Readers' Submissions

Was It A Mistake To Learn Thai?

  • Written by Iimeew
  • October 6th, 2007
  • 20 min read



Judging by the vast array of Thai language books on sale, you would imagine that the Land of Smiles was packed with foreigners amiably chatting away in Thai. I had no particular reason to doubt this when I bought one on departing Don Muang on my first brief visit to Thailand some 14 years ago.

I was curious how a tonal language worked. I had also found the country interesting and hoped one day to be able to return for a longer stay.

Back home, learning Thai was fun; an interesting pastime, rather like Sudoku or the crossword. Thai is pleasingly different to European languages, with its funky script (best learnt first), lack of irregular verbs, plurals and genders and a refreshingly different approach to grammar.

The book didn’t teach me Thai in a Week, as the title seemed to promise, but it did encourage me to graduate to the much more rigorous and serious Linguaphone course (recommended).

Little by little I found myself drawn into learning ever more Thai. A plan gradually crystallised in my mind to head back one day to live and work in Thailand.

I now realise that my first visit was unrepresentative: it was my first time alone in an ‘exotic’ country so far from home and just about everything went right. I was impressed by Buddhism – an eminently sensible religion, it seemed – and in particular by its evidently beneficial effects on a friendly, meditating (Thai) fellow passenger on the train up to Chiang Mai, where the temples were old and venerable; it was a different world.

Sadly, I have never managed to recapture that spirit. Many of today’s bigger temples can seem dolled-up, rather vacuous tourist attractions. Lao monks chant; the Burmese meditate; in countless Thai temple visits I have seen plenty of other tourists, lovers kissing, monks sleeping, watching TV, but never really anyone chanting or meditating.

I did once chance upon a copulating couple in an open-plan wihaan in a forest temple near Mae Sot. Rather tricky it was too, as I could not avoid walking right past them. They looked up as I passed, rather surprised and looking like a pair of guilty dogs. All I could find to say was ‘sanuk sanuk khrap’ – trying perhaps thereby to emulate Thailand’s well-deserved reputation for easy-going tolerance.

Buddhism in Thailand today seems less about the Buddha’s highly practical and sensible teachings and rather more about giving money to temples – with a monk at festival times announcing over a microphone, rather like the scorer at a darts match, quite how much everyone is giving – and praying / wishing for good luck (hence the current craze for amulets). There are more images of the royal family on public display than of the Buddha.

I have become sidetracked, sorry. The reason for writing this is that I suspect my learning Thai was a mistake. So I want to pass on my experiences to others, and I’m also rather hoping that someone may be able to offer some soothing words of advice on where I went wrong and what I should now do with my hard-earned Thai, if anything. Learning Thai is far from easy and I still hanker after some sort of elusive reward for all the effort I put in.

Many Thais will tell you that only by learning Thai will you ever truly appreciate the country and its people. Probably very true, but the problem is that many Thai people do not really expect or want foreigners to speak their language. Many assume that those who try are simply playing at it. I didn’t realise this; I thought it would be like in my native Italy, where no-one questions that Italian is the first-choice lingua franca for everyone, local or foreigner.

I sometimes wish now I had put my effort into learning Khmer, Tagalog or Bahasa: I have frequently been asked by locals in Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia if I can speak their language, with the implication that it would be really nice and useful if I could (and a bit of a nuisance that I can’t).

Not in Thailand: if you address someone in Thai, frequently they will answer in (sometimes very bad) English, without caring which country you actually come from. If you persist, you may be able to drag them back to Thai, but they will probably continue irritatingly to pepper their speech with English words, which of course makes them that much harder to understand.

For example: you hear ‘baan mii’ and recognise the Thai words for ‘house’ and ‘have’, whereas what they are actually saying is ‘baan me’ (house me), which they think means ‘my house’.

Well-educated people are even more likely to avoid speaking pure Thai with you. They will often ‘kindly’ translate the easy words into English – the ones you obviously know in Thai – leaving the difficult ones in Thai (because they don’t know them in English). How helpful.

It still annoys me to be addressed by the English word ‘you’ – just because I am foreign – rather than the usual respectful Thai word ‘khun’ – and not least because I confuse ‘you’ with the Thai word ‘yuu’: maybe I am stupid, but if I have Thai language software loaded in my brain, the English-language package is usually sitting out inactive on some remote cerebral disc-drive somewhere.

Can you imagine any Western language having a different form of the word ‘you’ for use only with foreigners?! If there ever was such a thing it would rightly be abolished as racist.

If you dare to complain that your Thai has been answered with English, you will likely as not get the reply that ‘farangs can’t speak Thai very well’, even though they will then readily admit that what you said was perfectly clear and that you ‘phuut thai geng’ (speak Thai well).

I grew to loathe being complimented on my Thai, because it’s just a cold, meaningless, social formality, and because it dragged the conversation from something potentially more interesting to yet another boring dirge about one’s ability (or lack of it) to speak Thai…and English: the conversation would then almost invariably move on to how my interlocutor wished they could speak better English.

I don’t know why Thais don’t realise how insensitive, hurtful and plain rude it is to rebuff your valiant efforts to speak their language by answering in English (which they have no firm evidence you understand).

It seems that some Thais see it as a disgrace to speak to a foreigner in anything other than English (even if they can’t really speak it).

I understand that Thais sometimes want to practice their English with a foreigner, but with all the non-Thai-speaking foreigners available for this I couldn’t help but be offended when initially friendly people moved away on discovering that I spoke Thai.

Thailand seems to have a fixation with English – but nowhere else is there such a gulf between a country’s enthusiasm and its ability.

Sometimes I was tempted to answer back in Italian, but that would have been sailing too close to another source of dismay: Thais’ lack of curiosity about the huge diversity of language, culture, history and food etc in ‘Farang-land’. It seems sufficient for many to think that we all speak English and eat fast food. (Spanish and coq au vin might as well not exist – and who cares if there is any difference between Austria and Australia?)

I have travelled widely in Latin America and the contrast is stark: Bolivian peasants living in high Andean villages show more awareness and interest than this, let alone urban Brazilians and Chileans.

I have sometimes been asked: ‘In country-Italy, speak language what?’ To which the only possible answer is: ‘In country-Italy, speak language-Italy’!

If you order in Thai at a noodle shop, implying quite clearly that you have been able to read and understand the Thai script in the menu, you will sometimes get the confirmation in English: ‘So, one fried nooden’ (i.e. ‘noodles’) – to which the answer should really be ‘No, I ordered gway thiaw pad khii maw’.

Exasperated by all this, and with my back to the wall, I decided the only way ahead was to deny all knowledge of English.

I know lots of Italians who can’t really speak any English. What if they moved to Thailand? They would learn Thai, surely, I reasoned.

Okay, it is a bit thin, I admit; but it’s also an almost impossible act to pull off, claiming that you speak only Thai and Italian, such is the overwhelming assumption that all farangs are totally fluent in English and only truly happy when speaking that language.

But it was quite an interesting experiment, nonetheless, because it threw up a number of Thais who refused point-blank to speak Thai to me, even when apparently faced with a poor lost soul who could otherwise only speak Italian (but who had done Thailand the ‘honour’ of making a humungous effort to learn its national language).

Why should English take precedence over Thai in Thailand? Beats me!

Indeed, not only English: I once found myself having to stumble through French to speak to one Thai girl (a student in Paris) – yet another person seemingly keen to avoid the stigma of being seen speaking in Thai to a foreigner.

I even suspected my Thai teacher of secretly thinking Thai was for the Thais only. Whenever I complained about some obscure, unnecessary complication in the language (and there are many), she would invariably gleefully reply that it was ‘all to irritate farangs’.

So, one of the difficulties of learning Thai is that you get no help from the locals.

You also get little help from the media: I found TV and newspapers both just that bit too hard to be of much use, unless you are a genius at picking up languages by ear (which I am not).

Indeed, let me be honest, it’s pretty damn difficult sometimes to understand a Thai speaking at full speed. That’s when the real panic sets in (so maybe I should really be thankful if they answer in English?)!

So, is it worth all this struggle in order to be able to speak to Thais in Thai?

Maybe not. In months spent travelling all around the country, from Nakhon Phanom to Narathiwat, I had very few truly interesting conversations. Rarely did I laugh, learn something new or truly appreciate the company. It was really quite a lonely experience (although I also acknowledge my fault in this for moving around too much).

Touring Latin America is a completely different kettle of fish: there, contact with local people is always stimulating, especially in warm-hearted, vibrant countries like Brazil. But there the language is also so much easier to express oneself in, of course.

(By contrast, Thai is a bit of a straitjacket, where you can never stray from the correct tones and vowel lengths, on pain of distorting meaning. I once, expressing astonishment, inadvertently put a western-style stress on the phrase ‘see doctor’ ( haa mor), thereby converting the two rising tones into falling tones….and the meaning to ‘five saucepans’.)

I was kindly invited to the impromptu birthday party of a (Thai) friend of an acquaintance in Phitsanulok. Very kind, but gosh was it hard work! The other eight people there (all locals) seemed immobilised by shyness at my presence, when it should really have been me, with my poor grasp of their language, who should have been shyest.

I have great respect for Thais and their high standards, their fantastic food, their tolerant attitude and so many other qualities; but I can’t say that I grew to appreciate them more the better I got to know them. This was a great disappointment for me.

Thais have a deserved reputation as nice, friendly people; they live in the Land of Smiles (why is it called that?). I found them unfailingly polite, but it was almost impossible to break through the shyness and distance to find some good old-fashioned human warmth. I was struck by quite how impassive their faces can often be when they talk to each other. Friendship in Thailand appeared rather a lukewarm, distant affair.

(Is that maybe why Thai men drink so much; is it the only way they can relax and relate to each other?)

Thais are undoubtedly nice people, but I was surprised by how little they seem to want to say. Few ever really venture an opinion, have a personal thought, crack an original joke, or swim away from the crowd. <Sorry to interrupt this utterly superb submission, but I have a theory on this. The average Thai is PETRIFIED of upsetting people – and of the consequences of that, so they simply shut up. This aspect of the culture is stiflingStick>

I read some schoolbooks for language practice and was struck by quite how little these books encourage children to think for themselves and how much is laid down and spoon-fed to them.

I have often thanked a Thai for their help in something or other by saying that they are kind (good heart: ‘jai dii’). They will then reply that this is because they are Thai – and indeed there it is in the textbook: Thais are taught at school that all Thais are ‘jai dii’. And so they are.

While clearly admirable, I longed at least once in a while to glimpse a number of other qualities in Thais: originality, imagination, individuality, passion, curiosity, effusiveness, sense of humour, irony etc.

Conversations with Thais often seem to revolve around the same old subjects and this in itself makes language-learning harder. You find yourself dragged into repeating the same conversations with everyone: do you have a Thai girlfriend; beautiful Thai girls; farangs have lots of cash; Thais are ‘jay dii’; English is difficult; Thai food is spicy etc. If you stray outside these narrow confines they seem to regard you as eccentric.

If you ask a Thai at a meal if their food is good, they will often just answer yes (‘aroi’) and leave it there, without elaborating further – a one-word answer. It hardly makes for bubbling conversation.

If you ask for an opinion you are in trouble, even if it is something trivial like which colour car they prefer. Indeed, some Thais can seem quite disturbed if you unkindly insist on asking them for their personal opinion.

(By the way, who on earth decided on the colour scheme for Bangkok’s taxis?!)

If you question a deeply held truth, such as their utterly bizarre belief that white skin is somehow better than dark skin, you won’t get very far, as they show little appetite ever to discuss or question anything.

Conversation with no opinions or discussion is a bit limited – so it can all tend towards the rather dull. Or have I missed something here?

Life in Thailand is excellent in so many ways – a tropical ‘Dolce Vita’. Life is gentle, the climate is good, the food delicious (they even cook foreign food brilliantly: some of the best Italian food outside Italy); standards are high; there are nice places to stay; the Thais are tolerant, good natured etc. In short, it’s a country well worth making an effort for.

One thing that really surprised me, though, is that all resident foreigners I met said they didn’t really have any Thai friends. This would be unthinkable in Latin America or Europe, where, if one wanted, nearly all of one’s friends would be locals.

In Thailand there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between foreigners and locals, which is puzzling. Indeed, you never really see Thais and foreigners socialising, with the one obvious exception of Thai girls with farang men on a one-to-one basis. Is this not a big drawback?

I see foreign men happily spending days with their Thai girlfriends. What do they talk about? They appear perfectly happy, so it is obviously I who has got it all wrong.

That I could speak Thai was frequently viewed with suspicion. Was this just because it meant I could read their little notices in Thai, for example telling Thais that they had a cheaper rate than foreigners at a certain internet café? Or what else do they want to hide; what are they so ashamed of? I don’t see anything in the country to be ashamed of.

It was assumed ad nauseam (but incorrectly) that I could speak Thai because I had a Thai wife / girlfriend. But actually Thai women don’t much like men who can speak Thai. Is this just because we are thought to know too much, have been around too long etc? Why is this a problem?

In any other country in the world, taking an interest in that country is generally appreciated – but apparently not in Thailand. (Years back, for example, I was delighted that my Korean music student girlfriend in Milan spoke good Italian and took a lively interest in the country and its culture.)

Actually, I’ve never had a Thai girlfriend, not through lack of interest, but because I never met anybody who really ‘grabbed’ me. Also, many women seemed rather less gentle, harder and more abrasive and materialistic than advertised. And in a few cases it wasn’t long before I was being asked to ‘lend’ money etc – not much of a good start.

How many times have I heard Thais I barely know use the words ‘mai mii ngern’ (I have no money)! I was quite disappointed by quite how important money seems to be in Thailand – more so than in other developing countries: poverty is rampant in South America but you never hear them talk like that. It makes for a very dull topic of conversation, especially with a stranger.

Is it possible that the depth of perception of a wealth gap between foreigners and locals is a barrier in many ways? I have been embarrassed when this has been brought up, as I rather naively want to bumble on ignoring this factor. Why do Thais talk about money so much?

One of the reasons I was so keen on Thai was because for me a different language and culture are all part of the fun of being in a foreign country. (I wouldn’t impose this on anyone else; that’s just how it is for me.) But I found myself increasingly wanting Thailand and the Thais to be, well, more Thai.

I couldn’t help suspecting that some Thais look down on their own language and culture at times. High-class hotels will make a point of stocking newspapers in English, but not in Thai. (Can you imagine the equivalent in France?!) Many signs are in English, with maybe a little Thai mini-version in tiny characters in the corner. And in a hotel in Ranong, patronised almost entirely by Thais, the employees had their names on their lapels written only in English characters (and so with insufficient detail – tone, vowel length etc – to be able to pronounce their names properly).

Am I alone in regretting this homogenisation of Thailand and wishing the country would be a bit more confident of its own culture? When it is, it is often mostly laid on for the benefit of tourists, it seems.

In Japan it is common to spot women in kimonos shuffling along the street in their slippers, but you only ever see Thai women wearing traditional fabrics and designs for (tourist) work.

If you see a T-shirt with Thai characters on it, then you are looking at a foreign tourist; Thais will only wear T-shirts with English characters.

At times Thais seem obsessed by farangs, even when one’s foreignness is of no relevance whatsoever. Once, I wanted to get off a minibus and so hailed the driver. I was then joined by a chorus of helpful voices calling out: ‘the farang wants to get off’. Why not ‘someone wants to get off’? (The monkey wants to get off.) I was really quite put out. In Europe would we call out ‘the yellow man wants to get off’? Clearly not! Asia really is racist at times.

The message would seem to be that farangs are expected to live in a parallel world and not intrude into the Thai world. Maybe life is good like that. Indeed, given my difficulties, it would seem that those wise foreigners who have barely learned a single word of Thai have made a much better choice than I, who has struggled and failed to find any kind of place in some sort of Thai world.

Part of the problem is that there are just so few foreigners speaking Thai. In the more touristy areas, the weight of English is such that if you want to carry on speaking Thai you just stick out; it seems rather pointless and you risk looking as if you just want to show off. But actually my Thai was acquired not through brilliance but through a lot of grinding hard work, so I’m not particularly proud of it, and the last thing I want when speaking Thai is an audience – it’s really off-putting. I just like being absorbed in a foreign culture.

Speaking Thai in Thailand isolates you from other foreigners, few of whom speak the language – so who is buying all those books? – and the idea of two farangs saying anything to each other in Thai (e.g. when part of a local group) is almost unthinkable. (How different from Latin America, where it is quite normal for foreigners to speak to each other in, say, Spanish.)

Why am I so concerned about all this? Principally for the immense effort I put into learning Thai thoroughly (for all my occasional lack of fluency and confidence in the language) and because with just a bit more effort I ought to get really quite good at it, reaping the benefit of lots of previous hard work.

Should I throw this all away and forget all about it? Or should I try to rescue something to show for all my effort – even at the risk of continuing to bang my head against the wall?

Despite all this, there were definite benefits of having learnt Thai, such as the simple satisfaction of being able to understand what had once been obscure squiggles and strange sounds, and I think I understood local culture better for it. I enjoyed the challenge of travelling in remoter parts of the country using a guide book written in Thai, speaking only Thai and following Thai signposts. I was able to talk to people that otherwise I would only have been able to smile at. Particularly easy to communicate with, strangely enough, were those from neighbouring countries and from the Hill Tribes (I reckon I can usually recognise an Akha accent, for example). And I sang along lustily with some of Thailand's pop singers (e.g. Bird, Mote, Masha etc – see Ethaimusic.com), leading ultimately to a karaoke extravaganza accompanied by a quartet of young female friends from Chiang Mai University.

All suggestions gratefully received!

(P.S. One possibility that has cropped is to go and work in Vientiane. How would that be? Would I be able to convert my Thai to Lao easily and would I find Laos any different?)


Stickman's thoughts:

I have little to say except that your observations are most succinct, and as someone who appears to only have spent time in Thailand as a tourist, you're a very, very fast learner.

And damn, English isn't your first language, yet this was a wonderfully put together piece!