Moving to a new country is difficult enough, but living where you don’t understand the language – both spoken and written – adds an entirely new level of difficulty. Although I was scared at first, this challenge was one of the most exciting parts of travelling to Southeast Asia for me. What better way to learn a new language than to dive right into it head first? Here are a few tips for getting the most out of the opportunity, and I hope future study abroaders will embrace it like I did.

Thai sign
I’d like to think this advice from Wat Umong, a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, applies to learning a language: don’t expect to be perfect, and have fun!

Use every possible opportunity to speak and listen to natives, but know you’ll be wrong – a lot

Thai is a tonal language, meaning that the pitch you use to say a word can change the meaning. For example, “ma” can mean both “dog” and “horse” depending on how you say it. Thai has five tones, so getting the exact pronunciation correct is crucial – and difficult – for native English speakers who aren’t used to this aspect of language. Practicing with other study abroad students helps, but unless you’re speaking to a native, you can never be sure you’re saying a word/sentence correctly.

Luckily, TEAN put us in an apartment building with Thai students and set us up with Thai roommates. This is not only a great opportunity to make local friends, but to practice the language. I often ask my roommate, Tae, how to say something simple, then go and try to use it. Thankfully he’s very patient and is willing to help me use the
correct tones and pronunciation.

Many local people are excited to help, as well. For example, on a weekend trip to Bangkok, I attempted to make conversation with all of my taxi drivers. “Where are you from? Do you like Bangkok? Have you ever been to Chiang Mai?” Most were excited at my attempt to speak with them in Thai, and when I pronounced something incorrectly or
forgot a word, they were happy to help.

Pointing and smiling will be your best friends

At the bottom of our street, there’s a woman that sells omelettes and rice for 17 Baht (around $0.55). The problem with going to her is that the entire menu is in Thai and she barely speaks English. What’s the solution? Non-verbal communication. When I want a two-egg omelet with everything in it, I smile, hold up two fingers, point to what I
want, and am sure to thank her in Thai. She understands most of the time, and I get a cheap, delicious dinner. Of course, knowing exactly how to order in Thai would be ideal, but that’ll take some time.

Street food
Know you want a strawberry, banana, and chocolate crepe but can’t read the sign? Be polite, point to what you want, and voilà! (Bonus points: ask how to say each ingredient in Thai. You’ll oftentimes get an enthusiastic response and a big grin in return.)

Learn to read and write…maybe

At Chiang Mai University, our language class is divided into Thai 1 and Thai 2. Thai 1 focuses on basic communication – speaking and listening – and Thai 2 focuses on reading and writing. There’s a good reason for this: reading isn’t much help if you don’t know any words.

Lauren, TEAN’s Marketing Director who lives in Chiang Mai and has been helping out with many aspects of the program, suggested not tackling reading and writing immediately. I was surprised at first, but her logic makes sense: learning to read too early just creates “noise”. For example, just because you can read the word “gai” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll understand it. (It means “chicken”, by the way.) Having the ability to read just creates the impulse to read everything, a frustrating endeavor. Until you have a solid grasp on the basics, I’d recommend waiting. Two months of Thai 1 is a good amount of time, and if I were staying in Thailand, I would have already have signed up for Thai 2.

Thai bus ticket
Without the help of some locals, buying and deciphering this bus ticket would have been nearly impossible.

Chad Stein  is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and a TEAN Featured Blogger. Chad is currently studying abroad with TEAN on the Thailand/Vietnam semester program.