The Thai language is a fascinating one. It's the language of around 40 million native speakers in Thailand, it's got its own beautiful alphabet and it's one of those "tonal languages".
You won't have to look long for good reasons to learn the Thai language, because there are plenty. But once you've made the decision, you'll probably like to know how long it'll take?
Thai is definitely not the easiest language for an English speaker. Moreover, estimating how long it takes to learn to speak the language is difficult, because you'd need to take so many things into consideration.
What's your educational and linguistic background? How motivated are you? What'll be your study method? What level of Thai are you aiming for? And first then, we can look at the language itself. Learning Thai is not something you finish in three months. But you can get pretty far in under three years!
What's your background?
So one of the first things to take into consideration is you. Who you are and what your linguistic and educational background is, can mean a lot when it comes to learn Thai. How?
Your linguistic background
If you're a fluent speaker of Khmer, Vietnamese or Chinese, learning Thai will both be easier and faster. Knowing a language that's closely related to Thai is quite obviously a shortcut to the Thai language itself, because many of the features of those languages will closely resemble Thai and finally learning the language will be much less of a mystery.
But what is you know Arabic, Russian, Dutch or if you only know English fluently but did take French in high school? This actually helps too. While these languages aren't related to Thai, they're quite different from English. Having experience studying, and perhaps, learning a foreign language will mean that you've already faced one of the biggest obstacles in language learning: A new way of thinking.
French conjugation and Russian cases has got absolutely nothing to do with Thai, but once you've got past the frustrations of wrapping your head around these concepts, you'll have opened yourself to the possibility of expressing things in another way.
People who only speak one language will very often find themselves in a situation where they ask "why do they have to say it that way" or "why can't they just do it like we do in English, it's easier".
English is obviously no more correct or logical than any other language. You're just used to it. If you're used to, or if you know about other languages and their way of doing thing already, you'll be miles ahead.
Your educational background
Likewise, your educational background plays a role when it comes to learning Thai. Not so much because you'll need to master the American civil war history to figure out Thai tones, or because calculus will make Thai grammar clearer. It's all about being used to studying.
If you're used to doing your homework every day, listening attentively to a professor for hours on end, or building up knowledge in order to work towards a goal, you'll have an advantage when it comes to studying Thai by yourself.
The note-taking techniques you used in college will come in handy for Thai, and the discipline of getting out of bed in the morning and studying and revising in the evening will be helpful when learning Thai, and you'll end up learning the language faster than if you were to start from scratch building up all of your routines.
But what if you only speak English and you didn't go that far in the school system? Does that mean that you can't learn Thai? Of course not. You will just have to face all of these things for the first time, which is not that bad in reality. Living as a student is a kind of lifestyle. You need to fit it into your everyday life. Once you've done that, you'll be all set for learning Thai.
What level of Thai are you aiming for?
The amount of time it takes to learn Thai depends a whole lot on.. Well, it depends on what you're aiming for. Is your goal to pass as a Thai native with no accent? Then, you need to work at it for decades. Do you only want to exchange greetings with the grocery shop clerk in Phuket? That's doable in a matter of weeks.
Most people will say, however, that they they want to become "fluent" in Thai. This leads us to the age-old question "what is fluency?" While I think that we can agree that there aren't really any definitions to that word that fits all, fluency is about being able to speak and listen without stopping while understanding it all.
If that's the definition we're going for, we're allowed to make a few mistakes here and there, to mispronounce a few words or to have to guess a few words from context now and then.
That's the kind of fluency that I advice you to aim for. This is also something that you can realistically archive within a couple of years if you're persistent.
The US Department of State have defined 6 levels of language proficiency. Let's have a look:
When you look through the list, you'll see that it goes from zero knowledge (0) to bilingual proficiency (5). What they refer to as bilingual proficiency will probably take you decades to archive. Many have the goal to pass as a native, but it demands a huge amount of time and not everyone end up getting there even after living in Thailand for most of there lives.
The level called "Full Professional Proficiency" (4) is much more realistic for most people. It will allow you to speak perfect Thai, but without that last 1% that makes you pass as a native. But do you really need that?
Personally, I'd actually recommend that you aim for the one called "Minimum Professional Proficiency" (3) which is a descent level of Thai. You'll be able to speak the language fluently and get by in Thailand, but you'll still make a few mistakes here and there. At this stage there's room for improvement, but you're more than ready to face the world.
If you aim for "Minimum Professional Proficiency" instead of "Full Professional Proficiency", you'll end up saving a lot of time in perfecting your Thai. You'll probably reach the high level from using the language at some point anyway.
How (and how much) will you be studying Thai?
Your study routine is very important when it comes to estimating how long it will take to learn Thai. It's really quite obvious isn't it?
Those who study a lot improve faster than those who study only a little.
But one thing that's much more important than the amount of study is the consistency. If you Spend a whole day of studying Thai, then do nothing for 10 days and then sit down and do a ton of lessons again, it doesn't really help that much.
When learning languages it's much more efficient to sit down and study for short bursts of time, but do it often. If you study 15 minutes four times a day, you'd be much better off than if you studied 7 or even 10 hours during the weekend.
The reason is, that by constantly coming back to the language, you'll be making Thai part of your day. Your brain will sort of "soak" in a Thai learning environment, and each time you put down your book, your brain hasn't got the time to get too far away from the Thai language before you pick it up again. You simply won't allow your brain to forget quite as much.
This is why you'll learn Thai faster from studying less in total hours (if only you study very often).
How you study Thai is also important.
I'm generally a fan of self-study. I don't like language classes, because I think that they're inefficient. Concentrated self-study can get you further and you'll be getting there faster, but you need to know how!
I've written a (rather long) guide to self-studying Thai that I recommend that you read if you'd like to know how I recommend that you learn Thai.
How long will it take to learn the Thai alphabet?
The Thai alphabet is not a complicated writing system where you'll need to learn thousands of characters like it's the case for Chinese and Japanese. Thai is an ordinary alphabet with (only) 59 letters. Sure, that's a bit more than English, but it's nothing to be scared of. Learning the Thai alphabet can be done in a couple of weeks, tops, with a few handwriting exercises and revisions.
What about Thai pronunciation and tones? Will I ever learn it?
Thai pronunciation, and especially the tones is one of the more complicated aspects of the language. I don't recommend that you set out to learn Thai pronunciation as if it were a single task to finish before continuing. Pronunciations and tones should be learned gradually. Sure, you need an introduction to the bases in the beginning, but after that, you need to learn as you go.
And sometimes it'll seem as if Tones is just way beyond your level. And they may be! Don't worry - tones are hard, but if you keep focusing on them when you listen, read and learn new words, you will slowly and gradually get a feel for them. Don't beat yourself up if you feel that you don't really improve.
Since I recommend that you work on tones and pronunciation as an integrated part in your studies, it's difficult to say exactly how much they will add in terms of the time it takes to learn Thai. But it's sure that it isn't something that makes Thai easier!
You've got to dedicate some time to Thai vocabulary
Learning new words in Thai isn't difficult, but it might be more time-consuming than if you were to learn a language closer to English, like German, French or Spanish.
The reason is that most European languages have some kind of familiarity to them. (If you already know one of them, that is). It's easier to distinguish different words and they somehow look and sound familiar. For many European languages we're even used to hearing them now and again, and even though we don't know the language, learning words can become easier when their sound is familiar.
Take for example the word "house". In Dutch it's "Huis", in German "Haus", in Spanish "Casa" and in French "Maison". I'm going to assume that you speak neither of these languages. Yet all of these words seem familiar. And those that aren't directly related to the English word "house" (casa and maison) still somehow sound familiar.
In Thai the word for "house" is "บ้าน" or "B̂ān".
Thai vocabulary is very different from English, and this simply means that it'll take more effort and more time to memorize new words. Where many Spanish words would stick by themselves, you'd need a lot more note-taking, association exercises and repetitive dictionary look-ups with Thai.
By the way, I've written an article about how to remember words in a foreign language that I recommend that you read!
How long does it take to learn Thai according to linguists?
The Foreign Service Institute is the American Government Institution in charge of teaching foreign languages to US diplomats an envoys going overseas. They've got a lot of expertise in a lot of different languages and have compiled a list of some of the languages that they teach and divided them into groups depending on the time that they estimate that each language takes the average English-speaker to learn them.
Now, FSI's estimates are based on classroom hours, and they teach in a kind of intensive classroom setting where students learn languages full-time. If you're a self-student, you might be looking at a different kind of estimate.
FSI also aims for teaching their students languages to a "High Level of Working Proficiency". Which would correspond to the Department of State's second highest language level. Or in other words - a very high level of fluency. And this is where I recommend that you start by aiming a little lower!
We can still use FSI's estimates, though, because it gives us a good idea about how long different languages take to learn, and it also allows us to compare them.
The first group is for "easy" languages such as French, Dutch, Danish, Spanish and so on. These are languages that are relatively close to English. They are supposed to take around 5-600 classroom hours to learn.
The second group takes 900 hours. Here we find more complicated and exotic languages such as Indonesian, Swahili and German (!)
In the third group, which is where we find Thai, we'll also see such languages as Hungarian, Finnish, Hindi and Russian. These all take around 1100 classroom hours in order to reach a high level of working proficiency.
The fourth category are for Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean and that kind of beasts of languages that take a whooping 2200 classroom hours to learn!
But let's go back to Thai. Thai actually has features that could be compared to Mandarin Chinese. On the other hand it hasn't got the difficult writing system. I'd still argue, though, that Thai actually might be on the more difficult end of the spectrum of category 3 languages. It actually might take a little longer that 1100 hours. (Which is about twice as long as French..)
But let's go with 1100 hours for the sake of argument: It's a little under 3 years of study if you cram in an hour each day.
And that's if you're aiming for a high level. That actually isn't so bad, is it?
So: How long does it take to learn Thai? A couple of scenarios
So how long will it take to learn Thai? In the following I'll try describing four scenarios. We'll be aiming for the lower-advanced or upper intermediate level of Thai, and I'm going to suppose that you won't be studying Thai in a class, but on your own.
First scenario: You study an hour a day, you're consistent and you know pretty much what you're doing, constantly adapting your study routine to make it as effective and efficient as possible. In this case, I think that you can get to a good level of conversational Thai in 1½ to two years.
Second scenario: You also study around an hour a day, but you do miss a day here and there. You're not an experienced language learner, but you try to get most out of your study sessions, and it's going reasonably well. For this kind of student, I think that the upper-intermediate level is attainable in 2,5-4 years.
Third scenario: You're inconsistent with your studies. You do study every week, but sometimes you are able to fit in more hours than other days. You always study minimum 3 days per week, but rarely more. You're not entirely sure about your approach but you try different things. For someone in this situation, learning Thai to an upper intermediate level might take 4-6 years or possibly longer. In this situation the risk of loosing traction and giving up becomes bigger because the inconsistencies in study sessions can tend to become longer and longer.
Fourth scenario: You study in bursts of several hours now and then, but you haven't got a study routine or any kind of consistency to your Thai studies. This kind of student might never learn the Thai language, or it can take a decade or more. The lack of consistency makes you forget what you've learned in the previous study session before being able to revise. People who end up learning a language usually do so by becoming more consistent and not from following this approach.
So there you have it. The question of how long it takes to learn Thai is a little like asking how long is a piece of string. It depends.
But if you're consistent and patient, you've got something that's much more important than language talent or expensive courses. Keep at it, and you'll get there!