Living and Working in Bangkok The Thai Language
Although many Thais under 40 speak some English, it's a good idea to start learning Thai before you come to the Kingdom. Speaking reasonable Thai is the best way to assimilate yourself into Thai society. The foreigners who speak some Thai will befriend more Thais, will be able to negotiate better prices, will find out all the best places to go and most importantly, will gain a far better insight and understanding into the way that Thai society works.
The Thai language is tonal and is totally unlike English and for that matter, just about any other Western language. While Thai has imported quite a lot of words from English, particularly medical / scientific words and computer / technology words, there is very little else similar between the languages. The grammar is completely different and in addition to the language being tonal, the phonemes (or sounds that make up the language) are different too! On top of this, Thai uses it's own unique script. All of this contributes to making Thai tricky to learn. You can get to survival level easily but getting beyond that often requires formal study. As a Dutch friend who speaks English fluently and seems to have a bit of a propensity for learning languages said, the Thai words do not seem to "stick" in your head like words from other languages do.
As with any country with a largish population, several different dialects of the language are spoken. Bangkok or Central Thai is what you will hear in the capital, the central region and generally what is heard when listening to TV or the radio. In the Northeast (also known as Isaan) of the country, many, but not all, speak "Isaan" which is very much like the language of Laos. I gather that it is primarily different when spoken and that when written, they write in Thai….confused? I am! In the North they speak Northern Thai and as I have only been there once, I know little about this except to say that the women often use the polite particle jow instead of ka. In the south, they tend to speak faster and very close to the Malaysian border, Malaysian will be understood. In some provinces near the Cambodian border, particularly Buriram and Si Saket, Khmer / Cambodian may be spoken and it may even be the first language for some folks although they will also speak and understand Thai.
There are many different ways to learn including chatting with the girls in the bars (probably the most common), buying cassette based self learning courses, attending language schools here in Bangkok or hunting down Thais in your own country and learning from them before you come away (recommended). Before I came to Thailand I was lucky enough to learn to read and write at the local Thai temple back home. With Thai communities throughout the world, this is a great way to give yourself a head start before your arrival. This GREATLY assisted me in my ability to kick on and rally start to get a decent chunk of the language under my belt. I don't care what anyone else says, the only way to pronounce the language clearly, understand the tones and to really get a good grasp of the language is to be able to read and write it. The inability to read and write Thai, especially the all important vowels, will hamper your ability to learn quickly and also go on to reach a high level. Most foreigners who live in Thailand only learn spoken Thai – some people know diddly squat and still get by because at the end of the day, Bangkok is VERY cosmopolitan and the Thais in any service industries are virtually forced to use English due to the number of customers who simply cannot speak Thai.
Local ladies shading their face from the skin, and the dreaded dark skin!
If buying cassette self based courses, I recommend the Linguaphone course. Both Essential Thai and Colloquial Thai aren't bad either. (Note: there are a stack of other courses but these are the only ones that I have had a good look at.) The Linguaphone course, produced by this famous English company of the same name is a very thorough course that is particularly well structured and set out. The edition comes with two hardback books, one paperback book plus four cassettes and is set out over 40 units. The company that produces it has a history of producing such courses and the course allows you to self test yourself to see where you are at. To do the whole course properly with enough opportunity to absorb it and practice it would take the best part of a year. There is even a book included that teaches you how to read and write! At about $US200, it is expensive but in my opinion, worth every last satang. Colloquial Thai is far more basic and unfortunately doesn't include the Thai script. It is still worthwhile and is available in Bangkok at 795 baht and includes two cassettes. Finally, Essential Thai which is published by the Bangkok Post is another reasonable course. The best thing about this course is the excellent reference book that comes with it which is very well laid out and easy to follow. Although this course may be available outside of Bangkok, I have only seen it here. It is a bargain at only 495 baht. Asia Books, which has about ten stores in Bangkok, stocks many different courses including Essential Thai and Colloquial Thai but the excellent Linguaphone course does not appear to be available in Bangkok. Phrase books are useful initially but should not be relied upon as a means to learn the language, rather as a communication tool when out and about.
Benjawan Poomsan Becker, an American based Thai has released a self study three series course which is available at all Asia Books stores in Thailand. Each course is only 595 baht and comes with a very good book which includes lessons, examples, good clear explanations and also a set of three tapes! The three series are Thai For Beginners, Thai for Intermediate Learners and Thai for Advanced readers. For both value for money AND quality, this series is well worth looking at.
It's quite difficult to find a decent language school that teaches Thai. Many schools use dated teaching techniques such as rote learning, use copied course materials, use teachers who are not actually qualified to be language teachers and often seem to have no real course objectives. It should be noted that the Thai educational system is very different to what we are used to in the West and for a while now there has been talk of a change in approach to a more student centered approach. The problem of students copying each other's work is appalling and even at University level, plagiarism is widely prevalent. Further, too many schools seem to "teach for the test" meaning that language students are taught how to pass the Pratom 6 school exam and not how to actually use the language for everyday communication! The P6 exam is run each year by the Ministry of Education and tests Thai to the same level as a grade 6 Thai student.
Many Westerners end up studying Thai at Union Language School which, on the surface, looks reasonable. An 80 course which runs for four hours a day, Monday to Friday for four weeks, total 80 hours, costs 6,500 baht which is quite reasonable really, given what the Thais pay to learn English. Union initially offers six different modules, each one month / 80 hours in duration. The courses move at a brisk pace and if one is keen, they should be able to make good progress. After these six initial modules, other elective modules are available including one on social problems, a couple of newspaper reading, a couple of religion and a couple that are specifically tailored for those who want to prepare prior to doing the Government P 6 exam. Note, Union doesn't introduce written Thai until the third module which in my opinion is a big mistake. The course that Union offers is thorough but it seems more like a study of the language than a course in how to use the language. It is so academic based that I wouldn't be surprised if the course was a part of someone's thesis for a doctorate. One of the big problems at Union is that some of the higher level books that they supply are marred due to the high number of errors in them. Give the Newspaper 1 course book to a Thai speaker along with a red pen and get them to circle all of the mistakes – some pages have more than 10 spelling mistakes! Although it is not of any major importance, the English used in the vocabulary sections is VERY poor too. The premises at Union really could do with a lick of paint as they are really starting to show their age. (These comments about Union were valid as at the end of 2000 when I finished studying there.)
Union is mixed up with a Christian church and I believe that it may even be owned by the Christian Church of Thailand. If you are a missionary, you get a 1,000 baht discount on courses and get preference when course openings become available. The waiting list can be quite long and in a worst case scenario, you may have to wait up to three months for a course opening to become available. This school has a good reputation amongst the Thai language schools in Bangkok but on the negative side, they are more than a little strict and at times, treat the students like children. Still, their courses seem to be effective, if a little inefficient. Union courses run in the mornings only – no afternoon, evening or weekend courses are run although one on one tuition at 300 baht per hour or 400 baht per hour outside the school is available. If you can get your hands on Union's course books for modules 3 & 4, these make up the best material that I have come across for learning the Thai script and it is all done with explanations in English! Union does not like to have students come and study for just a short period of time and about the first question they will ask you is, "how long do you expect to study here". A response of just a month or two will result in them telling you that they do not want to teach you so whatever your plans may be, tell them that you want to study for six months+!
Many years ago I met a Spanish fellow in a bar who spoke very, very good Thai and I asked him where he learnt. He studied one on one tuition at Thonglor Institute in (from memory) Sukhumvit Soi 38. They sell 30 hour blocks of tuition for 7,000 baht which again, is very cheap. Learning one on one is a much faster way to learn than in a classroom environment so long as you are taught by a skilled teacher. Some people praise AUA for their Thai department but my experience inquiring there was very poor. I found the staff unhelpful and the methodology that they use to be questionable (Hey, I'm a qualified language teacher so I've got a few clues about this!) AUA expect students to sign up for 400 hours of listening classes before you can even start talking, let alone reading or writing. Sounds like a bloody clip joint to me but then some people swear by it, so who knows? Give it a go yourself. I have heard that the books they produce for later levels, which include Thai script, are pretty good. (If you teach at AUA, you get a 50% discount on the cost of the Thai courses there.)
Nisa Language School is apparently run by a former Head Teacher / Manager of Union. They run courses in all levels of Thai and have a pretty good reputation. I know someone who studied privately there and if you buy a block of enough tuition, you can get the price for one on one tuition down to 230 baht an hour, very good value for money indeed. This fellow studied at both Union and Nisa and said that Union was better for learning to read and write and Nisa better for actually learning to speak. He said Nisa was a little more laid back than Union. Their classroom courses are a little expensive at 19,500 baht for a ten week course and for this you get three hours a day in class, meaning the total course is 150 hours. This is actually dearer than a lot of the good English language schools charge Thai students.
Baan Parsar Thai is located on Ploenchit Road in the Ruam Rudee building, virtually next door to the Ploenchit Road sky train station. The school is very small in size but from my solitary visit, seems reasonable. They do a little bit of outside work and have contracts with some big multinational companies such as GE. Courses are 30 hours being made up of 20 X 1.5 hour classes and cost 5,400 baht per course which really is quite expensive – even more than some of the best English schools charge for tuition. Private tuition is available at 300 per hour or 400 for and hour and a half session – further, if you study 4 X 1.5 hour sessions in a week, the rate drops to 375 baht per session. They seem to only have three different levels of study and while they offer an extra course in reading and writing the language, it is not so popular. I have no idea about the quality of tuition but the teacher I spoke to there was very helpful, friendly and spoke particularly clearly.
Somchart Language School in Sukhumvit Soi 19 is gaining popularity. They offer both study in a classroom setting or private study. If you book enough hours of private study, the rate becomes very reasonable and as an example, prices start about 5,250 baht for 20 hours to 10,500 baht for 80 hours. Whereas it is said that the teachers speak good English, doubts have been raised as to whether they're properly trained. Still, it is supposed to be ok there.
IDA Language School seems to offer a mish mash of English courses, test preparation courses and also Thai language instruction. Their prices are 2,900 baht for a 20 hour course learning in a classroom with other learners or 6,900 baht for 20 hours one on one with a teacher. Not a lot of feedback from this place other than the fact that all of the materials they used are copied – though that shouldn't come as a surprise! Also, instructors tend to talk predominantly in English which is not going to do a lot for passively developing one's listening skills. IDA is a little hard to find and is down the road from the Phyathai BTS station, opposite the Asia Hotel.
Chulalongkorn University offered (not sure if they still do?) nine different courses in Thai with three courses at each of three different levels ranging from Basic 1 – 3, Intermediate 1 – 3 through to Advanced 1 – 3. The more difficult intermediate level courses are supposed to be around "Baw 6" level and the advanced courses are purportedly very difficult with the use of a lot of genuine material such as TV news, newspapers etc. Each course is 100 hours, 20 hours a week, Monday – Friday 10:00 – 15:00 with a one hour break for lunch. The material is supposed to be very tough and they really apply the pressure. This would be a great place to study but for the cost of the courses – 25,000 per course which is quite frankly, quite hard to justify. There are between 5 – 10 students in a class and the students are predominantly Japanese and many of them have studied Thai for years in Japan or may even have jobs in Thailand working with the Thais and using the language. This is probably the best place to learn high level Thai but really, it is expensive. However, some feedback suggests that the beginners courses are not really beginners at all and rather a mish mash of stilted low level and high level vocabulary, not really suited to genuine beginners.
Inlingua, the big international chain language school, is offering two different types of Thai tuition. First there is Express Thai which is offered at their Silom, Chidlom and Bangna branches. This is remarkably similar to the Survival Thai course as offered above by AIE, but the Inlingua version seems to be a little more complete, shall we say. The idea is to give you a basic vocab of about 200 odd words in quick time. They offer courses in the morning and in the evening in very small groups, and the course fees are 4,500 baht for a 20 hour course. In addition to this, the other Inlingua branches offer private one on one Thai tuition, but this is not a regular course but rather tailored to your individual requirements. There is a sliding scale of prices with the price varying depending the time of day you wish to study, and the number of hours you study for, but tuition works at around 500 baht an hour.
Walen School of Thai created waves when it first opened, not for any reason of language instruction, but because their one year course fee were a very reasonable 29,000 baht (and much cheaper now) also got you a one year educational visa which secures your ability to remain in the country and negates the need to do visa runs out of the country! Providing the visa is a great marketing ploy by this school. Walen now has four locations with two in Bangkok – Sukhumvit and Ladprao as well as Pattaya and Chiang Mai. They have since lowered their price which is now 24,960 baht for a 14-month course including the ED visa.
I note that the Times Square Building, that is an office building connected to the Asoke skytrain station by one a "skywalk" seems to be becoming something of a hub for Thai language schools. There are at least five different Thai language schools in that building providing an excellent chance for prospective students to check out and compare different schools all at the same time. The newest school in the building is the curiously named Thai Language Station. Some of these schools use quite different methodology and some have special offers, such as the ability to provide you with an education visa, so take your time to ask lots of questions and choose the school that is best for you.
One of the frustrations that I have with studying Thai is that there are a lot of schools offering tuition and they can all get you up to what I would consider a satisfactory level. However, if you want to actually get to quite a high level, few if any schools offer this. I deduce that the problem is that no one school is prepared to develop the necessary resources needed to teach to that high level. Therefore it seems that you can study at most of the language schools up to a certain point and then after that, you are on your own to pick up what you can. You could always get a private tutor but that is both costly and not the most fun way to study – in my opinion. Also, one on one tuition requires a teacher skilled at teaching one on one, and they should be focusing in on a student's needs, but I seldom see that happen. They just tend to teach every student the same which means that studying this way is wasted money. Union does offer some quite high level classes but the teaching is very one dimensional and you just do the same thing day after day after day which becomes terminally boring. The quality of education in Thailand is poor when compared to the West and this can result in somewhat inefficient teaching of the language i.e. you will learn the language but it takes a lot longer than it really should. Another of my frustrations is that the level of customer service offered at virtually all of the Thai language schools in Bangkok is VERY poor. They seem just so interested in getting your money and little else. Oh, the possibilities for a farang to open a school are immense but you can bet that the Thai authorities would baulk at the idea of a farang offering tuition in their language.
One thing you should try and avoid at all costs when learning Thai is writing Thai words in English. Unless learning to read and write is the first thing that you do, it is hard to avoid this but trust me, it can be detrimental to your progress in the long run. There is no correct way to write Thai words in English. There is a royal guide to be published which outlines guidelines but this is not always followed. With this in mind, I have walked down Ploenchit Road and seen the name of the road spelt four different ways on various signs, all within a couple of hundred metres of each other.
For folks learning English, there are many, many publishers worldwide of excellent course books and learning materials and resources but for Thai, the demand is relatively small. This contributes to a lack of good material and resources out there. There are a few CD-ROMs available with the Rosetta Stone Thai language course probably being the pick of the bunch but in my opinion, it's still not great. Be careful as some of the CD-Rom based courses only cover reading and writing and frankly, I am not at all convinced that this is the best way to go to learn the Thai script. Even at 150 baht for a copied version of the CD at Panthip Plaza, I still wouldn't bother – except for perhaps the Rosetta Stone disk.
Also with English, there are various tests that are accepted worldwide to test the level of your English such as TOEFL, IELTS, Cambridge Certificate etc. Thailand does actually have a national testing system run by the Ministry Of Education called the P6 exam. This exam is somewhat farcical as it predominantly tests reading and writing with a little bit of speaking and listening but no genuine two way communication. The exam is in five parts: 1) Write an essay on a specified topic 2) Write a letter (one of six different formats) 3) A multi-choice reading comprehension 4) A dictation (good God…) 5) A pronunciation exercise where you must read a passage of Thai aloud and you are marked on your pronunciation. Foreigners who pass this test are supposedly at the same level of Thai language as a P6 student (11 year old). The problem is that this test really doesn't test a hell of a lot other than your ability to read and write – the other components border on farcical. Various schools such as Union and Nisa offer P6 preparation courses. The P6 test is only offered once a year, in Bangkok only, in December. In my opinion, there is no real need to do it. It is predominantly taken by missionaries whose employers require them to take it if they wish to work in Thailand. Assuming no existing knowledge of the Thai language, 9-12+ months full time study is required to reach a level at which you would expect to pass.
When you first come to Thailand, you will no doubt have an interest in learning the language. If you are a male, you are bound to get the advice that you should get yourself a sleeping dictionary, meaning move in a Thai girl. While this is a good way to learn, be careful of moving in a bar girl and learning Thai from her. A lot of the bar girls use very coarse terms and really, you do not want to be using a lot of the language that they may teach you or that you pick up from them. A bit of formal study before moving in a girl is the way to go!
It is well worth your while investing in a dictionary and you should consider getting a dictionary that has both English to Thai AND Thai to English translations. This will facilitate communication both ways if you are attempting to communicate with a Thai who has poor English. There are a large number of dictionaries on the market though you should take your time when selecting. A lot of the cheaper dictionaries have print that is too small to read – REALLY small. Some of the dictionaries have unusual translations. I have a few different dictionaries and none of them are perfect but when used together, they make a valuable resource. A lot of old hands swear by the Mary Haas dictionary as being he ultimate. This dictionary ONLY provides Thai to English translation and not vice versa. It has print that is readable but the problem is that it was released in 1964 and is starting to show its age. If you really want this dictionary, the only place that I know of in Bangkok that has a stock of these is the bookshop in the basement of the CCT Building on Suriwong Road. Cost is a princely 1,600 baht! Many male expats swear by the long haired sleeping dictionary as the best one to go for – problem is that this model often has too much slang and is missing any high level / advanced vocabulary.
Actually using your Thai and hoping to learn more by using the language can become a somewhat difficult affair. Thailand is very much a segregated society with fairly well defined class lines. As a foreigner, you will have the opportunity to talk to people from all the different levels of society. Generally speaking, those from poor backgrounds and with a modest education often use fairly simple language themselves – and some can use some quite coarse terms, meaning that you may pick up some language that you really shouldn't. Socialising with folks from the upper echelons of society and you will often find that not only can they speak good English, but they WANT to practice their English. All this means that finding people to practice decent Thai with is not that easy. One of my pet hates in Thailand is when you are out and about town with a Thai friend and you start talking to another Thai in Thai and even if your Thai is fluent, the other Thai will often reply to your question in Thai, but to your Thai friend and not to you. So even though you might make a super diligent effort to study Thai, you may at times find it frustrating searching for people to use it with!
No matter what people will say or admit to, I believe that everyone makes some sort of judgment about another person when they first meet them. We all factor in different things into this judgment – some people look at people's shoes, other at the person's watch. Some people judge people on the they way they conduct themselves and others on how well presented the person may be. While I may factor in some of these points, when I meet an expat in Bangkok for the first time, I am always keen to know just how good their Thai is as this alone can tell you so much about them. Beware of anyone who has been in Thailand more than a year and speaks no Thai or has only reached a very basic level. People who have been here more than two years and who speak little or only rudimentary Thai should also be watched. Sure, there are exceptions to these rules but… Anyone who claims to know a lot about life in Bangkok or Thailand will only do so if they speak Thai very well.
It takes a while to get to a reasonable level and if you have plans to live in Thailand for a long time, it is well worth your while to go and study in a language school soon after arriving. Everyone is different and some people have a bit of a gift with learning languages but I would suggest that unless you study formally, it will take you a couple of years at least to get to any sort of even reasonable level. it can take a lot longer to really get to a level where your Thai is considered strong. Fortunately, very few foreigners need to use Thai in the workplace so it isn't essential to speak it well, but certainly useful. On top of this, many Thais talk about things at a very basic level, things such as food, weather, family & friends, TV shows etc. You really do not need to have an extensive vocabulary and superior command of the language to communicate in most situations.
* If you know of any new Thai language schools or courses, please do let me know. Also, please do tell me of your experiences with any of the schools here. Places change over time and it would be nice to keep this section of the site as up to date as possible.