Readers' Submissions

To Thai Or Not To Thai

  • Written by IanH68
  • December 21st, 2009
  • 4 min read



Oh dear! Just as I'm about to make a New Year's resolution to relaunch my attempt to master the Thai language, along comes Stick and wonders if it's worth it.

He's got a point. It's not cheap going to a language school for any length of time. If the boot was on the other foot and I was a Thai trying to settle in the UK there would be plenty of government subsidised college courses for adults to learn English as a foreign language. I made this point to the Bangkok Post once and although they published it I'm not holding my breath.

He's also right about culture and language being inextricably linked. It's not as if you learn a simple phrase like "thank you" in isolation. If you want to do it properly it's all about who speaks first, is it older addressing younger or vice versa, male or female speaking, which level of wai do you use etc etc. I read that when addressing an "inferior" like a taxi driver it is more appropriate to smile than say thank you. When talking to a child you're supposed to say "korp chai", not "korp khun". I even got told "korp chai" by a granny I helped in the soi the other day and I'm 62! Gotta keep everyone in their place!

Socially crippling deference in Thai culture is masked as politeness by the Thai authorities, and many farang, even at the highest levels, swallow it hook line and sinker.

It seems to me that the Thai language is light on concepts of democracy and human rights but heavy on concepts of deference, politeness and social etiquette. That is not to say this situation is unrecognised by progressive Thais themselves. In "Jungle Book" by Chang Noi (p139) we read about a guy called Thirayuth Boonmi who was a student leader here in the 70's. There are no good Thai terms for things like decentralisation and he suggests if Thailand is to have a civil society, it first needs the vocabulary. Creating this vocabulary is a massive project and he has been centrally involved for many years.

I have retired to Thailand. This year I married a Thai lady with a pre-intermediate level of English and a teenage daughter who was not seriously exposed to the English language before I came along. It's pretty clear to me that developing our daughter's English language skills is of major importance in enhancing her life chances in Thailand. I calculated once that international school fees would swallow up over 90% of my pension so we give our daughter what support we can while she continues to attend her Thai school. That means as well as supplementary classes that my conversation in the house is almost invariably in English.

My wife of course helps me out when I need Thai, such as applying for a driving license. Therefore I suppose that, even with the prospect of spending the rest of my life here, there really isn't a lot of pressure to learn Thai, so why should I bother?

Well I admit to being a bit lazy over this but I still think I'm going to try again in the New Year. First, from a personal point of view it would be nice to be able to sit down with the family now and again in front of the TV and watch the news or a soap. Apart from shared family enjoyment I would be on the look out for examples of propaganda and indoctrination, which are two English words I have been anxious to get across to my wife.

They say if you want to find out what is going on in Thailand, read the foreign press. I've got little time for the Bangkok Post and even less for The Nation these days but I'm pretty sure I would not be better served if I struggled to understand the Thai language newspapers. That leads to the next question: how can native Thais gain a better understanding of their country through easier access to the foreign press?

Well, one way would be for farangs competent in Thai spending time translating articles from the foreign press into the Thai language. This project interests me so it is my second motivation for having another go at learning Thai in the New Year. For anyone who is interested in joining this project.

Stickman's thoughts:

One thing I have noticed amongst foreigners in Thailand is that most, at some point, try and study the language, be it at a language school, or with a tutor who comes to their home, or perhaps using self-study materials. Many give up and claim it to be very difficult. I've never quite figured that out. It's not easy, but it is not *that* difficult.