The Frustration of Learning to Speak Thai – Be Careful What You Say

Learning to speak Thai can be a difficult task for Westerners who are not accustomed to tonal languages. But there is one obstacle that will get in the way of your learning that is not mentioned in any language books: Thais do not want you to speak Thai. Okay, this may seem rather severe, in fact, it is. The truth is, some Thais will be very flattering when it comes to speaking Thai: pood Thai keng (you speak good Thai), pood Thai chaat (you speak Thai clearly). But there is –despite this – a bit of a taboo regarding Westerners speaking Thai. It does not extend to Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Malaysians or any other inhabitants of Asia; only white-skinned Westerners. If you are white, you simply cannot speak Thai, it’s beyond you; you are too sophisticated for this base language.

If you teach English in a school, you will more than likely be forbidden from speaking Thai. This can be a frustration when you have gone to great lengths to learn the language, impressed yourself with remembering tones, only to have it thrown right back in your face: DO NOT SPEAK THAI. This rule does not extend to Chinese teachers, who clearly have the grace to speak this tonal language; only the dumb farang should be forbidden from speaking Thai. I believe there are several reasons for this:

Firstly, Thais believe that English is the most important language in the world right now; quite rightly so, it is the international language of business. But the Thai parents have no concept of balance: it’s all or nothing with them. If there was a spectrum showing how enthusiastic a parent was about his or her child’s education, Thai parents would be at the far end of obsessive. I once tried to explain to a Thai father, who couldn’t understand why his seven-year-old daughter didn’t speak English as well as his fourteen-year-old son, that you need a balance: don’t push your child too hard, but don’t be completely blasé about their education, either. You need a middle ground, I tried telling him, where you care about their progress, but accept their shortcomings. I don’t know if he really heeded me, and besides, let’s face it; most seven-year-old girls are more interested in Barbie and playing with their friends than learning a foreign language.

Secondly, the Thais have gotten onto the band wagon of total immersion, and believe it’s absolutely necessary that the teacher should speak English at all times if their children are to learn the language. To some extent, they’re right. But once again, Thais show themselves to have a culture of extremes: there’s no middle ground; no Thai, not one word, not even outside the classroom, not even in the school grounds. Speaking Thai in a lesson can often be necessary to get a word across, and although there are sometimes Thai helpers in many English classrooms, even they sometimes don’t know the translations, though this is rare. The prevailing thought is that, if we speak Thai, they will not make any effort to speak English to us and just resort to Thai. There is some sense in this second point.

The third reason why farangs speaking Thai is taboo is that foreigners have a historically bad reputation for being able to speak it. It seems that until recently, relatively few farangs could speak Thai. It’s only now that a more progressive generation of visitors are flocking to the country that people are really eager to learn Thai. It seems to be more popular among the younger generation, though no doubt, there are older farangs who speak perfect Thai. Conversely, there are older farangs who have lived in Thailand for ten/twenty years and claim to speak not a word of this exotic lingo. Because of this reputation, Thais often make the assumption that you can’t speak Thai before you even open your mouth, which can be highly frustrating when you understand what they’re saying: farang pood pasa Thai mai dai (the foreigner can’t speak Thai), I’ve been known to walk away from shops that have given me that treatment.

If you’re applying for a job as an English teacher in Thailand, just beware that your proud claim to speaking Thai might actually be an impediment to you getting the job. Sometimes, they prefer to confirm their stereotypes and meet the big, dumb, white farang, who can’t speak Thai, and is easy to gossip about right in front of his face. They don’t always like you to be smart enough to understand them. The Thais want us in their country, but only on their conditions: remain dumb, white, and farang, then leave after you’ve taught my little angel to Speak English!

2 Comments on “The Frustration of Learning to Speak Thai – Be Careful What You Say”

  1. Fascinating stuff Ray. From my experiences in Otaru (Japan); Shanghai (both sister cities of my home town, Dunedin, New Zealand) and, of course, some 25 visits to Thailand, the desire to learn English and thus converse with you in English as part of that learning is absolutely ‘on the button’. In Otaru, more often than not, locals would just come up on the street or in a shop, introduce themselves and (very politely) ask if they could have a conversation with you. IN Thailand it is likely to be more casual, of course, because of the many places where one can meet and socialise but, in essence, “same, same … not much different”!!! Cheers!

    • Ray Malcolm says:

      Hi Richard,

      thanks for your comment! I imagine the standard of English to be much higher in Japan, the Thais still have a long way to go, but they’re heading in the right direction . . . Still, what’s happened in many cases is that English has entered the vernacular, and the Thais only understand the word if it’s said that way. For example, Bangkok has many Carrefour shopping centres, but if you ask a taxi driver to go to Carrefour, he will have no idea what you’re saying unless you pronounce it: Carfou
      What I’m learning is that the culture shock comes in waves, sometimes you think you’ve acclimatised, the next minute you feel like a fish out of water!

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