The Frustrations of Learning Thai
In my previous article on the pros and cons of speaking Thai, I suggested it was generally a good idea to learn the local language. I also said that not speaking Thai was a cause of many frustrations for ex-pats in Thailand. However, I should not pretend it is a one-way street. The process of learning to speak Thai is full of its own frustrations.
Learning a new language is a major undertaking for even the most scholarly and the older you get the harder it becomes. Native English speakers know between 10,000 and 30,000 words. It is a huge database we have filed away in our heads and we pull out the words we need naturally as fast as a computer. Of course, we have the advantage of learning the language from a very young age when our minds were like sponges soaking it up.
Once you have gone past that sponge-like age, the challenge of learning a new language is much more demanding. Imagine trying to memorise 10,000 new sounds and their meanings. The good news is that linguists reckon that between 3,000 and 6,000 words is actually enough to get by in most languages. So no problem then.
Every language has its own quirks that make it difficult to Learn. Thai is in many ways a simple language with no tenses, plurals, articles or other grammatical complications. It is in many ways a very logical language with very few irregular forms. However, since it is not a Latin based language it instantly sounds a little alien to westerners. Thai has the extra complication that it is a tonal language. That is the tone in which a word is spoken can change its meaning.
Personally, I know that no matter how long I live here and how much I practice, I will never be comfortable with tones. They just don't come naturally to me. They were not part of my language learning process when I was a child and I just do not have an ear for them. Some people seem to pick them up quite naturally. Perhaps that is why I am also rubbish at singing and learning musical instruments.
Even if you are tone deaf, you should not consider this a barrier to learning Thai. It is a disadvantage, but definitely not a barrier. If you can make the correct sounds then generally they will understand from the context of the conversation, regardless of your tones.
The process of learning the language does take a long time before you start to feel you are reaching a reasonable standard. However, even when you reach a reasonable level of ability with the language there are still a few other little frustrations that come with speaking Thai.
You Can Understand Them
A friend of mine once said to me that the biggest problem with speaking Thai is that you start to realise how much rubbish they talk. You would think there is a limit to how much time people can spend talking about food but not with the Thais. It is truly the center of their world and they spend a huge proportion of their conversation discussing the subject.
You might think that Thai TV seems bad when you can't understand what they are saying. Wait until you can understand - then you will realise how truly awful Thai soap opera is.
As long as you cannot understand what they are saying, there is still something enigmatic about listening to them speak. They may be discussing mysterious secrets of the East that we westerners do not fully grasp. Once you understand what they are saying, you realise they are mostly talking about somtam.
The Blank Stare
Every person who ever learns Thai experiences this from time to time. You need to speak to a Thai person you don't know, maybe a shop assistant or service person. You approach them and start to speak Thai. They stare at you as if you are speaking Martian. You try again but the blank stare becomes even blanker. You try again but your irritation is creeping into your voice. Now the Thai person is almost frozen in front of you. They will sometimes make it worse by turning to a colleague and asking 'what the hell is the farang talking about?'
I have learned to recognise the blank stare. As soon as you get this response from a Thai all hope for further communication is gone. Their mind has put up a brick wall between you. It is not that they are being unhelpful. They have got themselves into a strange zone where they believe you are impossible to understand. They see a farang face and expect you to speak English. They probably cannot speak English. Their mind is not primed for the possibility you might actually speak Thai and therefore they do not hear Thai. They do not know what they are hearing.
It is only a small percentage of Thais who do this. When it happens, it is best to just give up on that person and try the next one. I have also learned that it is best to prime Thais with the possibility you may speak Thai. Always start with a 'sawadee'. If they still look a little blank, try a 'sabai dee mai?' If they can't understand that, they will not understand anything you say.
I know my Thai is far from perfect but that is not usually the cause of the problem. I have a friend who is half-Thai and half-English. He was born and raised in Thailand and speaks Thai perfectly. However, in appearance he looks totally farang. Even though he speaks perfect Thai, he still sometimes gets the blank stare from Thais who just do not understand what he is saying. Some Thais see his farang face and just assume they cannot understand.
Not Being Understood
This is another common complaint from westerners learning the Thai language. Why can't Thais fill in the gaps? When you are halfway to being able to express what you want to say. You feel you have given enough for the Thai to fill in the gaps but still they don't understand.
Thais do not seem to be good at understanding bad Thai. It is like 'I know I speak Thai badly but surely they should be able to understand. I understand their bad English.' Well often, they do not understand unless you speak Thai correctly. I am not sure exactly what causes this problem. I think part of it is the Thai language is not as flexible as the English language. If you say something wrong in Thai, it may not only be wrong, it may have a very different meaning to what you are trying to say.
Being Laughed At
It is strange that most Thais seem unaware that they speak English badly. When westerners listen to Thais badly carving up the English language, they tend to listen patiently and do their best to understand what the Thai is saying.
What happens when it is the other way round? When a westerner is speaking Thai badly, they will laugh at you. When they have finished laughing, they will tell you in bad English that you are speaking bad Thai. If you point out that you are not laughing at their bad English they will not see the correlation.
Of course, there is nothing nasty in their laughter. It is just the Thai way. Life should be fun and there is not a bit of malice in their laughter. Perhaps we should laugh more at their bad English.
There is no question that learning a new language is a big challenge. As described above, there are plenty of frustrations.
I still believe that if you have any plan to make Thailand your long-term home then it is well worth the effort to learn the language.
If you don't want to do any serious studying then just try to learn a word a day. It is amazing how they start to add up. Remember, every word you learn may come in useful at some point and after a year or two, you start to have a useful vocabulary.
The best way to remember what you have learned is by using it. Make that little effort to use the words you know. The Thais will appreciate it and help where they can, even if they do laugh at the same time.
Is it Worth Learning Thai? - Lots of westerners make Phuket their home and do not learn Thai. Is it worth making the effort to speak the local language?
Thai Language Introduction - An introduction to Thai language covering basic concepts, words and phrases
Thai Language Lessons - A series of simple lessons for beginners learning Thai.