“Learning thai, the hard way…”


This is not a Wit blog. I didn’t write it nor inspire it or any other such thing other than receive it. This was actually an e-mail sent to everyone on the listserv of our DC Thai Language Meetup Group from John a fellow member. I thought it was well written and worthy of a blog so I convinced John he should post it here on Thai-blogs for everyone to read. He agreed with me and didn’t even put up an arguement! I was disappointed I didn’t have to twist his arm, err persuade him to post it. He even asked me to post it for him, something about mentioning he was too kii giat to do it himself. Be that as it may John is mai kii giat when it comes to the drive to master the Thai langauge and don’t let him kid you he is a lot better than he lets on (so be warned ladies)! In addition he also builds robotic fish for the United States Navy, yeah, he’s got coolness in spades! So here it is, unedited and worthy of a good read and perhaps even an inspiration to some of you aspiring Thai speakers out there so take heart and enjoy.

And for those that remember I have not fallen off the face of the earth although some mornings it can feel like it if I haven’t had my coffee. Look for a long overdue blog of my own coming soon, maybe this weekend if all the words finally come..


“Learning Thai the hard way…

Watdee tuk kon krab (whats up, everyone)

So I figure this should be of some interest to those in this email list.

A little more than 2 years ago a Thai friend of mine asked me to come
stay with him in Thailand. I decided to start studying a little
survival Thai two weeks before my trip, just to get by and all . . .

But for some reason I kept saying, ‘well, ive done all this work, cant
quit now or it would have been a waste . . . gotta study more!!! gonna
be fluent any time now!’

And motivated by a 2nd trip to Thailand 6 months later, I continued to
study . . . Was really fun to do things a typical tourist couldnt, to
not just be with locals, but to almost be one myself . . .

I am about a week or two from my 2 year anniversary studying the crazy
language we call Thai . . . And I am still going with that carrot on a
stick dream of one day being able to confidently call myself fluent .
. .

Being such a momentous occasion, I have been reflecting . . . So what
have I learned from all this?


I would admit even infinitely harder than building a robot to get a
Singha beer out of the fridge (yes, I would know).

I studied 1 hour a day for 1.5 years, and for a 6 month period even
managed 2 hours a day. That comes out to about 900+ hours of studying.
Extensive research shows that one must study at least 600 to 1000
hours of anything complex to become a so-called ‘expert.’ Whether it
be chess, the guitar, or multi-variate calculus – doesnt matter.
Unfortunately, no research says how many hours a farang needs to learn
thai fluently, but I can assure you it isnt less than 1000 hours. That
means if you are really dedicated and study one hour a day for 3
years, you still wont be fluent. Sorry =P

Then again if your nuts like Cornell and study 6 hours a day . . . you
would reach fluency in like 6 months . . . =P

So why am I writing this? This email may sound more of like a
discouragement to those who are learning, but I think it is more of
useful knowledge to those who want to learn. These are the facts,
being bilingual just isnt an American trait =P

A bit of encouragement . . . those who have studied an equivalent of
about 210 hours (an hour a day for 7 months) know that you can
communicate in complete Thai sentences. Perhaps you can just barely
get by, but at least you can. Its a much easier, much more tangible,
yet still very rewarding goal for many on this list to reach. At least
3 or 4 of you already have passed this point. I highly encourage
everyone to set this goal.

Anyway, being my two year mark, I have decided to dedicate myself for
the big plunge . . . I am going to move and live in Thailand for a
year. This new journey will happen around March of next year. Fits
perfectly between a career transition, and right after I finally pay
off my gagillion dollar tuition. Still gotta iron out tee rak issues
tho (thats you, Jenny).

I pray it will finally help me catch the carrot thats so elusive.

Anyway, signing out, and best wishes to those who desire to undertake
probably the hardest single task anyone can undertake. =)

Choke Dee Krab (good luck)

John Palmisano

8 responses to ““Learning thai, the hard way…”

  1. Good luck, hard work[study]will pay off big!

    We had some great Thai language cassettes[yes, it was long ago]we obtained thru the US State Dept, they helped alot!

    Now there are GREAT Thai language CD’s,etc and of course you can enroll in Thailand, one year of intensive Thai there should help alot!

    In the decade I resided in the Land Of Smiles, I obtained a crude “restaurant Thai” at best, but it helped me figure out where most conversations were going or were about…knowing what every second or third word meant was nice, but…

    Your study will help you become fluent.

    Spanish or French[don’t tell those from La Francais]were easy compared to Thai!

    Go for it, the Thais are overjoyed when a Farang tries!

    Please Keep trying…:-)

  2. Welcome back, Wit!!

    Must admit, learning a new language as you’re older is not as easy. Should’ve seen me mumbling to myself on a commuter train trying to learn Mandarin Chiness from a CD. The Mexican lady next to me probably thought I was nuts.

    Oh my gosh. My post is sooo going to throw you Thai learners in for a loop…

  3. Hi Wit. Where’ve you been? How is YOUR Thai coming along? I can tell you one thing, I can read and write Thai now but of course, not fluent yet. In fact, speaking is still an obstacle cos I don’t use it much but on the web compared to reading and writing.

  4. welcome back man.

  5. Pompenkroo

    Well, as someone studying language accquistion at the post-graduate level… I can tell you this: Firstly, there is nothing inherent in a language that makes it harder to learn than others. It’s just that some languages are harder for speakers of some languages than others. For example, Anglophones have trouble mastering the tonal system of Thai. So, for English speakers, tones are hard; whereas a native Chinese speaker will only have problems with Thai tones when he or she have negative transferance with the (various) Chinese tonal system. So for a Chinese speaker, tones are a piece of cake!

    Secondly, I don’t know about the “extensive research” you cite about expertise only taking 1000 hours for anything. For example, a commerical airline pilot needs at minimum 1500 flight hours to be licensed. As for learning a language In grad school, I learned that research has shown that one needs at least 1 or 2 years of total immersion in a language before one masters BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills), that is enough of the language to take care of one’s daily needs and socialization. So doing the math, 24 hours a day * 365 days = 8,760 hours.
    So one needs at least 8,760 to 17,520 hours of being immersed in a language to gain basic fluency. In addition CALP (Cognitive-Academic Language Proficency), that is the language needed to successfuly participate in secondary and post-secondary education in said language, takes 5 to 7 years of total immersion to develop!

    Clearly, the only way one can gain these numbers is by moving to and living in a country that speaks the target language.

    Your decision to move here is a wise one for language learning, at least.

  6. welcome back Wit!

  7. Pompenkroo –

    Well, what I meant by hours is total time spent actively learning only. Sleeping while your brain reorganizes neurons doesnt count for me, mostly cause it doesnt involve hard work . . . =P

    I am also aware that the learning difference between studying 1 and 2 hours a day is much greater than studying 6 and 12 hours a day. The brains learning ability exponentially slows the more you cram.

    The quality of learning also matters, meaning you can learn faster if your teacher/learning method is of higher quality. So two hours of reading ‘Thai For Lovers’ and two hours of training from a proffesional Thai teacher dont equate the same. Sorry, Wit =P

    Another playing factor is motivation and goals. I studied highschool spanish for 2 years. All A’s and B’s. Yet I was able to speak Thai infinitely better after just studying it on my own for 6 months. And I mean way above survival Thai, too. Why? Because in school my goal was to get good grades with the least amount of work. Studying was to remember things on the tests, not to use as a language. Studying it on my own had a very different goal – to actually speak a different language. You cant just last minute cram the morning of the test if you dont have any tests. =P
    Its all about long term instead.

    5-7 years of formal language education (such as at a university) sounds about right. But again, I know many Thai’s who have studied english for 12+ years and dont speak any better than the little spanish I still remember from highschool. Its all about quality of learning and motivation and many other factors.

    Ok and lastly, by the responses I got, not just from this site but from the original email post, there has been confusion between me saying ‘thai is hard to learn’ and ‘john cant speak thai even after 2 years.’

    I am not fluent in that I cant watch Thai TV and understand more than 30% of what is said. I also cant keep up in a conversation between Thais. However, I currently teach english at Wat Thai DC to monks using entirely the Thai language to teach. I have also read over 3000 pages of thai comic books, all in Thai. I can read a Thai newspaper. When I hear Thai people speak, I understand 3 out of 4 words and 25% full concept comprehension with zero context to work with. If I have a context to work with, I understand 90%. When I ask Thai people to explain a concept, they perfer to explain it in Thai, convinced I would understand their explanation in thai better than english. Hope that cleared things up . . .

    Wow ok a long reply . . .

    Oh and as for the CDs and tons of books out there, 99% of them stopped being useful for me after my first year of studying Thai. I guess most people quit by then so it isnt profitable to publish more advanced material . . .

  8. So two hours of reading ‘Thai For Lovers’ and two hours of training from a proffesional Thai teacher don’t equate the same. Sorry, Wit =P

    Hey, just so ya know ‘Thai for Lovers’ is only 1 in almost 100 books on Thai and Thailand that I own and that’s professional with one ‘f’ btw…mm’k! lol.