How to Learn Thai (Fast and Free)

Over the last year I’ve tried pretty much every way to learn Thai that is out there. I’ve went to a Thai school here in Thailand. I’ve followed video courses like ‘Learn Thai Podcast’. I’ve went through the entire Pimsleur Thai podcast series (15 hours of audio) and went through multiple books on the subject.

On top of that, I’ve read multiple books simply based on the theory of language acquisition and how we best learn, so I could go about picking up Thai the right way. I was always confused whether I should learn to read, write, speak and listen or just learn to speak. I’ve never really wanted to learn how to write, but I did want to learn how to type (I’m sure there’s a difference).

What I’ve found after all of this research and testing is a method so simple that you can easily learn 10-15 words per day, in as little as 30 minutes. This is not an exaggeration, and in fact I’ve been adding at least 10 words to my vocabulary on a daily basis — even with the correct tones.

I’m certainly not gited in language learning. To be honest, I don’t think anyone is. If you factor in that English was the only language I could speak before I began talking Thai, then there’s even more credence to the idea that I was a total beginner in this language. The method I’ve discovered and now use on a daily basis is simple, and allows you to cover all aspects of the language (writing, reading, speaking and listening) if you want, or only a selection. It’s very flexible, and totally up to you.

It’s also portable, meaning it can be easily followed through with on a smartphone, laptop, desktop PC or even a tablet device. My learning incorporates software which is freely available for Windows, Mac, Linux and even Android and iOS for smartphones.

Why Learn Thai? The Benefits

Listening Superpower

One of the best things about learning thai, is not the ability to talk to people but to listen when people are talking. Unless you look like a Thai, most people will naturally assume you don’t understand the language and talk freely in your presence. You can learn a lot of things about mindsets of Thai people this way.

Be Self-Reliant

Though you’ll no doubt make friends after an extended stay in Thailand (and perhaps more than friends), the ability to rely on yourself is an ability that will greatly raise your confidence. From reading menus, medicine instructions and being able to direct a taxi, you open up more of the world here.

Make Friends (or More)

It’s not secret that a lot of people come to thailand looking to find love so your language acquisition will definitely help in that department. Or, if you’re just looking to make friends, anything you can learn will lead to deeper connections and conversations with Thai people.

Open Up the Whole Country

There’s a lot of fun to be had in Thailand’s hot-spots like Bangkok, Phuket and Ko Samui, but there’s so much more to the country than these tourist destinations. A grasp of the Thai language will allow you to explore places off the beaten path and interact with the locals.

Improve Yourself

If you’re like me, then you only know one or perhaps two languages at this moment in time. I’ve heard language acquisition described as ‘gaining another soul’ and that’s definitely what it feels like when you get ingrained in a totally new culture. The personal development side of things as well – the challenge that you’re going to face – improves all areas of your life by teaching persistence and perseverance.

Before I get into the method, I want to make a very honest statement: I’m far from being fluent in Thai. I predict that from start to finish to get to a very, very proficient level of the language, it will take around 12-18 months. I’m currently 6 months into my language acquisition and can have decent conversions and understand a good amount of what is said to me, but I’m also aware of how much more I have to learn.

It’s likely you were still learning new English words (or whatever language is your mother tongue) well into your teens as you read more and more advanced books, so don’t think of language learning as having an end point. There’s always room to grow. I once heard someone describe speaking another language as gaining a new soul, and that’s exactly how I feel. Through language you can better understand people, customs and culture and this definitely applies to learning Thai.

Now that the introduction is out of the way, here’s what we’re going to look at next:

  • Our spaced repetition language learning theory
  • The software that aids in us doing this
  • Deciding which facets of Thai you wish to learn
  • Entering data into our software
  • Staying motivated to learn the language
  • How to master tones in Thai in 1 hour

The reason this guide is so long is because you (hopefully) wont have to scour the web like I did when first learning Thai to find some kind of method that works. I’ve seen people briefly mention parts of what I’m doing here, but I’ve never found it all together in one place as an in-depth guide. This website aims to change that.

If you have any problems, questions, feedback or anything else, please head on over to the about page where you can see how to get in touch!

How spaced repetition wins TV Gameshows (and will dramatically speed up your Thai learning)

If you haven’t heard of spaced repetition learning then you’ve been missing out. The concept of spaced repetition, or more specifically spaced repetition software is very simple, but it’s also very effective. This type of learning is not only used by college students studying for exams, but was also used by Roger Craig on the very popular American TV Gameshow, Jeopardy. Not only did Roger Craig win the show, he also holds the record for the most winnings in one day (over $200,000!).

Before I cover spaced repetition in a little more detail, I do want to side step a little bit. Though this entire page is mostly focused on spaced repetition learning and how you can teach yourself Thai, from anywhere, it’s certainly not the only way to learn. It is the fastest way that I’ve found personally, but it doesn’t mean that’s all I’m using, and it’s not all you should use either.

After you’ve finished this guide you’ll have a solid, concrete plan of the steps you need to do each day which can dramatically improve your Thai with just 30 minutes of effort, daily. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t utilise other ways to learn if you have the time. For example, if you’re living in Thailand, make it a habit to ask what things are when you’re out and about. If you’re in a bar, ask how to say ‘Ice’ or ‘Two bottles of beer’. A memory tip I’ll share later that I learned from a professional magician will help make sure that the words you learn will stick in your head (without having to repeat it out loud 30 times — which is what we usually try and do).

The essentials of space repetition boil down to this: You test your memory of something, and the more times you know the correct answer, the more time will pass before you’re asked the question again. Or in other words, just as you’re about to forget something, you’re posed with the question and answer again.

Wikipedia has a far better worded description of its uses:

Although the principle is useful in many contexts, spaced repetition is commonly applied in contexts in which a learner must acquire a large number of items and retain them indefinitely in memory. It is therefore well suited for the problem of vocabulary acquisition in the course of second language learning, due to the size of the target language’s inventory of open-class words.

Though it would be possible to do this manually by hand, it would be overly complicted and time consuming. That’s where software comes in…

Anki, your new language learning best friend

Anki is the most popular software available that allows you to easily implement this spaced repetition learning. There are many alternatives, but due to it’s low cost (it’s free) and the variety of platforms it works on, it’s perfect. Just to clear things up, Anki works with:

  • Your iPhone / iPad or other iOS device
  • Any Android device
  • Windows computers (XP, Vista, 7 and 8)
  • Mac OSX
  • Linux

To give you an idea of the interface, here are two screenshots from my own version using a Mac.

Anki displaying my Thai vocabulary

Anki in action (I also have sound when an answer is revealed)

Not only does Anki allow you to input text in any language, but you can also add sounds, pictures and different coloured text to your flash cards.

Deciding whether to learn speaking, reading, listening or writing

Personally, since I live in Thailand, I want to learn all aspects of the language. Though I’m not actually going to be writing (I can’t even remember the last time I hand-wrote something in English) I am going to be typing, whether it’s on Facebook or on my phone, so getting used to the characters and where letters go is important.

Your own case may be different. Perhaps you don’t care about writing, but consider reading and speaking important. Speaking and listening are pretty much tied together (you have to be able to understand questions you’re asked, or how people respond to the questions you ask) so you don’t really have to separate the two. If you want to speak, you have to know what you’re hearing back.

Now, it’s certainly possible to learn to speak without being able to read, but I would avoid that at all costs. Learning to read is not as difficult as it may seem, and I personally learned the entire alphabet in around 10 hours. That may seem like a short timeframe – and it is – but that’s 10 hours of actually being focused on getting the characters down, spread out over the course of two weeks. I find it’s far better to study little and often, as this will put your memory to the test, and is generally easier to fit into even the most hectic of schedules.

VIDEO: How to Use Anki