My wife and I recently took a trip to see friends and family, which required a long car drive. The CD player wasn’t working, so we decided to spend some time working on my Thai language skills. She first gave me a few travel-related vocabulary words, quizzed me on them, and then told me to make up some sentences using the new words and related to our current travels.

I did pretty well for about a hour before I started to hit the brain overload level. (Practicing Thai while trying to navigate through multiple states using a GPS is not the easiest thing in the world, just so you know.) When we got finished our practice session I was feeling rather confident. I had done pretty well, had been luckily able to memorize the 20 or so vocabulary words my wife threw out at me, and I could finally speak some sentences that didn’t sound like a four year-old was speaking.

And then my wife said to me, “You should keep a journal.”

“A what?”

“A journal.”

Now if you’re a guy (as I am), the concept of a journal is about as familiar as a bath and clean room is to a teenager. But once my wife suggested it and I thought about it for a minute it made perfect sense. That day I went out and bought a small notebook that I could carry around with me and started my first Thai journal.

Here’s how it works (or at least how I suggest you use one):

  • Every day, write what you did that day in your journal. It doesn’t have to be a heart-wrenching outpouring of emotional drivel, but it should have some substance to it so you are not constantly writing the same things over and over again. Things you did, things you saw.
  • Try to NOT write sentences like a See Spot Run or Dick and Jane book. Try to write in Thai what you are thinking in English. Unless you are Simple Jack you should be able to form coherent, adult sentences.
  • You’re most likely going to need a dictionary for words you don’t know or don’t know how to spell. For words you don’t know, write them down and then underline them with a solid line. For words you know in Thai but can’t remember how to spell, underline them with a dashed line.
  • For each day that you write in your journal (which should be every day if you are serious about learning), create a vocabulary list using the dashed-line words – the ones you knew but couldn’t spell. That will be the list of words you use to study with during your next study session.
  • Try to not only improve your vocabulary, but also your grammar. That doesn’t mean you should exclusively work from your dictionary and grammar books, but the goal is to improve after all.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I think it’s probably better that you guess what the best way to say/write something is and correct it later rather than lose the flow of the exercise by bogging yourself down with books and looking things up.

If you have Thai person who can check your work and help you with corrections, that’s obviously the best help you can ask for. Have them read what you’re writing down. If they don’t understand something, explain to them what you are trying to say and ask them to tell you how they would say it. Then go into your journal and make the appropriate corrections by crossing out and adding words, or simply rewriting the sentences altogether.

Do a little bit every day. Every day! It doesn’t have to be pages and pages, but even four or five sentences will go a long way to improving your language skills. I admit I haven’t been doing it very long, but it’s already helping me out a lot.