Learn Thai the best way according to neuroscience

Learn Thai the best way according to neuroscience

Published: Jun 23, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver

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If you want to learn Thai, it will be a challenging task that requires hard work and consistent practice. However, it’s one of the most fun and rewarding languages to learn, so the journey will be well worth it.

To make the process as easy as possible for you, we’ve written this guide to give you a step-by-step plan you can follow to learn Thai in the best and most efficient way possible. 

Using the most proven neuroscience, combined with our experience in language teaching and learning, we’ll cover each part of the language you need to know, how to learn it, and what steps you can take to keep things as simple as possible.

If you follow all of the steps outlined in this post, you will be able to speak and understand Thai fluidly at the level you need to accomplish your goals. 

Let’s get started by covering all the components of the Thai language you’ll need to know.

speaking Thai while traveling in Thailand

The 4 essential components of the Thai language you need to learn

To speak Thai, you’ll ultimately need to learn 4 things:

  • The correct Thai words to say

  • How to pronounce those words properly

  • The correct order to say the words to communicate meaning

  • How to understand Thai speakers when they’re speaking to you (at normal speed)

This might sound like an oversimplification, but these are truly the essential components of learning any language, and breaking them down into these concrete skills will help you to tackle each of them.

Many of the methods for learning Thai that are available today, such as smartphone apps, software programs, physical or digital textbooks, or even most live tutors, will only focus on one or two of these components.

To actually speak and understand Thai, you’ll ultimately need all four of the aspects I mentioned above, not just one or two. And if you go with a method or solution that only focuses on one or two, that means you’ll have to be responsible for figuring out how to learn the other areas on your own.

I recently attended a meet-up in Bangkok for a Thai-English language exchange. You would be amazed at some of the routes people take when learning a language independently and how much longer it ultimately takes them.

If you’re a language hobbyist or someone who enjoys DIY hacking types of activities, that might be fine, or even enjoyable for you. Some people really like hacking away at learning a language bit by bit, trying to find the best app for each skill, and feeling the reward of doing it all on their own.

Learn Thai quickly and effectively

But most people I encounter who are interested in learning a new language at our school want to learn quickly and effectively, and they want us to tell them what to do so that they can just do it and get the results they need.

They don’t want to spend more time than they have to. They want to enjoy the process, but the faster they can learn the language the better.

If you’re someone like that as well, then my answer below should be helpful for you.

learning the Thai language

So what is the best method for learning Thai?

By far the best overall method you can use to learn Thai is to take a Thai course. The reason for this is that a language course will cover all the aspects of the language that you need to know.

And just as importantly, all of the components of language work together and build on each other. I’ll get into the science of this more below. 

If you wanted to… you could do all of your learning completely on your own. 

You could use Ling to learn Thai vocabulary, use Pimsleur to learn how to speak Thai words and recognize them, buy a Thai grammar book on Amazon, plan your own lesson schedule, assign yourself your homework, grade it yourself, and then go find someone on a live tutoring site to let you practice your Thai speaking.

And if you do decide to do all of that by yourself, congratulations, you’re a Thai language teacher and course designer. Albeit a completely inexperienced one with no specialized knowledge.

Are you a Thai language teacher? No, so don't try to be one

In this scenario, you’ve just spent hours putting together a course consisting of free and paid resources, all from different sources which probably won’t match up perfectly so you’ll have to spend time mixing and matching, and in all that time you spent designing a course yourself, you weren’t actually learning Thai at all.

Just in case everything I just said wasn’t enough to convince you, I’ll ask you one more question. If you did all of that yourself for the very first time, how good do you think it would be compared to Thai teachers who have taught hundreds of students and have improved their courses countless times with newer and better versions? 

20% as good? 50% as good? Let’s be realistic.

The important thing is if you calculate the ROI on your time and also factor in the opportunity cost of trying to teach yourself rather than learning from an experienced teacher, there’s almost no advantage to you even trying to teach yourself Thai.

Why Thai courses are so valuable

Thai courses are comprehensive and cover all aspects of language learning, from listening and speaking skills to reading and writing. Not only will you learn new Thai vocabulary, but you’ll learn the most useful vocabulary you need to know handpicked by your Thai teacher.

You won’t have to worry about learning Thai words and then a Thai person telling you later “Oh we never actually say that.” Something that has happened to me many times when learning Korean and Thai on my own.

In a course, you will also have a Thai teacher who will teach you Thai grammar in a way that you can understand. This is much better than when you learn grammar just from a book because the book can’t actually teach you. It can just present you with information in ways that you will hopefully understand. 

When I first started learning Dutch, I thought I was too busy to take a full course, so I just bought a digital textbook online from Amazon. 

It was a struggle from beginning to end. I kept getting so hung up on weird grammar rules that I couldn’t understand. And it seemed like if I didn’t understand one thing, it would keep me from learning the next thing. 

Ultimately I gave up and wouldn’t try learning Dutch again for over two years.

When I finally started learning again, it was with a private teacher and a course that was designed just for me. Any time I had a question or problem, I had a teacher there who could help me understand it, and then we were able to move on quickly.

Learning a language on your own vs. with a course 

It was a totally different world than trying to learn on my own, and it’s a world that I provide for Thai learners now here at the Weaver School in our online Thai courses.

When you want to learn a difficult language, whether it’s Dutch or Thai, you really need things to be simple and well planned out, that way it will be easier for you to follow and actually learn and make visible progress.

And again, Thai courses cover all the components of the Thai language, so you learn everything you need to build total fluency in Thai, not just memorize vocabulary words and a few phrases.

the best way to learn Thai

Learning Thai step by step

When you begin learning Thai, you’ll start with the first component in our list above, which is learning Thai vocabulary.

Vocabulary is the building block that you will use to learn all your other future skills. Without learning vocabulary, the rest of the language will be meaningless to you.

First, you’ll start with simple words for things like:

  • Introducing yourself

  • Saying hello and goodbye

  • Telling where you’re from

  • Saying thank you and you’re welcome

Rather than just learning and memorizing these words individually, the best practice is to learn them in context and see them in connection with other words.

It’s also at this point that you should be practicing speaking the words you’re learning, focusing intently on your pronunciation.

How can you make sure you’re pronouncing the words correctly? It helps to be actively listening to a native Thai speaker who can give you a proper example to pattern your pronunciation after.

Practicing these listening skills will also help you improve your understanding and retention of the vocabulary, helping you to better build up the semantic networks or “word webs” in your brain, which will make sure you rely less on translation into your native language long-term, helping you eventually achieve fluency.

It also helps to see the words written and to write them yourself. This physical writing and visualization of the grammar structures help your brain actually learn the new systems and process the information in a way where you can later intuitively use the grammar in a flexible way to communicate what you need.

learn Thai to speak with people in Thailand

What does the science say about how to learn Thai best?

Increase in neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is defined by Dr. Andrew Huberman as the brain’s ability to change (by reorganizing and forming new neural connections) in response to learning and experience. 

When you are learning a new skill, like learning the Thai language, you are tapping into this state of neuroplasticity in order to actually change your brain to be able to have the knowledge and skills to speak Thai when you need it.

The young mind is naturally much more plastic, meaning that when we’re younger we can learn much more information at a faster rate than when we are adults. The speed of learning for humans goes down drastically after the age of 26, on average.

With this in mind, when we try to learn new languages as adults, we need to try and manually and proactively initiate states of neuroplasticity as much as we can in order to effectively do things like learning new vocabulary and grammar.

When multiple language components are learned together, it stimulates various regions of the brain involved in language processing, leading to more extensive and interconnected neural networks. This allows the integration of different language skills and enhances overall language proficiency over the long term, which doesn't happen from learning just one component alone, like when you just learn vocabulary from an app, for example.

learning Thai for visiting Thailand

Taking advantage of synergies in the language learning neural process

Each language component engages distinct neural pathways, but these pathways also interact and overlap with one another. For instance, when listening to someone speak Thai, auditory processing areas in the brain become activated. However, if you simultaneously read or write in Thai, visual processing areas and motor-related regions involved in writing are also engaged. 

This activation of multiple brain areas at the same time creates stronger connections and cross-links between them, leading to faster and more efficient learning, the entire goal of everything we do here at the Weaver School.

How Thai courses use sensory integration to help you learn Thai faster 

Learning a language involves integrating all of the sensory information you receive from multiple sources. For example, the sounds you hear when listening, the shape of someone’s lips when they’re talking, and how your throat and tongue feel when you’re speaking yourself.

When learning all four components of a language like Thai at the same time, something called “sensory integration” occurs. Specifically speaking about the neuroscience, this sensory integration strengthens the neural connections between your sensory regions (the places where you actually experience your senses), the language centers in your brain, and the regions in your brain responsible for higher-level thinking. 

All of this results in more complete and effective language learning that will allow you to do a skill like speaking Thai much more intuitively and naturally, without the knowledge leaving you as easily later if you stop studying for a bit.

methods for learning Thai

The all-important contextual learning

Learning language components simultaneously exposes individuals to various contexts in which the language is used. For example, reading provides exposure to written texts, while listening enhances comprehension of spoken language in different contexts. This contextual learning promotes a richer understanding of vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, cultural nuances, and pragmatic language use. Such holistic language exposure strengthens memory encoding and retrieval, facilitating more effective language learning.

Last but not least, by learning Thai via a good and comprehensive course, you will be exposed to many different contexts that the Thai language can be used. 

Reading will provide you with written texts that will show you the natural way that Thai is written and used by native Thai speakers. Practicing listening to Thais speak about various subjects will increase your ability to understand Thais in the way that they actually speak no matter what they’re talking about.

This type of contextual learning leads to a deeper and richer understanding of their vocabulary, Thai idioms, and subtle cultural nuances, and also teaches you more of what Thai people actually say, not just what is in a textbook. 

This type of comprehensive learning will help you commit what you learn to memory better, and help you recall it from your memory at the time and in the context that you need it, which is one of the most crucial parts of learning Thai ultimately.

how to learn Thai effectively

What it all means for your Thai language learning journey

Ultimately as I said before, you can learn Thai on your own and in many different ways. You can spend your free time searching for the best apps, tools, YouTube videos, or website resources. But learning Thai as quickly and effectively as possible will come down to your ability to combine those elements and all of the components of language learning together in one meaningful learning experience.

Is that something you feel you have the knowledge, skills, and time to do? If not, taking a Thai course is absolutely the most effective way for you to learn Thai, and it’s backed by all the neuroscience that I just explained above.

Use the way the human brain works and learns languages to your advantage. Take a course where everything has been prepared and designed for your to unlock neuroplasticity as an adult and to reach your full potential for learning Thai.

If you’re ready to start learning Thai but feel like you’re not ready to give it a full commitment yet, try starting with our “All the Thai you need to know to travel in Thailand” basic Thai course for complete beginners who want to travel in Thailand

speaking Thai at markets in Thailand

We don’t cover the Thai alphabet or Thai writing in this course, but it’s a great way to learn all the key components of the Thai language you need to have the experience of a lifetime while traveling in Thailand and exploring all the fun activities in Bangkok and everything else the beautiful country has to offer.

You’ll also get the chance to take live Thai lessons from an experienced teacher who will correct your pronunciation of the words and phrases you learn in the course, as well as explain them when you get stuck.

It was created and designed by myself and an experienced, certified, native Thai teacher, and it’s only 5 video lessons so it doesn’t take too much of a commitment.

Whatever you choose, best of luck on your journey toward learning Thai, and I hope this post has helped you progress at least a little bit toward your goal.

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Lucas Weaver from the Weaver School

Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.

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