Getting along with other learners & conclusions of Thai mission

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 :P

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? :D 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 ;)



I'll send you the first lesson right away.
Click here to see the comments!
  • Erica

    This comment isn't necessarily specific to this post.. just about your blog in general. I wanted to thank you Benny for this great blog you have here. I have been wanting to learn multiple languages for years now.. but never went through with it for various reasons (time, I'm an adult so it would be really hard, money, ect.). I have just started learning my first (second :) language this past wk. I have always wanted to learn Japanese first.. but after reading your blog I have decided to start with Esperanto since it is supposedly so easy.. hoping that it will help me stick with it. So far it has been much easier than I thought! ;) I also have been working on traveling more and am inspired by your traveling and learning languages all at once. You make language learning so much more fun and interesting than most things I have read or looked into.

    Also, I wanted to comment about this post by saying that I agree and see how your way of learning definitely works for you.. and I will be incorporating it into my learning style.. but I wanted to point out that some people might be “against” it because of their learning style. For example I have found that I learn how to speak the language much better when I can hear it and read/see it written together. When someone just speaks it to me I can get the meaning but I can't always understand their tones/inflections of voice correctly and it confuses me when I try to remember it or recognize the word in writing later. So for me I want to combine the way I learn and then talking to others in the language. :) Tho I am pretty introverted I will be pushing myself to speak with others much sooner than I normally would. Thank You! :)

  • Eldon

    WOW! There's so much in here that I agree with/have seen personally. Other people do always seem to have the idea that their task is always hardest – I think this is because they can see all the hard points of their own project, and because they spend more time with themselves and their own tasks it's an impossible mindset to change.

    As for whether or not to spend time with other language learners – if they're looking for arguments, then surely you're better off ignoring them and spending extra time studying (as opposed to arguing). If they're more upbeat or willing to listen, fine, but otherwise leave them be! It's not worth the discouragement they might otherwise deal out.

  • Raphaël AJ

    Erica, I should have read your comment before writing my own on another post. You express exactly what I wanted to say. :)

    I wanted to get back at learning esperanto, Kiel vi lernas esperanton ? Mi uzis la komputikan kurson de esperanto kaj ian malnovan libron. Mi devas redauxrigi… :p

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the comments :)
    @Erica That's great to see how much you are enjoying my blog :) I'm really glad to see you choose Esperanto first! Since you'll master it so quickly it will make your second-second language MUCH EASIER and be worth the side investment :)
    Someone once described me as the “Jamie Oliver of language learning” – I try to make it seem more exciting than dull linguists tend to make it :P That's because it is :D Learning a language has opened my doors up to so many adventures :)
    You'll be happy to hear that even my current unmodified method is definitely not purely spoken. A lot of the time I do need to see a word written down before I can apply it to memory. I keep telling people that being introverted is something that they can learn to get over, but even so, I'm going to try some modern learning techniques in the comfort of my home during the next mission, and hopefully help people who are still reluctant to get into speaking.
    However, I'll continue to push people to try to speak :D I hope I succeed with you!!

    @Raphaël Thanks for your comments! Laŭ mi, estas la plej bona ilo por lerni esperanton senpage ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I'm liking academic approaches to languages less and less the more I find out about the behind-the-scenes aspect of it :P
    Great point about kids – I always say that myself!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad you liked this post on a few levels :)
    I think your solution is best; avoid the annoying expats and embrace the nice ones!

  • Wouldeye

    Alright! What's the next language? I'm excited for something Eastern European again!

  • Gareth Murphy

    Great post Benny, it brought to mind the saying “All things are easy that are done willingly.” which I've found to be completely true for ALL endeavors. If you're interested in something, go for it… don't be afraid of being a beginner! Too many adults are afraid of being beginners, stopping them from pursuing so many things that they'd love to do.

    As for styles of learning, everybody's different… I think there's something to be learned from everyone, but the most important thing is to find methods that YOU personally enjoy. I love reading everything I can about an interest, I'm a real 'theory' guy, but I know I need to get out and just dive in if I really want to improve. With the internet as it is now, there really isn't any excuse for not speaking a couple of weeks into study, even if jetting off to Brazil isn't an option!

    I'm looking forward to your tips on Irish, because even though I'm a fellow Irishman I couldn't even string a single sentence together as Gaeilge! I'm biting the bullet and designing my own blog on my language learning (Spanish & Esperanto) and other stuff that I plan on doing, which should be up over the next week or two… cheers for that 'start a blog' post, because if it wasn't for that I'd probably still be thinking 'I'd like to start a blog' years down the line!

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  • Randy

    Me too! I'm hoping you're heading to an FSB country…

  • Adam

    Another fantastic and insightful post. Great work, Benny!

    I'd say the primary advantage to your approach is your attitude. I caught myself thinking that maybe this whole Thailand adventure had not actually been so much of a success, since you didn't really focus on the speaking so much, but then I started to think of how what happens to you is much less important than your reaction to it, and I'm now certain that no matter how your stint in Thailand turned out, if you're able to take away the positive from it (as you seem so aptly able to do) it's a success.

    So it really doesn't matter if you didn't “master” Thai after only 8 weeks (I know I sure didn't). You're maintaining forward momentum and applying knowledge from the experience to your future endeavors.

    I'm also certain that you'll eventually chose to embrace all the other language learners (as opposed to moving more towards avoidance), as your exemplary positive attitude will allow you to interact and learn from them without being negatively affected by any of their cynicism or negative criticism…and I feel like THAT was the biggest lesson to come out of Thailand.

    Keep up the great work!

  • Alejeather

    Interesting comment about anglophone attitudes. My non-expert evaluation is that at least for Americans, speaking a second language is a status symbol, and that status can be maintained through being the only one around who speaks another language. We emphasize language learning difficulties to boast what we have accomplished and to discourage others from trying. It's silly, really, but I think this does happen.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    That's a fascinating theory!! It makes sense – in Europe, speaking other languages is by no means a status symbol or even that impressive, so we just take it for granted and if you try then we'll help bring you up to the “status quo” :P
    But it's rare for English speakers to master a second (or third…) language so maybe they feel you are threatening their position of glory and not worthy for a place on the podium…
    If I felt that way I would keep all my language learning secrets to myself! :P But soon some of my readers will be overtaking me :) I actually think it's great!!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Aww shucks! Thanks for the compliment :)
    I suppose Thailand was more of a spiritual linguistic journey for me than a practical one!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I think there is a middle ground between those more focused on theory and those who want to speak. As you say, speaking can happen even a few weeks into study :)
    Good luck with your blog!! Glad I have sparked some interest in some quality blogs appearing out there! Hope you enjoy my Irish tips ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I am definitely going east from where I am right now… which is Ireland :P
    Ain't I a tease?? :D
    Language will be revealed next week!

  • Rachel

    Benny, in what way are other learners discouraging? I haven't had that experience with the languages I have studied, so not sure in what way. Maybe this is a male/female thing. Are men competitive with you, or do you get it from both genders? I actually have found native speakers more discouraging when at the beginner levels in languages. They will usually just switch to English. When last in France the biggest complaint from my classmates (all upper intermediate learners) was that locals keep switching to English with them and they don't get to speak the language they are learning. This wasn't happening to me (maybe because I had put a lot of emphasis on nailing the pronunciation in French), but they found it to be the most discouraging. On the other hand, we were all very supportive of each other, only speaking to each other in French. They had all studied longer than me, but were very encouraging of me pushing myself to a higher level. Maybe I experienced just a tad bit of what you mention when in Taiwan. Students were constantly comparing themselves to each other. But in general, not my experience, so curious as to what specifically you are getting.

  • Language enthusiast

    Please make your next language Mandarin! I'd like to hear how well you can master pronouncing the tones within 2-3 months : )

  • Kris.

    Dear Benny,

    This is what you said on the Thaivisa forum:

    “I plan to be able to spontaneously read aloud ANY TEXT (that I've never seen before, e.g. newspaper article) by the end of the 8 weeks (in such a way that it's understood well) and have some level of conversation (approximately lower intermediate). I'm not aiming for parrot-level with just a store of words and phrases I can repeat; I want to actually communicate”.

    All negativism started after this claim. I think people were right to criticize you because in the end it appears that you can't read and the sentences or words you can speak are in fact parrot-level, as if they come from a guidebook about Thailand.

    You are very far from lower intermediate level.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hi Kris,
    I was indeed hoping to reach lower intermediate level, and voiced that on the blog and the thai visa forum. However, my huge workload due to financial problems meant that I could only reach the basic level that I had initially mentioned on the blog itself. I stuck to my goals as mentioned on the blog other than not reading aloud to a native.
    I still don't get the cynicism from the forum, just because I was being ambitious… Considering the drastically little amount of time I put into Thai, if someone was only half-committed during the same or less of a period they could EASILY reach lower intermediate level.

  • Erica

    @Benny I am really enjoying learning Esperanto so far.. it is easy so far and I'm glad to have finally started my language journey. :) I'll have to look at your link for getting over being introverted.. tho I don't wish to be extroverted per se.. more like an in-between area as I enjoy my introversion some of the time :D

    @Raphael You are definitely farther than me in Esperanto as I had to try to translate what you wrote lol… but I think you're asking where/with what I am learning Esperanto.. right now I am on LiveMocha which I really like so far.. but after I get through their beginning lessons I will go to where Benny talked about.. :)

  • Kris.

    What you say on the blog is indeed much more realistic than what you told us on the forum. The problem with having (too) high ambitions is that people don't take you seriously. This happens both in real life and on a forum.

    Another problem is that people don't like to hear that all the hard work they have been doing to reach a certain level can be done with almost no effort in a very short time – that just discourages people. Positivism and motivation are essential in efficient language study, but when communicating with fellow students it's important to not come to close to the borders of what is realistically possible. There are other and better ways to motivate other people (like giving compliments).

    A forum is probably not the best medium for studying languages. Very often (like now) I am also tempted to join in on useless discussions that are pulling away the attention from the actual language study.

    Goodluck with your language study. Hope you'll be back in Thailand someday.

  • Jean-Paul Setlak

    The “jump in the water first” approach can also lead you to being functionally fluent within the culture – i.e. you can eat, buy and greet – but you cannot really express yourself in or understand more elaborate conversations. It is satisfying and reinforcing but only as a beginning.
    I too have great confidence in my linguistic abilities, but I like to load my rifle before going hunting: with phonetics and essential syntax. This has led to fluency in English (I am French-born), Mandarin and Punjabi (and a few others) for me.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yeah, the assholes in Thaivisa never bothered to read my initial objectives. I found foreigners in Thailand to be among the worst perfectionists ever when it came to Thai. They need to loosen up and make a few mistakes and let others do the same. I couldn’t do as much as I had wanted with my Thai because of financial problems. When any of them have a monster credit card debt to deal with maybe someone will insult them and they will know what it feels like…

    But apart from them, I’m glad people who actually read along on the blog got a glimpse of the real story and enjoyed it!

    WomenlearnThai is a great site! I read some excellent interviews there! They should change the name though haha. :-P