My Quest to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months

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

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30 thoughts on “My Quest to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months

  1. Sounds like a very good plan, Paul. I’m sure you can do it because you’ve accomplished everything you’ve set your mind to.

    Do you think that living in a smaller community with less English around helps? The introversion part is difficult to get over, no matter what language you’re speaking, but when it’s a foreign tongue, it certainly compounds the problem.

    1. Hi Amy, I’ve never really lived in an area where there were many expats. I lived in a Thai village for five years and there were only 2 expats within a 20km radius. I used to make an effort to speak Thai with friends when I lived in the village, but I’ve just become a bit more introverted recently. It’s something I need to work on.

  2. Just want to suggest that you hire a local to spend a few hours a day with you speaking only in Thai. My friend just did this in South America- she had a Spanish teacher working with her 3 hours a day. She spoke no Spanish at the start, and I met her in her 6th week of lessons. She now speaks totally fluent Spanish, it is absolutely amazing.

  3. Paul – There is one big change that you should be prepared to work hard at: many of the relationships you have formed, especially with Thai speakers, is in English. You must change the nature of these relationships. This is difficult because, of course, it involves other people. How will you respond when they automatically respond in English or, after you initiate in Thai, switch back to English? I recommend just gritting your teeth and continue to speak to them in Thai. You will have wonderfully ridiculous conversations where you will speak in Thai and the Thai will speak in English but eventually people will redefine who you are. The onus is on you to stay strong and continue to speak.

    1. Hi Caoimhín- you’re right. This is more than just about improving my Thai, I do need to work on my relationships with local people. I’ll aim to only use Thai from now on.

    1. Thanks Catherine, I’m really going to push myself to come out of my shell. I think it is going to be good for me in more ways than just improving my language skills.

  4. Hi Paul, that’s very interesting. Not your plan itself, but what you tell about your introspection.

    I think that all my thai language problem is about introspection too.
    Fact is that even in French (my native language) and in English, I don’t speak that much each day. Very few words go out of my mouth, much less than words I write down on paper or on screen.

    After I realized that I will sure never speak with my Thai friends but in English, I decided to hire a language helper. A Thai woman who don’t speak English at all, even not Hello (or with a very strange accent :)). We had about three months two time a week meetings. I paid her for that. The fact is she stoped to call me… and so we stoped to meet two weeks ago. The problem I now realize, reading your post, is not from her but from me : I have nothing to speak about. We did use up all the possible subject I have someting to say a little about, and now we bored together.

    I seems that I’ m going the same way with my Thai language teacher. I learn new things sure but when it come to produce examples, sentences, little stories or vocal exchange, all is about always the same subjects and I start to bore again. And her too. Some few last sessions, she was even yawning two or three times…

    I don’t know how to manage that problem that goes deeper and deepr every year. I speak les and less with people even very close friends. Even with my familly in France, I skype perheps one or two times a month and I really no stories to tell them, so it last at best 5 minutes.

    Anyway, goog luck for you. Tell us how you are doing and if you can and how you overpass the introspection frontier.

    1. Hi Bernard, I’ve come to the realization that I’m a bit closed-off to people. I’ve only go two friends from my past that I maintain any contact with – maybe a couple of emails a year. I do speak with my family, but like you, I get stuck in my head. I’ve been using a meditation technique called loving-kindness (metta) to help me open up more to other people – it is definitely making a difference, but I need to start making more of an effort to just talk with people.

  5. Hi Paul,

    Lots of luck with your plan. It is exactly the right way I believe to go about attaining fluency. It is my opinion that in order to learn how to speak one must speak. You are a writer so take that need to communicate (in written words) and make all those ideas come out of your mouth. And don’t be afraid of making mistakes while speaking. I have a goal of sounding like a fool in Thai at least a few times each day. If I don’t then I am not learning. I am sure you will make it.

    1. Thanks Hugh – what you say makes a ton of sense – if I’m not making mistakes, I’m not learning. I’m sure people think less of me for being unsociable than they will if I speak clumsy Thai in the beginning.

  6. Hi Paul, great for you putting it out there. A lot of what you say resonates with me, although I have rather shunned the reading and writing side of things. I’ve studied rather aimlessly in retrospect on and off for nearly 8 years, and feel a long way from fluency. Recently I’ve decided to return to Thai study, and ironically set a 6 month goal, not to be fluen necessarilyt, but to be the best I can be in that time. On completion I’ll decide if I have made sufficient progress or just give up. I’m coming to the end of a period where I have been self analyzing and slowly realizing how many mistakes I have been making. I’ve nearly finished working out a plan and for the first time havea real strategy so reading your ideas is neat timing and thought provoking. My main mistake is pretty similar in that I take the easy options and don’t push myself to speak Thai. Clearly that needs to change if I have any chance. I have some small progress, in that I now slightly extend my sentences, rather than just a standard minimal phrase. I’m just outside Rayong, if you fancied hooking up to share notes, and maybe we try and stumble through some Thai together for fun. Anyway the offer is there. Good luck.

    1. That sounds like a great idea Roger I could do with a study pal. I’m fed up feeling guilty about my lack of progress in recent years and at the very least, six months of intensive study is going to get me out of this rut.

  7. Go for it, Paul! It seems like we all hit plateaus sooner or later and it takes energy to move beyond them. I’ve been a Japanese translator and interpreter for over 25 years, and still work daily on my skills. One of my most helpful tools is a “study sheet” divided into categories I want to work on: consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, watching Japanese TV (with focused attention, and notepad at hand), shadowing, listening to podcasts, reading Japanese books, etc. I mark the time I spend on each category, every day. It motivates me and helps me make sure I cover all the categories at least twice a week. And I practice with other interpreters, by Skype or face to face, twice a week.
    For what it’s worth — it’s worth it!

    1. Hi Cate, I really like the idea of a study sheet. I think I’ll use that going forward. I love that you are able to make sure you are getting a good balance of activities. Thanks a million

  8. Hi Paul are you still in Minburi? I am moving out with my family and work in Boxing in the UK so would love to see what the local gyms are like – my wife is going to teach out there so I am basically going to try to continue working in boxing in the uk but based in bkk! could be fun –

    1. Hi Kevin, I moved to Rayong just over a year ago. I’ve actually been looking for a gym here, but I haven’t had any luck.
      I bet moving to BKK is going to be an exciting time for you – it sounds like you could have the best of both words.

  9. Hi Paul,

    Being an introvert myself, I too have problems talking with those around me, unless my Thai wife is with me. But, I will strive to follow your course of action and see where it takes me.

    So, 11 or so weeks along the line, how is it going so far?

    1. Hi Paul, I’m definitely making progress, but there are days when it isn’t so obvious. The hardest thing for me is getting over bad habits I picked up after speaking Thai badly for so many years.

  10. I have been trying to learn conversational Thai for about seven months now. The difficulties I have experienced are the following. 1) Yes, you have to speak Thai to people. But then they answer back in Thai, and I am left totally clueless as to what has been said to me. You then ask what was meant in English, and for them to repeat slowly what they said again in Thai, and many people, quite understandably only then frustratedly explain what they meant in English, without then repeating again what they said in Thai, so you just look daft and learn nothing. Of course this is not always the case. 2) where and how does one source the Thai people with whom you are advised to be speaking Thai with all day long? A) Hire a Bar Beer girl at 1300 Baht per hour, including bar fine, to chat with? I don,t think so! B) Get a Thai Girlfriend – Contrary to all the questions regarding such things, this is nonsense. Thai boys of around 17 can be seen with Thai girlfriends. C) Talk with everyone you meet in Thai, which is not very successful, because they understandably do not wish to embark upon an imposed free Thai lesson. D) The only practical answer I have found. Chat to bar girls in Thai whilst you are constantly supplying them with ridiculously price hiked lady drinks fir their time. The best way to spend this time is to learn new words/ phrases from them. You then complain that your ability to follow Thai conversation, or what,s on TV is very limited, and you are told that you need to live with a Thai Girlfriend. Hmm. If anyone has ever met a Farang who has genuinely achieved such a social circumstance, then perhaps they can learn fluent Thai in a practical manner quite quickly.

    1. Hi Ronnie, one other way you can practice your conversational Thai is to talk to yourself in Thai. You can have whole conversations with yourself, and it actually works fairly well. I don’t think hiring a bar girl to chat to is a good idea unless you want to sound like a bar girl. I don’t really understand what you mean with point b) but choosing a girlfriend just to practice a foreign language sounds a bit odd to me. You can more easily find a language exchange partner online for free – see this post

  11. With regards to the above made observations, perhaps getting a job in Thailand may be a solution, and just to do it for the sake of learning the language, rather than for any financial gain.

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