Readers' Submissions

Watching Television With The Sound Down

  • Written by PCP
  • July 2nd, 2010
  • 31 min read


I hadn't really looked at the site for a while because I didn't have much time so I was catching up on some submissions and I came across the whole " Jayson " thing and then some of the following debate about learning Thai. So I thought I would stick my own opinions in for what they are worth. All of this stuff has doubtless been said countless times before but there were some submissions from people who couldn't see the advantages of learning Thai, or the point, or they doubted that it gave you some insight into Thai culture. Korski in particular. Normally his submissions bore me to sleep and his thoughts on this subject were no different. For someone who has supposedly attained a high level of education I find him to be exceptionally stupid over this one point.

This is my own personal viewpoint gained on my own experience in Thailand and it should not be treated as gospel. It is how things were for me and what I think. Nothing more and nothing less. It is different for everyone. I have lived here over twelve years now and in that time I have come across people who are reading and writing in six months and people who have lived here longer than I have who still struggle to do the most basic things, and anything in between.
I'll start off by telling how it was for me because a lot of this is relevant to why I think you should learn Thai if you live here. Notice that I say " if you live here". If you are on holiday or don't spend that much time here then I can totally see that it is a lot of effort to put into something that you won't be using that much and I let these people off the hook.
I never went to one of these language schools to learn Thai. Mainly because there weren't any where I lived when I first came here (Koh Phangan in South Thailand), and also because it wasn't really such a big thing for me. I was happy to kind of slowly go along soaking it up learning a little bit here and a little bit there. But I was always learning and improving, each year getting better and better. I would look back at how I was the year before and not believe that I didn't know certain words that were by then so obvious. I would say that in my case it took me about four years to get to the point where I could hold a pretty decent conversation and not just go through the usual question and answer stuff that Thais do on meeting a foreigner. This is just how it was for me, I'm sure if I had applied myself more I could have done better, but anyone who read my last submission will know that I spent most of those years off my face in one way or another, so my language learning was quite leisurely. Of course looking back now I see how I was still quite poor but even at that stage I was relatively better than most of the other foreigners who were living where I was at that time.

Now many years later I am married with two young children and I would say that there pretty much isn't anything that I can't do in Thai. I have a got a fairly good accent and I hardly ever have to repeat myself. People understand me very well. Total strangers included, not just people I know who would have got used to the way I speak. I don't really know how it is that I've got to this point regarding the pronunciation of words, but I can only presume that seeing how I've been here so long I've been saying the same fucking words over and over again and eventually you just kind of get it right through listening to how Thais speak and constant practice. I can do a southern dialect and I can understand Isaan fairly well although I have to concentrate to speak it. I can't speak any Northern dialect though, as I have never been there and for some strange reason I have never met that many Thais from the North. Although I speak English to my wife and children they do speak Thai to me all the time. I could go out (and I do this sometimes if my wife goes away) and speak Thai all day and all night long with whoever I may end up drinking with and it won't be a problem. I look at these little excursions as a refresher course where I can brush up on a few things and check my fluency levels. For the price of a few beers it's not so bad.

Why Thais pay fortunes to learn conversational English is beyond me when they could just go out and practice with any foreigner pretty much. What standard of conversation they get could leave a lot to be desired though. I guess they are quite shy about approaching strangers as well in an informal setting. Although having said that, I have lost count of the number of times (outside of tourist areas) that Thai guys will try and talk to me in a bar or restaurant if I am on my own (in a non gay way). Some good nights have been had. On the whole I find Thai people quite happy go lucky when they're not burning down Central world and if they are out having a good time, then more often than not they will want to include you in that good time.

If there is one criticism I have of myself it is that I am probably not polite enough. My wife is always telling me to say "kap" more when talking to people. The only problem is that I am not really very polite in English so I guess I just speak the same way in Thai (I don't mean swearing in Thai by the way, I very rarely do this). I can be quite direct and that might come across as rude in Thai. Thais often like to skirt around a subject without mentioning things directly with the understanding being that both parties know what is being talked about.

Ask any Thai how to speak Thai and they will always you to say 'kap' or ' ka' when speaking to people but when you listen to what is happening around you not everyone is doing this. That's just a side observation of mine and I will always use 'kap' with strangers and in shops etc. The same as anywhere, how you speak a language immediately tells the other person a lot about you, and if you are with your partner then it will also be a reflection on her in that most people will think that you learnt from your partner. Knowing Thai you will also find out how rude Thais can be, just the same as anywhere they will swear and cuss with the best of them. I don't know about you but if someone is calling me
a cunt to my face and laughing about it then I want to know about it.

When I first started learning I was living in the South which has a distinct accent / dialect of its own. If you are serious about learning then I would suggest learning Bangkok Thai as this will be widely understood over the whole country. A good friend of mine in Ranong who has lived in Thailand for twenty odd years speaks excellent southern Thai. He must have an eighty percent vocabulary which is really good, but because he has always lived in the South and his wife is from the South he speaks with a strong southern accent and if he goes to Bangkok then he struggles to be understood. The other side of this though is that he would be talking to his wife and no one in Bangkok would have a clue what they are talking about. Thais in the South tend to speak quite fast and a lot of words get put into a shortened form. For example they don't call us "ferrang" but "rang" instead. So if you want to know if they are talking about you down south listen out for that. Make sure you are learning Thai that everyone will understand and make sure you are learning from the right people. Uncle Somchai after he's been on the laokao isn't going to be the best of teachers. Bargirls as well, seeing how their own education can leave a lot to be desired in many cases.

After about seven odd years of living down South my wife and I moved to Isaan. She was pregnant at the time and wanted to be closer to her family. Fair enough really. I wasn't overjoyed about the prospect but I accepted that with a baby on the way my wife needed her family around her. My Thai at this time was pretty good and I wasn't daunted at all by the thought of there being no English speakers around. I was fairly confident I would be able to cope. I knew I was going to be the only ferrang around and it would be pretty quiet in the village. We went to a place called Bahn Noi Ubon or Bahn Rungarung depending on which name you call it, which is located fairly close to the Cambodian border in Buriram province in Amphur Nonsuwan. Sawasdee2000 might know it as I remember him saying he was in Nong Ki before, which is the next Amphur. I couldn't help but laugh at the way he described the place when he was writing about children playing with fire. That great Buriram pastime.

Well I got a bit of a shock when I arrived. I had been to Isaan before but I had never spent that much time there really and I could not get my head round the fact that there wasn't anyone speaking Thai, everyone is speaking Isaan. Everyone can speak Thai but no one does. You go into a shop and you ask for something and then they start talking to you in Isaan. Very similar to Laos in that respect. They all understand Thai pretty much but they answer you back in their own language. And why shouldn't they? In the town it was different I suppose but this was definitely my experience of life in the village. So from understanding what is going on around me to not having a fucking clue what anyone is saying did my head in a bit. I remember thinking to myself " now I've got to learn another fucking language". It was quite depressing in a way because I had spent seven odd years learning a language to go somewhere else in the same country and find out that it was absolutely no good to me whatsoever. That's probably a bit strong because I could still go to shops and buy stuff but at any social events I felt a bit left out because I couldn't understand what people were saying. Anyway, after a while I started to pick up on things and because I had a good grounding in Thai I could piece a lot of things together. I remember coming out with a few things and my wife was like " who told you that? ". No one told me, I could sort of work a lot of things out myself. The structure of the language is still the same but about half the words are different from Thai. So it was a case of learning of new vocab and new verbs again.

If it's any consolation to any foreigners reading this then Thais can have trouble with all this as well. Why do you think they put subtitles on the news when there is an interview with some old granny from Ubon complaining about the drought / flood / price of petrol, rice, limes etc. Other Thais haven't got a clue what some of these people are talking about either. My sister in law and her husband travel all over Thailand selling motorbike parts from the back of their pickup. I can remember them coming back from one trip relaying with great hilarity, how they were somewhere down South trying to speak to an old man about selling some stuff and neither of them had a clue what the other was saying. This is when Bangkok Thai is supposed to come into play and everyone understands each other. It doesn't always work out like that though. My mother in law just cannot help but mix Thai and Isaan when she is speaking to me. I live in Nonthaburi now and when she was staying with us onetime I heard her speaking to an old woman in the next soi. She was speaking pure unadulterated Thai !I understood everything. Aaaah! I've known this woman for years. Why can't she do this with me? But when I spoke to her about it she replied that she didn't like speaking Thai and she felt more comfortable speaking Isaan. This is an old woman who left school after pathom so I guess that she just likes speaking her own language. People from Isaan are like Filipinos, put them together and they just can't help but babble away together in their native tongue.

I understand this wanting to speak your own language as well. I don't really speak much Thai to my wife and she doesn't really speak that much English to me but we understand each other perfectly. We have these very strange conversations where if you only knew one language then you would only get one half of the conversation. I'm sure that it annoys both of our families. I guess that the point of this is that no matter how good you are in another language you are always going to feel that you can express yourself better in your own language. I definitely do not speak any Thai to my children. There is no way that is going to happen. Part of who you are comes from your language, all the expressions, idioms etc are moulded from your country. And I want my children to know fully the English speaking me, for better or for worse (they're only young but they already know quite a few bad words). They still answer me back in Thai though !

I went back to England for a couple of weeks last month because my mum is quite ill at the moment and I couldn't believe a foreigner sitting in front of me. They had a girl of about two and a half and his wife spoke passable English, but for the whole journey this guy was speaking Thai to his daughter. If the guy was Andrew Biggs or the British ambassador to Thailand (both of whom speak excellent Thai) I would let him off but he wasn't and his accent was absolutely terrible. I had a job to understand what he was saying. Maybe he was trying to impress other people on the plane but in my eyes he made himself look a prick. I'm not saying that I speak Thai better than anyone else (there's always someone who has been here longer than you and who speaks better Thai than you) but as a parent I could not understand this guy. As a foreigner in Thailand one of the best things you can offer your children is the fact that they have got an English machine on tap 24/7. Thais pay fortunes for this. At a young age children are little sponges so what was wrong with this guy I don't know. Especially when his wife's English was a lot better than his Thai. Very strange.

So why learn Thai then, I haven't really said so far. As I said before, when I first came to Thailand I was living in Koh Phangan in Surat Thani province down south. At the time, it was, and probably still is, quite a lawless place and trying to make a go of a business wasn't easy. In all honesty I would have to say that the reason I first started learning Thai was to avoid getting ripped off. I'm not saying that Thais are any more dishonest than any other people but in my experience, in tourist areas that proportion rises considerably. I wouldn't say that Thais plan dishonesty either, although there are some well known scams out there, but I see them as being quite opportunist and if an opportunity presents itself to make some easy money then that's fair enough. It must be quite obvious that the level of your Thai is some indicator of the length of time that you have spent here. As a direct result of that, the person you are dealing with for goods or services will make assumptions about what you may or not know about the country, how things are done, the price of things, and what is normal service. None of this is rocket science. Just speaking a little bit someone might assume that you know the real price of something. And if they are still trying to rip you off you can ask them why it's so expensive or try somewhere else.

I find Thais to be quite jealous people and if you are trying to make things work and being successful no one is going to help you. So you end up doing everything in Thai because you have to. And it's fair enough really. It's their country. If I compare this to the UK which has got far more experience of larger numbers of foreigners coming to live, do we make any allowances for people who don't speak English trying to live and work? No. I remember years ago working with a Polish guy in London and his English was terrible. It was a nightmare from start to finish because it took ages to explain everything. People would be in uproar if tourists and workers from all over the world started speaking in their own languages demanding goods and services. I've seen it in the UK where you get these old Pakistani women who after thirty years of living in the country still can't speak English. Living in their own little world cut off from the rest of the population. Sound familiar anyone?

I'm not saying that everyone has to be fluent because that is blatantly never going to happen but at least try and make a bit of an effort. It opens up a lot of doors for you. When I was in Koh Phangan I was running speed boat tours, renting the boat, organising the drivers, getting all the supplies on the boat. I could only do this by speaking Thai. Trying to run a bar, a restaurant, same again.

I think more than anything though it is like you are watching television with the sound down. You have got the pictures but you don't really know what is going on. I want to know what is happening around me and knowing the language is part of that. I know some people will say that they don't care and that they are quite happy living in their own little bubble; or that they don't want any interaction with the locals but I find that a little bit sad and lonely really. To me the best thing about Thailand is probably having a bit of a crack with Thai people. Whether it's getting absolutely ratassed together or just having a bit of a joke with the woman next door. Thais like fun and if you can't speak the language you are missing out on that. I like to know what is going on around me and speaking Thai is a part of that. I like having an interaction with the people. Whether it's the women in the soi shop asking me if my back is feeling better or the motorbike taxi driver telling me my son is a good looking boy. All these little things add up to give you a sense of the whole picture as to where you are and who you are living with.

I remember one guy I did some work with at a language school last year. He was forty-five and he'd lived here for five years. He had children here. In between classes outside he sneezed, a kid heard him and asked him " Teacher Kevin, Mai Sabai ah? " He didn't even know that. It turned out that his wife had to write down his lunch on a piece of paper when he went to the restaurant up the road. Unfuckingbelievable. Forty-five years old. A grown man. How could anyone live like this. Where is the man's self-respect? I know this is an extreme example but how could a grown man live this way. It's like he's a little kid and his wife is his mum. I say stand up and be a man and do things for yourself. It's not that hard. I like the fact that if I'm on my own I can just go anywhere, do anything, speak to anyone and pretty much not have to worry about anything.

Speaking Thai is the biggest ice breaker there is when it comes to the locals. I can't stress this enough. I've lost count of the number of times I've ended up getting to know people and meet them and I'm not even that chatty a person really. And it's not just that, because you are cutting yourself off from a major proportion of the population when you don't speak Thai. I don't know what the percentage of Thai people who can speak (actually converse) in English is, but at a guess I would say that it is about one percent. When you don't speak Thai think of all the people who you are cutting yourself off from. I don't know how many thousands of Thais I've spoken to over the years but I do know that the vast majority of them didn't speak English so if I didn't speak Thai then I would never have met them. When you add it all up then that is a lot of experiences over the years.

Now the funny thing about all of this is, that like most people I know who have been here for a long time, I don't have any Thai friends. Nor do I want any. I think Thais are great people to have some fun with but for meaningful friendships then they don't really do it for me. I realise that this probably sounds strange after what I have just said but that it just the way it is for me. I don't need any Thai friends because I have my wife's family. They are my friends in that they fill every role that a friend would have and we can trust each other. To tell the truth I don't believe that Thai people really have friends. They have their families and that is it. They have drinking buddies/ gambling buddies/ shopping buddies/ eating buddies/ money buddies/ influence buddies and status buddies etc etc. Ask your wife or girlfriend how many real friends she has. When was the last time your wife had a friend over for dinner, and if she did, how often does that happen? Friends in Thailand are unreliable. Your family is different, they may still be unreliable but you don't have any choice about them. Everyone knows where they stand with their own family. Still, I remember my mate in Ranong years ago telling me that if you were going to marry a Thai then you should marry an orphan. I wonder how many people wish that they had followed that advice.

Before I met my wife I was getting quite bored with Thailand as country. I spoke the language well enough to not have any problems but I found that the place as a whole bored me. Thai people bored me. As a foreigner what I liked doing wasn't really what Thai people like doing, or the way in which things were done was different to what I liked. I tended to keep to myself more and not mix with the locals so much. All they want is our money, can't trust the women blah blah blah. I also found that as a foreigner that I wasn't that interesting for them. I guess I was at that stage where the Thais say that you know too much and as a result of that there isn't any fun to be had with you.
But it's not all doom and gloom because eventually I met my wife (after so many single years! there's hope for everyone!) and then pretty soon after my two boys came along. That changed everything! If you don't have children in Thailand then you really cannot understand the difference it makes to how Thai people are with you. It's like you have become a stakeholder in the country somehow and the difference compared to before is incredible. Especially when you have got two very naughty, very white, half-Thai boys running around. Go to a restaurant and you have got ten babysitters on hand, go to a shop and everyone wants to help you. Having kids has totally restored my faith in Thai people ! It's great to be in a country where everyone wants to play with your kids. When the first one was born we were living in Isaan and he was a superstar in the village. I remember how they all called him mokseedah noi (the little foreigner because he looked so western) or gahb gehr noi (the small gecko) because he used to make gecko noises, everywhere we went. Now I live in Nonthaburi and it is still the same really. Thais love white half-Thais and I got a definite 2-0 as far as the genetics go. If I take them out somewhere, people always want to speak with us; restaurant, market, supermarket, taxi, it doesn't matter. People who if you looked at them you would think were a bit miserable looking (and they might well be miserable people) on seeing my children, can become the friendliest people around. So many free kanom, sweets, ice-cream etc. I'd like to hear someone else's experiences with children in Thailand because I'm sure it's the same. I've never had kids in the UK but I am totally certain I would not want them growing up there. Thailand is children friendly whereas the UK is not. Even though as a foreigner I am perceived to be wealthier than many locals (not sure if that's true or not ha ha) time after time we have got freebies and cheap deals on stuff. I guess a lot of it depends on where you live, but even living where we do in Nonthaburi which is only an hour from the centre of Bangkok we are a bit of an oddity. We still get stared at when we go out but it is mainly because of the children and so many people wanting to play with them.

For me right now the most important reason for knowing Thai has to be my children. They are at the stage (they are three and four) where they understand English perfectly, they can say a lot in English, they can repeat any string of words but they tend to speak Thai most of the time. Now if they have a problem or they are sick then they are going to speak Thai to me. I'm not going to be in teacher mode when I have to fix the problem fast. If my kid is sick then I want to know what is wrong and quickly sort it out. Understanding Thai helps with this a lot. It's not just if they have a problem though. Just listening to your children play and the funny things they say is a joy to any parent. I'd prefer it if they did it in English but realistically this is not going to happen. Not yet anyway. If you don't know what your own children are saying when they are together or with other children then you are missing out on so much. I want to be there for them and to know what is going on in their little world. Speaking Thai is all part of that.

Loads of people always tell you that Thais don't like it when a foreigner can speak Thai. In my opinion this is absolute rubbish. Thais like nothing more than a foreigner to speak Thai. It makes things so much easier for them. None of this awful pointing and sign language with neither party really sure that the other has understood. Everyone can just relax and everything is " sabai ". The desired state of being for a Thai. The only Thais who don't like a foreigner to speak Thai are those Thais who make it their primary objective to relieve the said foreigner of his hard earned baht. I remember being in the bank and when I was having a chat with the woman doing my money transfer to the UK, she was saying how good it was to have a foreigner speaking Thai because she didn't feel that confident using her English due to the lack of opportunities to speak it (not many foreign customers in this area).

If I think of my wife's family, the biggest plus for me when I got to meet them all was probably my ability to speak Thai. They were relieved because otherwise they would have someone in the family they couldn't talk to. At the same time they probably weren't overly keen on having a foreigner in the family. The only time this happened previously was in the Vietnam war when my wife's aunt married an American soldier. They have lived in New Orleans for the past thirty years so no foreigners in the family since then. But I guess that they have warmed to me over time, what with the children and everything and the fact that I'm still here. None of them speak English though. One nephew graduated from Mahidol University. One niece is currently studying at Mahidol University and another niece is at Ramkhamhaeng University. Even their English is shit. If I wasn't able to speak Thai then I couldn't speak to any of them. Everyone knows how important family is to Thais, especially Thais in Isaan, so this is very important. I like the family get togethers. Loads of food and drink, everyone having a laugh and a joke. I remember last Songkran being up at my house in Buriram; it was pretty late and most people had stopped drinking but I was sitting outside with my brother in law and another nephew. The brother in law is from Si Sa Ket and he speaks fluent Cambodian, so me and the nephew are drunkenly trying to learn Cambodian from him but obviously we're doing this in Thai. The nephew is pissing himself laughing at some of the funny words and it was a pretty goodtime. If you had told me fifteen years ago that I would be sitting on my veranda under a tropical sky learning Cambodian from my Thai brother in law I would have thought you were crazy. That's life I guess. We take the paths that come our way. Couldn't remember any of it the next day though. Ha Ha Ha.

My mother in law has impressed me as well. She left school after Pathom so I'm not sure how well she can read and write even, but since the children were born she has picked up quite a few words of English. Probably only about fifty words but still I think it's pretty impressive. Things like " lie down, stand up, go to sleep, shower, toilet, cornflakes, mango, banana, shirt, shorts" etc etc. Nothing too heavy but, she is sixty-four now and she has worked hard all her life (she still works now) so if she can start learning English then I think most foreigners can learn Thai. It's not that hard really. I think a lot of people get put off by a totally alien alphabet and the fact that it just sounds so different to our western languages. There is nothing wrong with going out there and speaking it. There's sixty-five million people to practice with. It doesn't really matter if you make a prick of yourself. Thais don't expect foreigners to speak Thai really. I think most Thais will like the fact that you are making the effort to learn and will be more understanding accordingly. You will get better treatment and service because you are making things easier for the Thai. Part of me thinks that it is only polite and respectful to learn the language of the country that you are living in and I'm sure that many Thais must feel the same way. They seem to think it is impossible to learn for foreigners, so when you do, it is a big plus for you.

The downside of this though is that if you live here and you don't speak the language perhaps many Thais will feel that it is impolite and disrespectful to not learn the language. "You stay here so long, why you not speak Thai?" or something like that. I'm sure people will say that in their everyday life they don't need to speak Thai but as I said earlier for me it is about more than that. It is all about the people. Knowing the people and knowing what is going on. A lot of submissions doubted that speaking Thai gave you any insights into Thai culture. I don't think that speaking Thai will give me an understanding of Thai art or dance, in the same way that I don't think that speaking English would give someone an insight into all the culture of the UK. But what it does do is give you a social understanding of the people themselves. You get to know what they like doing, how they think, what they think. In the same way that you would understand an awful lot about English people just listening to them on the bus, in the pub, in the supermarket etc. What everyday people do every day.

On a final note I think it has to be said that it can also be a lot of fun learning a language, whether it's going out and trying to do something new or go somewhere new on your own. Seeing how well you can talk to the old guy down the road over a few beers one afternoon, it's not that bad. Have a go, it's not a test and you don't get marks out of ten. I must have made a twat of myself so many times over the years. In a strange town in the middle of nowhere talking absolute bollocks in another language to some stranger pissed out my head in some dodgy nightclub/ brothel/ house/ bar etc I can't remember the next day. Great times and a lot of fun. I tend to limit myself to having a laugh with my kids these days though (family life, aaah).

Can't think of much else to say on this subject really but I hope this was relevant to someone. As I said at the beginning this is how it was for me. I've had a good time with it all so I hope you do to. I'm going to leave you with some tongue twisters. If you want to make a Thai laugh or impress someone you love, try saying these after a few beers.

1: Ranong, Rayong, Yala – places names in Thailand, pretty famous one this that everyone knows.

2: Yak yai lai yak lek, yak lek lai yak yai – the big giant is chasing the small giant, the small giant is chasing the big giant

3: Yai gin lamyai, namlie yai lai yoi – the old woman is eating longan, the old woman's dribbling

Going to Cambodia in October on our family holiday so that will be my next submission. Bye for now.

Thai Dating, Singles and Personals

Stickman's thoughts:

Thank you for your submission.