I recently returned from a three-week vacation, 2.5 weeks of which were spent in Thailand (the rest was flying and two incredibly long layovers in Seoul, South Korea). Shortly before the trip, I decided it would be worth the effort to try and learn some Thai language. Not learn it well, mind you, but maybe learn enough to get by in common situations.
What motivated me to do this?
- It was a new challenge, partly because I’ve never tried to learn an Asian language before, with tones (the inflection of your voice can completely change the meaning of a word), and characters in place of a familiar alphabet. I wanted to see what that would be like.
- I was traveling alone, so I knew there’d be plenty of chances to talk to the locals.
- Two and a half weeks seemed like enough time make some progress.
- I wanted to test out various principles and techniques related to language learning that I’ve become familiar with over the past few years, but never really applied.
- Traveling is more fun if you can talk to people in their own language.
Furthermore, for all I knew I might even need to know a little Thai if I wandered slightly off the beaten path, and this proved to be true. As you would expect, plenty of Thai people in touristy areas speak some English, but there are also plenty of them who speak no English, in touristy areas and elsewhere.
What are these principles or techniques that I thought would make me a better language-learner than I was before?
First, the 80/20 Principle. Basically I wanted to focus on learning the 100 or 200 words and phrases that are used most frequently in the language, or that would be more common in the situations I would find myself. There are probably 10% or 20% of the words in Thai that are used 80% (or more) of the time, and I wanted to tap into some of that, and hence get the biggest bang for my buck.
Second, consistently using all my senses. I wanted to hear the language, see the language, and feel the language (in my mouth, primarily), and by using that combination of exposure have the best chance of remembering what I learned. It’s harder to smell a language, or taste it, but I tried my best to do this as well. 🙂
Third, I planned to study and review consistently, on a daily basis, using small increments of time, in hopes of retaining what I learned and progressing in an efficient manner.
Here’s what I did:
About one week before the trip I started studying, maybe an hour a day, or slightly more. I was mainly using the Mango Languages app, which is nice because it gives you audio and text, as well as some cultural explanations, and quizzes you periodically on what you’ve been learning. It also tries to give you more useful words and phrases early on (see 80/20 principle above), though I think it could be better in that respect. Perhaps most importantly, it makes the learning kind of fun. (While the app isn’t free, they do give you a two-week free trial, and you pay $20/month after that if you keep using it.)
I downloaded two free apps as well, which basically have lists of common phrases that you can tap on to hear the pronunciation. These were quite useful as well, and that’s how I learned the Thai numbers before my trip.
In addition, I ordered a small book of Thai phrases that got good reviews online, but found it much less useful because hearing the pronunciation was so critical. I found the book’s transliteration (that’s what it’s called when you spell out foreign words phonetically in a familiar alphabet) wholly inadequate after grappling with it for a few days, so I mainly relied on apps.
I think it’s worth noting – a good book is a great resource for learning a language like Spanish, where the pronunciation is so much easier (relatively speaking) for an English speaker to learn. But for Thai, I found it incredibly difficult to pronounce the words properly from text on a page, so I needed to hear them as well.
When I got to Thailand, I’d learned several common words and phrases, such as:
- Numbers 1-100
- How are you?
- I’m well
- Thank you
- My name is ___
- What’s your name?
- Can you speak English?
- I can speak a little Thai
- Where are you from?
- I’m from America
- Where’s the [bathroom, train station, etc.]?
Basically the first few pages in my phrasebook pictured below (though it doesn’t show the numbers, as I didn’t write those in the book).
On my trip, I did a lot of exploration and relaxation, but I also spent a lot of time talking to people. So language became a major focus of my experience in Thailand.
A typical “language” day:
Usually in the early part of the day, I studied an average of about one hour per day, mainly with the Mango app, though sometimes with the other two apps I mentioned. Each day I learned at least a few new words and phrases, reviewed some I already knew, and repeatedly heard and practiced the pronunciation (on the apps), since that’s the hardest part of learning to speak Thai.
There was a bilingual employee at the restaurant downstairs who often wasn’t too busy, so I would try some phrases on her before going out. She helped me improve my pronunciation, and sometimes suggested a more practical way to say something.
Once I went out for the day, I started using the words I knew by greeting some of the people I saw, and talking to street food vendors and other people that I had a natural reason to interact with.
Most days I rode the subway, so to take advantage of the time I typically either reviewed the phrases in the my phrasebook or struck up a conversation with another passenger.
It was fairly easy to find opportunities to speak with people throughout the day, especially since I was traveling alone. I found I could easily find (or invent) a reason to talk to someone, and didn’t always need to know the reason before I started. 🙂 I might just walk up to someone and say (in Thai), “Excuse me, do you speak English?”, and then go from there. If they do speak English, I can ask them for directions or some other practical question, or really anything. If they don’t speak English, I can ask them for directions (or something similar) in Thai, only using much more rudimentary vocabulary. It was also helpful to remind myself to use any Thai words that I did know even when talking to bilingual people who understood English.
Here and there I would pick up new words as they came up in conversation, typically by asking a bilingual person how to say something (and writing it down to review later). This was another way my vocabulary gradually expanded, in addition to using the apps to study. Sometimes I found myself wanting to say the same word over and over, and then finally got someone to teach me. A few good examples that I didn’t learn from any app but ended up saying a lot during the trip were, “Just kidding”, “Funny”, “Delicious”, “Right?”, and “Really?”, among various others.
By and large, the Thai people I encountered were very helpful and encouraging as I tried to practice the language every day, and I had many teachers. 🙂
How did people react?
I really didn’t know what reaction to expect from people, this being my first time in the country and first time using the language. I spent just a few weeks trying to learn and apply some of the most useful vocabulary in the Thai language, and I did an okay job of it, and I didn’t think it was anything “special” (almost anybody could do the same thing). And while I did make some notable progress, I was constantly reminded of my limited vocabulary and ability to understand.
Perhaps it’s because foreigners don’t usually bother trying to learn their language, but the reaction I found almost universally was that the Thai people were very impressed, and complimentary of my speaking ability.
So much so, that I frequently had encounters like this one:
After I’d said a few things in Thai (often using sentences that I had practiced repeatedly, and hence was able to pronounce reasonably well), they would frequently say something (in Thai) like:
Thai Person: “Wow, you can speak Thai!”
Me: “I can speak Thai a little bit.”
Thai Person: “Not a little bit, really good!”
Me: “Thank you. But just a little bit. :)”
They were also impressed, and even incredulous, at how much progress I’d made in so short a time. They would ask how I learned Thai, and how long I’d been in the country, and acted shocked when I said I just used some apps on my phone and started learning a couple weeks ago (give or take, depending on when I met them).
One lady I spoke with towards the end of my trip insisted she didn’t believe I’d only been learning Thai for three weeks.
In a rather extreme example, a couple bilingual guys I met said their initial impression, when I first started talking to them, was that I’d lived in Thailand for 5 or 10 years. Pretty crazy.
Was it really that impressive?
As I mentioned above, it seems like this is more a case of my doing something that very few people bother to do, rather than something that’s extraordinarily difficult to do. Think of all the tourists that go to Thailand–usually on short trips of about a week or less–who rarely learn more than a few words in their language.
So while it was fun to get such a positive reaction from the Thai people, I probably shouldn’t let it go to my head. 🙂
Here are a few more reasons:
There were times when I would try to say the same word over and over, but the listener just couldn’t understand because something about my pronunciation was off. When they finally understood, they would say it back to me with the correct pronunciation, and I would think, “That sounds almost the same!”. But there are subtle challenges with the pronunciation, both in making the right sounds to begin with, as well as using the tones properly, so it can be frustrating to say the least.
Furthermore, while I became proficient with a very limited vocabulary, inevitably any conversation would quickly veer into unfamiliar territory unless I was carefully directing it. When this happened I would typically say (in Thai), “I don’t understand”, with a chuckle, and then try to get more creative with the words I already knew to get a point across.
So I had a looong way to go before really becoming proficient in the language.
However, despite these limitations, I could usually get my basic point across, I made more personal connections with the natives by using their language, and I think I laid a nice foundation towards potentially learning the language well in the future.
While on the one hand I had significant limitations as outlined above, on the other hand I made fairly dramatic progress in a short period of time. I think the principles I used to accomplish this are broadly applicable, and not just based on one learning style.
These principles can be summarized as follows:
- Put in consistent effort – it doesn’t have to be that much time, but you have to do it consistently. One hour a day worked well for me, but even 15 minutes goes a long way.
- Use all your senses – audio, visual, physical movement, and even some taste and smell now and then. 🙂 This was invaluable for me, as I couldn’t grasp the Thai pronunciation without hearing it, but I also couldn’t remember new vocabulary without seeing it (and reviewing it).
- Focus on the most useful vocabulary (either based on which words are most common in the language, or based on the specific scenarios you’re likely to encounter, or some combination) to apply the 80/20 Principle.
- Practice! Take every opportunity to use what you’ve learned, and don’t be afraid. As you do, you’ll gain confidence, remember more, and get valuable feedback from native or fluent speakers.
- Use repetition: Keep a running list of words and phrases in a booklet, document, app, or whatever. I found simply reviewing a new word 2-3 times made a world of difference, and allowed me to recall it when I wanted to use it in conversation.
In summary: Daily review, study, and practice can lead to rapid progress.
And don’t forget to make it fun. The Mango app helped me with that, but so did daily fun interactions with Thai people (that I never could have had without putting in a little effort up front).
Best of luck to you on your language journey, and as always let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.
If there are any mistakes in the post, I blame jet lag. 🙂