Bangkok Phil

The Thai language no one speaks

Feeling left out of Thai conversations

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my wife on her annual company trip to the seaside and this is probably the tenth successive year that I’ve 'tagged along'. 

Every year – usually in June or July - my wife’s company generously pays for a few hundred staff members to enjoy a weekend away.  They arrange quality overnight accommodation at perhaps a resort on the coast or a bungalow retreat in a national park. They lay on food and drink at the resort as well as organise all sorts of activities. The company even provides tour buses for those who don’t want to drive down in their own cars.

All in all, it’s a fun weekend and one that many of the staff look forward to. You also get a good mix of managers, senior managers, office staff, factory workers and drivers – employees from all walks of life. And they can bring their children along too if they so wish.

The weekend trip also gives me a wonderful opportunity to practice my Thai language skills because I am always the only farang in attendance. The Thais are on holiday. They don’t want to fret about having to communicate in English so the onus is on me to strike up conversations in the native tongue. 

Saturday night, after an enjoyable afternoon of beach games, is when the main event takes place – the company talent show. Several departments within the company will have spent months practising their little song and dance routines to present to an excited audience on the big night. Which department will put on the best show and walk off with this year's trophy?

I don’t wish to come across as an old grumpy boots but the talent contest really isn’t my cup of tea. I find it formulaic and childish and it isn’t the remotest bit entertaining - but who am I to judge when all the Thais around me are laughing fit to burst and clearly having the time of their lives? 

A strange language  

The talent contest is in full swing and I’m sat at a round table – rather reminiscent of the type you sit at for a Thai wedding reception. My wife is sitting opposite (too far away to converse with) but I'm happy enough. I’ve somehow found myself squeezed between the general manager, who comes from Mukdahan in North-East Thailand, a female office worker from Bangkok and a human resources guy from Chonburi. I know all three of them well from previous company trips and they are all thoroughly nice people. 

So here is my big chance! It’s been a year since I last chatted to any of them and in that time, I’m hoping that I have made significant progress with my Thai language studies. So I will just sit here and join in with all the banter. There’s only one problem. I can barely understand a word of what they’re saying. Not a fucking word! I can’t even catch the gist of the conversation. What is this strange, alien language that they speak? 

I felt so hopelessly out of my depth that I became more and more frustrated as the evening wore on. Occasionally one of the group would ask me a question and then instinctively look to my wife to provide an English translation. I’d never felt more like the ‘token foreigner’ - the mumbling, culturally inept greenhorn who’s just stepped off the plane. Surely it would be just a matter of time before someone asked me if I could eat spicy food?  

But I had been studying Thai seriously for a long time now. I enjoy lengthy conversations at the gym with any number of Thai friends. Where exactly was I going wrong?

My pal Frank

Eventually, I gave up on the conversation around me and turned to social media - to Twitter to be precise. When you are going through a language crisis, why not just bury your head in your smartphone? I started tweeting about my frustrations and the first of my followers to get in touch was Frank. No one was better qualified than Frank Smith to advise me and offer sympathy in my hour of need.

Frank teaches Khmer language at an American university and has written both Khmer and Lao language study textbooks. I’ve never met Frank face-to-face but would love to one day because he always comes across as a fine fellow. And Frank understood what I was going through. 

“I feel your pain, Phil” Frank tweeted. “In fact, the guy who teaches in the Thai language department at my university refers to the version of the Thai language that’s taught to foreigners as “The Thai that’s taught by everyone and spoken by no one” 

I found myself distracted for the rest of the evening. All I could do was repeat Frank’s mantra over and over in my head.

The Thai that’s taught by everyone and spoken by no one” 

I suddenly felt like all those hours sat in front of my computer studying Thai had been an appalling waste of time.

Frank did his best to console me. He gave me the impression that this was actually a drawback of studying any South-East Asian language and referred to it as ‘cultural gate-keeping’. He didn’t actually define that for me but I’m guessing it means that much of the slang, colloquial or everyday speech is deemed as ‘unsuitable’ for the foreigner to learn. So you don’t learn it.

It’s only when you are sitting among a group of Thais, all nattering away, that you realise how much you are missing out on and where your language ‘blind spots’ are. But you muddle through I suppose - continuing to sound a bit like the bloke who reads the six ‘o’ clock news.

Phad Bung saves the day

But back to the party and the talent show. Someone is waving at me from the other side of the room and beckoning me over for a chat. It’s Phad Bung, the daughter of one of the company’s senior managers. Despite her now becoming a grown-up and independent young woman, she still likes to accompany her mother on these annual trips. I’ve known Phad Bung since she was about fourteen years old and I’ve never met a more confident Thai female. Phad Bung is the original ‘chatterbox’.

I was eager to talk to her and find out how her life was going. After years of being tied to her Mother’s apron strings, she had finally fled the nest to study Russian at a Bangkok university.

I pulled up a chair and we nattered for an hour like a couple of housewives over the garden fence. What’s your apartment like? How many hours a day do you study? Does your Mum miss you? Who does your washing? What about cooking meals? Tell me all about life on the university campus. I had so many questions to ask her but truthfully, it was just great to be communicating in Thai and enjoying a great conversation.

I had found my level. I knew my place.

At bedtime, I confided in my wife about my frustrations with the Thai language earlier in the evening and also the tweets from Frank, etc. 

“Don’t worry” she said, “actually, even I have difficulty understanding some of those people some of the time - and I’m Thai! In the talent show this evening, there was a song chorus containing a word that I had never heard before.  I had to ask Phad Bung what it meant and it turned out to be a new, fashionable, cutesy word for female genitalia!” 

Hmmm ...... so what did I take away from the company talent show? (apart from the fact the staff don't really have any)

How about - hard though it is for me to accept - and regardless of how much effort I put into studying Thai - perhaps there will always be conversations I can never ever be a part of. 

You might also be interested in ...

Interview with Frank Smith - Successful Thai language learner 

My struggles with the Thai language - For 15 years, my spoken Thai didn't get any better at all.


I hear, feel and share your pain. I recently come across some research saying it takes on average 10,000 hours of study and practice to achieve fluency in a language. I know I have spent far more than that on learning Thai and still I haven’t achieved fluency. I just assume it is because I am a slow learner (stupid in learning languages) but maybe not.

I am not sure there is anything unique about Thai, looking at material often used in teaching English I suspect many Thai students of English feel the same way. The language that is being taught is often not exactly the language one hears in the coffee shops, offices and street in the US, UK, or Australia. I have seen more than once a student who had been studying English for years when given the opportunity to go abroad for six months they were able to pick up far more useful language than they did in years of study in a classroom (although classroom study is important in lying the foundation).

Maybe one lesson we can learn from your, mine and other’s experience in the difficulties in learning Thai is to create a little empathy for the students who are struggling to learn English. For the lucky few, picking up a new language is rather easy. For most of us, it is a long, difficult and painful struggle which never seems to pay off to the degree we hope for. I have no evidence to support this, but I have always thought that English teachers who are language learners tend to connect better with their students and better understand the problems students have in learning a new language.

By Jack, Here and there (25th July 2018)

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