What an experience!!
This “dipping my toes” in my first Asian language has helped me see so many things I hadn’t realised before, despite the extremely little amount of time that I actually put into it, i.e. about 15 hours in the first month exclusively to be able to read the symbols and understand the tone rules, and the time around making the video just before leaving. What I really learned was in the many other hours I had of interactions with other learners and English speakers.
You’ll be surprised to see what I have taken away as the most important lessons; they have little to do with techniques for learning tones or dealing with Thai’s differences from European languages and more to do with general lessons relevant to other languages and those very interactions with other learners.
Confidence to speak is what holds pretty much EVERYONE back
It doesn’t matter what language you are learning; Asian or European, the reason you aren’t speaking it is because you aren’t confident enough. Learning all the grammar, tone rules, vocabulary and exceptions seems to be the way that a lot of people achieve this confidence. In my opinion, this is inefficient. The study and learning aspect is still very important, but only for improving on your spoken level, not for getting the confidence to be able to speak.
Learners focused on the details say that they will be ready to speak the language when they have enough. My 3-month missions are possible because I gain this confidence through speaking rather than through studying. You can speak in your first days of really trying (as I showed in the video), and gaining confidence this way takes way less time than through trying to know a language inside and out. That was a tough morning for me, but it was like tearing off a band-aid – doing it quickly was the best way. After that weekend I was confident in speaking Thai in so many situations in my final days, that I just wasn’t “ready” for before.
My lack of readiness was nothing more than a barrier that I had put up myself. The only real regret that I have in this mission is that I didn’t start with speaking and have that confidence from my first weekend rather than my last one. I would have effortlessly improved my speaking habits over the entire stay, even with very little work. In future I won’t wait to speak – reading aspects will come after that and not before it.
Flashback of other learners’ “encouragement”
Since my approach involves immersion, I simply don’t tend to associate so much with English speakers, or if I do, it would be through the language we are both learning. The benefits of this are obvious, but I had long forgotten one really important reason that also pushed me towards this learning strategy.
Other learners can be very discouraging!
In this Thai mission, this was just a minor annoyance because (as you can imagine) I’m already confident enough. You could call it arrogance, but the whole point is that I’m telling everyone else how they can do it too and that I’m not special. But I got a flashback to when I was learning Spanish and my enthusiasm was curbed by other English speakers at a time when I was way more vulnerable. When people hear you speak a language pretty well they can’t really do much to discourage you, but when you are still trying and not quite succeeding, they can be very unhelpful.
Frankly, English speakers have standards that are way too high on perfection in languages. I can think of very few times over the last seven years that a native has given me any unhelpful criticism (as opposed to helpful corrections and such) in the languages that I’ve learned, with the exception of the French (more specifically, Parisians, but I’ll be writing a post soon about a revelation I’ve made in my French/Paris experience thanks to a return visit there).
However, I have gotten an amazing amount of negativity from English speakers also learning the same language. This attitude is something I struggle to understand, but to be honest I find it easier to simply avoid it by avoiding English speakers altogether. It’s sad (especially when it also means I’m avoiding non-language-learner travellers, who have actually hugely enriched my Thailand experience), but fighting against anglophone negativity (unlike Latino and Asian friendliness) is energy I’d rather spend on speaking with natives.
Since I obviously have a “strange” way of going about learning language of focusing on the positive, I unintentionally got into a few arguments with people about the ideal approach. In always trying to see what’s easy in a language, other learners were constantly showing me what’s hard. I am way off speaking Thai well, but everything they told me looks like something that would take a finite amount of time to be able to absorb and I am very sure that they would be achieved quicker with an upbeat attitude.
Any list of exceptions and rules that they could give me, I could counter them with a similar list for any other language. Thai is clearly way more different to English than French is, but Thai doesn’t have noun genders, irregular plurals, definite/indefinite articles, complicated rules for use of prepositions, difficult conjugations and so much more. If I say this you can counter with more things Thai has that European languages don’t, but what’s the point? It just turns into a pissing competition for whose language is “harder”.
Having a view of several languages gives me a unique perspective, and I can say that an astounding amount people seem to believe that their task is the hardest one. Thai is harder, or Czech is the hardest language in the world etc. Sorry guys, but there is no hardest language in the world. I said it before and I’ll say it again; it’s all about attitude With a negative attitude anything you do can and will be hard.
You still need other learners
Despite what I said above, avoiding other learners is not a great solution. While I still think that Asian languages aren’t as different the monster that I thought they were, I couldn’t have gotten my head around the differences so quickly without help. Natives usually aren’t in the position to explain these differences… and this seems much more so in Asian languages, which means you need to turn to someone focused on the details! Uh oh…
Voicing my approach of learning languages got me into quite a few arguments with other learners – this was not a good idea. Obviously I’m very passionate to share my approach with others, but the lack of evidence I could provide this time (since I wasn’t actually speaking the language I was learning for once) meant that I wasn’t going to convince them by words of positivity alone. I should have accepted this from the start because some of the advice that they had given to me was actually really good and I should have tapped that resource for more! In future I’ll argue my point a lot less and just let the evidence speak for itself, since I will be working hard in nearly all future missions and not just casually curious like I was with Thai.
Others can help you so much in your language endeavours – even if you happen to be against the academic or other approach that they use, what they know is essential and important information. If they have been learning longer than you, they can definitely make things easier in your own journey when asked for advice.
Although I am a little annoyed at the cynical direction that the discussion went in the thaivisa forum, some of the advice given was fantastic! I was given a link to a pdf file to help me get my head around the font issue in Thai that I had mentioned, shown a great page on the Thai-language site for recognising tones, and given lots of other interesting facts about how Thai works. They were really very helpful (when not arguing how silly I was)! I definitely recommend other Thai learners to try out that forum, but maybe don’t show that you think that Thai might just not be that hard, and definitely don’t mention my name
My friend Aleksandra also believed that it was important that I knew the difficulties of Thai to get a more rounded view – once I stopped trying to argue this point and asked for specific advice, her knowledge was essential. The video I made would not have been possible without her coaching me and correcting me.
Everyone needs to be flexible
So I’m clearly torn! Avoid other learners or learn to get along with them? The first one is not a healthy solution; especially since I tend to live in cities and I am genuinely interested in helping others learn languages quicker, so I’m just going to be meeting more and more learners. So I’m going to swallow my pride and try to be flexible – at the end of the day, no matter how great I think my approach is, it isn’t perfect and is always open to improvements! Hopefully this flexibility will encourage the other party to be so as well, and see some benefits of what I might have to say
From this conclusion, my next mission will have this theme of improvements. I am going to be trying some new (to me) approaches that I never had before because I had dismissed them as incompatible with my view of language hacking. This blog has exposed me to so many other points of view and a lot of people say that they are combining my strategy with other ones, and happy with the combination.
Why should they have all the fun? I’ll be test-driving some other learning approaches, which may not be as social as what I usually do, but may indeed have some interesting merits for learning a language quickly.
End of Thai mission
In the end I achieved all of what I had initially aimed for – with the exception of not attempting to read unprepared text to a native. The real point of the mission was confidence in an Asian language, and I feel ready to aim for something much much higher next time I try So I consider this mission a success! I now award myself 4 out of 5 stars for the achievement:
The mission was mostly a break for me – when I reveal the next ones you’ll understand why I needed such a break!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this story! The next one will be way more interesting and the target way higher than anything else I’ve aimed for before
But first, I’ll be sharing some details on how to learn the Irish language, my own tips on it, a video and several other posts. I’ll also be introducing another project I’ll be working on over the next months (other than the mission) very soon.
Let me know what your views are on experiences with other learners! Share your thoughts on anything mentioned here, in the comments
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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