How to Learn Thai: The Papaya Salad Method

The Whole Story

Suhtan wears a backwards black trucker hat and denim shorts. He’s hunched over on a little red plastic stool, grating green papayas into a five-gallon bucket, working through a twenty-kilo bag of the fruits in preparation for the dinner rush. He’s thirty-five but looks twenty-four and grins like there’s a practical joke he’ll never tell you about. Suhtan runs a papaya salad – som tam – stand with his friend Poom in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Bai nai kap? Gin kao ruh yung?” I’m walking across the street from their shop, intermittent motorcycles buzzing by between us—didn’t even see them notice me. Poom wants to know where I’m headed and whether I’ve eaten yet. Though I’ve known these papaya salad proprietors for about a year, were we in the U.S., I’d still consider this a bit intrusive. Here, it’s become a language learning opportunity.

Mixing Langauge Learning and Culture 

I’ve been living in Thailand for two years. Out here, these sorts of questions are greeting: “Hello, I acknowledge that you’re a part of my community, what’re you doing, you strange white man?”

It is at once an ordinary exchange between friends and a moment in which I’m asked to account for myself. For me to earn any sense of belonging, I owe it to Poom and Suhtan to internalize this aspect of their culture and language—to earn my papaya salad. And it happens with everyone I pass, no matter how small our connection, no matter whether we know the first thing about one another.

These delays, if I’ve convinced myself that I must be in a rush, or the seeming intrusiveness can wear me down. But rather than exercising the privilege of an outsider and shirking these interactions, I do my best to make myself stop and have a chat. I cross the street.

“How’s the restaurant?”

“Slow, quiet”

“Why have you still not cut your moustache?”

Sorry, foreigners are hairy sometimes.”

And, like that, I’ve learned the Thai word for hairy: Puy.

As I peel the layers away, what were once overwhelming and cumbersome interactions instead become opportunities to build vocabulary and get to know my daily interlocutors.

If, as a language learner, I take each daily chat with each person I encounter as a chance to learn one new word, the lessons add up fast. Each new word is tied to a relationship. If I forget the words for hairy, cured pork, or fermented crab sauce, Poom and Suhtan will have my ass. No formal studying and I’m off the language learning apps for this.

I’ve known Poom and Suhtan for almost two years. They’ve built out their shop, doubling in size after they took over the struggling seventy-five cent pizza stand next door. They’ve turning the papaya salad stand into a staple of our neighborhood, and because of those initial connections to these two, taking the time to chat and learn a couple dirty jokes, they took it upon themselves to introduce me to their first employees, favorite customers, old woman who want me to marry their daughter, you name it.

The Outcome Of Cultural Exchanges

This is what I seek in language learning: to put in the work and build the basics on my own: simple sentence structure, the first fifty words or so. That’s enough to take me on the road into immersion, using relationships and exchanges just like the Thais’ “Where are you going? Have you eaten yet? (And do you have a girlfriend?)” to shrink the distances between a few seemingly very different people and to help me press on towards fluency.

Memrise- The Art of Spaced Repetition

Memrise – The Art of Spaced Repetition

Did you know that you can hack into the mainframe of your brain and control it by using one simple method? Spaced repetition, a study technique, is the secret key that helps you in unlocking the potential of your memory. One spaced repetition app, that helps in this memory technique is Memrise. Today I will be going over some of the features of memrise, and how to use it to its greatest potential.

Spaced Repetition Using Memrise

What Is Memrise?

It is an online site that employs spaced repetition, to help you learn and control your learning preferences. It has a catalog of the most used decks in every language that users share on the platform. You can easily learn the most used words of any foreign language through memrise. If a person manages to learn 500 “most used” words of any language, they cover up to 80% of that language (considering this is everyday life we’re talking about). This helps you to grasp the grammar and other elements of the language quickly. When you start to use Memrise you will find that there is a pre-built frequency deck of all the languages. For further aid with pronunciation, certain courses allow you to access diction practice. To employ a more enjoyable experience, there are memes too; which are a picture/word mixture to help you with the learning and pronunciation of the words.

Memrise Japanese Courses
Basic Memrise Japanese Courses

Memrise Memes
One of my favorite memes

What Is Spaced Repetition?

We are always looking for ways to increase the efficiency of our brain to learn more effeciently. One of the most effective methods to do this is through spaced repetition . Spaced repetition resembles the flashcards technique, but there is one thing that distinguishes spaced repetition from a deck of flashcards and that is time. Spaced repetition uses time gaps to set up a gap in learning periods.

For example, let us say you learn 10 words today, but do not review them until 5 days later where you then add another 10 words.

What happens is that while you are on the verge of forgetting those words forever your brain scrambles trying to find those words and when it does it holds onto them for dear life. In simple terms spaced repetition techniques trick your brain into thinking that information input is highly valuable and cannot afford to be lost.

Flashcards SRS
Learning New Language Making Original Flash Cards; Spanish

 Memrise: The Program for Spaced Repetition Software

Many of the spaced repetition programs function similarly to the manual style of memorizing things using flashcards. The items to be learned are entered into the program in pairs of questions-answers. When one of the members from the pair is displayed, you must answer.  Once you have answered the review question, you can check manually to see if the answer was right or wrong. Depending on the result, the review is sorted into by hours, days, weeks or months.

Memrise Dashboard
My Memrise Dashboard

Benefits of Using Memrise to Learn a Language

Memrise Uses Sound To Match Vocabulary

Many SRS apps completely disregard audio and just include the word flashcards, but this is not the case with Memrise. Memrise even has the choice of an audio review for its premium members. During an audio review, you are only allowed to hear the recording and select the right answer. If you are wondering if audio recordings are worth the premium membership, you can always just click the mic icon at the top of the word to hear the recording.

Screenshot_2018-09-08 Garden - Memrise

Memrises’ Native Speaker Function

Recently, Memrise implemented a feature where native speakers say the word for proper pronunciation. What’s even cooler is that the native speakers were recorded on camera, in their natural setting repeating the word given to them. The recording is then played during the course and you can watch them pronounce the word. It is very useful for shadowing and accent removal. Below is a video showing just how they did it, enjoy.


Memrise is FREE…If You Want It To Be

Using memrise cost nothing at all. That is one of the greatest advantages it has over other language learning software. The only thing Memrise costs is time, and with space repetition, time is not that expensive.  While there is a premium option that I had a once upon a time (a very long time ago), there is not that much more content you can squeeze out of the spaced repetition app.

Memrise Pro
Memrise Pro Prices

So, you are wondering what “that much more” meant in the last sentence. Memrise premium is for visual nerds. If seeing your progress on a singular bar line along with some streak marks is not enough for you, memrise premium offers detailed graphs based on your learning patterns. It will show you things like: Days You Learned the Most, Words Learned, Words Reviewed etc… It is very pretty to look at.  Also, the native speaker feature I mentioned earlier is a premium feature…so I guess that is cool. Oh, who am I kidding, get the pro version its honestly frickin’ amazing. Heck, I might just buy it after publishing this post.

Memrise Pro
Memrise Pro Benefits


Hack into your own brain with the help of spaced repetition and make your language learning journey easier! Create a Memrise account today, and see just how quickly you’ll unlock your memory’s potential!