Learning to Speak Thai, or Not.

In my attempt to avoid being the ignorant teacher and tourist, I decided I should learn to speak Thai. Knowing I only had three months before departure, I gave myself a realistic goal – be able to hold a basic conversation.

I ordered a Thai language kit from Pimsleur in the form of an audio CD. I hoped it would keep me entertained as I drove around in circles on a combine, tirelessly watching the wheat filter into my header. However, two weeks of 12-hour days disappeared faster than the U.S.P.S. could deliver. I thought I was moving slow at a pace of 5 mph, but I guess the term “snail mail” is synonymous with the postal service for a reason.

At least I still had several road trips to make between harvest and my departure, turning my car into the perfect classroom.

The first was a drive to Portland, where I popped in disk number one and turned up the volume. I think my jaw hit the steering wheel as I listened to a man and woman hold an entirely foreign conversation. When they finished, a narrator informed me I would be able to speak and understand the conversation I had just heard after a quick 30-minute tutorial.

“Yeah, right,” I mumbled with a laugh. This is going to be impossible.

The male Thai speaker returned. He broke down every word, syllable-by-syllable, and told me to repeat each sound. This isn’t so bad, I thought. But then the woman’s voice sounded again. She said an identical translation…using the “female” words. So men and women speak differently. Great.

From Portland, I drove to Bend, the quaint little city where I lived for the past two years. Despite having moved my belongings into my parents’ house a month earlier, I felt like I was on my way back home. Appropriately, I was practicing the words, “Sawatdee Kaa,” meaning both hello and goodbye, followed by the female formality.

When I’m in the car, I speak perfect Thai. But when I get out, it’s as if I leave the unfamiliar words and phrases inside and lock the doors. I cannot seem to remember without the narrator telling me what to say and how to say it. Thai is a tonal language, therefore it’s vital to create the correct sounds at the appropriate places, and each word often has multiple tones. Unfortunately, I’m tone deaf.

I’m now on the airplane, trying to listen to yet another Thai lesson, but I highly doubt the readers surrounding me want to hear my terrible reproduction of a Thai conversation. It looks like I’ll be arriving in Thailand with only three new words (assuming I don’t completely butcher them), but I’m not admitting a failed goal just yet. I’ve only extended the deadline.

I find comfort in the fact that I’m in the same confused state as the students I’ll be teaching. I remind myself I’m not getting paid to learn Thai; my job is to teach English to Thai children, and adjusting deadlines is just one of the many teaching privileges.

Learning to Speak Thai, or Not


  1. Autumn Curtis says:

    You will learn it in no time chica! I won’t even be able to understand you when I come visit in February!

  2. My opinions on the Thai langauge! To start, Thai is a pleasurable language to aquire – not just that,
    on the other hand the more you understand the more the Thai listeners
    will love you for it. Whatever standard you are at, be it beginner,intermiediate or
    more advanced you’ll be needing to continuosly learn and update your information. I decided to buy the Thai English bar guide and was amazed by it. The product principally deals with Thai romantic love key phrases, however it’s also pretty entertaining
    and extremely handy to just put in your jacket pocket when travelling to Pattaya or other places in Thailand.
    It’s also useful for people who are scouting for true love and relationship in Kingdom of thailand. On the whole, a important book and a need to have addittion to any serious scholar of Thai’s book collection!


  3. Most people who talk on the Internet about learning Thai miss one very important thing. There is an assumption that learning to speak the language will mean that you also understand it when it is spoken. This is not the case. I have spent two years learning to speak Thai and can get by in most things. However, when people speak to me in Thai, unless it is very simple two word questions as you would speak to a baby, I am totally lost. Many foreigners who have lived a long time in Thailand have learned to speak Thai to some extent, but have given up for this very reason. To learn how to speak Thai reasonably well, one to two years if you practise about three hours per day. Learning to understand Thai when it is being spoken? From what I can gather, anything from 10 to twenty years. Other things to be wary of. Many of the well praised Internet based sites where you enter a word in English and the Thai equivalent is provided with pronounciation are wrong. I learned a load of absolute rubbish this way from some of the most acclaimed websites. Secondly, don’t be too focused on learning pure Thai. Very many people mix Isaan into Thai. No, not just those who come from Isaan!!! Very many people. Most are at least conversant with the basics of the language. Another reason for learning some Isaan is that Thais are usually delighted that you have learned some of it, and usually are rather indifferent to hearing a foreigner speaking pure Thai.

  4. Another point to note. When you start to learn to speak Thai you will get frustrated, because it appears as though if you do not pronounce the words in Thai almost 100 percent as a Thai would, then they will not understand you. This is actually not the case. You need to elongate the sound of parts of words. If you do that, nearly all Thais will instantly understand what you are saying, irrespective of your foreign accent. E.g. Loo- Kaa means customer. You need to elongate the “aa” sound at the end of the word very much. If not, most will not understand you. If you do, all will understand you. They understand me, and I speak the language with a thick Glaswegian accent!

  5. Be careful what you say in Thai. Some things said in Thai can be very offensive, when the same thing said in English is not found to be offensive.

    • jessicajhill says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Ronnie! Cultural differences are so interesting, aren’t they?

      • Cultural differences, must agree. When in the Northern part of Loas, saw the most spectacularly dresses women I have ever seen, sitting at a bus station. She was Black Tai, Tai Dam. Black waist coat with encrusted gold buttons, a black silk dress with red, green and gold flower designs at the edges, and a headscarf in black silk with tassels. The outfit was breathtaking. Went to Northern Vietnam to find more, but not far enough North and met only White Tai. Got invited to a wedding. Lots of rice whisky etc. got a couple of pages of their language. About twenty percent the same as modern Thai, and an occasional word the same as Loas. surprising since they have been separated since the time of Ghengis Khan, almost one thousand years ago. What is a bit of a shame is that so many foreigners don’t see, or get to understand the ancient r cultural rituals that are played out in an impromptue manner in the AGOGO bars of Bangkok and Pattata, including “Lang Ba” the respect for the dead ritual, where a girl walks around the premesis twice or three times sprinkling spirits from a glass and then throws the remainder out the door, backwards between her legs. Banging on something repeatedly metallic during the process indicates that you are taking part and are likewise showing respect for those who have passed away. It,s a pity that most who go there have little interest in the cultural specticals, and just as much a pity that many with cultural interests do not go to such places due to inappropriate stuck up western values.

  6. The best ” tai” cultural experiences must be those in remote rural parts of Loas. In small villages often there is an afternoon party being held and you get dragged in and filled with rice whisky. Usually, in a wooden house with a single room, a dirt floor and a cooking pot over an open fire. Most speak Thai, and it’s not difficult to pick up some Lao. If you can converse with them, the experience is so much more rewarding. Last time had a Ladyboy giving me the eye. ” Bie Lomb- Bahn, she Nom” ” Go hospital, buy some boobs!” The locals sitting around on the dirt floor erupted in laughter. Typically, if you are a single male, there will likely be a very old woman who’s husband has died, who, when she finds out you are single, starts looking at you, smiling and giggling like a teenager, then dances with you. What a laugh. What an experience.

  7. After having lived in Pattaya for quite some time, I got so very sick of the constant noise, nowhere quiet, everywhere thundering traffic, and so tried out some holiday type destinations such as Koh Lanta and Krabi. Whilst very nice places, there was something missing. In Pattaya, for all of its faults, there are allways bar parties where Thai and Isaan music gets played live, free food and Thai people are singing along and dancing to their music. In places like Koh Lanta and Krabi, it is compulsory western resteraunts and western Pop music. If you try asking for Thai music from a live band, they refuse, saying they are not allowed. On Koh Lanta, there are Rastafferian Jamaican type theme bars on the beaches, with Thai bar staff with Black person,s false dreadlocks. For ” tourists” who are just looking for fun, fair enough. For people who like some element of Asian culture, very much an offputting thing! As is the very different social atmosphere. No ” hello white shirt”. No one talks to you ( neither bar staff, nor other customers ) except to ask what you want to eat/ drink. Family units going to Islamic run venues I suppose. On the up side, locals were more genuine, not just enthusiastic because they were taking your money.

  8. Funny conversations experienced.

    Hanging from a bar, a large sign, Birthday Party for Moo, 29 th February. So I ask ” What girl Moo, can’t remember.” In reply, a girl folds her arms across her chest, leans towards me with a less than pleasant demeanour and sais ” What girl you think looks same like Moo?”.

    Asked a slightly drunk girl ” You have dog?” ” Yea, have two Isaan ” ” They like eat spicy?” ” of course they like spicy, they Thai dogs!”

    Someone looks at me taking out and chewing an Antacil tablet. ” You have bad stomach?” ” Yes ” ” probably eat too much cheese, no good, it stinks!”
    ” you take good care my daughter!” ” OK!” Woman waves me back ” you no take her around bars and get her drunk! She only sleep in bed, no good for you!”

    And some from the Philippines:
    “Oh, the Tomato juice is by ” Campbell’s ” ” Yea, in the Phillipines, famous for tinned soup” Where you come from? ” ” ” Scotland ” ” I don’t know that country. You have Campbell’s soup in your country?”

    In an AGOGO bar, two girls waiting to dance: ” Where you come from?” ” Scotland” ” Don’t know that country. In your country, how much is the bar fine?” ” In my country there is no bar fine, cannot bar fine” ” Girl looks confused ” in your country, when you go to the bar, there are no girls?” ” Yes, but cannot bar fine” ” So how does it work?” “Well, there are twenty men for every pretty girl, and the girl chooses. Before a guy gets picked, he must be no more than 23 years old, and look, think, and talk like a ladyboy, then she will pick him” Girl looks astonished and enters into a heated discussion with her friend. After a few minutes I ask “What does your friend say?” Girl replies ” My friend say you live in very strange country”

  9. Another Phillipines conversation. I swear that it’s true!
    Same AGOGO, two different girls waiting to dance.
    ” Where you come from?” ” Scotland” ” What job you do?” ” I am a Design Engineer in the Oil and Gas Industry ” Girl nods, not understanding” you know oil, where it comes from, big metal thing that sit in the water, I say how it should be” Girl nods again, does not understand ” You no petrol? Where it come from, I say how it should be” ” Ah” sais the girl, with a positive nod of comprehension. She then yaks to her friend for a few minutes and I ask her what they are talking about. ” My friend want to know what you do, job. I tell her you work in Petrol Station”

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