No Old Friend, You are Never Too Old

June 23, 2016

I recently celebrated my 70th year on this planet. I really enjoy my 70 year-old mind, lots of good stuff going on in there. My 70 year-old body, well, that’s another thing.

Today I want to talk about how we can use the wonderful “personal” computer residing between our ears to live a happier and more successful retired life abroad.

Our “personal” computer has a fantastic memory capacity, and unlike the computer I am writing this blog post on, the memory never seems to get maxed out. Yes, sometimes our computer’s ability to retrieve information slows down, but if we keep it well-maintained (good food, exercise, less alcohol and drugs, and a daily belly laugh) it will serve us well for a lifetime.

This brings me back to the question of how to live a happier and more successful retired life, especially in a foreign country. And the answer is in that wonderful “personal” computer’s language-learning capacity.

We who live here in Thailand have good reasons and real motivation to learn the Thai language, and even though our aptitude for learning may have been slowed down a bit, it has not been maxed out yet. No, old friend, you are never too old to learn.

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First let’s get motivated. I’ll start with something that happened to me just yesterday.

I went to my favorite iced coffee vendor and I ordered my usual.  While the “barista” was making my cappuccino frap I struck up a simple conversation. I told her how much I liked her product, how in fact I was becoming addicted to it. I told her how I had already gotten 10 stamps on my card so this one was free. She laughed and told me I could get a free cookie too.

I know, not a deep exchange but I got to thinking – if I didn’t know Thai, the “barista” would just take my order and serve me my coffee –  a serving girl to me at most, and me, a mere customer. Instead, using just a few lines of simple dialog, she became a real person to me, and I to her. She handed me my coffee, I thanked her, took my free cookie, we both smiled, and both our days were brighter for it.

Sometimes, instead of making our days a bit brighter, knowing the language can make our days a bit less dark.

A while back I was at the driving range when behind me a long-time Expat, in English, told the 16 year old counter girl he wanted another tray of balls. She asked him in a three-word Thai sentence, “Old ones or new ones?” They are priced differently. The long-time Expat, not understanding a word she had spoken, turned to his paramour sitting nearby and shouted, loudly enough for all to hear, “Tell this girl what I want. She is too STUPID to understand me.”

I came so very close to breaking this guy’s jaw after telling him that he should not call the girl stupid, that she in fact did understand him, had asked him a simple question, and that he himself was the one too stupid to understand her.

The moral of this story: Just a few words of Thai and the Expat would not have become so angry, not have his blood pressure rise to unhealthy levels, not made a fool of himself by calling a young girl who was helping out her mom stupid, and not have had that physical confrontation with me. He would simply have hit some golf balls and then gone home, looking forward to spending the evening with his paramour in a much happier mood. All that with just a few words of Thai.

***********

I have heard the excuses for why one doesn’t learn Thai:

  1. “I tried but after a few weeks of study I just gave up.”
  2. “Everyone I need to talk to speaks English.”
  3. “Thais really don’t want me to speak Thai.”
  4. “I’m too old to learn something new.”

Well,

  1. A few weeks is not nearly enough to learn a language. I’ve been studying Thai for over 45 years and still have a ways to go.
  2. Very few Thais speak comprehensible English. Mostly it’s just the ones doing business with foreigners, and even then their English leaves much to be desired.
  3. Many Farang feel that Thais don’t want them to speak Thai because the Thais always answer in their broken English when they try. In fact, it is possible that they are responding in the little English they know because the foreigner’s Thai, often toneless, is incomprehensible to them. My barista never said a word to me in English except “cookie”.
  4. I’ve already told you what I think about being too old.

These excuses don’t do much to convince me that an older person can’t learn Thai, just that the effort to learn, sadly, might be too much for them.

**********

So why put in the effort to learn Thai?

Don’t we want a little more than “Me Tarzan you Jane.”? Wouldn’t it be nice to really get to know someone here and to understand their dreams and desires? Wouldn’t it be nice to tell someone how you feel so he/she understands you better?  Wouldn’t it be nice to order something at a restaurant and get what you are expecting, or tell the barber “Not too short.”, or let your barista know how much you love her coffee?

Can you at your advanced age learn a foreign language?

The main thing I want to stress in this posting is that anyone at any age can learn a language. You don’t have to become fluent, I still haven’t. But how about just learning to say “I love your iced coffee.” or “Give me the new balls, please.” Your day will be much brighter, as will your chances of getting a free cookie.

**********

So here are some Thai learning hints on what and how to begin. You can use it as your basic curriculum. Give this list to your Thai teacher and tell them this is what you NEED to learn.

  • Learn the Thai greetings and how to say “Please” and “Thank you”.
  • Learn the Thai numbers, at least up to 10,000. Learn the Thai money system.
  • Learn the Thai personal pronouns and how to refer to yourself and to others.
  • Learn subject/verb patterns. Learn everyday verbs. Learn to speak in the present, past, and future.
  • Add to the above the subject/verb/object pattern. Then add some adjectives.
  • Learn the vocabulary that is important and interesting to you. Learn the nouns that fit your needs. Enjoy gardening? Learn the Thai words for the plants, insects, and birds you will encounter. Enjoy eating Thai food? Learn to order all the Thai dishes you like. Enjoy cooking Thai food? Learn all the names of the condiments and sauces that you will need. I would stay away from talking about politics and religion for now though.
  • Learn how to ask “What is this?” “How do you say … in Thai?” (Use both to increase your vocabulary.)
  • Learn how to ask if someone has something, and the vocabulary you’ll need in order to ask a shopkeeper if he/she has the thing you are looking for.
  • Learn the vocabulary you will need to tell a doctor or your Thai companion how you feel if you are under the weather.
  • Learn to ask yes/no questions and other questions like when, where, who, how and how much. Then learn how to answer them.

The above basics will take you about a year of hard study. What fun. Get a good teacher and good learning materials. Anything with “Easy”, or “Fast”, or “Learn Thai in … Days” should be avoided. They are lying to you. I mean, do you believe everything a carnival barker running for the U.S. presidency says (and the other one isn’t any better)?

Learning Thai will not be easy, or fast, or accomplished in a few days? No! That is why it will take so much time but also is why it will be so much fun.

No need to be in a hurry. When we get older, learning new stuff just takes a little longer than it used to. Take your time. You have the rest of your life to get it right.

At this point don’t worry about learning to read and write Thai or learning the Thai tone rules either. Many people suggest this. But I feel that’s the equivalent of having to learn how to read music in order to sing “Happy Birthday”.

But what about those terrible Thai tones?

Yes, they are terrible. But Thai tones are really, really important to get right. Really!

First learn to laugh at yourself when you make a tonal mistake. I currently laugh at least a half dozen times a day.

Here is my suggestion on how to handle Thai tones. SING.

Thai is a tonal language, just like music. How did you learn “Happy Birthday” in the first place? You heard someone singing it. And then you sang it back just like you heard it.  Thai, and all tonal languages, work the same way.

**********

You in fact, can do much more than you think you can.  I completely don’t accept the idea that older people can’t learn anything new.

I took up rock climbing in my 40s, got my karate black belt in my 50s, became a blogger in my 60s, and started playing the piano at age 67.

I am now learning Latin in my 70s? Why not?

Here, you can cut and paste this into Google Translate to check my progress.

Fīlia mea cenam parat.

Learn Thai in your 60s and 70s?  Why not?

Just reboot that old computer of yours. No, old friend, you are never too old.

**********

Below I have listed some resources for beginning your learning Thai odyssey.

On-line Dictionaries

There are quite a few on-line Thai/English dictionaries, many with good audio to help pronunciation. Here are some that I frequently use.

  • Thai-Language.com – Probably the most extensive with lots of words used in sentences.
  • Thai2English.com – You can paste whole sentences into a translate box and it will return definitions for each of the words in the sentences along with their phonetic transcriptions.
  • Google Translate – Good for individual words and phrases but less accurate when translating complete sentences. Has good audio for all words.

Thai learning resources

Good luck, enjoy and I hope you get lots of free cookies.

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14 Responses to “No Old Friend, You are Never Too Old”

  1. Good luck with the Latin. I had 4 years of it and I STILL don’t care how Hannibal crossed the Alps! Just remember to say everything backwards. have fun. I’m going to Greece and I am going to do my best (after 28 yrs.of Greek t.v, Greek music,and living with a Greek) to not understand one damned thing!!!

  2. geoff anstey said

    Hugh, many thanks for the push to get me back in learning to puud dee. I just hit the Beatles song (When I’m 64) so must remember to put more effort into learning, we still travel a lot so my Thai wife gives me a break on learning Thai while out of the Kingdom.
    Thanks for your blog, all good stuff and many timely reminders. I can like roosters at 5 oclock, I just have to try harder !
    Geoff

  3. Bruce said

    Gosh I love your blog, I don’t live there yet almost can’t wait till I can but the one thing I did learn in the military going around the world was please thank you and hello in their native language got lots more respect and help than those that didn’t learn any of the language

  4. Frank Fey said

    70! oh my, is that a really old photograph of you sitting with a tablet? Guess it is back to the temple for the Thursday night class.

  5. kohsamuipete said

    Hi! A couple of questions: > Any recommendations for learning alphabet/reading/writing that might be available back here (on Amazon, maybe?) > Do you think you’ll be able to get out to the reunion next Feb? > Is there anything farangs can actively do with regard to the water/forests/natural things? Enjoyed the post. Hope things are good with you… Pete Sent from my iPhone

    >

  6. LostinLife said

    I’m one of those guys who gave up. I have a very difficult time with tones, much less remembering vocabulary. But with that said, thanks for the little push, and for providing some good links.

  7. Hi Pete,

    Yes, Pikun and I are looking forward to the reunion.

    As for the Thai alphabet, Check the link on The Mother of All Free Thai Resources. There are some studies there. When you are ready you can try my simple eBook reader A Field Guide to Reading Thai Roadside Signs. It is lots of fun, starting with one-word signs and up. I will send you a copy to your email. Anyone else wanting a free copy just send me your email address (through my website).

    As to working with the environment, we saved dozens of mountain tortoises (Elongated) that were destined for the cook pot and after a few years returned them to the wild in a plot of jungle that the Chiang Mai Zoo set up for us. We also had 30+ babies born in our garden which are now at the zoo since they were born in captivity and wouldn’t make it in the wild. We have also taken care of abandoned rabbits and let them run free in our garden. They have lived their lives and gone on to whatever is next.

    We water our garden, you remember how big it is, with water from the stream that runs by the house. It almost went dry this year but is going strong now. We set up a drip system around all of our fruit trees.

    So there is lots one can do here. We are thinking of solar water heating and maybe even some solar panels if they aren’t too expensive. Not to save money but to act as an example to others. If one has a little bit of extra money here it goes a long way.

    We also have 3 ducks, 5 chickens, 6 parakeets, and about a dozen finches (more get born every day it seems).

    See you in February.

  8. I applaud any effort to promote learning the language and reinforce how life changing it can be, so thank you for this blog post. It is hard for those who can’t speak Thai to understand how important it is and how much easier and richer life becomes when individuals can communicate directly and are not dependent on translators.

  9. Wee Weng Tang said

    I just wanna say Thank you personally for your enlightenment.

  10. Anne said

    I’m 70 too. I live alone, and these days have few opportunities to speak to anyone, in any language. I have been in Thailand, and studying Thai here, for 3 years.

    I have employed, at different times, 3 private teachers. All 3 tried for many hours, but eventually gave up in frustration. I learned by myself how to read Thai, and have used flashcards daily to acquire a vocabulary of more than 3000 words. I have studied with several expensive audio courses, and read textbooks and grammar books. I can read Thai and translate it to English. I can form simple sentences in Thai, in writing. But I can never understand anything that Thai people say to me, and I am too afraid of the embarrassment this causes to try to say anything in Thai to them. If I turn on the TV or radio I catch perhaps one Thai word in 10 or 20, and never enough to understand what they are talking about.

    I don’t want to give up, but my efforts have gone so unrewarded that it is difficult to find the motivation to continue.

    • Hi Anne,

      I am guessing that you may be a bit shy, or at least shy away from embarrassing situations. The cure for that is a good belly laugh. I say something in Thai, everyone laughs at me uncomprehendingly. What do I do? Belly laugh. And then I ask those around me to correct me. I am fairly fluent in Thai but make about a hundred of these belly laughs a day. The more I make, the better my Thai becomes. You can try to do the same.

      I have just posted a new series for Thai language beginners on http://womenlearnthai.com. Go Check it out. It might be fun and give you a bit of inspiration.

      Good luck and I hope for lots of laughter.

  11. Nicolas said

    Thailand is awesome ! They know how to adapt their culture (for the majority) and the “modernization”, this is something we don’t have in Europe i feel. Anyway, nice post ! Enjoy Siam Kingdom !

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