Undoing the Damage from Speaking Thai Badly for Thirteen Years

My Thai books

I have made more progress in the last month than I did in the previous decade of trying to get to grips with Thai. Although, a lot of my current effort is directed towards undoing the damage from those years of speaking the language badly.

How to Speak Crap Thai

The first Thai words I ever spoke were ขอบคุณครับ (khaawp kun khrap) which is the equivalent of saying ‘thank you’ in English. I use these words at least ten times a day, and it is something I now say automatically – the only problem is I’ve been mostly saying it wrong for the past 13 years.

I do know how to say ขอบคุณครับ the correct way, but for some reason, I pronounce it differently when I’m in a situation where I actually need to say ‘thank you’. Stuart Jay Raj calls it first language interference. I speak these words in Thai in the exact same way that I say them in English, and this means the ครับ (khrap) turns into a falling tone when it should be a high tone. I never even noticed I did this until a couple of weeks ago – I’d assume ขอบคุณครับ was one of the few phrases I did say correctly.

I say ขอบคุณครับ automatically, and so this is going to make it harder for me to fix this bad habit. I’ve given my wife and son the task of monitoring my use of the word ครับ (you could call it crap monitoring). The other day we went to a petrol station, and I was determined to say these simple words correctly. I rehearsed the tones in my head while I was waiting to pay, but I still ended up saying it the old way. The scary thing was that at first I felt convinced I’d said it right. I felt so annoyed with myself afterwards, but I’ve been saying it the right way since then.

The Importance of Getting the Thai Basics Right

If I had approached Thai the right way initially, I would have been speaking fluent years ago. Instead I stubbornly insisted on doing things my own way. I wrongly believed that I’d pick up the basics naturally by listening to people speak and by focusing my efforts on building a large vocabulary. I was wrong. What is the point in knowing a few thousand words in Thai if you pronounce most of them wrong?

Learning the basics does require effort and commitment, but as far as I can see, this work is essential. Otherwise it’s like that joke about the pilot who makes the following passenger announcement – “the bad news is we are completely lost, but the good news is we seem to be making pretty good time”. I hope new learners of the Thai language (or any language) come across my blog and see me old approach as the perfect example of how not to go about things.

Learning Thai


Thai Drills Are So Powerful

I spend about two hours a day now just doing Thai drills. Stuart Jay Raj suggested I do this exactly same way as Thai kids do when they first go to school – the way my son has been doing it up to recently. I’m using the first book from the ดรุณศึกษา (Darun Suksa) series, and this is designed for kids who are still in anubaan (kindergarten). I first say the consonant and vowel separately, and if there is a tone marker, I saw the word with and without this. It takes me a couple of hours to go through all the consonant classes, but it becomes like a type of meditation.

In my last session with Stuart, he told me a few simple stories that have made it easy for me to memorize all the Thai tone rules. For years, I’ve been using these messy charts that I created myself, it is ridiculous how complicated I’ve been making things, but I can now look at a word almost any word and know the tone without having to use any tool. The work I’m doing with the Thai drills means I’m starting to do this automatically.

I suspect it is going to take another month or so to get the basics right, but I don’t mind this work because I can already see dramatic improvements. I’m building up the muscles needed to produce these words correctly, and I’m creating a Thai sound system rather than trying to speak the language using an English sound system. Those thousands of words I’ve already learned are going to fall into place, so I can actually start using them in conversation.

I’m going to start using the new Glossika Thai fluency course. It’s due for release next week, and I’ve already paid for the special pre-release deal. I’ll talk about my experiences with this program in future posts. I sort of feel excited about it. Catherine over at ‘A Woman Learning Thai’ is doing the Italian Glossika course, and she seems to love it.

Why Don’t You Join in My Six Month Challenge to Become Fluent in Thai or Even Italian?

There are already at least two other people who have committed to a similar period of intense language acquisition. Catherine from ‘A Woman Learning Thai’ has a slightly different goal because she wants to be able to speak Italian for her planned trip (although she is also going to use the language acquisition skills she picks up for improving her Thai). Dan reads Catherine’s blog and he left a comment over there saying he has been following my series of posts on Thai, and he too wants to commit to an intense period of learning Thai.

Why don’t you join us too?

The rules are simple – you just need to donate all of your free time to learning Thai (or whatever language you want to learn). This means no more English TV, no English music, no English books, and no internet for entertainment unless it is in Thai (okay you can read English if it is about learning Thai). You do this for six months, and you use at least the first couple of months to make sure you have the basics right. I’m managing to free up about six hours a day for focused study, but you may be able to do even more.

If you do decide to accept this challenge, you will find there is an amazing community ready to help you master the Thai language including:

A Woman Learning Thai..and some men too
Farang Can Learn Thai Facebook Page
Learn Thai with Porn Facebook Page

I also recommend Cracking Thai Fundamentals so you can start off with a strong foundation. Stuart also has his Thai bites videos which offer further insights into the language. You might also want to check out his excellent YouTube discussion on tones

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 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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14 thoughts on “Undoing the Damage from Speaking Thai Badly for Thirteen Years

    1. Thanks Catherine – you have a great help to me in this quest. This stuff is easier when I feel part of a community My tendency to always do things my own way just gets me into trouble 🙂

  1. Hi Paul – This is the Dan who posted at WLT. I should have posted here earlier but (belatedly) thanks for this series of posts. The idea of doing some kind of immersion/having a serious push on my Thai had been running around in my head for a little while but it was only when I saw your first post on this that I made the decision to do it now (actually, July 1st is D-Day so I’ve still got a few days left.) As you say, it’s much easier when you feel that somebody else is doing it too. There’s no way I’m going to be able to set aside 6 hours a day (even with pretty optimistic reshuffling of my daily timetable, 3 hours of active study a day looks about the most I’m going to be able to do) and 3 months seems a more realistic ambition that 6…but count me in!

    1. Three hours a day for three months is a decent commitment Dan, and I’m sure you are going to make plenty of progress. I hope you keep us updated on your progress. So are you going to give up all English entertainment?

  2. Hey Paul
    Interesting approach. I cheer you!
    About the mindset, I can see a few differences from the mindset of people who struggled to learn against people who didn’t struggle:
    “July 1st is D-Day so I’ve still got a few days left” – Dan
    -> Sounds like you are afraid to start, D-Day implicates that’s a bad date which you are not looking forward to. I for myself couldn’t wait to start my first lession, I even wanted to do it earlier than the proposed date.

    “So are you going to give up all English entertainment?” – Paul
    -> Sounds like you miss something from English entertainment and it is a loss to loose that. I for myself wanted to inhale and consume every possible entertainment that is available in thai, form Music (I like Hip-Hop so I searched for Thai Hip-Hop all day long) to movies (Downloaded and right away watched every Thai movie I could find) to online chats (first with the help of thai2english Software to get Thai out of my transliteration). So I didn’t had the feeling to “give up” any Entertainment but get a ton of incredible new entertainment that leaded to have no time for any English stuff anymore.

    I don’t want to discredit your efforts guys, it’s an awesome and interesting journey you start and I really cheer you. Just wanted to give you a little insight on the right mind-set which is imho mandatory to carry out the full thing and get the job done to the very end.

    1. Sure Jan, the words we use can have a powerful effect on our psyche, but it’s like this. I love to run, but it takes a bit of effort for me to take up running again – once I’m going, I love it. The same applies to Thai. It did take a bit of effort to get out of my comfort zone initially because I had a routine and lots of excuses for not doing it.

      For my first few years in Thailand, I felt incredibly passionate about learning Thai, but I’ve needed to reignite that passion (although it is a more mature type of passion now and more focused) and this took a little bit of effort – now I’m going, it doesn’t require any effort at all.

      You sound like an interesting guy, I hope to hear more of your experiences learning Thai.

  3. “Sounds like you are afraid to start, D-Day implicates that’s a bad date which you are not looking forward to.”

    D-Day doesn’t necessarily mean that something is bad, just that it’s an important juncture. One problem I have had in the past (in learning and in other other areas) is not managing my time well – having a day that marks a major change (like New Year’s for resolutions) can be one way of dealing with this. And, rather than just jumping in without having a decent plan, I wanted to do some research on learning strategies and ways to self-study a language in a slightly more structured and, I hope, productive way than I have done in the past.

    “Just wanted to give you a little insight on the right mind-set”

    The right mindset is the one which works and that’s going to be entirely a matter for the individual. It’s obviously useful to hear the successes (and failures) which others have had but one very widespread error which people make when learning a language is say that “x worked for me so x is the best way for everyone.” “I learnt to read Thai straight away and my Thai is great so everyone needs to learn to read” says one person and the next person replies “I never learnt to read Thai and my Thai is great so nobody needs to learn to read”. Who is right? It depends who you ask.

    “So are you going to give up all English entertainment?”

    That’s the plan, yes. I never really watch any English TV and only occasionally watch films so that’s not a problem (Channel 3 soaps, here I come!) but I listen to tons of podcasts and audiobooks so I’ll be swapping those for the radio and I’m planning on reading only Thai-language websites (basically turning off a very active RSS feed) and books. And, most difficult of all, it’ll be Thai only with my wife. I want to make dealing with Thai a habitual act, rather than something which is unusual, so I think it’s best (for me) to go all in on the Thai-only side of things.

    1. I agree with you Dan, it is understandable that people feel passionate about something that may be working for them, but as you say, the right mind-set is the one that works for each one of us. I’m sure Jan is only trying to be helpful here, and I think I understand the point he is trying to make – although he may be reading too much into what we have said.

      I continue to speak English when my son is at home because that is something we decided when he was born – he is bilingual, and I’ll only respond to him in English. When he is at school, we speak Thai. I do listen to a few podcasts in Thai, but I tend to use YouTube videos a lot more recently. Like Jan, I watch a lot of Thai movies.

      It sounds like you are all set for an interesting three months. I’m no language psychologist, so I’m not really qualified to judge the mind-set of other people, but you sound pretty committed to me 🙂

  4. The advice to transfer your interests to the target language is very good and the higher the motivation the better – everyone will agree with that.

    I’m sure speaking English with your son is the right thing to do but we don’t have children and the dog ignores me, whatever language I use, so in theory it shouldn’t be a problem. In practice though? I’ll let you know three months from now!

    1. Dan, I think it’s a fantastic time to be learning any language with so many resources now online. I also think the language community on places like FB is a great help – although I wouldn’t want to be spending too much time just talking about learning Thai 🙂

  5. Looks like your doing well Paul. I agree about the Cracking Thai Fundamentals Course. There are so many ‘aha’ moments which are gold in learning something. One key factor in movtivation is relatedness so trying to link up with other people is a good idea. I wish I could commit to 6 hrs a day but I have been doing my own challenge at giveit100. I’ve been managing about an hour a day and documenting it on this web site https://giveit100.com/@tecsquared2/qigzhi . Some of the strategies could be good for you as well. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Damien – wow, you’ve been busy. An hour a day isn’t shabby at all – especially if you are doing quality stuff like it seems you are. I’m going to definitely look back through your progress over the last 68 days to see what tips I can pick up. I’m sure there are lots of other people who find your journey inspiring as well.

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