much of an achievement, given that there must be another eight billion possible sentences (I just made that number up) to work on. The thing is that all of the tones are in there, and so are some of the consonants and vowel sounds I’ve been struggling with most. If I can really take control of these two sentences, I’m sure it is going to start impacting my ability to accurately reproduce other sentences too.

I’ve also been using Stu’s methods alongside other Thai resources. I already know all of the vocabulary in the Pimsleur program, but I’m going back over this, so I can try to get each word closer to the Thai sound. I’m also using Cracking Thai Fundamentals with BYKI flashcards so that any new vocabulary is going to be absorbed with the right sound.

My Daily Routine for Learning Thai

I’m continuing to spend at least six hours every day learning Thai. My current routine is:

05:00 – I read Thai for about half an hour. I’m using the Ookbee app to download eBooks and Thai magazines on to my iPad (there is also a similar app from B2S and Asia Books). I’ve subscribed to ขายหัวเราะ because it’s an easy read first thing in the morning. The really nice thing about these eBook apps is that it is possible to download free book samples.
05:30 to 06:00 – I do my morning exercise (jump rope) while watching Thai morning TV.
15:30 to 16:30 – I exercise (steps) while speaking along to Pimsleur Thai – I have Cracking Thai Fundamentals open on my computer, so I can check any sound I’m unsure about
16:30 to 18:00 – Thai TV (usually the travel channel) while I eat my dinner, and I also do some more reading. I sometimes go for a walk with my wife and son around our village and make an effort to speak to the neighbors (I’m still working on this – I’ve been a bit unsociable up to now, so people aren’t exactly going out of their way to be sociable with me).
18:00 to 20:00 – At the moment, I spend this time focused on the modules in the Cracking Thai Fundamentals course or working with Stu’s Thai Bites
20:00 to 20:30 – BYKI Flash Cards for building my vocabulary
20:30 to 21:00 – Drilling Thai sentences using shadowing – I also drill sentences at other times during the day
21:00 + I watch at least an hour of Thai TV on my iPad in bed.

You’ve probably noticed that at the moment, I’m not doing much in the way of ‘just getting out there and speaking Thai’. I am making more of an effort to socialize– for example, I now go in and wait for my son in his school rather than just staying in the car. Once I crack the fundamentals, I’m sure the amount of ‘getting out there and just speaking Thai’ will increase.

This challenge started out as a crazy desperate idea, but I’ve blown away by how much other people have been supporting me and advising me on how to make it happen. Thanks a million.

Here are the two earlier posts in this series:

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

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4 thoughts on “Maybe Just Getting Out There and Speaking Thai is Not Enough

  1. Well done, Paul. It was great seeing the before and after comparison. Clear feedback that you are improving. I am working on my pron as well and this highlights a few problems I have too. Thanks for the okkbee tip as well. Looking forward to your next post.

    1. Thanks Damien, it’s really helping me to get input from other people. I’ve spent years trying to learn Thai without help, and it wasn’t the best way to go. Yeah – I’m really pleased with the okkbee app.

  2. Hi Paul,

    First of all congratulations for your great work helping people recovering from addictions.

    I used to drink a lot too and the sense of freedom I have achieved now is something I wish everyone can feel.

    Another thing I like about you is the great efforts you are putting in studying the Thai Language.

    I have been living in Thailand for 3 years already and my Thai is still very basic.

    What kind of study daily routine would you suggest me? I have 2 hours of free time per day and I would like to know the best resources for a beginner and how I should use my time.

    Thanks a lot!

    (an Italian friend living in Chiang Mai 🙂 )

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