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Mission: Read and speak Thai in 8 weeks

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Note: Posted in 2010

Sceptics beware; as always I'm going for an ambitious goal 🙂

In a few short hours, I'm going a complicated route (Krakow –> Prague, Prague –> Amsterdam, Amsterdam –> Bangkok; it was the cheapest option and gets me “miles” in my preferred programme) to Thailand.

With an extended tourist visa and a ticket back to Europe 8 weeks later, I plan to be able to read and speak Thai by the end of my stay.

I've never been in Thailand before (which is kind of unique in this day and age for someone who's already been travelling for 7 years) and I don't speak any other Asian languages. I've never dealt with a tonal language before, and I've never read a language that doesn't use the Latin alphabet.

Despite all of that, I'm confident that I've got a good chance of reaching my goal! But first, I should very clearly define that goal!

The hard part

I plan on achieving something that I imagine very very few tourists do on short visits to Thailand. I want to be able to correctly speak the 5 tones of Thai and be able to read a given text of several sentences aloud to a local (who is not necessarily familiar with English and European accents), so that they can understand it.

This of course, involves me learning how to read Thai. There are 44 consonants, 21 initial sounds, 8 final sounds and 32 vowels. And of course, it's written in symbols that are completely strange and foreign to me, with no spaces between words and an entirely new set of vocabulary to learn. Sounds like fun!! 😀

I don't plan on being able to read with a perfect Thai accent, but I want Thais to understand me when I speak. This is much harder than it sounds because even pronouncing a word correctly can still leave it as incomprehensible if you don't apply the right tone to it.

For example, I see that the word mai can mean new, no, silk, turn a sentence into a question, or is used to form new words, depending on which of the five tones you apply to it.

So I believe this is indeed an ambitious goal! I will award myself 5 stars at the end of the 8 weeks if I can read a short text of several sentences (that I've never seen before) to several different Thais who don't speak fluent English, and who definitely understand what I've said.

To make the mission even harder, I will be working full time (as always), so all work I put into learning and practising Thai will be less than part time, since I also plan on enjoying myself in my free time in ways other than speaking the language :).

The easy part

The hard part of this mission is definitely the reading aspect and mastering the tones. The rest will be much easier. Thai grammar is much simpler than it is in European languages, and unlike a typical backpacker arriving freshly in Thailand on his round-the-world ticket for his gap year, I've got 7 years of developing my method of learning languages and actually applying them and achieving fluency several times over (anyone could apply the same method, but sadly, most don't).

Apart from the tones and Thai script, I imagine (correct me if I'm wrong) that this will be more or less the same as learning a European language, just with more vocabulary to memorise, and a much simpler grammatical system.

Despite that, because I'll have my work cut out for me in what I outlined above, I won't be putting as much work into speaking “fluently” (that will come in the next visit to Thailand if I decide to). I'm not even going to aim to speak pretty well in 2 months. I'm told that tones and script are the hardest part of Asian languages, so I'm going straight to the core of the problem and focussing on it from the start.

The “speak” part in the title of this mission is also a mockery of those who aim to “speak” a language for something such as a New Year's resolution, without clearly defining what this means.

If you say you “speak” a language, this can be anything from being confused for a native, to having just a few words or sentences. Hell, even a parrot can speak! It doesn't actually mean anything in terms of language level or actual comprehension. So no matter how great or how miserably I do in this mission I will “speak” something at the end of it.

More specifically, I am aiming to speak basic to lower intermediate Thai in the 8 weeks I'm there; asking directions, ordering food, basic small talk and haggling etc. and getting the gist of typical responses, without relying on my phrasebook.

I would push this goal up higher, but as well as the difficulty of the tones and reading part, I've decided to go south to the islands, rather than north where I'd be immersed much more and not speak any English; by far the best way to learn a language quickly. I'm told that the south is much more touristy, and I am very honestly telling you that I am not going for an “authentic” experience in just 8 weeks, having never been there before and feeling in the mood to relax a little.

Most of the rest of 2010 will involve me being immersed in cultures and avoiding English speakers, and going for even harder goals than this one. So I'm going to take it easy in Thailand, live on a beach, get regular cheap massages (and, unfortunately, work full time), hang out with both Thais and other tourists and party :).

At the end of my stay I'll make a short video entirely in Thai, so any curious readers of the blog can hear how I'm speaking.

I'll be in Bangkok for my first days and will investigate where to go to from there.

Can it be done?

Despite the fact that I am being upfront now about the fact that I will be a “tourist” in Thailand, I plan on putting a lot of work into the tones, and understanding the writing system and I'm fully aware of the fact that this will be hard work.

Since this is entirely new territory for me, I'll be relying on advice from others to help me (as well as my own experience). For example, Matador recommends that I should get a tutor (I usually prefer to learn almost entirely through active natural application of a language, but I'll make an exception this time), and sing it (music has already hugely helped me to learn other languages; I'll explain how in a later post).

If anyone else has some useful advice, such as image association for the symbols etc. then please do let me know of them!! Otherwise I'll just develop my own method 🙂

Although tones and writing systems are completely different across most Asian languages, I feel that if I can find out how to master them quickly, then I may indeed be able to become fluent in 3 months in other Asian languages.

So this mission is actually a long-term investment for me. I've asked around and those who have learned Asian languages have consistently told me that tones and writing systems are by far the hardest part of those languages to master. So, rather than slowly work my way through a language, I'm going straight to the core of the problem and focusing almost entirely on this “hardest” aspect. If I can indeed master them quickly, then I don't see anything else holding me back, or even holding back anyone else who follows advice from what I've learned, to quickly learn how to speak an Asian language fluently.

If I don't achieve my goal, I'll analyse why and try again later, although as always, I will presume that I'll be successful until proven otherwise 🙂

So, what do you think? Can it be done? Did I set the bar too high? Was 8 weeks way too short a time? Any advice to help me succeed?

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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