My friend Jeremy, who also happens to be my counterpart in Vietnam, is here to offer you some tips on how to get good at a language. He’s in the process of writing a book about his experiences which you should definitely check out. See if you can’t pick him out of the photo below. – Brett
I’m probably one of the worst language learning students ever. I never study. I’ve never bought a textbook. I hate flashcards. In highschool, I got caught cheating in French class and almost got kicked out of the class.
It’s not just that I’m cheap, it goes beyond that. I’m sure I could benefit a lot from using an online tool such as iTalki or something like that, but it’s just not my style.
See, I’ve never thought of myself as a language learner. Rather, I’ve always thought of myself as a culture chameleon, a traveler who makes friends with the locals and blends into the local culture as much as possible.
Despite my stubbornness when it comes to language learning, I’ve had some successes. Despite never being able to remember any conjugations, I can now sing in French. I can’t name a single Vietnamese grammar book, but I can perform stand up comedy in Vietnamese.
After living in Vietnam for ten months, I got “famous” after going on a few Vietnamese TV shows. But, I’m not here to talk about that, because I don’t care about being famous.
What I do care about is learning the local language, and I truly believe that it can make your experience living in a foreign country feel like home. Thailand and Vietnam are very similar countries, yet they do have some differences. Okay…I’ll say what you’re thinking, “Thailand and Vietnam are same same, but different.”
Anyways, here are my top tips on how to befriend locals and learn a language for free.
Always make the effort
This goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyways: you need to make a conscious effort day in and day out. You get out what you put in, that means you need to be putting in the work every day. This can be as simple as sparking up a conversation with a stranger or reviewing your new vocabulary words, but you’ve got to do it.
Write in a notebook
Hopefully you recognize the necessity of learning to read Thai. If not, well….good luck. I strongly recommend carrying around a notebook wherever you go. You can use your phone if you’d like, but a notebook is better.
Write down new words as they come, and when you interact with locals, ask them for help. Sometimes, that may mean asking them to write down the words for you. Other times, it may mean having them go back and correct your spelling mistakes before.
Having a notebook on you at all times sounds like a hassle, but it’s simple. Find a small one that fits in your pocket, or even fold it in between your wallet. If you have a purse, put it inside. That way, whenever you have a few minutes waiting in line, instead of checking Tinder, you can review some vocabulary from your notebook.
“I got so much better at Thai from hanging out at all the expat bars”, said no one ever.
If you want to improve your Thai, do as the Thai do. Go to a gym where nobody speaks English. Eat out on the street. This will not only improve your Thai, but it’ll give you an overall better experience. Plus, you’ll make more friends, understand the culture more, and your language skills will improve drastically.
Practicing a language you are not confident it can be intimidating. But, once you get over the fear, you’ll see that it’s not so bad. Ask yourself about the worst case scenario. When you play it out, you’ll realize it’s not so bad. It’s probably just an awkward conversation where no one understands each other. That’s not a big deal at all.
Start off conversations in Thai, not English. Even if your Thai sucks, if you open up with English, then people will respond to you in English. If you start in Thai, they’ll be more likely to respond in Thai (which is what you want). Even if they respond in English, you can continue speaking in Thai. If they’re confused, just be polite and tell them, “Excuse me, I want to practice my Thai.” 9/10 people will be delighted and happy to help you.
If not, that’s okay, you just have too…
Find Your teachers and return frequently
Not every 7/11 worker is going to want to help you with your Thai. But, a few will, and those are the ones you need to remember. Once you find someone that’s willing to help you with your Thai and have conversations with you, keep going back to their store/restaurant. Not only will they continue to help you with your Thai, but you’ll build a relationship as well and become friends. It’s okay to make social visits and stop by to say hi and practice Thai. Think of them as a friend and after some time, you’ll feel like you’re apart of the community.
Use body language
The more you can use your hands and emotion, the better. If you don’t know the word for shower, play charades and pretend like you are taking a shower. This will make it a game, and once you communicate that you are going to take a shower, you’ll hear your conversation partner say the word for shower. This is a great way to learn new words and communicate words you don’t know. It’s also hilarious and a good skill to have.
Mimic Them (even if you don’t understand)
When you’re talking with locals, you need to listen and repeat as much as possible. Even if you’re not sure what they’re saying, just repeat after them. This will improve your accent and also improve your overall comprehension for the language. It’s also great to confirm what you just heard, and it improves your chances or remembering it.
You may not realize it, but as you do this, your subconscious picks up everything you say and hear. When you repeat after them, you’re also flexing the muscles in your mouth that allow you to have a good accent. Once you learn the word and it’s meaning, it will be easier to remember. It sounds weird at first, but think of a child mimicking its parents. It’s completely okay to say a word without knowing its meaning. Just be careful not to hang out with people who swear a lot!
Smile, Have Fun, and Flatter
Don’t approach people with the intention of learning five new words. Instead, have a goal of having fun. Once you do this, you’ll learn more than you could ever imagine. Don’t take yourself too seriously. If no one understands each other (trust me, this will happen), try not to get frustrated. Instead, just smile.
Don’t be afraid to flatter them with compliments. It’s a lot easier than asking questions, because you usually won’t be able to understand their responses anyway. Instead, just tell them they are beautiful. Tell them their food is delicious. Tell them you love Thailand, etc. They will love you for this. Being a foreigner in SE Asia is fun, don’t forget that by taking language learning too seriously.
Go In Order
If you’re just getting started, learn words and phrases in an order that makes sense. Don’t learn colors and then learn the days of the week. Start with the practical stuff. hello, how are you, thanks, see you again, etc. Seek out simple people and engage in simple conversation. It’s that simple!
Get Out There And Practice
Remember, language learning isn’t all or nothing. This may sound like a lot, but it’s up to you how often you practice and how intense your approach is. You don’t have to spend four hours a day talking to old ladies selling pad thai (though, those can make the best memories).
If you’re taking lessons or have a tutor already, then use these strategies on top of your weekly class. Do it on your own time. If you’re living in Thailand, opportunities are just outside your doorstep. Literally
Thailand is a beautiful country with beautiful people. But, if you can’t speak Thai, then you’re selling yourself short of an amazing experience. Learning Vietnamese changed my life, and I hope that you consider taking the time to learn Thai. Maybe it can change yours too.
About the Author:
Jeremy is a writer and an “entreperformer” and yet another white guy who can speak a Southeast Asian Language. After finding fame in Vietnam, he’s writing his first book, “F*ck Being Famous”. Sign up here for a FREE copy when it’s out. He also publishes weekly inspiring and funny videos on his YouTube channel.