Why You Sahpeak Thai?
This submission is based in part on BKKSW's contention that speaking Thai makes you suspect, and Stick's claim it gives you a magical edge with Thai women. (I wrote this almost two and half years ago, but am just now submitting it after Stick's
column about the F word. We are judged on how we speak more so by Thais than by westerners.)
Does speaking Thai make you suspicious? I think it may be an issue of how you speak Thai or what words you use. If your Thai sounds as though you studied the language, I doubt many Thais would be suspicious, even if you don't speak very well. If it sounds like you learned it in a bar, I think many people, particularly good Thai ladies would be suspicious, with good reason, and virtually any Thai will know if you learned Thai in a bar.
As a young man I lived and worked in Germany for about six months. I was living in the countryside about half way between Munich and Salzbug, Austria. I had never studied German and simply picked up the language from the people around me. Later, traveling through France and Spain, my spoken German would bring laughter from young Germans who thought my accent hilarious. I had learned Bayerische! Sure, they could understand me, but I talked like a farmer.
My Thai is far from fluent, but I began to learn by studying with a Thai teacher in the USA. Although she was from southern Thailand, she was quite careful to teach me standard Bangkok Thai. I am sure that I must have picked up a slight Had Yai accent from her, but she kept any slang expressions out of our lessons. I studied reading, writing, listening and speaking. As I progressed, a typical assignment would be to watch a Thai movie with no subtitles, then write a short synopsis of the movie (in Thai) and be ready to discuss the movie during our next lesson.
My teacher stressed communication – thinking of more than one way to say something so that I could say more with my limited vocabulary by talking around the words I didn't know. She also stressed understanding, teaching me that many Thais will drop Ls and Rs as a second consonant in common speech, for instance saying "khap" rather than "khrap", but that I shouldn't do that. She taught politeness and various forms of addressing people. The only time she ever taught me any bad words was to teach me not to use them, but to be aware of them so I'd know if someone was cursing at me, in which case her advice was to leave as quickly as possible.
For my first long stay in Thailand I lived in Phuket for about six months. When not diving I would often spend some time talking with the cooks and maids at the guesthouse where I stayed. They were all from Isaan, so naturally I learned a few Isaan words, but I didn't learn to speak, nor even try to speak, in the same way they did.
After that stay I went back to the USA and continued to study Thai until I moved over here about two and a half years ago. While speaking Thai didn't give me any magical edge, it certainly made my life easier, and when I met a lady from Ratchaburi and became involved with her and her family, it made my integration into the family and the community go much more smoothly. I wasn't isolated and forced to rely on my girlfriend for translation. I could go hang out with the guys while she hung out with a seemingly endless supply of cousins, aunts, nieces, babies, etc.
I became very good friends with my girlfriend's younger sister's husband. He has a good sense of humor and for him, one of the funniest things is to lead someone along and see how far they'll go before they catch onto the joke.
Before I was well known in the community, I would often meet people for the first time while out and about with my friend. They would ask "How old is the farang?" or who I was or whatever. He would turn to me and repeat the question. I would respond, then he would turn to them and answer the question. This would go on through the typical litany of questions Thais ask about strangers, but everything on all sides was in Thai. The joke for him was to see how long it took them to realize he and I were speaking Thai, not English. The longer one of these conversations went on, the more difficult it became for us to keep straight faces.
I have often been asked why I speak Thai, but the question has certainly seemed more friendly and curious than suspicious. People are usually quite happy when we can deal with some simple matter in Thai, or that I can make a bit of idle friendly chit chat. They will ask if I've studied the language, if I can read, if I have a Thai wife or if I've lived in the country for a long time. I don't travel in the hi-so circles of Bangkok, and I don't chase women, but the reactions have been pretty similar from people ranging from the old man who collects my recyclables up to lawyers, accountants, doctors and dentists.
The only women who have ever acted suspicious were women I wouldn't be remotely interested in. My girlfriend and I went to party in an area of Hua Hin that is full of western men with Thai wives. One lady seated near us started telling my girlfriend about her aging Swedish husband and what a fool he was, and all the stuff he'd bought her, including a house. My girlfriend turned to me and rolled her eyes, but tried to stay polite. When the lady asked, "Why hasn't he bought you a house yet?" it was too much for me. I turned and explained in Thai that my girlfriend had a house and a farm in Ratchaburi and had them well before we met, that I preferred to rent a house in Hua Hin as I might want to move to Phuket later, and that she had never asked me to buy a house because she knew I wasn't stupid enough to buy her one. That's when it hit her – I had understood enough of the conversation to respond. She was busted – not only that, my girlfriend had let her rattle on, knowing 'the farang' would understand and see her revealed for what she was. Then she said it, "Why you sahpeak Thai?" angrily and suspiciously. “Because I live here” was the response and the end of the conversation. She left and we laughed.
Anyone who ever asks that question in that way should be avoided. They are suspicious because they are afraid I will understand too much. Anyone who doesn't want me to understand everything is going to try to trick me. People who care about me will be endlessly patient in trying to help me understand or pronounce something. My girlfriend and her brother in law have been tireless. Her brother in law even translates Isaan or Lao, since he grew up in Isaan but is well educated and worked as a computer tech in Bangkok for many years. Even I can hear the difference when he speaks to friends from Isaan.
I strongly encourage anyone who lives here to learn the language to the best of your ability. Don't learn in a bar – in fact, forget what you learn there. Hire a teacher or go to a school. Learn to be polite, and don't worry about your accent or small vocabulary. The people who matter in your life will quickly learn to understand you. If your partner or anyone else doesn't want you to learn Thai, don't walk away. Run. That person does not have your best interest at heart.
Excellent and I agree with just about every point you make!