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
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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