Published: Jul 12, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver
At the beginning of June, I was finishing up a one-month stay in Vietnam and started preparing for my next month in Thailand. I had a one-week trip through Cambodia in between, so my plan was to use the time to fit in as many Thai lessons as I could before arriving in Bangkok.
I had been to Thailand before. Last year in April I took a 33-day holiday there (the extra 3 days were important to the Thai immigration authorities 😐) and loved every minute of it. I made a ton of local friends and learned quite a few Thai words and phrases.
Things like your simple greetings (sawadee-krap) and how are you (sa bai dee mai krap?), and of course how to make sure something is spicy and tell a girl she’s pretty. You know, the bare necessities.
Because of that, you would think that it would have been easier to pick the language back up. But although the simple things were easy, and the words I already knew, I was a bit intimidated at first.
The sounds were a bit difficult to make, the talking speed was fast, and the words weren’t really similar to any of the languages I’d studied up to then except for some Vietnamese.
Of course, all the negative self-talk started to roll in then.
“Why in the world did you think you could learn Thai? Who do you think you are? You can’t speak Thai.”
Different variations of those types of negative things a friend would never say to me, but for some reason, I’m quite comfortable saying to myself.
But something happened when I got to Bangkok.
I moved into my new AirBnB, which had a very nice working space: a decent-sized desk with a nice view of the city, albeit a slightly distanced view given my current budgetary constraints.
It was very important to me when I got to Bangkok to establish a routine. I learned long ago that when I’m most consistent with something is when it’s not a choice, it’s just something I do.
So I decided to set up my routine where first thing every morning I would do a Thai lesson, then afterward I would go to the gym.
No questioning it or optimizing it or trying to get out of it for any reason. Whether or not it makes sense to do it today given my schedule, whether or not I feel like it, today I’m going doing a Thai lesson and going to the gym after, just because that’s what I do every day.
After just a couple of days of this routine, maybe around Thai lesson 4, things really started to click in. I was understanding the sounds easily, making them quite well myself and the sentence structure didn’t seem very difficult.
I was practicing what I was learning in the lessons in the real world, and then getting valuable feedback in the form of reward for the work I was putting in, but also negative feedback when people couldn’t understand me.
Since I left Europe and started this recent journey of learning languages all around Asia, I’ve noticed this whole experience is a pattern.
I want to write an entire blog post just dedicated to this topic, but for now, let me try to detail it briefly.
Every time I learn a language for the first time, there’s this incredible feeling of novelty. All the sounds are new, all the words are new, and sometimes the structure or grammar is new.
That feeling is almost like a high. And it’s something you can’t replace.
But it’s a feeling that can go two ways. One way is you feel really intimidated and think “Oh man I’ll never get this language.” like I did with Mandarin. The other way is “Oh wow I think I’m gonna be good at this language!” like I felt with Japanese.
That feeling of novelty is so special. And you can never really recover it. It’s like when you see someone for the very first time. You’ll never be able to recreate that experience because now you’ve seen them before.
With Mandarin, I often think back to when I was in my hotel in Japan and did my first Mandarin lesson. As I said above, I thought I had met my match. I thought, “Oh well. I hope they speak some English in Taipei.”
But after a few lessons and some hard work on the side, you realize you actually can speak the language. Once you get comfortable with the sounds, the language slows down a bit in your head.
You start to see the pattern of the language a bit, and then it starts to really feel like a language, rather than just some random sounds being thrown at you.
This is the moment I’m talking about around lesson 4 of my Thai lessons. It’s like this “Aha!” moment that once it clicks, you never look back.
After that, it’s mostly positive momentum that carries you through the learning process, due to the little dopamine hits you get throughout the journey.
Of course, there are ups and downs, but the ups are usually good enough to sustain you through the less frequent downs.
So, to address the title of this blog post, and my point in writing it, what have I learned about learning Thai after my first 15 lessons?
Overall, Thai is generally rated as a difficult language to learn. And I know I just said that even after traveling here for a month and knowing some of the language before I was still intimidated when I started the lessons. And yes during the first two lessons, I had my doubts.
But you can’t judge the difficulty of learning a language based on the first few lessons. It’s like saying you’re not going to keep going to the gym because of how sore you feel after your first two workouts.
You’ve got to get yourself broken in a bit first before you really see how your experience will be.
And with Thai specifically, once you get a bit broken in, it’s fun and not that difficult.
The sounds aren’t that hard to make, you’re just not used to making those sounds.
And as for grammar, it’s incredibly simple in Thai. There are no articles and there’s no verb conjugation. Such a nice change from languages like English and Spanish.
Another thing that makes it easy, you only need to know one word for “you.”
In Vietnamese, there are seemingly 15+ words for “you” depending on who you’re speaking to. In Dutch, German, and Spanish, there are different “you”s for different levels of formality.
Not the case in Thai. All you need to know is “kun”. That’s it.
Once you travel around a bit in situations where you’re speaking the local language, you realize there’s really only a certain number of situations where you’ll need to use the local language.
I’m not trying to discourage people from learning all of a local language, especially if they live there. But if you’re going to be in Thailand for just a few weeks, becoming fully conversational is not really a goal you should have.
It takes a long time to really learn Thai. But the word “learn” can have many different meanings depending on your situation. And if you just want to get the most out of your experience in Thailand, and be respectful of the people and culture there, you just need to know how to say what you need to say on a daily basis in Thai.
At least as a start.
When you’re learning a language while traveling or living in the country of that language, no doubt people will tell you new words all the time. Sometimes it’s a unique word in their language that doesn’t have a great translation in English. Sometimes it’s a better and more commonly used alternative to a word you used.
Unless you’re one of those freakish geniuses who can remember everything after hearing it after just one time, please please please write those words down. You will NEVER remember them later.
There’s also a handy white noise player at the bottom to increase your auditory comprehension capabilities.
It’s the only flashcard tool that combines all of these elements. Make sure to give it a shot.
This is true in almost every country if you speak the local language, but in my experience, it’s especially true in Thailand.
I’m generalizing here, but there are some countries where people don’t really seem to care that you’re trying to speak their language. I had some VERY rewarding experiences in Vietnam when I was speaking Vietnamese to locals.
But for the most part, learning Vietnamese wasn’t quite as rewarding because most people didn’t really care if you spoke it to them or not.
Thailand is not like that at all. People here love it when you speak Thai to them. They try and help you with your pronunciation, they teach you new words, and they compliment you on how well you speak.
It’s the most rewarding place I’ve been to so far in Southeast Asia when it comes to language learning (However, Korea is a very close 2nd).
I’m excited to continue the journey of learning Thai while I’m here in Bangkok. The plan, for now, is for Bangkok to be a semi-permanent home base with traveling in between.
I’m developing a Thai course now with a local Thai teacher called “All the Thai you need to know to travel in Thailand.” It’s been such a fun experience, and I’m really excited about this direction for the Weaver School.
It’s so rewarding helping other foreigners like myself learn the local languages that they’ve always wished they’d learned but just haven’t had the confidence or right path to do it.
Soon I’ll write another update after the course is launched and I’ve finished my first 30 Thai lessons from my Thai courses.
Until then, good luck on your language-learning journey, whichever one it may now be!
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.