The 6 shortcuts to mastering any language quickly

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How I learnt Thai

Ispent 3 years in Thailand before learning my first word (other than Hello and Thank You). I’m terrible with new languages and simply do not learn by frequent exposure to them. My memory is simply non-existent when it comes to remembering new words. You can tell me what something means 10 times in a single day and I still have to ask an 11th.

How did I then become fluent in both reading and speaking Thai?


6. Don’t Bother with Grammar & Rules!

This goes for studying any language, but rings particularly true when it comes to Thai. If you’ve heard someone from Bangkok speak English you’ve long since realized they speak pigeon English. This is by and large because their own language is extremely simple. Here’s an example:

THE PHRASE : I want to go to a restaurant 

LITERALLY BECOMES:   Want go shop-food  | yak bpai ran-ahan | อยากไปร้านอาหาร

The ‘I’, ‘to’ and ‘a’ are redundant. The 7 word English sentence becomes 3 once translated. It’s therefore a very simplistic language. Now you know why the people of Siam sound so childish when they speak English. Yes, their language has rules, like any language, but you’ll pick them up simply by doing.

No student of any language should ever bother learning rules

They confuse and complicate things. Children don’t learn to speak by envisioning a table or chart in their head before saying something. Neither should you!

I studied German for 5 years trying to learn the proper structure, endings, conjugations and so on.  With both Thai and English (I’m Norwegian), I took a completely different approach.

RESULT: I have taught classes at the University level in both Thai and English. As for German, I couldn’t string a sentence together even if my life depended on it.

So what is the fastest way to learn a new language?


  • marcodaha

    Man…. you got me again 😀

    Just sitting at Arena City, and having a beef salad after studyiing russian for 3 hours… and once again wondering, if to study word by word and grammer would do the trick for me;)

    “highly relevant sentences” … this one really made the switch in my head!!!

    Just decided to try your approach for the next 4 weeks.

    ps: too sad that you quit your german efforts – otherwise we could chat in my native language 🙂

    • Harald Baldr

      It works like a charm. Please report back in 4 weeks with an update on your progress 🙂

      A month of focusing on ‘relevant’ sentences is easily superior to half a year of wasting time on grammar and stand alone words.

  • PeteyBrian

    I’ve learned 20 or so Thai phrases that I learned out of a tourist guide! Lol! I’m a true language idiot and speak only my native tongue. You seem to be a native Norwegian speaker who is very adept at English – prior to tackling Thai.

    What would you say is your level – Thai speaking ability now? How much time did it take you to get to different levels?

    Are you saying Google Translate doesn’t translate well for Thai? Or just that Google Translate won’t help one learn the language? I literally plan to go to Thailand on my next trip with my smartphone… Until I decide enough’s enough! Lol

    • Harald Baldr

      I’m conversational and can discuss most topics. When I was lecturing, and if the majority in the class were Thai, I would sometimes switch to their native tongue to explain things they simply would not comprehend using English. So I would classify that as intermediate/advanced, which is all you need to live there.

      I spent a good 7 months breaking through the first barrier. Then I stopped really studying and started simply conversing, i.e. learning naturally after that.

      Google Translate is plain wrong most of the time and doesn’t even come close on most sentences. At times it’s correct when you translate just one word. That’s all it’s good for. I haven’t really used it fr a couple of years though so maybe it’s gotten better.

      • PeteyBrian

        So you’d be considered fluent in Thai now? If you called up someone Thai on a telephone, would they know you’re a foreign speaking caucasian? Lol! How many years did it take for you to get to this level?

        • Harald Baldr

          Yes they’d hear I’m a foreigner of course. I can get away with one liners but in a prolonged conversation they’d quickly pick up an accent. My pronunciation was good from the start. It’s very similar to Norwegian. The hard part was stringing long sentences together on the spot seeing as their sentence structure makes no sense for Westerners. You simply have to go out and practice.

  • PeteyBrian

    So software-based Thai lessons – aren’t recommended by you? A friend of mine spent a lot of time with tones on a computer.

    • Harald Baldr

      I didn’t go down that route so I can’t say. I’m a fan of Pimsleur with Spanish and Russian though, so if they have a Thai program I’d say go for it 😉

      • PeteyBrian

        I’ll try your recommended method as I know WAY too many foreigners who took years of classes and couldn’t speak a lick of Thai. Probably just wanted student visa status! Lol!

        It will be demeaning for me to acquire children’s books, but if you say it works!!!

        The Thai software I mentioned was tonal – which you didn’t find useful. Perhaps someone here has a decent recommendation for a SUPPLEMENTAL Thai software program?

  • mick

    Very true. I chose never to do classes as I hate learning with others. Some say it speeds up the process, but I think it does the opposite. And with everything a lot of study and practice is needed. Relying just on lessons without study or practicing every day is laziness and a waste of time.

    • Harald Baldr

      Amen! Classes = complete waste of time.

  • Bjorn Curley

    Excellent.. I like your approach! Mine was a bit different..
    As grammar is pretty much non-existent in Thai, I was happy to dispense with that the moment I realized verbs don’t conjugate according to gender, tense, or pronoun. That was my greatest encouragement since that eliminated the biggest challenge found in most other (non-Asian) languages. And I was motivated by it since it allowed me to get on with activating my Thai through verbs, which meant action, ‘doing things’. I just focused on memorizing all the verbs using a simple Lonely Planet phrasebook (a 1997 version which I still have to this day, withered, soaked, and soiled). And I let the nouns and adjectives just fill out my memory through constant contact, usage, and encounters, now and then consulting the phrasebook on those again..
    As for tones, I disagree somewhat that they are irrelevant and that context can take care of that. Without paying attention to them, some big misunderstandings can come from small mistakes. For example, ‘suai’ with a rising tone (dip and rise) means ‘beautiful’ while ‘suai’ with a low tone (just dropping) means ‘bad luck’. Or ‘klai’ in falling (rise and drop) means ‘near’ while ‘klai’ in flat means ‘far’ (which could mean the difference between life and death in a military operation!). Or ‘khao’ falling means ‘rice’ while the same in flat means ‘to enter’ and in falling means ‘white’ (if I remember correctly). Then there’s ‘Khwai’ in flat which means ‘buffalo’ and in low means ‘cock’ (not the one in the animal world!). There is that famous Thai phrase intended to draw attention to the importance of the five tones that goes, ‘mai mai mai mai mai?’ Each word has a different tone, in succession ‘high’ ‘low’ ‘falling’ ‘flat’ ‘rising’, which means, ‘new wood doesn’t burn does it?’ Also, I often found that Thais tend to be so deeply, even stubbornly, entrenched in their linguistic world that context can’t tear them out of it even if common sense should. For example, I’ll be standing on a rice paddy and ask, ‘krai pen jao kawng naa nii’? meaning ‘who’s the owner of this piece of land’. And I get stares of consternation, as I repeat myself because ‘naa’ in flat means ‘field’ but me pronouncing it with a slight drop tone means ‘face’. But, with me gesturing over a huge field before me, who would imagine they could be thinking that I’m asking ‘who owns this face’?? Lol..
    As for the alphabet, I was impressed with your ability to master that. I made similar, intermittent, attempts at the grasping it. I also bought one of the first grader books and penciled in the outlines of the huge letters for a while. And it worked (to an extent) since, once I realized I could suddenly make out the words ‘ap op nuat’ on certain Bangkok roads, I felt I had succeeded enough and gave that up. Lol..
    Chok dii deu..!

    • Harald Baldr

      All the tone related issues you raise is the exact reason I encourage people to avoid them. It’s simply too confusing remembering what tone means what and waaay to time consuming rehearsing them. In the same amount of time it takes you simply to grasp half the concept of tones, you can learn well over a thousand words. But everyone have their own preference 😉

      About your land example. Yes it’s ridiculous how Thais don’t get context sometimes. But rather than spend a decade learning the tones, here’s how I’d solve it:

      Instead of asking:

      ‘krai pen jao kawng naa nii’

      I’d say:

      ‘krai pen jao kawng tii din nii’

      Zero confusion would ensue 😉

      Other than that, it sounds like our approaches were rather similar. You to focused on simply conversing and picking up relevant words

      • Bjorn Curley

        I agree that it’s needless to bother ‘studying’ tones. I totally feel that a grasp of tones can only be learned by developing hearing through constant contact. It’s the approach made possible by actually living in Thailand (which is the way we both mastered it). And it’s the only approach to truly learning it anyway. A student of Thai living in, say, Hamburg, Germany, can be top of his class and still be totally lost once he arrives in Thailand because only the ‘sound of Thailand’ can really enable this.
        Makes me think of anthropologists in decades past who immersed themselves in pre-literate cultures and acquired their system of communication without any formal linguistic rules or instruction at all. They simply listened and learned (the way a child does, as you pointed out). Still, though, the tonal significance in Thai can’t be too easily dismissed. It’s essential, but just has to be felt rather than studied. Teachers of Thai language around the world should definitely include this caveat in their lessons..

  • Jan ยาน

    The things you said about tones is dangerous. I’m B2 doing C1 this month in Thai. Tones are easy plus important. No one is tone-deaf. Lazy to get them right, maybe yes. but not tone deaf. You said you learned to read Thai? Great – now learning the tones takes 10% of the effort what it takes to learn to read. You can do a tone drill week and you’re fine.

    • Harald Baldr

      Absolutely not. Tones are impossible for some people, and I fall into that category. It’s also a complete waste of time. I have friends who spent years doing courses and some even practiced their pronunciation with a speech coach. Yet, when it comes to talking and I’m around it falls on me as no one can understand them.

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