1. Language is power
2. Inferiority complex
3. You’re listening to Thai, but you just don’t hear it
4. You’re an alien, you’re a legal alien, you’re a farang in Thailand . . . .
1. Get a Thai girlfriend or boyfriend.
2. Invest in quality language books.
3. Use the many free resources available on the internet.
4. Watch Thai TV or listen to Thai radio.
5. Music and Karaoke.
Thai people are well known for being economic with their words. Wherever they can omit a syllable and still retain the obvious meaning, they’ll lose no time in chopping it up to save lip work. And so I should have seen it coming . . . but I didn’t, and I couldn’t help sighing inside when I heard “Facebook” being called “Face.” At first, I wasn’t sure that I’d heard correctly: the conversation was in Thai. But then I heard it again – this time from my wife: “I play Face.” Ha! The cheesiness never ceases to amaze me! Face?! Honestly, how cheesy is that? But the best part of it is that Thai people use the verb “play” when referring to Facebook. Native English speakers would probably say: “Do you have Facebook?” or “Do you have a Facebook account?” But the fun-loving Thais say: “Do you play Facebook?” I think from now on I may be hearing the abbreviated version of this line: “Do you play Face?”
Other words that Thais abbreviate:
7-Eleven = Sewen
Computer = Com
Tesco Lotus = Lotat
The Miracle Grand Hotel = Milaceun
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!
Learning to speak a new language is a great way to broaden your horizons and expand your perception of the world around you. It is said that learning new languages improves intelligence, and in an increasingly globalized world, multilinguists have a marked advantage over their monolingual counterparts. Of course, some languages are harder to learn than others – Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean being among the hardest for English speakers – and the far eastern languages have proven tricky for westerners en masse. Thai is a tonal language, much like Chinese, and has five tones which denote the meaning of words. With around 26 million native speakers in the world, it’s not the most widely-used language. But as tourists, teachers and expats continue to flock to the Land of Smiles, learning Thai is becoming an increasingly popular choice.
When you first arrive in Thailand you will be bombarded with new information: signposts demand your attention in an ornate and complicated-looking script that means nothing to you; people ask you questions that you don’t know how to answer; the taxi driver wants to know where you’re going; you don’t even know how to order food. The list goes on. At first, this can all seem quite bewildering. But eventually, like a raging storm must abate, the madness and confusion eventually give way to the clarity of understanding; albeit slowly. Many people arrive armed with phrase books, only to find that the book was about as much use as chocolate fireguard – and they’re not very useful. You try speaking that “golden” phrase you learnt from the book: Khun suuay mak na krub – you thought you told her she was beautiful, but you just politely told her she’s unlucky. Oh the tones, the wretched tones. After a couple of weeks you’ve thrown your phrase book in the trash and decided to just listen!
The Easy Stuff
You’ve now been in Thailand for a couple of months and you’ve impressed yourself – and the locals – with your new vocabulary. You know how to ask the price of things, ask your friend where he/she is going and ask them if they’re hungry – Thai people love that question. Everything seems to be made up of short syllabic sentences: Gin kow mai (Do you want to eat?), Bai nai (Where are you going?). You feel, in your own humble opinion, that you have mastered the language. You send emails to friends: “Thai is easy. I’m already speaking it.” And then . . . the bomb drops. Someone reels off a long complicated sentence in the vernacular and you have no idea what they said.
The Hard Stuff
Thai language, like all other languages, has evolved organically over a period of time, adopting words from Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer and Chinese along the way. Thai is a member of the Tai group of the Tai-Kadai language family, which was brought from the Shan states in southern China around 1,000 years ago. These different influences can be heard in the sounds of the language. Long ceremonial names are often derived from Sanskrit and Pali – such as the full ceremonial name for Bangkok – and road names like Viphawadee have a distinctly Indian flavour to them. Other words, like bai and mai, have similarities with the syllabic nature of Chinese and other oriental languages.
But foreigners are not the only ones who have a hard time understanding the language in Thailand. Various dialects are spoken throughout the length and breadth of the country. A Thai speaker of Bangkok – for example – may not understand the Thai spoken by an inhabitant of northeast Thailand, where the people speak numerous dialects, including a language similar to Laotian. So once you get over the initial hurdles of just speaking a few words, you will suddenly find that learning to speak Thai in all its wonderful multiplicity is a life-long task.
Foreigners who speak Thai were once a rarity. Even now, there are not many who can speak, read and write the language. When you try your first phrase on Thai people, they will invariably be enthusiastic about your ability to speak their language. Just being able to ask how much something costs will result in Thai people making a big fuss over you and saying: “Oeey! Farang pood pasa Thai keng leaw! (Oh wow! This long-nosed farang can speak Thai like a specialised pro!).” And of course, it goes to your head. You might feel like a superstar . . . for a while.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. — Nelson Mandela
But as your ability to speak Thai continues to improve, you may find that this Thai-style bemusement will occasionally work the other way: they will assume you can’t speak Thai. An example is getting on a bus and the ticket collector asks someone sat near to you if they can speak English: because that dumb foreigner sure as hell aint gonna speak Thai! It can be annoying when you realise they’re making that assumption, especially when you’ve dedicated a lot of time to learning their language. Still, it’s also a good way to learn more about Thai culture, to just let it pass and not take it seriously.
Thais love to tease foreign learners with tonal riddles which make use of the same (or similar-sounding) words that are differentiated by their tones. When I first came to Thailand, a friend asked me: Krai-kai-kai-gai (Who sells chicken’s eggs / ใคร ขาย ไข่ ไก่), which, when spoken quickly, sounds like: Kai kai kai kai, and comes out in a monotone when repeated by most foreigners. It took me about a year and a half before I could confidently say that, and I still have to think carefully to get the tones right. Another one – though I learnt this from a book – is: Mai mai mai mai (Does new wood burn?), the answer to which is: Mai mai mai mai (No, new wood does not burn). Of course, written in Thai script, each mai would look different (ไม้ ใหม่ ไหม้ ไหม? ไม้ ใหม่ ไม่ ไหม้) , which is why learning to read Thai is greatly beneficial to improving spoken Thai.
Reading and Writing
Thai language is made up of 44 consonants, which are divided up into three tone classes: low, middle and high. How on earth have Thai people created an extra 18 consonants? They haven’t. They just have various different letters to denote the same sound. In fact, when you strip back all the extra letters, Thai actually has only 21 consonant sounds. The vowels are where things get a little more difficult. Not only are there 44 consonants to remember but there are 32 vowels as well – many of which are sounds not used in English. Vowels can be grouped together or wrapped around consonants in a counter-intuitive fashion to create new sounds, and there are both short and long versions of most vowels. Once you start learning to read Thai, you will be amazed to find that all those signposts are no longer so indecipherable. Within a short time, you may find you can read the destination on a bus or the name of a district in Bangkok.
There are some good books and websites to help you learn Thai. The ones I found useful are Thai for Beginners by Benjawan Poomsan Becker, and Learning Thai.com. Learning Thai.com has fully interactive pages where you can listen to the sounds of the consonants and vowels being spoken by a Thai person. There are also other useful resources such as recordings of stories with an accompanying text, and links to other blogs and websites. Thai for Beginners comes with a C.D. which allows you to listen to the vocabulary and conversations in the book and is one of the most thorough and error-free Thai language books I’ve come across.
Thai language is a wonderfully melodic and musical language that does not readily lend itself to the academic approach. Like a small child – who repeats what the people around him/her say – learn to speak Thai by repetition and listening. Too much analysis only blocks the path to clear, spoken Thai, and while you may have a huge vocabulary (of words you’ll probably never need) it’s useless if you can’t string a simple sentence together. Allow yourself to become a child again, forget what’s right and wrong, and just listen!
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few. — Shunryu Suzuki