Go Ahead and Give It a Try
If you thought to yourself—I don’t know how to read Thai—then you got lucky because that’s exactly what it says. If you didn’t, that’s okay. I bet you at least looked at it from left to right so at least you did something correctly!
Thai in the World
Of the seven billion people on earth, only about 20 million natively speak Thai and another 40 million know it as a second language. Unlike English and many other common Western languages, Thai is a tonal language, which means it uses pitches to distinguish lexical meaning. If I just threw too much vocab at you, essentially what I’m getting at is that for non-native speakers—and particularly for native English speakers—Thai can be challenging to grasp and use effectively.
If you’re anything like me, then you probably haven’t lived long-term in a place where you couldn’t effectively communicate with locals. Personally, I’m fluent in both English and Spanish and thus my periods living in the USA, Ecuador, and The Netherlands were fluid in terms of language and communication. However, my move to Thailand a couple a months ago sent me straight out of my comfort zone and into a completely foreign language frontier.
Where do I start??
Languages are the gateway to the world. In order to fully immerse yourself and experience a culture, it’s essential to be able to communicate. While there are more forms of communication than language, it’s debatably the most effective method. Maybe I can convey what I need to with my hands, but it’s doubtful that the message will reach anything more than a superficial level. So, the question becomes: How will I learn this completely foreign language and where do I start? While there are certainly multiple approaches to answering this question, I’m going to outline the strategy I’ve used with a fair amount of success:
- Basic Needs: To live, we need food, water, shelter, and clothing. I’m going to guess you aren’t traveling around naked and you probably have an accomodation sorted out if you’re traveling through or moving to Thailand. So that leaves us with food and water, which is exactly where I recommend starting. Figure out the dishes you like, learn their names, and go around asking different vendors if they make them. You don’t need to know full sentences. You can literally walk up and say the food name and give a thumbs up vs a thumbs down and that will likely suffice.
- Yes and No: Across many and most scenarios, the simplest questions to relay information are going to be the yes/no questions. So big pro tip: learn how to say yes and no!
- Numbers: In Thailand, if you want to be financially savvy, you’re going to end up bartering in markets, with street vendors, and for transportation. This is infinity times easier—I’ve learned—once you know numbers. Not only will you actually understand prices, but if you throw back a number to a vendor in their native tongue, they are going to respect you more and give more leeway on price negotiations.
- Directions: It’s easy to get lost when you’re abroad. You might know what you’re looking for but not have a clue on how to find it. Learning how to ask where something is as well as basic directions (left, right, straight) will significantly help.
- Manners: You’re a foreigner trying to get by in Thailand. For many, this might come with a certain stigma depending on where you’re from and how you look. Do yourself a favor and learn basic phrases like please, thank you, hello/goodbye, and so on. Respecting others and their culture will go a long way and likely open new doors as well.
- Sentences: The first five steps, basically have taught us what I’ve heard referred to as Market Thai. For most exchanges they will get you what you need but they do leave you stuck on a surface level. To keep acquiring the language eventually you’ll need to venture out from isolated words and phrases and into forming sentences. Admittedly, I have not yet taken this step but I believe it’s on the horizon.
- Fluency: Steps 1 through 6 will greatly help but they will leave you far from being a fluent Thai speaker. In order to take this step there are many strategies (apps, language schools, websites, videos, etc) but they will require more intensive daily work. If you’re really wanting to fully immerse, this step will be a fundamental part of the process!
Thai–m to Learn
Facing a new language is intimidating. From what you might perceive as a whirlwind of sounds and a confusing arrangement of squiggles, the Thai language specifically can be extra-intimidating. It might leave you flustered and frustrated. But, if you break it down into small, digestible steps, it’s easier to pick up than you might think. Although you can get by without it, I highly recommend you at least give it a try. Learn some Thai words, use them successfully, and feel the pride that follows learning a new skill!
If you liked this post then drop a comment below or share it with a friend! Thanks for reading and as always, I encourage you to #gotravel!