How I’m Learning to Read, Write, and Speak Thai

Want to learn Thai or a language that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet?

Then you’re in the right place.

Below, you will hear all about my (ongoing) journey to learn Thai, with advice that can be applied to not only learning Thai, but also learning any language that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet.

My story

In September 2017, I embarked on a 3 month trip to Southeast Asia (SEA) – the first destination was Bangkok, Thailand. After that, I would return to the U.S. and get another 9-to-5.

Well, I guess it half worked out like that. I came back to the U.S. in December 2017, but four months later, realized it wasn’t time for my adventure to end. I booked a one-way ticket to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Six years after first landing in Bangkok, I’m a location-independent entrepreneur (I run a business from my laptop) and Thailand has turned into a second home for me.

But as of April 2022, my Thai language skills were virtually nonexistent.

It takes a long time to learn Thai

The U.S. Department of State says that Thai is a hard language, as a “language with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.” Approximately 1100 class hours are “usually required for a student to reach “General Professional Proficiency” in the language, or a score of “Speaking-3/Reading-3” on the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale.”

Note that’s Level 3, two levels shy of Level 5 – aka virtually indistinguishable from a native speaker.

In my first few years in Thailand, I was intimidated by the difficulty and – as someone who had never properly learned a second language – didn’t know how to learn.

We will get to the how, but I want to answer a common question first:

Why learn Thai?

After years in Thailand, I have several expat friends and dozens of acquaintances.

The normal response when they hear I’m learning Thai?

“Why?”

They say it’s difficult, it’s not necessary because you can get by with English, or my time would be better spent on business.

I’m learning Thai because:

  1. It’s difficult (it’s an exciting challenge) 
  2. I don’t just want to get by (I want to make deep connections with locals, and truly understand the motivations, desires, and actions of people from an “alien” culture)
  3. Learning Thai doesn’t have to interfere with working on my business.

I want to elaborate on that second point. I believe that language is the gateway to a culture. There are many words and phrases that just don’t translate well to English – you really need to be immersed in the language to understand their full meaning.

Here’s an example:

And here’s another example:

Fortune teller is หมอดู.

หมอ translates to “doctor”, and ดู translates to “see.”

The doctor word is the same one that refers to medical doctors.

With this in mind, it’s easier to understand why Thai people revere fortune tellers.

Personalize your Thai learning journey

By now, hopefully you’re convinced that it’s worth learning Thai if you’re going to stay in Thailand for a while.

So, the next step is coming up with a plan to learn the language.

The good news is: nothing is set in stone.

And since the right day-to-day plan for learning Thai varies for every student, my advice is experiment.

Here’s what you need to consider:

Will you do 1-on-1 lessons or group classes?

I do 1-on-1 lessons because: 

  • I would zone out way too much if I could get away with it – and I simply can’t in a 1-on-1 interaction.
  • Fortunately, the extra cost isn’t an issue for me.
  • I’m an introvert, and I’m often not in the mood to be in a group setting.

If you’re looking to save money and you like learning in a group setting, group classes might be right for you.

And if you’re not sure, give both a shot!

How often will you study with a teacher and for how long?

Again, experiment!

Right now, I do two 2-hour lessons a week.

But I’ve done the following at different points in time:

  • Two 1-hour lessons a week
  • Three 2-hour lessons a week
  • One 2-hour lesson a week

Who will teach you?

I thought my first teacher was good – and I still think she is – but her teaching style didn’t align well with me. I’m fortunate that her schedule changed and we were unable to continue because my new teacher has been a much better fit for me.

With that in mind, I’d recommend trying at least 2 teachers before settling on one for the long term.

How will you study outside of class?

Your options for learning at home – but outside of class – include:

  • Flashcards
  • Books
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Podcasts

I recommend primarily using flashcards early on, and making movies and music a bigger part of the mix as you progress.

How will you practice in the real-world?

If you’re staying in Thailand, talking to Thai people is one of the fastest and funnest ways to learn how to speak Thai!

Here’s a few tips:

  • Steer things back to Thai (if necessary). If you chat with a Thai person who speaks more English than you speak Thai – which will be almost all of them when you first start learning – it’s easy for the conversation to “fall back” to English. But by (politely) steering things back to Thai, you can get much needed practice – and they’ll be happy to help!
  • Get off the beaten path. By doing this, you will encounter a lot of Thai people who speak very little English.
  • Listen carefully. Pay attention to pronunciation, vocabulary, and sentence structures. Your book learning is going to lean a little too much towards formal Thai. You want to be polite, but speak like a local – try to strike that balance.

Be clear about your language learning goals, and be intentional about how to achieve them

May 2022

I asked my then Thai tutor if it was time for me to learn to read Thai.

“I don’t think you’re ready.”

That was that – case closed. She’s a tutor, she surely knows better than me.

But here was the problem:

My goal was and is to speak Thai like a Thai person. It might take several years, but that’s what I’m gunning for.

But I never told her that.

She probably thought holding a basic conversation was my only goal, which would put me ahead of most Thai expats, and for that, yes, learning to read is not necessary.

Reading well helps to speak well… a lot

You don’t have to read well in order to speak well (I’ll address that common objection in a bit), but it sure helps.

Here’s how learning to read Thai helps you speak better:

  • You learn how to accurately pronounce every vowel and consonant. There are 44 consonants and 28 vowels – many of which don’t map to the Roman alphabet.
  • It’s easier to remember the right tone for each word. There are 5 tones in Thai, and you can determine the tone of a word based on how it’s written – with very few exceptions. So, reading drills the right tones into your head.
  • You have more opportunities to practice. Now you can text message Thai people, read menus, and read stories (okay, that last one might take some time… but you can eventually).

I’ve probably spent 100+ hours practicing reading and writing, and while I’m good, there’s still room for improvement.

But the investment is well-worth it – my only mistake was not learning to read earlier.

Now, back to the common objection about not needing to read well to speak well.

There are people who speak Thai better than me who can’t read Thai. But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s advisable.

If you played a barefoot LeBron James in a 1-on-1 game, you would get crushed. Would you say, “Based on this, I shouldn’t wear sneakers when playing basketball.”

Of course not!

Some people are naturally gifted at learning languages and/or they put a lot of time into learning Thai. 

I’m confident these people would speak even better if they learned to read.

Don’t want to spend 100+ hours on reading? Just 10 hours will be a game changer… with the right course.

I highly recommend Learn Thai from a White Guy. (This isn’t an affiliate link.)

Talk to those who have done what you want to do

“You’re the first one to take me up on the offer.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

I was talking to Brett Whiteside, the founder of Learn Thai from a White Guy.

I bought one of his tools, called Faking Fluency, on a Black Friday. Fifty-percent off, down to $48.50 – for a full year. But Brett was offering something even more valuable as a “throw-in” – a free 20 minute call with him. To me, if the tool was any good, that would be the bonus (it was good).

And for some reason, nobody else was taking him up on the call.

Brett gave me some great advice on learning Thai on that call. He told me to take greater control of the learning process with my teachers, and make sure we were focusing on what’s needed in my situation.

This might seem obvious, but it’s all too easy to buy sessions with a tutor and allow them to take you through their regular courses. 

They know best.

Right?

Ehhh

There’s a couple of issues:

  1. You’re only paying for the lessons. Creating a customized course for you takes extra work – that costs time (money). I think customization is a good optional add-on for language students, but a lot of tutors don’t offer that – I digress…
  2. The tutor hasn’t shared a similar journey to you if they’re a native speaker. Overall, it’s best to learn from a native speaker – who is a trained teacher – as they speak the language perfectly and explain most things well. But don’t forget that there’s the question of how to learn. A non-native speaker who reached fluency (or is getting there) is a good source for “strategic” considerations.

Final (for now) thoughts

What learning my first language has taught me is that you’re never done learning how to learn a language until you speak like a native.

Until then, you’re discovering undeniable truths (learn the script!!), figuring out how you learn best, and figuring out how to rack up the hours.

And trust me, you have to Rack. Up. Hours.

My parting advice is get started and keep at it. 

“Thanks for the cliché.”

But here’s the thing:

Learning a language is like anything.

You’re going to suck at first.

But then you get better and you fall in love with the process.

The pain/frustration of learning leads to the pleasure of reading, writing, and speaking.

Like how the pain of exercising leads to the pleasure of having hit the gym. And then you start appreciating the work because the connection is established.

(Feel free to substitute something for working out – the point still stands).

You just gotta stay in the game long enough to get to that point.

Nick Vasco is a digital marketing entrepreneur and the founder of SERP Builders, dedicated to helping fintechs connect with their ideal audience through exceptional content and SEO. His entrepreneurial journey began in high school when he traded sports cards, fostering a passion for business that eventually led him to launch his agency, SERP Builders.