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Thai Language Thai Culture: Learning Thai Later in Life

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Learning Thai Later in Life…

I read the Language Forum posts on ThaiVisa.com regularly to find out what some people are thinking about learning Thai. Some of the posters are quite knowledgeable and I learn a lot from them (I just learned a new Thai word today from a post: แรงจูงใจ /raeng-​joong-​jai/ “motivation”). But sometimes the posts are less than helpful. From a post this week titled “Reasons Why Not to Study a New Language”, here is one comment, “Learning Thai is boring and a waste of time, useless outside this liitle (sic) country. If you can get by without don;t (sic) bother” .

As you probably have guessed, I don’t completely agree with the last comment. But for some, like our commenter, they really may have no แรงจูงใจ /raeng-​joong-​jai/ for learning Thai. It is a truly difficult language to learn and the ROI, return on investment, is just not worth their effort. For them, I recommend that they not waste their time with learning Thai. With that attitude, failure is almost guaranteed.

But for others, whether they want to feel more at home here, want to speak with and understand those around them better, want to communicate with a friend or spouse in more than just broken or pigeon English, want to express more about what they are feeling than just being able to say, sometimes using only hand gestures, that “I am hungry”, or simply want to keep their brains from atrophying in this hot tropical climate, they do have the motivation to accept the challenge of leaning Thai.

The big question is, and it is one that keeps a lot of people from taking up that language-learning challenge, “is it more difficult to learn a foreign language when you are older?”

The answer is yes. Learning any language after our teenage years really is difficult, but not necessarily that much more difficult later in life. At a certain age our brains are wired to learn language, any language. We all pick up language about the same age, somewhere between 2 and 4 and that language-learning-on-steroids continues on until we are teenagers. During this time we can learn more than one language. That is how some people become truly bilingual. It is probably true that a child can learn to speak 3 or 4 languages fluently at this time. Our brains are just wired that well. But sometime later our brains probably go on to be used in learning other skills. So if you are past your language learning age, yes, learning new languages will be difficult, but not impossible.

The questions about the difficulties learning Thai when we are older are often asked by seniors who have come to Thailand to retire. Their response frequently is, “I’m too old to learn a new language.”; although I have heard people in their 20s say the same thing. It is a great excuse for not learning Thai. But it is not true.

Age should not stop anyone from learning anything, a new language included. It might slow you down a bit, but at our age what hasn’t slowed down? After the age when our brains are less wired to learning languages, picking up new ones becomes more and more difficult. But it has always been difficult, hasn’t it? When you studied that foreign language in high school, did you find that easy? I didn’t. I not only failed French, I failed Spanish too.

On the other side of the fence, I have taught English as a second language in a number of countries, and in America, and I spent about 10 years trying to teach Thais English, some of the most futile times in my life. Of all the students I have taught, my best students, the only ones who really mastered English, were students at a community college in the U.S. They came from places as varied as Mexico, Russia, Brazil, China, Italy, and South East Asia. The one thing they all had in common though, was that they were all immigrants.

As it turns out, studies have been done to determine what variables make for successful language learners. Teachers, textbooks, methodology, student’s native language, their educational level, were all ruled to have a minor influence. The one major characteristic all good language learners have in common is “motivation”; there’s that word แรงจูงใจ /raeng-​joong-​jai/ again.

When you live in an environment where everyone speaks one language, and you speak another, it becomes easier to develop the motivation to learn to communicate with those around you. And who has more motivation for learning a new language than an immigrant?

As for all those foreigners coming to Thailand to work or to retire, you are surrounded by people speaking a different language than you. If you have the motivation of a typical immigrant (which is what you basically are) to communicate with those around you and to learn a new language, then you are not too old.

Here are some suggestions for learning Thai (or any new language) for those who are beyond the “language-learning-on-steroids” years.

Define your motivation…

Know exactly why you are putting in the time and effort to study Thai. I mean, if you exercise you might be doing it to look good, or for your health. If you study the piano you can do it to accompany your own singing (which is why I am currently, at age 66, learning the piano), or as a meditation, or simply for the love of music. All of us will have our own reasons for learning Thai. Define your goals and work hard to achieve them.

Take lessons…

A good teacher is important. Do some research and find the person using the methods that fit your personality and needs. I personally liked learning in a class setting better than one-on-one. Others might feel the opposite. If you take scheduled lessons, especially ones that you pay for, you will have more of a reason not to skip one. It is like having a personal trainer who forces you to do those last 10 pushups. If you try to learn Thai without a teacher then it will be like having to do all those pushups by yourself.

Carry a notebook…

Every time you come across an English word you would like to say in Thai, or a Thai word you would like to know the meaning of, write it down, even if it is only phonetically. I have hundreds of pages of words like this. I use them like a personal vocabulary textbook containing words that I need or want to use.

Use a dictionary (paper, on-line, or human)…

Don’t let inertia stop you from looking up a new word (often from that notebook of yours), or at least asking someone who knows Thai to help you out. It takes time and effort to look up words but the rewards are there for you. Find a dictionary that you find easy to use (with type that you won’t have to use a magnifying glass to read), or if it is a person, someone who is reliable and can answer your questions.

Be patient…

You don’t have a time limit on learning a language. I mean, most of us are still learning new words in our own native language. You have the rest of your life. Note your progress and remember that all learning has a plateau phase when our brains don’t do much for a while and nothing new happens (It is probably just resting.) But the brain is getting ready to make that next quantum leap later.

Have fun…

If you aren’t enjoying what you are doing then you’re like that guy from above who thinks that “Learning Thai is boring and a waste of time”. The way I keep it fun is I look at leaning new words like I am playing a computer video game where I need to collect weapons (words in this case) that I can use to slay the monsters and eventually save the princess.

Saving the princess. That is my แรงจูงใจ /raeng-​joong-​jai/.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand

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Hugh Leong loves explaining things. And during his 40 plus years of trying to learn Thai and its culture, he learned to love the cross-cultural aspect of living in a foreign country and speaking its language. His series, Thai Language Thai Culture, covers various aspects of learning Thai, and how the Thai culture influences how we say things.

13 Comments

  1. Hugh, as usual your posts are thought-provoking and sanguine. I eagerly look forward them!
    What spoke to me this time around is your paragraph: “When you live in an environment where everyone speaks one language, and you speak another, it becomes easier to develop the motivation to learn to communicate with those around you. And who has more motivation for learning a new language than an immigrant?”

    For the last 7.5 years I’ve been living back in the United States and even though my husband speaks Thai every day with our son, my motivation is simply not there to actively learn the language. I don’t see the immediate need, and I’m so incredibly busy making a living it’s hard to carve out any more time.

    However, if I were back in Thailand living as an expat or immigrant, I’m positive that my attitude and priorities would shift.

  2. I imagine that the Thai language has an above average share of older people learning it than other languages out there due to the popularity of Thailand as a retirement destination. I also imagine it has a healthy share of people who should be learning it, but aren’t. Perhaps you have given a few of the latter some แรงจูงใจ :-)

  3. When I started WLT my Alexa Audience Snapshot was mostly men in their 40-60s, single, no kids, with some college. With retired men being a majority in the expat community, it was what I expected.

    But if my recent Alexa rankings are true, then the demographics of those studying Thai has changed (as far as WLT goes). It’s now a younger group, equal men and women, with 51.0% accessing WLT from Thailand.

    Based on internet averages, womenlearnthai.com is visited more frequently by users who are in the age range 25-34, have no children, are college educated and browse this site from home.

  4. Hi Catherine,

    Those stats are quite interesting! I wonder who all those young people learning Thai are. Maybe travelers with a greater interest in learning about the place they are visiting? Or perhaps a trend toward younger immigrants to Thailand, perhaps in search of a more fertile ground for entrepreneurs? And among those younger people with interest in learning Thai, perhaps more of them are women. :-)

  5. Hi Keith, I’ve always had more women getting in touch via WLT’s contact form instead of leaving comments in posts. So they’ve been there, just not vocal. And reading even the possibility that they could be on the increase is indeed cheering.

    With the downturn in western economies it could be that many young people are opting to teach overseas instead of spinning their wheels in their cash-strapped home countries. Like so many others, my niece graduated from uni but can’t find work in her field so she’s been working as a cashier these past few years. What a waste.

    And then there’s those who bounce around different countries writing posts for this and that travel site (and sometimes their own). Thai is understood in parts of Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and northern Malaysia. So if this is their chosen region to specialise in, it’s a language to give serious consideration to.

  6. Amy,

    Something you said reminded me of when I was bringing up my kids. I wanted them to be bilingual. So I spoke only English to them and my wife spoke only Thai. I never once used Thai with them. If them spoke to me in Thai I would not scold them but said something like, “That’s okay. How would you say that in English?” It became like a game, and they were completely bilingual.

    But when we moved back to the U.S. the boys were reluctant to be different from the kids around them and they basically stopped speaking Thai and my wife also gave up and talked to them in a combination English and Thai (which she still does). They lost almost all their Thai.

    So don’t let your husband give up no matter how hard it is. If he continues to speak to them in Thai they won’t have any problems.

    P.S. My older son has been coming back to Thailand every year and has again become fluent. My younger son, who left Thailand when he was only 3 has lost most of his speaking ability although he understand a lot. He also took Thai at the University of Washington. His teacher was Ajarn Wiworn Kesavatana-Dohrs, author of Everyday Thai for Beginners (silkwormbooks.com).

  7. Hi Hugh,

    Your story reminds me of a couple of friends of mine who are trying to raise their children to be bilingual as well. One is from Colombia, and the other is married to a Swede. Both have found that return visits to relatives in (and phone calls to) the home country convince their children of the value of their second language.

  8. Hugh,
    At least one of your kids has retained Thai ;-)
    Fortunately my son worships his Dad and my husband is stubborn – and it works out that both speak to each other exclusively in Thai. Golf’s often has streaming news on ( the King’s birthday festivities at the moment) and every Sunday is Thai school at the Berkeley Wat. That makes the language even more relevent.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    Amy

  9. You know what they say, as you think, so shall you be…great article, as usual Hugh.

    My favorite quote: “Don’t be lazy in learning.” Jim Rohn

  10. Lani,

    I was going to write a sentence in this post starting with “Don’t let laziness stop you …” But as you see I changed it to “Don’t let inertia stop you …”. It felt a little more PC. But I totally agree with “Don’t be lazy in learning.”

  11. A fellow called Tim Ferriss says he knows plenty of 3-year-olds who really aren’t very good at English, and who, having learnt non-stop for three years, should be much better. He describes their progress as “slow and miserable”, and adds that adults are much better learners because we already have a language framework on which we can build.

    Is he being serious? Partly. His point is that to write off people as being too old to learn is silly, just as it is for anyone to write themselves off as being “bad at languages”.

    Anyway, judge for yourselves — he gives a long video presentation on how to learn languages (and other skills) here.

  12. Not too old: I just heard from a man who is taking one of those intensive Thai courses – 4 class hours a day, more hours study at night. He says it is the hardest thing he has ever done, and, maybe because of that, he says it is also one of the most rewarding.

    My response to that: If learning Thai is the hardest thing you have ever done then it is obvious that you have never taken up trying to learn how to play golf.

    But seriously, good to hear, and good for you, and keep it up.

  13. I have found a great app for the iphone that helps me find words both in Thai and English. It is called “Click Thai” and has come in very handy when looking for a word. The bonus is you di not have to be on the internet to use it as the database is held in the phone.

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