Readers' Submissions

Farang Him Speak Thai Know Too Mutt

Okay, okay. Maybe I'm generalising, but just how much is 'too mutt'?

Let's start with the first-time single male visitor, who's probably here because he's heard the stories but doesn't really believe them. He first gets stung at the airport 'Sir! Sir! Taxi? I bling you hotel'. As he can't speak Thai, he assumes everything is under control and takes advantage of the situation. After all, what is five hundred baht anyway? He is next accosted in the hotel lobby by the friendly tour guide, 'Sir, sir! I bring you see, sir! Floating market also very good, sir! Grand Palace, sir! I take care you, sir!'

Naaaah. Not tonight. I've come for a couple of Singha beers with my mates. In fact, I hear there are a couple of great beer-drinking places just round the corner at that place, err… Nana?

Now, even if there are no intentions of doing anything more than having a couple of beers, I'm sure curiosity will have gotten the better of him and he would have ventured into at least one girlie bar.

'Hello, hansum man, where you go?' is probably the first thing he'd hear, and the rest is gibberish. But communication has been established, and the learning curve is usually helped along quite quickly in the alcohol-fuelled environment. The scantily clad maidens probably had very little to do with it.

It is also here where colloquialisms like 'boom-boom' are picked up. Note that this has nothing to do with sound effects or explosives.

Many tend to take on a 'teerak' – a person, usually of the opposite sex – to help with language problems, often for the duration of their stay.

The next holiday is already planned even before leaving.

It is also possible there is a new resolve 'I need to pick up a bit more of this strange language!' to lessen the need for sign language and too many spilt beers resulting from waving your hands around too much.

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The more frequent visitor (with a couple of trips under his belt) has usually picked up enough words to be able to at least order a beer and find the toilet. His vocabulary has definitely improved 'I go hong naam' instead of 'I'm going to the toilet'.

The girls in Nana and Cowboy will love you too mutt. I will recognise you as the guy with a big grin on his face, with a beer in front of you and a girl on each arm.

If your intent is to come here for a week or so for a holiday and have fun, and you've made it this far, I take my hat off to you. You have, however, reached the borderline for knowing too mutt. Once you cross this unseen border, the girls will not love you so mutt, and will revert back to their secondary language, Lao, whenever you're around. Heaven forbid that you pick this up too!

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If you have to stay longer than a few weeks, or have to work here, having this level of fluency will eventually leave you feeling very frustrated. Now, unless you're a highly paid expat on a fixed contract with no necessity to pick up the language (the office secretary makes all the appointments, driver drives you there and back, the maids take care of the house etc) you will have to face reality and consider learning the language. Many take the easy way out and find a 'teerak' to move in with them and don't bother to learn more. It is often the start of the slippery slope…

For those who do, and have a fair degree of success at it, visits to the the 'Hello hansum man' hangouts soon changes to 'Farang him know too mutt'.

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I speak Thai. Well enough. I can also read and write, but get lazy. Here's my take on understanding another language more than your average Joe…

I did a basic Thai language course before I came permanently. It covered reading and writing as well, and got me to where I could read a primary two Thai textbook. This was twenty years ago. You'll find that helps a little, but you pick up your vocabulary as you go along.

The type of vocabulary also tends to typify the company you keep.

Usage of the language does, at least in my case, depend on situation. My Thai co-workers, after the initial jaw-drop, just accept it and continue as before. In fact, they've forgotten just how unusual it is until some delivery fellow makes a wide-eyed comment, and they just say, 'Oh, that's just BB'.

I use it with dealings with suppliers, product engineers, just to make sure everyone understands fully and the head-nodding is not for show. It's also fun with the taxi drivers, you get involved in some very interesting conversations.

In a restaurant, see what language they address you in, and answer back in the same language. If they look uncomfortable, then offer to speak Thai. I adopt the same practice in the watering-holes, but give myself a few minutes to assess the situation first. No one likes surprises.

Know the bad language and avoid using it. It's called etiquette.

Being able to read takes the mystery out of the road signs.

If you're going to be here for a while, you might as well pick up the proper local language. Everybody benefits.

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A side note on 'proper' local language: You either speak in complete textbook Thai sentences, even if it's just simple phrases, or use English. A fairly large percentage of the population will pin you a lot further down the social scale than you need to be if you tend to use two languages intermittently in the same sentence. It is a gaffe to speak Lao.

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You well may ask, what do the Thais think about the people who can speak Thai fluently? Well, outside of the entertainment areas, I would be quite happy to say that those who genuinely want to communicate and are not out to scam you or don't have anything to hide are more than happy that the effort has been made.

I was at a shop in the IT mall where they had a new 'no-name' GPS. Noting that I had shown interest in it, the salesgirl smiles at me and says (in Thai) 'You're welcome to enquire about the product range.' I continued, also in Thai, asking about the capabilities of the equipment, and this went on for about ten minutes with another sales guy joining in. Eventually I did not buy this, but I did pop the question about some Thais not being comfortable with other nationalities being fluent in their language. They both looked at me and said, 'But why? If you didn't speak the way you did, we would not have been able to explain how this thing worked in that much detail!'

I could name numerous examples of this behaviour, but I think the point has been put across. The majority are happy that they don't have to struggle with your language. In fact, if you think that some of them are avoiding you, it's partly true. By avoiding you, they avoid having to speak another language, and don't have to run away if the situation gets difficult.

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So, if the farang can speak Thai, does he really know too much? I think there is no real 'yes' or 'no' answer to this, as it would apply to the situation at hand. I've always found that speaking Thai appropriate to the social level it is being used at is usually appreciated. However, once you reach a certain level where English is well understood, stick with English! They want to practice (and show off) too!

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Stickman's thoughts:

I am in total agreement with every point you make. Decent Thais very much appreciate foreigners speaking Thai to a decent level.