Is it Worth Learning Thai?
It is amazing how many ex-pats you meet in Phuket and Thailand who have lived here for years and can barely string a sentence together in Thai. I know a few long-term ex-pats whose Thai vocabulary is less than 10 words. The simple fact is you do not need to learn Thai to live in Thailand, especially if you are in one of the tourist destinations such as Phuket. Does that mean it is not worth learning Thai?
I know a few ex-pats who insist it is a total waste of time to learn Thai. They say you do not need to speak Thai because there are always people around who speak English. They say they have wives or staff who can act as interpreters. They even claim to have the moral high ground as they say it is more important for Thais to learn English. Thais should learn to speak English because it is a major international language. Therefore by refusing to speak Thai and forcing the Thais to speak English, they are doing them a favour.
These people do have a point. You certainly do not have to learn Thai to live in Phuket. However, I would still say there is one other thing these people have in common. They tend to be the people who moan the most about Thailand.
We all have our little frustrations about our lives in Thailand. Living in another culture where many rules seem to be stacked against the foreigner is bound to cause a few complaints. We all moan sometimes but it does seem that it is the people who cannot speak Thai, especially the ones who do not even try, who also spend the most time moaning about the country.
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that their lack of interest in learning Thai is indicative of a more general negative attitude towards the country. If they had a more positive attitude to Thailand, they would be interested in learning the language. Deciding to make a foreign country your home but then making no effort to learn the local language would seem like you are standing rather aloof to that country.
The second reason is that of course it must be frustrating to not understand what people around you are saying. As much as you do not need to speak Thai, life here is much easier and more enjoyable if you do.
So many things are just a little bit more difficult if you cannot speak Thai. It may be a trip to the shops, the market, a restaurant or bar. What if you need a telephone line installed or to deal with a bit of bureaucracy? What about ordering a pizza or some other service over the telephone? It is all possible without speaking Thai but just a little bit easier if you do. Many people who cannot speak Thai find themselves constantly attached to their interpreter. Whether that person is wife, employee or whoever, it must be frustrating to need them by your side all the time.
However, the real benefit of speaking Thai is not the practical side of getting chores done. The real benefit is enjoying your time in Thailand. It is in interacting with Thai people, sharing a joke and a laugh. Understanding Thai people and what is going on around you. You are going to have a more positive interaction with Thais if you can understand what they are saying.
A trip to the market is much more enjoyable if you can exchange a few words with the stallholders. They will also usually offer you the normal price for their goods if you ask in Thai rather than quoting the inflated price that they sometimes give farang. A trip to a Thai restaurant is much nicer when you can talk to the waitress. A night out with Thai friends is so much better if you can understand what they are saying in their language as well as yours.
What is it like not to get the joke? I often find myself socialising in a mixed group of westerners and Thais. Usually a few of the westerners speak some Thai and a few don't. Sometimes, when the Thais burst out laughing I see a reaction from the westerners who do not understand what they said. It is an almost paranoid reaction of 'are they laughing at me.' It comes from the constant frustration of not understanding what people are saying, of never knowing the joke.
Thais like it when foreigners make an effort to learn their language. Do not be fooled by the myth that they do not want you to learn Thai. Most of them are very pleased if you make the effort and take it as a complement to their country. The tiny handful I have met who do not like foreigners learning Thai feel that way for the worst reason. There is only one reason why Thais don't want you to learn their language. It is because they do not want you to know what is going on. The only reason they do not want you to know what is going on is that they are up to no good. The old Thai proverb of 'farang know too much, no good' has a simple basis. If you know what is going on, you are difficult to con. If your Thai friends do not want you to learn Thai, then you are socialising in the wrong circles. You should find some new Thai friends.
This is only a generalisation but, in general, people who learn to speak Thai tend to have a much more positive outlook on their life in Thailand. This is partly because if they have made a decision to learn the language then they are probably the sort of people who came to Thailand with a positive attitude from the start. It is also because if you can speak Thai then the whole experience of living in Thailand is so much more fulfilling. How can you really expect to enjoy your time with Thai people if you cannot understand what they are saying?
So while you do not need to learn Thai to live in Phuket, you will probably have a much more positive experience if you do.
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