I have spent the last five years living in Thailand, working as an English teacher. I found the Thai people to be gracious, vivacious and intelligent. But I knew they’d be like that before I went there, because I had friends who had lived there for many years, and they told me to expect nothing but politeness and pleasure from the Thais. Their Buddhist upbringing teaches them that every good action receives a good reward, so they are wonderful hosts when you live among them.
Their language, however, was another matter. I was warned by these same friends that I would soon go insane trying to learn to speak Thai, what with its tones and inflections and skewed grammar and Pali and Sanskrit root words from ancient India. Beyond a simple greeting and farewell, I would never, ever, be able to speak the Thai language well enough to have an intelligent conversation with an adult Thai.
So said my friends.
And initially, I believed them!
Beyond learning to say “Hello” and “Good-bye”, or “Where is the bathroom?” and “What time is it?”, I didn’t dare pursue my language studies any further, afraid I would make a fool of myself and be laughed out of the country.
What changed my outlook finally was Joom, a sprightly Thai lady, approximately my age, who wanted to take private English lessons. She was raised on a farm in Northeastern Thailand, had come to Bangkok at sixteen to work as a maid in a hotel, and now she was getting ready to retire, and thought that it would be nice to learn the language she had heard spoken in hotel rooms for most of her adult life. After a few formal lessons we were on a bantering, first-name basis.
“Why you no speak Thai?” she demanded of me. “You get Thai girlfriend fast, you speak Thai – sure!”
“Oh, I dunno” I waffled. “Thai is a hard language for foreigners to learn.”
“Not hard, if not lazy” she replied. “I teach.”
So our roles were reversed; after every English lesson I gave her, she gave me a Thai lesson. Here are the main points she drummed into me, and which I found very helpful in overcoming my diffidence with learning to speak Thai:
- Don’t worry about the tones! The Thai language has five formal tones, rising, falling, middle, dipping, and inverted. It is almost a musical language, like Chinese. In fact, many root words come from Mandarin. But, as Joom pointed out to me, when you put a Thai from Bangkok with a Thai from Chiang Mai, the tones go right out the window! The Bangkok Thai is speaking the ‘correct’ patois, while the Chiang Mai person is speaking the hill country dialect, and the tones are completely different; yet they understand each other completely, because of the context. In a nutshell, for Thai, context is more important than tones.
- Thai is a great language to make mistakes in! The reason being that the Thais have such a robust sense of humor, and do not take anything about their own country seriously (except the Royal family!) that if you murder their language by trying to speak it, they will just laugh and then love you for it. The Thais truly admire foreigners for making the attempt to speak their language. So they will encourage you at every turn. Can you say that about the French or Germans?
- Beware the lazy ‘R’! In the last twenty-five years the Thai language, like all living languages, has evolved. The Thais have gotten away from rolling their r’s, unless they’re reciting a Buddhist text. Instead, they have turned most of their r’s into L’s. So when a Thai wishes to say 100, he or she will say ‘loy’, even though it is spelled ‘roy’. You’ll pick up on it quickly, once you realize it’s happening.
- Finally, please remember that you, as a foreigner, are a guest in Thailand. You will always be treated with respect and affection, but in return, you must give the Thais the respect their language provides. Always use the polite particles ‘khrab’ and ‘kha’ when addressing a Thai person. A foreign man should never ask a question or make a direct request of a Thai without adding the word ‘khrab’ at the end of the question or request. A foreign woman should do likewise, using ‘kha’. There is no direct translation into English of these two polite particles; just accept that you need to use them frequently, and that doing so will impress your Thai friends with your courtesy and knowledge of their language!
(And in case you’re wondering, I never did wind up with a Thai girlfriend; but I had a lot of wonderful and interesting conversations with Thai men and women!)