How to Learn to Speak Thai - Learn Thai from a White Guy

How to Learn to Speak Thai

Brett under a pyramid in Egypt

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These days, there are many different options to choose from if you want to learn to speak Thai and it can be very confusing deciding which direction to take.

When I came to Thailand back in early 2003 there were a handful of books and a number of language schools in Chiang Mai for me to choose from. I sat in on some sample classes and realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to learn to speak Thai well by sitting in a classroom.

I used a very famous travel phrasebook for a while, but nearly all the Thai phrases I got from that book were wrong and I found it extremely frustrating.

In this post, I’m going to tell you type of strategies you need to use on your quest to learn to speak and read Thai as well as what resources you need.

  1. Should You Learn to Speak Thai?
  2. Is Thai a Difficult Language?
  3. Do You Need to Learn the Thai Script?
  4. 3 Easy Steps for Learning to Speak Thai
  5. Top 5 Things to AVOID When Learning Thai
  6. Basic Thai Vocabulary
  7. Basic Thai Learning Videos

Should You Learn to Speak Thai?

I can think of heaps of reasons why you should learn Thai, but ultimately everyone must answer this question themselves.  A more useful question to ask yourself might be:

Do I want to speak Thai badly enough that I’m going to actively try to learn it everyday for 6 months or more?

You need to have some source of lasting motivation in order to learn to speak Thai.  Here are a few things that kept me going back when I first arrived in Thailand.

  • Finding vegetarian food in Thailand – I’ve been vegan since long before I came to Thailand so learning how to say things like “Don’t put in any fish/oyster sauce” were vital to me not being hungry and miserable.
  • Talking with taxi (song taew) drivers – I used the red trucks to get around everywhere and as my Thai gradually improved, it became more and more difficult (and eventually impossible) for them to try and rip me off.
  • Making Friends – Thailand has nearly 70 million people and man of them don’t speak very much (or any!) English.  To access and build real relationships with people who don’t speak English offers you amazing opportunities for learning about both the language and the culture of the people who use it.  It’s easy to think of “culture” as a list of features like “saving face,” but I feel that it’s more about how a people’s values, education and upbringing have shaped they way they think, feel and interact with the world.

To really learn a language requires quite a bit of time and effort.  Sit down for 90 seconds and make your own list.  Are the things on that list important enough to you that you’ll be able to ride out the good times and the bad.


Is it Difficult to Learn to Speak Thai?

Learning a language is not difficult exactly, but it takes a while to get good.  It’s a lot like learning to play a music instrument.  Once you can bang out a few chords on a piano, you can start faking a few songs really quick, but you will forever pale in comparison to someone who has devoted thousands of hours of their life to the instrument.  Now native speakers have many thousands of hours on you.  You shouldn’t be trying to compete with them.  Your only goal should be to communicate with them more effectively than yesterday.


Do You Need to Learn to Read the Thai Script?

Yes, yes yes!  The script is the fastest and easiest way to master the Thai sound system.  And if you really want to learn to speak Thai well, you need to get comfortable with the sounds.  If you ignore the script, your Thai will forever suck.  You will say nearly everything wrong.  You will constantly mix up very different vowel sounds that you never bothered to learn (คุย คอย เคย).  You will struggle to both pronounce and hear the difference between aspirated, unaspirated and voiced versions of consonants (พา ป้า บ้า). Just learn the script! I promise it’s worth the 10 hour time investment.

But, Brett.  There are soooo many letters and vowels.  How will I ever remember them all?

There are a finite number of consonants, vowels and sounds that are associated with them.  You can’t learn them all in a day, but that’s ok.  You can learn everything you need to know in about 10 hours over 2 weeks or so.

But, Brett. My Thai is so awesome and fluent.  Everyone tells me so.”

Thai people are very forgiving of mistakes and overly generous with praise.  This is great in the beginning as it helps us to alleviate the anxiety of having to perform to improve, but it gives us an inflated sense of how good we really are (you still suck, but that’s ok if you admit it and move forward).  Here’s an awful video of me talking about this in 2009 back when I was young, handsome and motivated to learn all the languages.  If you still think you are awesome.  Record yourself talking and listen to it.

Bottom Line:  You are severely handicapping yourself by not learning the actual sounds and script.  If you are not willing to put in 10 or 20 hours to get comfortable with the sounds of the language, why bother at all?

Reasons to Learn to Read Thai:

  • You will suck at Thai until you can read Thai
  • You can start chatting to the opposite sex in their own language.
  • You can steal your significant’s other’s phone and read their messages.
  • You can finally read the “500 baht fine for puking”  in the bathroom.
  • You can figure out what the hell is going on with menus like this.
  • Just go learn to read Thai already!  I promise it’s worth it.
learn to speak thai funny menu

I’ll have an order of the “penetrate Laos Melons” please.

3 Easy Steps for Learning to Speak Thai

Step 1: Learn the Script, Sound System and Tone Rules

(About 2-3 weeks to learn and a few months to master)

  • Check out my 50+ lesson Thai foundation course which covers everything you need to know about about the Thai script, sounds and tone rules.  Read Thai in 2 Weeks
  • It’s ok to learn a few words and/or sentences during this stage, but it’s worth spending most of your time on getting the sounds correct.  This will pay off very big, very fast.
  • Reading is more important than writing, and these days, so is typing.  I wouldn’t bother practicing writing or typing single letters.  I’d wait until you knew a few short common words and learn to write and spell them simultaneously.  Eg; ผม กิน ดี ไป

Step 2:

Learn 50+ high-frequency basic sentence patterns while continuing to drill step 1 (Time: 2-3 Months)that you can use immediately as soon as you can read – Start with these: 100 Sentence Project

  • You are much better off spending time drilling very short, high frequency sentence patterns than just trying to memorize lists of words.  This strategy will allow you to have partial conversations almost immediately which means you get to the fun stuff much faster.
  • If you have access to Thai people, you’ll want to test out these sentences as you study them every day.  If you aren’t in Thailand or don’t know any Thai people, you still have a few options.  Is there a Thai restaurant where you live?  Try and go eat there once or twice a week and chat with the staff when they aren’t busy.  No Thai people within miles?  Then look into Italki or similar sites.  Read my review of Italki’s site here.
  • You can start with the 100 sentence project mentioned above, or you can check out my course the Need to Know Sentence pack which is chock full of 50 every day sentence patterns that you need to know.  Here are some free lessons from the course:
  • Once you get in the range of 50-100 short sentences, you’ll probably already be able to fumble through a few short conversations.  And if you really mastered the script + sound system, you will amaze and horrify people by your ability to pronounce things better than most other foreigners while still not having any clue what people are saying half the time.  The reactions you’ll get will help make up for the embarrassed feelings that come when you don’t understand.  

Step 3: Continue Drilling sentences, adding more and practicing them on real humans as often as possible

  • Keep practicing those sentences and applying the tone rules each time.  Don’t have any sentences?  Check out one of my sentence based courses, or look at the free resources below.
  • If you have already mastered 50 sentence patterns and you still aren’t speaking Thai with any native speakers, you really need to start doing this now.  You aren’t going to get fluent in Thai with flashcards or talking to yourself in the mirror.  You need real live conversation over and over for an extended period of time to find your footing in a language.
  • If you haven’t already, you’ll also want to start stringing those sentences together into longer ones as well as using them in short dialogues.  We start with basic every day Q&A that is relevant to your life and master this first.  If you build a solid core being fluent with just 50 or 100 sentences, you can fake fluency very quickly.  The more fluent you appear, the more people will warm up to you and speak to you like a normal person.  This in turn means you get exposed to real language much more often.  Of course you will miss lots and make loads of mistakes, but this is a process and failing over and over is how you get awesome at anything in life.
  • Thai Reading Practice – Once you are comfortable with the script and have learned 50-100 sentences, you are going to have a solid foundation of vocabulary.  It’s now a good idea to spend a little bit of time each day trying to read short texts. This will reinforce the words and sentence patterns you’ve already begin to learn and will allow you continue to improve.

Top 5 Things AVOID When Learning Thai (or Any Language!)

  1. DON’T Use Textbooks –  You might need to use one if you are taking a test, but there are better ways to learn how to talk to other humans.
  2. DON’T Rely Solely on a Teacher.  They can’t learn the language for you.  You need to be in active and in charge of your progress and you really should practice speaking with multiple people if possible.
  3. DON’T Memorize Word Lists – This is such a waste of time.  Learn sentence and you get all the words free.  When you got out in the wild and start using them, you’ll be able to fill in new words fast.
  4. DON’T Memorize Grammatical Rules –  Yuck.  You don’t have time for this when out in the wild.  You can learn how to speak Thai without studying grammar in the traditional sense.
  5. DON’T try to Guess Complex Sentences when starting out-  Just drill simple high frequency patterns (ไปไหนมา, กินข้าวรึยัง, อยากทำอะไร).  Fill in new words into those patterns and as you get more confident, start stringing those simple sentences together for longer, more complex ones.


Basic Thai Vocabulary

Basic Thai Learning Videos