How to Learn A Language

How to Learn A Language

Learning languages is tough. There are no hacks, shortcuts or ancient secret ninja methods that will get you awesome in a few days time. These days, everybody is an expert trying to sell you magic snake oil that will get you over the hump and into fluency, but most of these products do not address the main issue, which is that to learn a language takes a lot of time, effort, and perhaps most of importantly, discipline.

The process is not unlike learning a musical instrument or starting a new sport. It requires practice of all the skills involved and getting really good in one area while neglecting others will rarely pay off. Think about all those annoying drills you had to do in gym class when you were a kid for basketball, or football. We had to do those things for a reason. You need to practice the base skills of a field to the point that they become automatic before you can create anything cool. This applies to almost everything: music, sports and especially language.

How I Got Started

The only reason my Thai ever improved at all was when I found out about the consonant classes and tone rules. This was halfway through my 2nd year of speaking Thai and I’d never even knew they existed. I remember the moment when it felt like the door had swung open. Words that I always had trouble distinguishing between were suddenly easy. Even the tones, a new experience for anyone that hasn’t already been through or come from a tonal language, came together very quickly once I really mastered the rules. There were times when I heard a word and couldn’t pick out the tone by listening to it, but I knew what tone it had to be just because of the letters involved.I spent about 2 months mastering the rules on my own and by the time I was done the door had been flung open. I suddenly knew the tone and pronunciation of a word on sight. I no longer mixed up the vowel sounds or similar sounding consonants and couldn’t figure out how I ever had trouble with them in the first place.

In 2006, a friend of mine who’d be in Thailand a bit longer than myself asked me if I knew a school in Chiang Mai that would teach him how to read. At that time, there was no class that would just teach you the alphabet and none of them would let you take that class until you had done a 30-60 hours of transliteration Thai first. I told him I could probably teach him the alphabet and tone rules, but he pretty much laughed it off and said he’d find a school eventually. I ran into him a month later and he said “I went to them all and they won’t teach it to me so let’s try it your way.”

We studied twice a week for 1.5 hours and it took him about a month to get the alphabet down well, but by the end of the 2nd month he was completely solid on the rules. That was the beginning of Learn Thai from a White Guy.
I had no idea what I was doing when I bought the ticket to Thailand. I didn’t actually know where Thailand was or anything about it, and I certainly had no clue how to study a language. I bought 2 phrase books before I got on the plane and tried to learn the numbers and basic phrases on the flight over. I think I had the numbers and the basics of haggling down in about a week. I met some people traveling and when I did my first visa run to Laos I was the translator after having been here a month. Of course, what I didn’t realize that everything I was saying was wrong. The only reason it worked is because the people selling stuff at those tourist markets are used to listening to foreigners speaking awful Thai. In many cases, the sellers aren’t even native speakers.


Learning a language isn’t (or rather shouldn’t be) enormously difficult and it certainly doesn’t require any genetic inborn “language ability.” It doesn’t take a genius to speak a language. Really dumb people talk all the time. A common problem which stops most people from getting good at something are the preconceived notions about how things are and how we learn. You say it’s hard, but you’ve never even tried.

The worst part about this is that we tend to spread this garbage like a virus. How many times have you heard or said these excuses?

  • Ooh, you must have a special gift because you are good at _________
  • I’m too old/young to start doing that…..
  • I can’t learn tonal languages because I’m tone deaf
  • I like chocolate
  • Oi, that is a really hard language because blahblahblah
  • I can’t read/watch/listen to that because it’s too hard

The bottom line is you can learn to do anything you want. It takes time and loads of practice and even more than that it takes discipline and dedication. There is no secret method or hack that is going to make you a master of something overnight. It’s just like exercising or playing a musical instrument – you gotta keep going or you will never get very good. There is no end. If you want to be be able to read the newspaper, pick up a friggin newspaper! Yes it will take a while. Yes it will be hard, but it works if you stick with it.

Be a Cheater!

Cheat. It doesn’t matter what you do to get there. You don’t have to read those boring Manee books. There’s nothing wrong with picking up kids material, but it will require you learn a lot of stuff that probably won’t be relevant to what you want to be able to do with the language. When I start up in a language, I don’t care what the monkey said to the frog in Mongolian. I want to be able to talk to people about everyday stuff.

Read stuff that you like. Watch movies or tv shows that you like. If you don’t know what’s good then ask someone else for recommendations. Keep looking. Every language has something good, you just haven’t found it. If you don’t enjoy Thai movies, then watch Western movies dubbed in Thai (or whatever language). Keep plugging away. If you don’t dig it then toss it and find something else. Just don’t stop and do it every day. If you just put in the time, effort and you want it bad enough, you’ll get there. I promise.

Keep a record of what you are doing. It will help you maintain a schedule and serve to show you something resembling progress when you hit the eventual plateau where you no longer seem to be picking things up as fast. At some point a lot of the learning that takes place will happen under the hood, without you always being aware of it. This is normal, but can be stressful as we like to see the carrot as we are eating it.

  • You will never understand tv/movies/news if you never watch them.
  • You will never be able to read a book if you don’t actually ever try to read one
  • Want to learn how to read the news? After you have some words under your belt and some idea about the basics, start looking at the news!

Remember that I’m not offering you a magic pill. All I’ve done is developed a system which simplifies the process and reorders the way you learn things in a more efficient way than is currently taught in schools. I didn’t develop this method in order to sell it to you. I mastered this stuff on my own with a lot of work and had to figure out a way to simplify and expedite the process for my students. I made the book to help people avoid a lot of the stress, frustration and confusion that I needlessly experienced while learning to read Thai.

That’s it for now. Good luck on your language learning journey, and remember, if you have a question about anything at all you can email me at [email protected].

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