People often ask me whether it is a good idea to study Thai at a language school in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, or other place in Thailand. My answer is always “yes”.
But hear me out…
My reasons are not solely about studying the language. In fact, there are equally efficient alternative learning pathways that don't require attending school.
However, there are additional benefits to be had at a school.
In this post, I'll cover the positives and negatives of studying Thai at a language school, using my insider experience to help you make a decision.
6 Positives of Studying at a Thai Language School
1. Focus & Discipline
I enrolled in a school to keep me disciplined and focussed, to have that routine of spending two evenings a week learning Thai, without fail.
If you aren't self-motivated to learn at home or while traveling, this routine keeps you in check and helps you maintain consistency.
And consistency is key, not just in language learning but in anything, be that learning piano or getting fit.
You will get better if you attend regular classes every. Just how much better is dependent on many factors such as the teacher, your attention in class, your commitment to homework, etc.
But one thing is for sure, you will not get worse!
2. Meet New People
Perhaps the primary reason I recommend a language school is because you will meet people.
Two of the friends I met at Thai school I am still in regular touch with today.
Even if you only learn a little Thai, if you make a good friend, it was worth it.
Whether you live in Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket (all big places), it's easy to become isolated and start living in a fish bowl; doing the same routine every day.
When you start a course you realize that there are bunch of people just like you, all in the same boat, and most likely living a lot closer to you than you thought.
You will get to meet new people from different backgrounds and with varying circumstances.
In this regard, the social aspect of learning is as rewarding as the learning itself.
You will then have some buddies to hang out and grab a coffee or a beer with.
Your journey suddenly becomes a shared experience, and life is better when shared.
3. Increase Your Interaction with Thais
I always say that the key to learning Thai is to speak it with native speakers.
When you enroll at a school you get to speak with a Thai teacher.
You also get to speak with the Thai staff. Sure, they speak English to you too, but once you learn conversational Thai ,you can try speaking with them and they will be happy to help.
You also get to meet Thai people outside of the tourist industry; outside of bars, clubs, and restaurants – someone who isn't your laundry lady or maid.
Not that these people are not good to interact with, but some expats rarely have interactions with Thai people outside of these environments.
With all due respect, it is very easy to note the expats and long-stayers who have only mixed in such circles, simply by the their view of “the way Thais are”. It's often a narrow view, influenced by tourist-type interactions and the bar scene.
Talking with people from different walks of life expands your mind to how everyday Thai society works.
4. Effective Progress Tracking
Being in a class gives you real-time insight to your progression.
You will see how well you score on tests compared with your peers, and how well you are able to answer the teacher's questions in class.
You will also have the feedback of your teacher during reviews of your test results.
Some people thrive in a competitive environment, while others may prefer not to pitch themselves against the proficiency level of others.
That said, it can be inspirational to se the progress of others around you and motivate you to push yourself.
Either way, you will get an idea of where you need to improve, and indeed be able to set your sights on where you'd like to get to.
5. Certification & Levels
Okay, so most language school certificates don't mean much in the real world, but they are:
A) proof that you have studied Thai to a specific level
B) a motivator to keep moving forward and reach the next level.
Tests and certificates and moving up to a higher level (class) mean you are making progress. It's a good feeling to achieve a higher level.
You go from barely being able to speak a word to actually being able to ask people questions, and answer questions yourself.
A certificate may also come in handy when applying for a job.
6. Get an Education Visa
This isn't so much about learning but rather a route to staying in the country for a long period of time without having to leave.
You can study on an ED visa for 6, 8 or 14 months, depending on the deal you buy from the language school.
You still have to report to immigration every 90 days, but you don't have to do any visa runs.
there are some rules that you have to abide by; I mean you can't just enroll and go missing for the year!
An ED visa student must study 8 lessons per week and attend the school a minimum of once a week.
You can cover the lessons in your own time, but you should study because there have been cases where those on ED visas have been quizzed on their Thai speaking abilities by immigration staff.
5 Negatives of Studying at a Thai Language School
Right, so those are the positives of attending a language school, but what are the negatives?
1. The Cost
A school will cost you a monthly fee and the better the school the higher the price, usually.
Learning is a great investment but let's have it right: I paid 10,000 Baht for 3 months of studying at a language school, yet I bought my ThaiPod101 lifetime membership for around the same price!
So, if you are on a budget, home study is more cost efficient in the long term.
2. Rote (repetitive) Learning
Language schools generally teach you in a traditional way, which is the memorization of information based on repetition – known as rote learning.
They follow a syllabus from books in a classroom setting, working through the chapters until completion.
There isn't much deviation from this, as their job success depends on completion of the modules.
Sure, the lessons can be as fun as the teacher makes them, but the delivery is essentially one dimensional.
Online learning has the advantage of multiple digital tools. Lessons can be rote or interactive, and conducted at home (desktop) or on the move (mobile).
You can vary your mode of learning by way of quizzes, flash cards, and games. But you are learning on your own, albeit that some membership options give you access to a teacher to touch base with.
3. Learning Irrelevant /Non-Colloquial Thai
I will never forget the time I came home and asked my GF if she had ever seen a rainbow in Thai. She was in stitches, and I felt offended.
She immediately knew where I'd got that from and asked if I had learned that in school.
She appreciated my efforts but was a bit surprised to hear we'd spent 30 minutes learning that when we could have been learning questions that Thais actually do ask each other 🙂
Another problem can be the lack of colloquialism. A classmate and his wife, lovely retired couple, were becoming frustrated that no Thais outside of the school understood what they were saying.
They felt like they were making progress in school but in the real world they still felt very much like tourists.
In my opinion, the way to prevent this happening, is to use multiple resources for learning Thai (programs, YouTube, etc), and to out there and speak with Thai people as much as possible.
Don't isolate your Thai in the classroom. Find a Thai friend to practice with, try speaking to Thais in stores and restaurants,
4. Time Consuming
When I started learning Thai at school I had few responsibilities.
Now I have a wife, a child and a business, all of which need more of my time and attention.
The reality is that it's commitment.
If you are going to attend a language school then you should first assess whether you have the time. Consider the travel time to and from the school, and that you may be given homework to do.
If you will be attending in the evening, consider whether you will be too tired to learn after a day at work; some people learn better first thing in the morning while others would prefer to learn in the evening.
The benefit of an online program is that you get to choose when you learn. However, the school is a great motivating factor.
5. Poor Teaching
Let me say first that the majority of teachers I have come across are awesome. I have to say, my initial concern when attending school was how well the teachers would be able to engage with foreign students.
I got lucky in that the teachers I had were great, which made me look forward to going. However, I have spoken with others that haven't felt the same way.
But that's life, isn't it? Some people we connect with and some we don't.
The same is true for childhood schooling. You could have the most expensive private school education and really dislike your teacher, or go to a state-run school in a run-down area and love your teacher to bits.
That said, some teachers are better than others. Some are born to do it. Some are just there to pay the rent. Some just may not like you. You take your chances.
I have to say that I found beginning Thai school a little easier than others in my class because I had a head start.
I knew a fair bit of Thai going into the course, which I had learnt from a good friend over the previous year or so.
This put me at a good footing in the class and helped ease my nerves, and makes me think that I might not have enjoyed it as much without my prior knowledge.
Going “back to school” can be daunting, especially for those who are more reserved and quiet.
I needed to learn proper sentence construction and expand my vocabulary skills, and also understand why things are said in certain ways, rather than just saying them; it really helped me in those areas.
However, by far the most rewarding aspect of the school was meeting people who were in Thailand for all sorts of reasons.
It was really interesting to meet people working jobs for companies I never knew existed, and to meet retired folk with all sorts of interesting life stories. As I mentioned previously, I am still in contact with two friends from the class.
It also gave me some routine at a time when I needed it. Just having to be somewhere at a certain time actually felt good after floating around traveling for so long.
I left after about a year. To be honest, I don't think anyone stays at a language learning school for more than a year or two.
Once you have a good foundation, you can take it from there and learn more on your own and from everyday interactions with locals.
You don't need to go to a language school to learn Thai, though. If you don't have the money to pay , or just don't fancy the classroom learning setting, there's plenty of other ways to learn, such as:
- Basic lessons on YouTube
- Free account at Thaipod
- Get a Thai friend or your GF/BF to teach you.
- Learn one word a day (365 a year) and use these words as much as possible, everyday (see more tips here).
I recommend combining all of the above to be honest. Immersive learning is key.
Tackle the language from as many angles as possible, and keep your learning refreshed by mixing it up with different resources.