Mike Curl

Sa-peaking Thai

The advantages of being able to communicate


 

To preempt all of the negative comments that are going to come as replies to this post, let me first say that I do not claim to be an expert on Thai language. I actually find my level of Thai embarrassingly low for someone who has been living here for almost three years.

I can speak decent conversational Thai. My vocabulary is weak in some areas and strong in others. My pronunciation is not perfect and my sentence structure is clearly that of someone speaking Thai as a second language. I can read menus with no problem and children's books with occasional problems. Newspapers are beyond me currently, but I can still get the relative gist of an article.

Studying the basics

I was first exposed to the Thai language when I was seventeen years old. I was in Thailand for 4 weeks over the summer during my junior year of high school. I came to Thailand as part of a volunteer and exchange program, spending half my time in Udon Thani and the other half in Bangkok. This is when I began to pick up the basics of Thai language.

Being American, I had always seen my parents studying other languages before traveling to foreign countries in the hope that maybe it would make them stand out as Americans less. Because of this, I had never viewed learning Thai as some daunting obstacle, but just the normal thing that should be done if you are in Thailand. In fact, I can't remember ever saying to myself that I was going to set out to try to learn Thai. I just made small steps without consciously considering the fact that I was learning a new language.

I started by just reading random things out of phrase books and asking my Thai friends to correct my pronunciation. If you do this every day for four weeks you can learn a surprising amount.

Improving my Thai

I returned to Thailand 3 more times for periods of 1-3 months each. Each time, my Thai would get a little bit better. I moved here at 22, and although I had been studying Thai on my own during the summer for a few years, I had never spent an extended amount of time in Thailand. So while I new a fair number of words and phrases when I finally moved here, my Thai was still incredibly rudimentary. I would have been in level 1 or 2 of a 4 level language school.

Although I arrived here with only the basics that anyone would have been able to pick up via audiotape at home, Thai people always reacted with shock when I told them I'd only been living here for a few months. At first this surprised me to no end, but after seeing how much Thais love to flatter people and how little energy most foreigners invest into Thai language learning, it all makes sense now.

What doesn't make sense to me is the number of people living in Thailand who see learning Thai as either too challenging or not worth it.

Is Thai difficult to learn?

Let's start with Thai being challenging. Yes, Thai is a tonal language. Yes, vowel lengths are important for correct pronunciation. Yes, there are vowel and consonant sounds which are not found in English. Yes, the alphabet looks intimidating. If you want to be a Thai news reporter, this stuff is important. If you want to be able to tell your security guard that you forgot your keys, not so much.

Tones are important, and pronouncing them correctly will make your Thai sound lovely to Thai listeners, but even with mangled tones, people can usually get the gist of what you are saying. The same thing generally holds true for vowel length. Sounds that are new to you can be difficult at first, but anything that is new to you should be difficult at first, right?

The alphabet is completely different from English, but it makes much more sense in terms of pronunciation and spelling than English once you learn it.

Learning Thai can be difficult because it is a language, and learning a new language is typically not the easiest endeavor, but with minimal effort you can learn enough Thai to impress people and get things done on your own. Why would you want to live in a country if you cannot speak with the local people?

Thai builds frendships

Even if you can only speak a minimal amount of Thai, this seems to generate a significant amount of appreciation from most Thais. If you can't speak to people, it makes it incredibly difficult to establish trust or build meaningful relationships.

While Thai people are often quite friendly to strangers as long as you are not in a touristy area, I feel that you can't quite connect with or understand anyone fully unless you actually speak to them, and to me this is incredibly important in regards to feeling at home somewhere. This is the main reason why I think learning Thai is important, but surely there are many of you out there that could give a damn about talking to the people in your neighborhood or trying to understand the culture of the country which you live in.

Whether or not you want to develop meaningful relationships, gain cultural insights, etc. is up to you, but there is no arguing against the fact that being able to speak Thai is of great advantage in getting day to day things done.

Advantages of being a Thai speaker

First off, no Thai store clerk with poor English wants to help the scary farang. If you speak Thai to them, they are more than happy to help you, but no Thai and they will more than likely ignore you.

Secondly, if someone is ripping you off or being an ass, you can call them out on it and sort out the situation without losing face. If you get angry and keep yelling at them in English, you are the clear loser. If you can remain calm, speak respectfully, and make the other person look like a stingy piece of bird doo doo, you my friend are the winner.

Finally, there is just the normal stuff. Don't you want to be able to call the store to ask what time they close or even just reply when someone asks you where you are going?


I hope you enjoyed reading this. Please pay a visit to my own personal blog site. Mike Curl.




Comments

Mark - How ironic you can't be arsed to learn a different language but you want to learn to programme? (For which you need a to learn a programming languange). And if you learn it to a decent level, it will become far less intuitive than a spoken language, even Thai.

By Dan, UK (27th August 2015)

Yes, I think Del sums it up well... People who prefer their own company often do live in a 'bubble.'

People who are more sociable and connect better with people are more likely to summon up the enthusiasm to learn the language and reap the rewards that comes with that.

"But what happens if..."

I don't think that knowing Thai is going to help me too much if the girlfriend buggers off or the money disappears or the cancer takes over.

If you can speak the local language then of course you'll play up the value of it. And maybe for the people who make the effort it is it's own reward.

If I was going to learn something new at my age it would probably be computer programming, something that I could lose myself in and enjoy.

It wouldn't be a difficult foreign language that may come in handy one day down the line if something really bad happens!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (27th August 2015)

Well done Mike! My first venture into language learning was in Germany, I was in my early 20s and wanted to date the prettiest girls. As my language learning progressed I found that that was only one of many benefits that come with being able to speak the local language.

While German is a lot easier to learn than Thai, Ive found that i have learned enough in the 6 years I have been in Thailand to cope with most situations and am on a similar level to that which Mike descbribed - without really making any concious effort beyond looking up the occassional word in a dictionary.

I can't imagine how anyone could live here without doing the same (although I have met many) they must be living in a bubble of expatness (similar to the Brits in the spanish Costas) or in a bubble with the English speaking Thai wife/gf. The farang mute as someone described it!

One poster stated that "Never-the-less, I somehow managed to stumble in to a comfortable life without it!" But what happens if the wife/gf suddenly abandons you. or you lose all your money, or you fall ill - or god forbid all 3 at the same time.

It is true that you can do without speaking Thai as long as things are going well and the bank balance is healthy, but as soon as things start to go wrong the Thai speaker will be in a much better position to help him/herself.

If that's not enough motivation, go back to my original reason for learning a foreign language - you'll have more choice in the dating market - that's why most peopler come here anyway. chai mai?

By Del, Thailand (27th August 2015)

Mike, great article. I hear your new book's been a great success! (“How to train your Soy Dog using simple Thai”). Are you working on a new Tome at present?

By Dan, UK (24th August 2015)

Mark

It is amazing the lengths we go to justify our own actions and attitudes.

By Jack, Closer than you might think (22nd August 2015)

"First of all I made the mistake of learning from bargirls..... and once got mistaken for being a ladyboy..."

Just one more reason to avoid learning Thai!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (21st August 2015)

Living in Thailand as a foreigner who can speak the language is a totally different experience than being physically in Thailand but without the ability to communicate with the locals.

It is like comparing apples and mangos.

Those who don't speak the language seem to have the most troubles and complaints about the Thais, while those who can communicate have far fewer problems and see Thais more as individuals and less as stereotypes.

Some people are close minded and do not want to learn anything new or be exposed to different ideas, others are open-minded and want to learn new things and be exposed to new ideas.

The most ironic thing is many of these individuals unwilling to learn a foreign language are making a living (as it is) teaching a foreign language.

It is kind of like a writer who never reads or a musician who does not like music.

I guess it takes all kinds :)

By Jack, In front of my computer (20th August 2015)

Sawatdee Khrap,
I agree that it is extremely useful to be able to speak the language in whatever foreign country you happen to be in. Otherwise you feel a bit at a disadvantage if the only people you can talk to are other English speaking expats or tourists.
I first learned some Thai many years ago when I was on a trek and my walking boots fell apart when crossing a river many times in one day. The Thai guide expertly made a rope from bits of bamboo that he had chopped up with a machete and tied my boots to my feet. Inspite of this I could not walk very fast as the bamboo ropes kept working loose so I was at the tail end of the trekking group. It was boring having to walk carefully and not speak to any farangs, who had gone further ahead, so I spent two days talking to the trekking guide who could speak not only English, German and Thai but also Karen, Akkha, Lisu, Lahu,and Burmese. He taught me about 20 Thai phrases over the course of the two days and later I learned more from various phrase books.

Now after having spent about a month or two in Thailand every year for the past 20 years I can speak enough Thai for about a half hour conversation with a Thai person. That is not as difficult as it seems because for the first half hour everyone seems to ask the same things. It is only after that it gets more difficult when the conversation turns to something other than everyday smalltalk.

Mostly people will first of all ask about you, your name and country and how many times you have been to Thailand, and what you think of it. Then they will ask where you have been in Thailand and where you live in your country and about your job. Maybe something about how many brothers or sisters you have . Next is usually a question asking if you are single and what you think of Thai girls.

If you learn to rabbit on about these subjects for a while then the locals think you can speak good Thai, but little do they know that you have been asked the same questions hundreds of times.
First of all I made the mistake of learning from bargirls..... I ended up with fairly OK Thai but an accent that was too high pitched and once got mistaken for being a ladyboy.
Since then I made very, very sure I used a deeper voice and started learning from tuk tuk drivers and any Thai men (not katoys) who had deep voices and the time to chat .

In the meantime I have also learned the Thai alphabet from a 20 baht kids book which I got from a Thai bookstore in Hatyai and got my (now Ex) Thai girlfriend to tell me the sounds and names of the letters. Among the first things I was able to read was the Thai washing powder which looks like USA but is the Thai alphabet for "Breeze". (although in a more modern font than the one that is used in the kids books)

When reading the modern font most letters resemble our letters but it looks like that because the little loops are simplified into a small dash at the place where the letter begins that determins what letter it is.
After a while I started to be able to read signs in Thai, and it encouraged me to continue.

I taught English for several years in Hatyai, but when working you are encouraged to only use English so the only Thai I got to use was ordering food and beer in the evenings since my girlfriend wanted to learn English and usually didn't want me to speak Thai except when visiting her parents who couldn't speak English at all.

Now I am working in a school in England but still go on holiday to Thailand as I regard it as my second home because I know lots of people there. I found that a website called Learn Thai with Mod is a good free one and I still try to read a bit of Thai every day. My experience speaking Thai to Thai people is that most of them are more friendly if you speak Thai. Only bar girls do not like it because they don't like you to understand when they make coments about the customers.

By Robin C, Manchester, UK (19th August 2015)

I have been going to Thailand for over a decade....within my first trip it became apparent that Thai Language ภาษาไทย is a MUST if you are to have a semi normal life and have local friends. Thai script, which i put off for years, turned out to be pretty easy to dominate. I would say it took maybe 20-30 hours to start the reading process; small words first, small common sayings....within a few weeks I had NOTEBOOKS full of chicken scratch.
Once you start, its addicting. It is truly is a BEAUTIFUL language and most importantly....IT MAKES SENSE.
One of my favorite movie lines which pushed me into Thai script was ' You want to work in this country? Learn the F**** language"

By MorPhan, Las Vegas (18th August 2015)

"It's an achievement of which you are right to feel proud of. But is it how you measure yourself against other people? "

I don't think anyone here is discussing measuring themselves against other people. We are simply talking about our perceived usefulness/ uselessness of learning some amount of the Thai language.

By Mike, Bangkok (18th August 2015)

While challenging and fraught with awkwardness and mistakes, I myself find new language and learning situations ENJOYABLE- If we look at learning as only a barrier and a chore then naturally we'll probably look for the path of least resistance and avoid it...
I actually think most people do want to learn and be able to communicate better with people around them but struggle to put themselves in a position where they might fail miserably and look foolish.
It's much easier to say you don't care and aren't interested....

By Brent, new zealand (18th August 2015)

"Learning Thai is of no value to me. The effort and time it takes to do doesn't give a return that pays off"

That is a very, very fair point. And I think it would make a terrific blog topic - is the investment of time to learn a language actually worth it? I think it's a very personal thing.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I went to Paris for a fortnight. I thought it would be fun (and beneficial) to brush up my schoolboy French and maybe communicate with the locals. I downloaded a basic French course and probably invested 100 hours of my time over a period of four months leading up to the trip. How much of that French did I actually use in Paris? Apart from one exchange at the station to buy a couple of train tickets - absolutely none! 100 hours of my time technically wasted. Without a doubt.

However, the investment of time to study Thai - for me anyway - is just about worth it. Just about. I do need to communicate with my mother-in-law, the staff at the gym, the maid - and one or two others. Knowing Thai does make my life easier.

But I study Thai on my terms. I don't battle traffic to get to a Thai language school or have a teacher come to my home. I don't arrange anything that creates 'an appointment'. I hate appointments and schedules.

I've got a decent Thai course on MP3 files and I listen to them while I'm sweeping up leaves in the garden or running on the treadmill, effectively killing two birds with one stone.

And 20 minutes of study a day - which is all I do - is no great hardship.

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (18th August 2015)

"I arranged a viewing appointment with the foreman and the job got done in two days. I arranged all that on my own. Just me and the Thai language. And you know what? It felt great"

It's an achievement of which you are right to feel proud of. But is it how you measure yourself against other people?
Learning Thai is of no value to me. The effort and time it takes to do doesn't give a return that pays off. If I'm unwilling to communicate to anyone in English why would I make an effort to learn a very difficult language and do the same with Thais? To get my house decorated? To order pizza?

By Mark Newman, Thailand (17th August 2015)

I'm going to take an educated guess that Mark probably has a Thai partner who translates and communicates on his behalf when he's in a situation where his own "30 words" aren't quite enough. And if you run a business and own a house in Thailand, etc - there will ALWAYS be those situations.

And that's fine if you're happy with that arrangement but you become what I call a 'farang mute'. You become totally reliant on your Thai-speaking partner. And the more work you give that person to do, the lazier you become in terms of learning the language for yourself.

I don't know, but for me, whenever I have to rely on my wife to communicate on my behalf (simply because I don't have the ability) I feel a failure. Is that being too hard on myself? Not really. I've been here 25 years. There shouldn't be many situations I can't handle.

But a couple of weeks ago, I called a decorating firm to explain a paint job I needed doing. I arranged a viewing appointment with the foreman and the job got done in two days. I arranged all that on my own. Just me and the Thai language. And you know what? It felt great.

I remember my days back in England when I used to go to Yardley Green Health Centre to see the doctor and some Bangladeshi mother would be relying on her 7-year old son to communicate with all the medical staff. And I'm sure the thought of "hold on, you live in England, why don't you learn how to speak English?" crossed my mind.

By Philip (ajarn.com), samut prakarn (17th August 2015)

Actually, I will reply. Who doesn't "have the ability" to learn Thai? What is that about?

By Mike, Bangkok (16th August 2015)

Yeah I'm not even going to reply to that.

By Mike, Bangkok (16th August 2015)

I think Mark is just trying to wind you guys up.
I mean he has to be. Right?

By Phil (Ajarn.com), Samut Prakarn (16th August 2015)

Sorry Mark but imo your comment saying you "I didn't move there to speak to the local people" is nothing short of outrageous!!! Who DO you talk to and how could anyone seem so uninterested in mingling within their environment?
Obviously the old adage "when in Rome..." doesn't apply!

By Brent, new zealand (16th August 2015)

"First off, no Thai store clerk with poor English wants to help the scary farang."
You and I shop at different places. This is certainly not my experience.

"Why would you want to live in a country if you cannot speak with the local people?"
Odd comment. I didn't move here to speak to the local people!

Having a command of the language of your host country is useful. It can help in many ways both socially and professionally... especially if you are a social animal and like mixing with your surroundings. If you have youth on your side, it's also easier to learn the language.

You should be proud of what you have accomplished but you don't have to be condescending to other expats who have neither the ability or the desire to follow your learned path.

Knowing Thai is handy but it's not a disaster if you don't. I can't count to ten in Thai. I probably know about thirty words at the very most. Never-the-less, I somehow managed to stumble in to a comfortable life without it!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (15th August 2015)

Thanks for the comment, Brent. I certainly agree that picking up the basics is fairly easy. Again, the alphabet is a whole different challenge, but it's not as difficult as some people make it seem.

By Mike, Bangkok (15th August 2015)

Sawatdi Karp, I myself just got back from my first trip to Thailand and also found the language not only fun and a great new skill to develop, but also that it helped people warm to me quickly and 'opened doors' so to speak.
I also found that as a speaker of 2 languages already (English and Maori) that it seemed easier. I feel that having a language acquisition skill set can really help, like my mate who has lived there for 8 years who is very fluent (but can't read and write) -he went to Thailand already fluent in English and Hebrew.
I imagine reading and writing would be a whole different challenge though!

By Brent, New Zealand (14th August 2015)

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