Painful Lessons while Ordering Pizza in Thai


Almost Week 12 of my Six Month Attempt to Speak Fluent Thai

If learning Thai is a battle, Wednesday night was my own personal Dunkirk. My task was straightforward enough, I just needed to order pizza in Thai over the phone. Things were going really really well up until the point when I started speaking, but then it all started to go downhill rapidly. When it was over, I felt like I’d made a complete twat of myself in front of room of about eighty people with thousands more watching the live stream in Google Hangouts.

The Battle to Speak Thai When the Other Person Wants to Speak English

If Stuart Jay Raj had not been there right next to me, I would have reverted to English within the first few seconds of the call. I sensed it as I said ‘สั่งพิซซ่าครับ’ that things were going to get bumpy – I was like the class whimp asking the most popular girl in school out for a date. I got the tones wrong, and I sounded too unsure of myself.

The operator then said something in Thai I couldn’t hear, and instead of just asking her what she said, I kept repeating in an increasingly desperate voice ‘สั่งพิซซ่าครับ’ like I was stuck in a loop. I failed the audition for the Thai operator within a few seconds, and I was automatically transferred to the English-speaking pizza professional.

I assumed the game was over, and I was ready to hand the phone back to Stu, but he wanted me to keep speaking in Thai. So I entered this battle of wills with the English operator where I was still trying to order in Thai while she tried to get me to speak in English. I made it to the end of the call, and I finished it off with a final mispronounced ‘ครับ’. Stu got everyone to give me a round of sympathy applause, but it was far from the proudest moment of my life.

Even before I ordered the pizza, I had a demonstration of my weaknesses in Thai. I got to the event a couple of hours early, and I had the chance to chat with Bingo from Duke Language School. He’s a great guy with the patience of an arahant. Bingo spoke to me for about 20 minutes in Thai. I could understand everything he said, but I struggled to provide him with coherent replies – my mind just kept on going blank (any less going on in my brain and I would have been drooling).

Thai Bites Live – The Road to Fluency

Overall, I really enjoyed this first Thai Bites live event. Stu is a total professional, and he created a quality experience with plenty of fun moments– he even had a proper film crew and a room full of complicated looking equipment so people could watch at home. My lessons with Stu have always been on Skype, so it was great to meet him in person. The guy is full of charisma, and it is motivating just being in the same room as him.

I also got to ask Mike Campbell from Glossika some questions, and he clarified a couple of things that are going to help me get more out of this program. He’s another charismatic character, and it is obvious he is passionate about his courses. I feel so lucky that his Thai fluency course became available a few weeks ago just when I needed it. I was exciting to hear about the plans for Glossika, Cracking Thai Fundamentals, and content from Duke Language School becoming available as part of one package – it sounds like an unbeatable combination to me.

One of the unexpected pleasures of Thai Bites Live was getting to put faces on people I’ve only ever know online. There was a great atmosphere at the event, and I think there were quite a few there who have had similar struggles when trying to learn Thai.

I left Thai Bites Live feeling glad I went but disappointed with my performance. I ended up getting lost in the Bangkok traffic for an hour, and this didn’t help my mood at all. I began to feel sorry for myself – why am I putting so much effort into this and not getting the results I expect?

I had a lot of time to think during my three hour drive back to Rayong, and the only thing I didn’t consider was given up. About halfway through the trip, I came to the conclusion that things couldn’t have worked out any better. I now have a much better idea now of my deficiencies and that has to be a good thing.


Painful Lessons while Ordering Pizza in Thai

I don’t have any excuses for my dismal attempt at ordering pizza, but I’m not interested in excuses anyway. I only care about what I can do to improve and that is what I’ve been focusing on. The deficiencies this event has highlighted for me have been:

• My brain is hardwired to speak Thai badly because I’ve been doing it for years. This means that whenever I’m under pressure, I’ll revert back to my shitty Thai. I can’t get rid of those bad connections in my brain, but I can develop new stronger connections.
• I struggle when it comes to translating what I want to say into Thai during a real conversation – it is like the part of my brain where the Thai is stored become inaccessible. I need to develop my ability to translate my thoughts and ideas into Thai automatically so I can maintain a conversation.

I’ve made the following changes to my Thai learning schedule:

One of the most impressive things at Thai Bites was watching Stu translate what Mike was saying into different languages as Mike was speaking. You could tell Stu was doing this automatically because there just wasn’t time for him to think about what he was going to say. I want to be able to do this with Thai because it would mean I would have no problem saying what I want to say during a real conversation.

I’m going to start devoting some time every day to translating English into Thai as it is being spoken. There are thousands of videos on YouTube for people who want to learn English, and I’m going to use these – the BBC learning series The Flatmates seems to be ideal for this purpose. Here is how I intend to do it:

• I’m going to listen to a video once and try to translate what is being said into Thai
• When the video is over, I’m going to try to recall the things I wasn’t able to translate – I’ll do this without looking back over the video
• I’ll work out how to say those things in Thai
• I’ll play the video and try to translate more than the first time
• Repeat until I feel I’ve done a good job of translating the episode into Thai

I need to do more to overcome my habit of speaking bad Thai (I’m finding out that it is much harder to unlearn than it is to learn). A good way of doing this would be for me to develop a realistic accent, so then it would be almost like I’m changing into a different character when I’m speaking. I think สรยุทธ สุทัศนะจินดา from morning TV would be a good choice for me – there are hundreds of videos of him speaking on YouTube, and he is there every morning. Here is how I plan to start imitating his voice:

• I’m going to make short audio recordings of him saying interesting sentences
• Catherine from A Woman Learning Thai found a great resource called the Come Again Tool which makes it easier to work with short sentences
• I’m going to work with these files until I am able to imitate the voice of สรยุทธ to a reasonable degree (I’m shit when it comes to imitating people but apparently it is something anyone can become good at with persistence and patience)

I’m not sure if it is possible for an introvert to speak Thai at the level I’m aiming for. All of the people I’ve met who are fluent in Thai are outgoing and sociable. So, I need to act like more of an extrovert. After ordering pizza on stage while being filmed, and in front of a crowd of people, speaking with my neighbors should be a walk in the park – it’s not like they can transfer me to an English speaker.

One of the other changes I’m making is to cut down Glossika to 10 sentences per day. Mike Campbell says this is a reasonable amount, and it’s not like I need to rush to finish the course. If I can reduce the amount of time I spend on Glossika to one hour, I’ll have more time to devote to work on some of the key weaknesses.

Will There Be Another Attempt at Ordering Pizza in Thai?

Stuart Jay Raj wants to try ordering the pizza again in a couple of months. He is going to work with me, so I can hopefully get to a stage where speaking in Thai isn’t painful for the operator taking the call. I’m definitely willing to try again – I want another opportunity to get this right.

Update: I’ve decided to add audio recordings of me speaking Thai to future posts over the next three months. My hope is that this will motivate me to improve my pronunciation, and it will also boost my confidence. You have already heard me speaking bad Thai, so it’s not like I have anything to lose by making these recordings public.

If you missed Thai Bites Live. You can watch the video on YouTube. It’s worth watching the whole thing, but my battle with pizza professional begins at 45:00 minutes

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 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

Latest posts by Paul Garrigan (see all)

14 thoughts on “Painful Lessons while Ordering Pizza in Thai

  1. Very brave effort Paul, never easy being put on the spot, I find my Thai is best when I’m not making a conscious effort to speak it, as soon as the pressure is on to speak it then it falls apart. Stu Jay is very impressive!

  2. Hi Paul,

    I am following your progress with interest and getting a whole lot of useful tips in the process with my own Thai learning (Just started my Glossika regime). You might find this tool useful as you can upload youtube clips directly into it then write down a note at the point where you want to relisten and then play it on loop. You can also adjust speeds as well

  3. Paul – great article. When planning to do the activity, my Plan A was to have you do it if you felt you were up to it. Plan B was to call a random member from the audience who was learning Thai to have them do it. I understand the pressure you must have felt and really take my hat off to you for saying ‘yes’ and being part of the ‘Pizza’ activity.

    I figured that whatever way it went, it would still prove the same point. It’s the whole interaction with the operator that I wanted to highlight:
    1. The first moments of the call are crucial in establishing who is who, power relationship and what language the discourse will go in … and also sets the mindset of what they anticipate the caller will require, like and dislike etc.

    2. The challenges that foreigners face learning Thai and trying to get real specimens of the language in interactions with Thais that are ‘authentic’ Thai to Thai ‘Thai’ is actually quite difficult. Very often – as you hear in the clip, even if Thai is used, it’s often a farang variation of Thai that they assume the foreigner will best understand and be used to.

    3. The mindset of Thais in a call centre – the policy of throwing any ‘foreigner’ across to the dedicated ‘Farang Busters’ – English speakers who will then INSIST on speaking English. As you heard in the clip, it was a constant tug-of-war as to what language would be used.

    You can see that you found a few chinks in her armour though Paul (that wasn’t a racist comment btw), when she instantly responded in Thai toward the end… but then quickly realising it and brought it back into English.

    I don’t think your performance was anything to be ashamed of and I hope it has been an inspiration to many … and it will continue to be. Who knows – maybe we’ve started off a new trend of measuring Thai progress through call centre communication.

    The reality is that your Thai will have to have certain characteristics that are way up there to be able to get through to that subconscious ‘Thai’ level of people over the phone and have them stick to Thai… hence my reason for putting that as one of the points in the CTF Vision.

    Here’s the Vision BTW-
    Cracking Thai Fundamentals 90 Day Vision –
    It is now 3 months from the time that I commenced the initial
    Cracking Thai Fundamentals course.
    1. I am reading Thai newspapers, menus and magazines every day.
    2. Even though I don’t understand all the words, I am pronouncing the words with about an 85% level of accuracy.
    3. I can look up new words that I hear and see in my dictionary that never leaves my side in less than 20 seconds.
    4. I’m learning a minimum of 15 new words and 1 idiom per day.
    5. I watch Thai television programmes or listen to Thai radio for at least 1 hour per day.
    6. Whenever I hear a new sound or a new word, I can visualise where it’s being produced from in the mouth and imitate it.
    7. I am able to type in Thai and regularly visit Thai websites and use social media in Thai.
    8. I am able to order pizza entirely in Thai in Thailand without the telephone operator trying to change to English.

    Let’s work together over the next couple of months and see if we can get you through a whole conversation on the phone without any attempt by them to revert to English.

    All in all, job very well done Paul. Thank you.

  4. You were fantastic. It was not an easy situation, room full of people, speaker phone which most people struggle with in their own native language. Rock on. A total inspiration. Now I must be off to collect baht off the street to save up for a CTF course!

  5. Hi Paul,

    I watched the whole event yesterday and was very impressed with your courage! It takes a lot of nerve to get up there on stage and be open with your weaknesses, but as you wrote- knowing your weaknesses is half the battle! While I’m not learning Thai myself, I’ve been following your blog for a couple of weeks now and I very much enjoy reading about your progress. I wholeheartedly encourage you in your language learning journey!

    All the best,


  6. Hi Paul,

    My eyes stayed open and I watched the whole thing live in the Google Hangout from Silicon Valley (4:30 am on). I was energized by it. Paul, don’t worry, there weren’t thousands watching from the Hangout. I got there at the beginning and it was on the order of 50 people or less.

    Next I seem to recall that Stu made the point that this is a very tough test of how one’s Thai sounds. I had the distinct feeling that many of the other students in the room would have fared no better. Notice that Stu Jay Raj put it as the last point in his plan above. So don’t beat yourself up about it, if possible. Because I think it is possible that the exercise hit home really well with the other students and maybe really got them thinking about their own goals in their Thai learning. I bet the next time they call in a pizza order, they will be disappointed when their call gets routed over to the Farang Buster!

    And the point was illustrated the best when the pizza joint called back to arrange the details of the delivery. You remember Stu took that call and that whole discussion was in 100% Thai, not even the slightest attempt at English on the other end. Which showed us that it can be done!

    If you had sailed through and gotten the pizzas ordered with 100% Thai all the way, we wouldn’t have learned what a challenging test that is. We would have concluded that it’s easy. You would have come off more as a star in speaking Thai, but we wouldn’t have learned as much from the exercise.

    My only real concern is that over the next few weeks you might wreck your health from eating all the pizzas you order to check up on your ongoing progress.

    Keep up the good work!

  7. I see ‘Dan’ has already been nabbed so I’ll have to be DanR.

    I haven’t had time to watch the video yet but well done for doing what you did. You’ve got bigger balls than me, that’s for sure. One part of this, though, which jumped out at me was:

    “I’m not sure if it is possible for an introvert to speak Thai at the level I’m aiming for. All of the people I’ve met who are fluent in Thai are outgoing and sociable. So, I need to act like more of an extrovert.”

    The first part of that is certainly false. As for the last sentence, well, perhaps. But, whilst it’s true that people who are highly extroverted and who aren’t hindered by the kinds of inhibitions which you have (and which I share) can babble on without a problem, that is not an unalloyed good. Yes, it gets you talking and yes, you get lots of exposure and yes, you sound much more fluent, but highly extroverted people are much worse at monitoring themselves and monitoring the reactions of others so they are more likely to make rapid immediate progress but to stall out at a lower level than someone who is able to exploit the constant self-monitoring which introverts tend to experiences. It may be possible, to a certain degree, to increase your levels of extroversion (my chosen way was getting pissed and high but that’s no longer an option) but at the same time, I would think about how you can exploit your introversion to your own advantage. If you have, as I do, a critical, self-monitoring internal voice then, rather than trying to reinvent yourself as the life and soul of the party, it might be more productive to recruit that voice as a kind of teaching assistant. It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but I find it less difficult than forcing a completely alien personality on myself. This may not suit you but it’s something to consider, perhaps.

    1. Thanks Dan – you make a good point about the benefits of self-monitoring. I think one of the problems with being hesitant in social situations is that it means losing control of the conversation so there is more likelihood of it moving to subjects that I don’t yet feel comfortable talking about in Thai. I think one of the benefits of being an extrovert is it usually means being able to control the conversation.

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