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?
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