I always experience a twinge of guilt when people ask me about my level of fluency in Thai. I’ve lived in the country for thirteen years, so it is embarrassing to admit I’m still not fluent. There have been periods when I’ve put in the hours to learn the language. I can read Thai, and I’ve got a reasonably large vocabulary, but I just don’t like talking. My goal over the next six months is to rectify this situation.
The Need to Speak Thai
My lack of fluency in Thai means I’m missing out on so much. I’m interested in how my neigbours here in Rayong see the world, and I’m fascinated with local history, but my language skills get in the way of these passions. I also want to feel more like I belong to the community, and this requires being able to communicate clearly.
I sometimes hear expats claim there is no point in learning the lingo because the locals don’t like us using their language, but it is always those who can barely speak Thai who say this (maybe it’s a case of cognitive dissonance?). I’ve met guys who are fluent (only a handful of people), and they have a much deeper and more meaningful relationship with the local people than the rest of us.
What Do I Mean by Fluent?
The concept of fluency is a bit subjective. I remember years ago claiming to be almost fluent, but this was a gross overestimation of my own abilities. So what do I mean by fluent? Here is how I interpret the different learning stages so you can get a better idea of what I mean:
Beginner (aka the ‘phut Thai geng’ Stage)
• You know a couple of hundred words and speak some simple phrases such as “my favorite hobby is…”
• You can read the Thai alphabet
• It is common for Thai people to compliment you on how well you speak the language at this stage – maybe it has something to do with sounding like a baby?
• Your inability to properly pronounce the words is made up for by the enthusiasm to speak. Most Thais are familiar with foreigners trying to pronouce these easy words/phrases, so they are more forgiving about mistakes.
Lower Intermediate Stage (aka speaking enough Thai to get into trouble stage)
• You know enough Thai to understand a simple conversation
• You may notice that Thai people frequently develop a look of panic when you try to have a conversation with them in their language
• Your attempt to speak anything more than basic Thai is regularly met with blank stares, and you may wonder why these people can’t seem to understand their own language
Higher Intermediate Stage (aka understanding enough Thai to realize you suck stage)
• If you pay attention, you can usually work out what Thai people are talking about.
• You are now appear confident enough at speaking Thai that people are less shy about admitting they can’t understand a word you’re saying.
• This is the stage that most expats become stuck – it takes serious effort to get beyond this plateau.
Advanced Stage (aka definitely speaking Thai stage)
• You may still sometimes be met with a confused look when you open your mouth, but if you are keep on talking, even the most cynical Thai will be forced to admit that you are speaking their language.
• You have an active vocabulary of a couple of thousand words
• You can read a story in a magazine and understand most of it
Fluent (speaks Thai like a native stage)
• You can have a long conversation with a stranger on the phone without them realizing you are a foreigner
• You are as comfortable reading a book in Thai as you are in English
• You can talk in-depth about almost any subject you are interested in
I would class myself as advanced when it comes to comprehension and reading, but my spoken Thai is worse now than it was a few years ago. I usually have no problem understanding what people are saying to me, and I mentally know the words I need to say back, but when I open my mouth, what often comes out is mumbled and hard to understand (I used to mumble in English as well, but I’ve mostly managed to overcome this habit) . It’s embarrassing to admit it, but for all practical purposes, my spoken Thai is intermediate at best.
How Am I Going to Become Fluent in Thai in Just Six Months
I am going to devout at least one thousand hours to learning Thai over the next six months. It would be nice to just stop using English completely, but this isn’t going to be practical. I need English for work, and I must keep speaking it around my son (he has already developed an American accent as it is – curse you Cartoon Network). I also like to put on Irish radio when my son is in the car (don’t you just love the internet), so he can feel more connected to his roots.
For the next six months, I’ll be only reading Thai books, watching Thai TV, and listening to Thai radio/podcasts. I’ve already suspended my Netflix, Audible (Audiobooks), and Spotify (music) accounts. I no longer believe that just exposing myself to Thai media is going to make me fluent, so I’ll be working hard to improve my comprehension.
The main thing that is holding me back from fluency is my reluctance to speak, so this is where I’m going to be putting most of my focus over the next six months. I’m going to start recording myself so I can get as close to a natural speaker as possible. I’m also going to overcome my habit of mumbling, and speaking Thai too fast, because this is a huge part of the problem.
One of other important things I’m going to do is make more of an effort to speak with my Thai neighbors. I can put out a bit of a ‘don’t dare speak to me’ vibe, and I need to get over this. I’ve used the excuse of being introverted for too long. I’m going to get out of my comfort zone and start being friendlier to people.
I hope to be able to study for the Grade Six Thai Equivalency Exam (this would mean that academically, my Thai would be the same level as a 12 year old) next year, I don’t want to do this now because my focus needs to be on just speaking.
Can I Learn to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months
At the moment it feels like my Thai is a long way from fluent, but I’m confident that once I get over my reluctance to speak, everything is going to slip into place. I already know at least a couple of thousand words, and my comprehension isn’t bad when I focus. Maybe complete fluency is a bit overambitious in this short period of time, but I’ll do my best to get close to it. One thing for sure is the next six months is going to be an amazing adventure.
Other posts in this series on learning Thai
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 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
Week 10 – Problems with Staying Focused Prevent Me from Learning Thai
Week 11 – Importance of Cracking Thai Fundamentals
Week 12 – Painful Lessons while Ordering Pizza in Thai
Week 13- If I Can Become Fluent in Thai, So Can Anyone
Week 14 – How I Make Time to Study Thai
Week 15 – Redefining Fluency After Losing My Way While Learning Thai
Week 16 – My Learn Thai Fitness Challenge
Week 17 – Talking about Myself in Thai
Week 18 – No Need to Force Myself to Speak Thai
Week 19 – 5 Factors that Improve My Ability to Learn Thai
Week 21- Review of My Learning Thai Resources
Week 23 – Learning Thai Doesn’t Need to be So Much of a Challenge