I have lived in Thailand for just over nine years and I made it an early goal to at least have a working knowledge of the Thai language.
A large part of my time here has been working with the English language in some form or other; for several years as an English teacher in a local secondary school and as a private tutor; and in the past couple of years as a professional writer.
But I, like many English people, do not have a natural gift for learning new languages. I have in the past studied French (at school) and Spanish (at University) and I took quite well to the latter, but if there was such a thing as an Olympic Language Race I would come in somewhere near the back, just behind an average 7-year-old European student.
If the truth be told, us Brits – well, we’re a bit lazy when it comes to learning foreign languages; have you noticed? That’s a rhetorical question.
So when it came to the challenge of learning Thai, it was a bit like throwing a 2-year old into the deep end and saying ”swim”.
Thai is truly the deep end of languages. I can report that the only similarity between English and Thai is that they both have words!
- You thought that 26 characters in the alphabet was sufficient to create most necessary sounds? Try 44 consonants and 28 vowels, as there is in Thai.
- You thought one unique sound was represented by one unique consonant? In Thai, several sounds are represented by 4 or 5 different consonants. Also, the same vowel sounds have short and long variants and they can be placed above, below, to the left or to the right of the consonants.
- You thought that understanding the sounds of the letters that make up the words was enough to learn how to say them properly? Try four tone marks that create a “way” to say the sound, as well as what the sound actually is.
- You thought that words are always nicely separated on the page? Try a language that has no breaks between words or punctuation marks to help you know when a sentence finishes and another one starts.
- You thought that every language uses the Hindu-Arabic numbering system these days? Try a completely different set of characters for numbers…
These are just a few of the gaping caverns you have to cross if you want to start to get to grips with the Thai language. You really know you are in a foreign country when you start the learning process.
I managed to find the time and dedication to put several hundred hours of self-teaching in, to a point where I can read and write a little Thai; this is the key to learning the language; learning to speak Thai without understanding the structures of written Thai words is difficult and will probably only be achieved by total immersion into the language, in local situations where English is not spoken so that you have to speak Thai merely to get by.
I know a few people who have succeeded with this approach, often more out of necessity than by any particular desire to master the language.
If I were to hazard a guess I would say that 90% of expats (not just the British…all expats in Thailand) never make any attempt to learn to read or write Thai; this figure may be higher. Learning Thai is nearly always placed in the “too hard” basket.
It takes time and dedication, but the rewards for cracking it are high; my Thai reading is probably at the level of a 5-year old Thai child in his first year of school; it would take me an eternity to read the front page of a newspaper for instance; but at least I can read headlines, menus and road signs; so if you need some chicken cooked with holy Thai basil on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, I’m your man!
English proficiency levels in Thailand are not very high; if you’re reading this from Singapore you would probably be appalled by standard English levels here; so making the effort to learn Thai really helps basic day-to-day communication.
Also, Thailand is a country where “respect” is a very important word’ you will gain more from a stay here if people respect you for making the effort to assimilate into the country rather than expecting the country to change for you, as I see with some expats here. If the local Thais respect you, life becomes a lot more enjoyable and it’s a lot easier to get things done.
That’s about it from me for this week. I’m off to read some more road signs – it makes walking down the street a lot more meaningful!
Editor’s note: This was a post by Mark Stephens. Do you feel like making the plunge in Thai, but would you feel safer by having a teacher to guide you? There are a number of language schools offering Thai courses in Singapore.