Don’t just stand there… Say something!

My 8 weeks in Thailand are up – I had made some great progress in reading Thai symbols and tone rules in the first month, but for nearly all of the last 3 weeks in Bangkok I’ve have to work double time and have, unfortunately, barely been out of my apartment! This meant that the speaking part of my Thai mission hadn’t even begun.

On Friday (3 days ago at the time of writing), I could not speak Thai. I had never gone beyond saying please, thank you, hello, and excuse me, and learning some vocabulary that I had never even used. I just “didn’t have the time” – I was working from 8am to 10pm the entire week (including weekends). There was no hope…

Having said that, have a look at this video I made over the weekend, entirely in Thai:

Unfortunately there is a lot of noise because the video is recorded in the streets of Bangkok. However, you can hear me fine because I speak loudly. I’m afraid all foreign languages can’t sound like they do in Rosetta Stone’s soundproof voice-recording room. ;)

In today’s post, I’d like to show you how I went about making that video, and give you a glimpse into my train of thought when taking on a language!

Stop making excuses and speak!!

Of course, I’m just as prone to making lazy excuses as anyone else. I’ve learned quite a few things in this trip about how not to learn a language, which I’ll be sharing with you soon enough.

However, I have certainly confirmed (through my own mistakes and through discussions with other learners of Thai) that the main difficulty almost everyone has in speaking any language is simply their own excuses holding them back. “It’s too hard, I’m too shy, I can’t practise without travelling, locals only speak English with me…” and of course everyone’s favourite: “I don’t have time“. The last one was my excuse in Thailand. But that’s all these are: excuses. You have the potential to get past these issues if you really tried.

Since I had initially promised to make a video and to speak at least the basics, and I had my secret weapon of a great community to encourage me, I decided to let go of excuses. This even included common sense such as “you’ll never be able to do all that in just one weekend!!” When letting go of these excuses, my goal was simply to just say something beyond pleasantries.

The title of this post is taken from the Lonely Planet phrasebooks; you really do have to stop worrying and just simply start speaking. Say what you know and learn more based on what you need to say. This goes against the linguists’ and academics’ approach of perfecting a language until you are “ready” to speak it, and is an approach I’ll be criticising a lot on this blog. That approach works great if you want to pass an exam, but if you want to communicate with actual human beings you have to get over your excuses and speak; and do this as soon as possible.

For the purposes of the video, all I needed was the introduction, numbers, and the most common words used in restaurant and haggling situations. That is a small enough amount to learn in a morning; nobody can doubt that. Just applying it after having learned to say nothing but those words/sentences is what a lot of people may be scared of.

It’s actually not that bad if you try it!

This is a similar realisation I made when I first really tried to speak a language, but speaking too much English in Thailand got me out of my usual rhythm. Maybe I could have used the excuse that I need “my routine” to really speak a language? Another lazy excuse…

Use “video editing” skills in your daily encounters

I made the above video to give you a better idea of the mentality I have in the initial stages of learning a language. It shows my first ever attempts at speaking Thai. I promise that before Saturday morning I couldn’t say anything you see in the video except for thank you and hello.

The main reason I want to show you this video is not to brag about the not-actually-impressive level of Thai that I’ve reached, but to show you a little of the magic of video editing and how you may be able to apply the same concept to your own next language. You don’t need any camera or editing equipment for that; I’m talking about memory editing.

People are excellent filters. Those using the aforementioned (and other) excuses are great for filtering out the good and focusing on the bad, and way too many language learners are like this.

Those who have a glass-is-half-full attitude will focus on the positive and ignore unhelpful negativity. Any embarrassing mistakes they make will be used as positive learning opportunities. Rather than focusing on the embarrassment, they’ll see the mistake made, learn from it, and then probably forget about the actual embarrassing part of the encounter; just editing it out from their general language learning story. Looking back, all they see is the progress being made. This is the same way that “lucky” people tend to live their lives.

Getting unnecessarily discouraged will never help you to speak a language, and this is why I focus so much on positivity on this blog. It’s a key-factor to successfully make fast progress.

That’s why I made this video; to show you how I simply filter out any experiences that don’t contribute to my goal – what “actually” happened (for the cynics out there) was the following:

I recorded the first scene over fifteen times – just before this, I spent over 10 minutes repeating exactly the same introduction to my friend Aleksandra (who speaks fluent Thai). She corrected me until I had most of the tones and pronunciation right. The first time I recorded it, I was very nervous; it was the first time I had ever said more than two words in Thai, and I couldn’t read anything to help me. I stuttered and paused, forgot to say words, got easily distracted by people walking by, and in some takes I couldn’t even start speaking – even hello escaped me in one take.

And in the marketplace, I’ve only shown you the parts of the video where I understood what is going on. The parts where they said something to me that I didn’t understand, or when they spoke in English, are simply edited out. I had a total of 10 minutes of footage, but the video is only 2 minutes long.

This is how you have to view your progress in a language.

When presenting it to others you may call a video like this misleading, so I don’t want people to think that I can confidently speak in Thai like in the video all the time (I can’t). You might just say that I’m nothing more than a confident parrot, but I succeeded in buying items for a price I was happy with, and ordering food in a restaurant, and even introducing a video, without using any English. To me, this is an achievement to be proud of, especially when done in just one weekend.

There is no need for modesty, especially when thinking to yourself. A video like this is exactly how I think of my progress in a language. All the bad bits get edited out. The stumbles and misunderstandings and red-faced-embarrassment are used for emotional impact to not make the same mistake again, but then can just be otherwise forgotten. Any times I succeed and am proud of myself will be remembered.

This is not to say that the negative times don’t count; the first 14 takes of the introduction were crucial in getting the last one right. As I said, I had never spoken more than 2 words before, so I was quite nervous. Repeating the introduction on camera, aware that possibly thousands of people may end up watching this, and seeing that it wasn’t really that scary, got me over that nervousness.

You can see how confident I am in the rest of the video because of breaking through that nervous stage. It only took a couple of minutes - just trying, instead of making excuses, gave me the confidence to speak.

By just getting out there and finally speaking, I got over my nervousness.

The unpleasant parts were essential steps to the fun parts, but you can bet that I have no interest in reviewing the edited-out footage. Rather than dwell on the past, I make sure that I’ll have even more positive results in the future.

In a video, it’s easy to do this with a few clicks, but in your day to day interactions it takes some effort to get over negative experiences. You have to make the extra effort; keep a personal journal (or a blog as I mentioned already), just describing the positive, so that you can look back on it and remember all the amazing moments of progress if you are feeling discouraged, or do whatever else it takes to forget the “hiccups”.

When I look back on my weekend speaking Thai, I’ll be remembering it the same way you have just seen it. The other parts were dull so I’ll just erase them from my mind. I may not be doing an amazing job, but I now have the confidence to speak Thai, and that is the whole reason I came here in the first place. :)

In the next post(s) I’ll summarise my time in Thailand and go into more detail on some of the mistakes I’ve made here for the mission, despite the fact that I am genuinely satisfied with the overall result, especially considering the little time investment I actually made.

I needed this break, because the next language mission will be very challenging, and even ridiculous in what I’ll be aiming for.

Let me know what you think of the video; some people may tell me how bad my tones are and say that I’m a fraud for making an edited video (although, pretty much every video you have ever seen has been edited in some way to make it look better), but being the positive-filter that I am, that negativity will barely make a scratch on me ;) Hopefully I can convince others to implement the same confident approach!

Any one of you could make exactly the same video in any language; all you have to do is try :)

Looking forward to your comments as always! :) Share this post on facebook/twitter/stumbleupon/e-mail everyone you know/yell it through a megaphone at everyone in the street/put up posters around your neighbourhood, or otherwise share it if you liked it!



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

    There's another kind of negativity that you didn't address: The 'your method won't work' negativity.

    For instance: “you really do have to stop worrying and just simply start speaking. Say what you know and learn more based on what you need to say. This goes against the linguists’ and academics’ approach of perfecting a language until you are “ready” to speak it, and is an approach I’ll be criticising a lot on this blog. ” … Yes, you are guilty of it.

    When I was in highschool, I took Spanish and they forced you to speak it from day 1. It certainly wasn't a magic spell to get me speaking Spanish, since I never -could- speak it, even after 2 years of it in highschool.

    I've been studying Japanese on my own for 3 years now. I have never tried to speak it in that time, but you know what? I now feel almost -ready- to speak it. When I -do- speak it, I'll do it with confidence. And it'll work out better because of it.

    More negativity? “But it took you 3 years!!” – So what!? It's not like I'm going to die if it takes me my whole life to learn Japanese. I'm learning for fun, and I use it for fun. The fact that I've gotten as far as I have in 3 years is amazing to me. I certainly wouldn't be this far in a normal class.

    tl;dr – Speaking from the start isn't magic. It'll work for those it works for, and not for those it doesn't. You can't paint everyone with the same brush.

  • lyzazel

    “It's not like I'm going to die if it takes me my whole life to learn Japanese.”

    Well, technically, you are.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    lol, well said Lyzazel!!
    @wc The 3 years investment isn't what I'd criticise, it's the “I feel almost ready to speak it” part after all that time. Almost = Not, so you aren't speaking it. Plain and simple.
    If you study languages because you like learning them, then we have no argument. My blog is for people interested in speaking languages. If someone likes doing something, then who am I to stop them enjoying themselves :) I'm just giving advice for people who are interested in doing something (other than pass an exam) with their language.
    I like reading detective novels; I'm never going to be a detective, so people who are detectives shouldn't criticise me since I enjoy the reading process, the same way I shouldn't criticise you if your purpose is simply to enjoy the learning process. You enjoy learning languages; good for you :) We have different goals, so different approaches are indeed necessary.

  • Steve

    Well you passed your mission cuz you can read Thai and speak it.
    I don't know if it's just my computer but I couldn't really hear anything you said in the video because of the background noise.
    I'm very interested to see what your next mission is, I find it very difficult to think of a more difficult mission than the Carioca or Czech one. The only thing I can think would be harder is learning 2 languages to fluency. If this isn't your mission then maybe you should consider it in the future, for example, you could live in a Romansch area of Switzerland and learn that and German at the same time, or in Germany you could learn German and Turkish or Polish at the same time. Will you be working double time again though or will we find that out at the end of the mission again as in the Thailand and Czech ones?

  • Jessica

    Well I'd certainly say: Mission accomplished!
    Great work Benny, I look forward to seeing what your next mission will be! :D

  • Balint

    I especially like this part:

    “Say what you know and learn more based on what you need to say. “

    I find this very useful. I know understan a fair bit of Mandarin, but when I speak to my Taiwanese friend, she always smiles and encourages me to speak more. When I make a mistake we just laugh (chances are I said something funny/inappropriate :D), I ask how it should be pronounced and we go from there. And I will definitely remember that phrase.

    Benny, I think you've made a great job, not particularly in Thai, but to show people that languages and especially speaking can be real fun! And if you enjoy yourself, you can't really go wrong. :D

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Steve! There is noise, but that's normal for Bangkok streets ;) On my computer the sound is fine for hearing what I'm saying, although I have good quality speakers so I can imagine that on some systems it might be harder.
    Learning 2 languages at the same time is an interesting idea, but it goes against my own recommendations ;)
    I'm going to try to avoid the working double time problem. It really is not fun!!!! I'll write a little more about that in my Thailand summary post and you'll see me share some ideas with my readers soon.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I will be discussing a particular topic over the next weeks and then I will start the mission near the end of March and introduce it shortly before as always ;)
    I do like to create some suspense :D

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Balint ;)

  • Eldon

    Recorded it over fifteen times eh? That's fewer than most Hollywood takes :p It's important to know that you have to screw up sometimes to get good at something, and what I think you say about “video editing” memories is right. Whilst it's good to remember the lessons learned from mistakes, it's not good to remember the associated negativity.

    I make mistakes in my Cantonese almost every time I try and say something new – but then when it's corrected, I've learned how to say something properly (and I never let it stop me making trying!)

    Kudos on your spoken Thai from just one weekend too – it's a nice reminder that nothing is impossible! Cheers for the post :D

  • pinpon619

    Whats you're nest language going to be?

  • Leigh Shulman

    It's not entirely true that ALL linguists say learning first and then speak. Immersion learning says quite the opposite. You simply put yourself in a situation where you have no other choice but to hear and ultimately speak the language.

    Of course most will also say that attempting to force yourself before you're ready won't actually help you learn — which goes more to the individual's ability to learn — but not speaking never helps.

    Now how do you know you're ready? I think most are long before they realize it but allow the fear to get in the way. Too long with that thinking and it becomes a mantra.

    I learned Spanish because I live in a city where almost no one speaks English. I had no choice, and it's amazing how quickly you learn when you need to find food and a place to live.

  • Adam


    What is your take on the issue of negative evidence, as in, getting people to tell you when you're actually doing something wrong? My experience in Thailand was that people usually understood what I was saying in VERY simple interactions (like your market encounters), but I felt it was more due to 1 or 2 key words that I was using (from which they could deduce the gist) rather than because I had actually constructed a correct sentence. I probably even had an incorrect word order most of the time, but it seemed as though the Thais were so happy to hear a farang speak Thai that they were prepared to forgive less than perfect language.

    So I guess more to the point…I personally feel like a fair amount of correction is helpful in refining your internal hypotheses about the language, but if you don't even know what you're saying is incorrect (due to the locals being overly accepting of error or whatever), does it matter? As long as the interaction ends in your needs being met (food/directions/phatic communion/etc), would you say it's de facto fluent?

    Keep up the great work, and I look forward to your unveiling of the next adventure!

    note – at NO point was my Thai good enough to even ask for help in correction (maybe that was my problem)

  • Jessica

    I agree that creating some suspense is a good strategy to keep people's attention… but I wanna know NOWWW!! ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I'll reveal it on the site in a few weeks ;)
    Next week I will be talking about something that quite a few people are interested in, for a few weeks (as well as normal language learning tips etc.)
    I start my next mission at the end of the month!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hi Adam; I am totally for correction! Without it, self-improvement is extremely hard.
    In the early stages people need to focus on the positive as I keep saying, so getting wrong word-order or mumbling the non-key words isn't ideal, but if they get the gist it is certainly a great start; you are communicating without using English. Something to be proud of!
    When you reach lower-intermediate then you have to make sure you continue to make progress. In that case, having friends willing to correct you, or getting private lessons is ideal.
    Accepting that you make mistakes is important in the early stages but must be weeded out when you are aiming for fluency, after getting over the initial nervousness to speak.
    Fluency in my mind requires a vast reduction in mistakes; not 100%, but certainly all of them, especially basic ones. Even if they can understand you, it's slowing down the conversation for them to decipher what you might mean and this is certainly not anything along the lines of fluent.
    Depending on the level you are at now, do whatever it takes to make sure you make the most progress possible is what I'd say :) Low level; focus on confidence to speak. Medium-level: focus on improving and ironing out mistakes ;) If your Thai isn't good enough to ask for mistake correction yet, you may need to practise it much more, and consider getting lessons or patient friends who don't mind correcting you :)
    Best of luck!!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yes, a huge amount of takes is typical for any video production really. I just wanted to be honest and not mislead readers not familiar with how videos can be edited to filter the facts. Hopefully the metaphor for applying it to their memories is understood by people!
    Thanks for the encouragement Eldon!!

  • Rachel

    The students in my language school who always learn the best are the ones who throw themselves in and start using the language right away. I admire that ability. I struggle with that because it is a bit of an “out of control” feeling. You can't be hard on yourself and you have to be ready to laugh with people laughing at/with you. Some people need to wait until their passive knowledge is at an intermediate level before they start working on their active skills (perhaps what the Japanese student mentioned). That's cool too, just going to take a lot longer to get those active skills up and running. If you are that type, I recommend getting those active skills going sooner in an environment you can feel safe in, such as with a language exchange partner, hiring a tutor, joining a language group, etc.

  • Talen

    I have to say I applaud your effort but for spending 8 weeks in Thailand and studying the language the video showed no more language skill than any tourist to the Kingdom walks away with without studying.

    Even spending only two weeks In Thailand it's pretty simple to pick up the basic questions and answers needed to buy something and navigate the city politely.

  • Annette

    “some people may tell me how bad my tones are and say that I’m a fraud for making an edited video”

    You are not a fraud at all. On the contrary, I think the video was an extremely creative way to illustrate your point: all videos (at least ones that look good) have been edited in some way. I have never seen the “glass is half full” saying illustrated in such an interesting, creative, and effective way. I'm inspired :)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Good tips Rachel. For most people, starting with a tutor or fellow-learner is the best way to begin. However, I get high off of embarrassment, so I always dive straight into the deep end :P

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    What kind of tourists have you been meeting?? I've met people living here for several years who wouldn't dare use Thai like that (even though I argue here that literally anyone could do it). Luckily that's the minority of expats, but you need to meet some of the tourists I've been seeing… even before this weekend when all I said was hello, thank you etc. I was well ahead of them. It's sad because it's pure laziness, but that's the way it is.

    Please note that I reached that spoken level in a weekend, not in 8 weeks. However, it's of course likely that some of the study I did for reading (still not much) contributed to my ability to speak in the end.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    What kind of tourists have you been meeting?? I've met people living here for several years who wouldn't dare use Thai like that (even though I argue here that literally anyone could do it). Luckily that's the minority of expats, but you need to meet some of the tourists I've been seeing… even before this weekend when all I said was hello, thank you etc. I was well ahead of them. It's sad because it's pure laziness, but that's the way it is.

    Please note that I reached that spoken level in a weekend, not in 8 weeks. However, it's of course likely that some of the study I did for reading (still not much) contributed to my ability to speak in the end.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks as always for your positivity Annette :)
    I'm glad you saw the true purpose of what I was trying to express in the post!! Let's hope some more people are inspired to try to be language optimists :)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    It's true that ALL linguists don't say that, but I'd argue that on a fuzzy scale of linguist to language hacker, there are many different shades. A pure linguist is more interested in theory than application, plain and simple.
    Getting over the fear is important. Some will say to wait until you are “more ready”, but I think that does indeed become a mantra as you suggest. This is why I say you should do it from day one (a mistake I made in this attempt myself as mentioned).

  • Colm


    Go hiontach ar fad! I've stumbled across your blog lately (from AJATT) and think it's great. It's excellent practical advise, I particularly loved the idea of mini goals and stopping speaking in English. Both have helped me already with my own missions. Common sence when you think about it, but sometimes it does need to be said!

    Something I don't know if you touched on in other posts is learning a new language through a non-native one you (mostly) speak, it takes English out of the picture and really helps re-enforce the existing one.

    Looking forward to your next mision, go n-éirí leat!

  • LucienS

    Marvellous! Many English people, or Dutch for that matter, would feel very happy if they could get by in French like you do in Thai!

    Better to be a confident parrot than a bird that cannot sing ;) (…)

  • Raphaël AJ


    Durant ma scolarité et mes années d'université, j'ai étudié l'anglais (je m'en sors plutôt bien) et découvert l'allemand, le gaélique irlandais (“Conas atá tú?”, my teacher was from Cork), le japonais, et le breton. J'ai aussi découvert l'espéranto, qui me plait beaucoup.

    Je viens de passer une bonne heure sur ton site et toutes tes aventures me donnent envie de reprendre l'apprentissage de ces langues. C'est déjà le cas pour l'allemand, puisque je suis auxiliaire de vie scolaire (special needs assistant) pour un élève qui étudie cette langue.

    Je te remercie beaucoup pour ton témoignage, ça redonne de l'énergie. :)

  • Felix

    Hmmm in the video… there is a bit of background noise, but I hear the watermelon lady say 5 instead of 15 baht… is it just me? :) And also when you ask her อะไรครับ you should subtitle it as What? and not How much?

    One comment I'd give you is that you focus way way too much on the tones, and not on the natural flow of your voice. Even though they are an important part of the language, tones are highly overrated and shouldn't be intimidating, nor placed before everything else… listen to people speak.

    Good job though… just with those few phrases, you probably made the day of a few Thais otherwise jaded of dealing with unilingual anglosaxoids on a dialy basis. Lâche pas la patate!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks Felix! Note that the “How much” is subtitles on what I am saying ;) Because of the noise you don't hear her say สิบ before ห้า so it seems like it's just 5 from the audio
    Definitely some good advice there!! I've discovered that other learners are way too hung up on tones and even if you mess up once or twice it's not a big deal if it's part of large sentences. Next time I'll be letting it flow without worrying so much ;)
    Merci !

  • Rachel

    Ok Benny, now I know what kind of learner you are. I have a post on “Tone Robots” regarding Mandarin (…) And, these types of analytical learners are always ahead of the game. Just may sound robotic and weird to start. The advice is good from last comment, listen to natural cadence of language. Not enough time for this language, but when you take up Mandarin you can do it. Doing a presentation at a conference early tomorrow in San Diego on the very topic.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the follow up comment Rachel! Wish I could attend the conference; I lived in San Diego for 4 months many moons ago!
    I'll definitely be less focused on details in Mandarin and try to let the conversation flow whenever I take it on!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yes, others have told me that too. I didn’t do it all the time, but being filmed made me think more formally.

  • Alex Hogan

    This is a big inspiration for me. I studied three years of Spanish in college, and can order a cup of coffee – but not much else. My excuse for not learning it was that I didn’t live in a Spanish speaking country and will put it off until then. Well after figuring out I wasn’t moving anytime soon, I decided it was time to get serious about really learning it. Spanish is a functional second language in many U.S. cities. My neighborhood is nearly 30% Spanish speaking and I encounter native speakers EVERY DAY. But I was always terrified of using my mangled Spanish, especially as their English skills were probably better. But that’s it – it’s time to break the ice and just start speaking, Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Patrick Kelly

    Good post, well done. I hope you enjoyed the beauty of Thailand. Good video too!