Should I Learn To Speak Thai?

Should I Learn To Speak Thai?

The Thai language bears no similarity to English or any other Latin based language, in either vocabulary or grammar.  While most non-Thai speakers agree that Thai is easy to understand, they all say, that it is a difficult language to speak and inflect. In other words, it’s the tones that get you! And it is a tricky language to be fluent in.  A fairly decent amount of time is needed to gain more than just ‘pigeon’ Thai, and a couple of years of serious study if you want to speak like a native.

Thailand has the worst level of English of any of the South East Asian countries, and many locals don’t formally learn the language. Instead they speak a particular form, known as ‘Tinglish’, which for the large part is neither grammatically correct, not fluent. Still, it is generally enough for them to get by in whatever business they are involved in… Which is fine, as long as you don’t expect much conversation beyond that topic!

“Where you go?” “How much you pay?”

That being so, the question remains, is it really worth bothering to put in the time and effort into learning the Thai language?

Most Foreigners In Thailand, Don’t Speak Thai

Most of the Western expats living in Thailand go about their everyday life with little knowledge of the native tongue.  Since English is considered to be the ‘universal language’, most of them rely on the fact that most people can at least speak a little English.

In Thailand’s capital, Bangkok spoken English is getting better amongst Thais, as time progresses – which has a lot to do with the large amount of new English schools that are opening up. Extensive English Language programs are also being presented in schools. So this bodes well for the future of English in Thailand!

There Are Some Perks To Speaking Thai…

When you know how to converse in Thai your cultural experience improves markedly.

It can show that you sincerely want to learn about the culture, and enable you to build up a rapport with the locals.  You will find many more open minded Thai, with whom you can actually practice with, and who are happy and willing to converse with foreigners beyond the usual everyday pleasantries.

You also earn extra bragging rights and respect, when you speak Thai above the survival level.

If you are involved romantically, and have a Thai girlfriend, speaking Thai is the best way to bridge the cultural gap which can further strengthen your relationship.

And Some Downsides

With so much to gain by learning Thai, are there any disadvantages to it?

The biggest factor here has to be ‘time and effort’. Initially, it is a really difficult language to learn. You might feel like a toddler again, trying to form sounds for the first time, or trace around unfamiliar shaped letters. I know someone who spend hours drawing out each individual letter, and was very proud of himself once he’d mastered a perfect, ‘Y’.

The Thai Language Barrier

Even with Thai friends who often speak English fluently, it is still easy to make mistakes, and misunderstandings do happen.  The difference is in understanding vocabulary and grammar, and, of course, the tones.

Thai Is Tonal

Because Thai is a tonal language, it’s pronunciation presents new challenges for English speakers. If the tone is wrong’ you will not be easily understood, even if everything else is correct.

Thai uses five tones, and the length of the vowel is also very important. As I said, misunderstandings happen often. With friends, this is usually easily fixable. But, with more romantic relationships, misunderstandings because of language problems can cause a snow ball effect, into other problems if they are not solved immediately.

Writing & Reading Thai

Thai uses an alphabet of 44 consonants, 32 vowels, four tone marks and various other symbols for punctuation, numbers, etc. Learning to read and write, as well as speak Thai, from the very beginning has many advantages. However, many people only undertake this one they have been living in Thailand for some considerable time.


On September 3, 2010, posted in: Living in Thailand by
Comments are closed.