Thai Language Thai Culture: Detours in Becoming Fluent in Spoken Thai

Thai Language

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Detours in Becoming Fluent in Spoken Thai…

In my experience, the best language learners are people who love to talk and listen. They are quite often story tellers, raconteurs, writers, journalists, anyone who loves to give their opinions, ask questions, listen to how other people think, people who just can’t survive unless they can talk with just about anyone about just about anything; those who are highly motivated just to simply communicate. These people seem to pick up foreign languages better than those who are more reluctant to express themselves to others or those who don’t particularly care what other people are thinking.

Often, when someone comes to Thailand, even with lots of initial motivation to learn to speak the language, within a short period of time you may hear the expression “I’m giving up learning Thai. It’s just too difficult.” You rarely get that attitude with someone who is addicted to talk. They’ll put in the hard work as long as it pays off with their being able to communicate.

Besides the difficulty in learning a language there are other roadblocks to one becoming fluent. There are a number of detours that learners of Thai tend to take that can take them off the road to spoken fluency. These detours can get us stuck spending time and energy away from everyday communication. Often, taking detours can be well worthwhile and can take us places we would never have gotten to. But we should always get back on the road to our destination of language fluency as quickly as we can.

We all have a finite amount of language learning energy. It seems that the older we get the less energy we have available. Too much time spent on these “detours” will take away from our energy to just speak Thai.

I know many people will disagree with some of my thoughts expressed here. I invite your comments.


Detours on the way to language fluency…

Idioms and Slang: (สำนวน /săm-nuan/ and ภาษาตลาด /paa-săa dtà-làat/ – “market language”, aka Street Thai)

I know some people who spend hours a day learning Thai idioms and slang. They are the life of many parties although they may have not mastered everyday Thai yet. Idioms and slang are fun to play with. And Thais, being skilled word players, love it when a foreigner can produce even one.

For instance, the term ยิงกระต่าย /ying grà-dtàai/, “to shoot the rabbit” is an idiomatic way of saying “to urinate”. If you use it in certain situations your Thai friends will think you are a magician, “pulling a rabbit out of a hat”. But, as with most idioms, we have to know when to use it and when to use the everyday vocabulary for this same action.

When we are in a car driving down a country road with friends and we want the driver to pull over so we can relieve ourselves on the side of the road we can say we need to ยิงกระต่าย. “Pull over, I need to shoot a rabbit.” It works really well in this instance since we might even look like we are rabbit hunting while we are standing there with our backs to the road.

The idiom doesn’t work so well say in a doctor’s office and the nurse asks you to urinate in a cup. If you didn’t know the formal Thai term ปัสสาวะ /bpàt-săa-wá/, which the polite nurse would invariably use, you’d probably have to look at the cup and guess what exactly she wanted you to produce. Since that cup could mean that the nurse needed to collect any number of things (from a man especially), hopefully you’ll guess correctly and hand her back something she really asked for.

By the way, learners of Thai are not the only ones who spend lots of energy on these detours. Thai students of English will spend a considerable amount of time learning English slang. I just read an English teaching Internet posting on the meaning and use of the English term “That’s freakin’ tight”. When was the last time you used that term in a conversation?

Boss: Somchai, we are considering hiring you for the open position.
Somchai: That’s freakin’ tight.
Boss: On second thought …

If you have a limited amount of time and energy then I would spend it on stuff that matters and maybe would produce a better outcome.

So, spend some time learning idioms and slang, they’re great fun, but don’t forget to spend enough time on learning the common words for what they are referring to and learning which situation to use which.

Proverbs (สุภาษิต /sù-​paa-​sìt/)…

I know a man who has been here for more than 30 years. For years he has spent at least one hour a week studying Thai with a teacher. And most of their time is spent learning Thai proverbs.

This man has a huge vocabulary and has notebooks full of Thai, and when he is in various social situations he always has a Thai proverb that he can pull out of his hat to get his point across. He must know hundreds of Thai proverbs. When not speaking in proverbs though, his spoken Thai is pretty basic.

For instance, this friend was talking about someone who was not comfortable in a certain situation. I might have said something like ในสถานการณ์นั่น เขารู้สึกอึดอัด /nai sà-tăan gaan nân kăo róo sèuk èut àt/.

ใน: in
สถานการณ์: situation
นั่น: that
เขา: he
รู้สึก: feel
อึดอัด: uncomfortable

But instead he used the beautifully accurate Thai proverb ปลาตายน้ำตื้น /bplaa dtaai nám dtêun/ – literally “the fish will die in shallow waters”. He was saying that this man felt like a “fish out of water”.

ปลา: fish
ตาย: die
น้ำ: water
ตื้น: shallow

He was right on with using the correct proverb for the correct situation and his Thai listener was amazed. But he would be hard pressed to use the word สถานการณ์ – “situation” or อึดอัด – “uncomfortable” in a complete and correct Thai sentence.

When I hear him speak Thai it reminds me of a Peace Corps English teacher I once knew here who was stationed upcountry. He got so bored with his duties he thought he would put some spice into his teaching. So instead of teaching Standard English he started teaching his students Shakespearean English. “Where are you going?” became “Whence goest thou?” The students were producing completely understandable and correct English but once Peace Corps Bangkok found out about this he was on the next flight home.

Learn as many Thai proverbs as you can. They are such fun and lots of them rhyme and use word play. But don’t forget to practice standard Thai, because unless you are like my friend and know at least one proverb for every situation you encounter, you might just be up sh*t’s creek without a paddle.

Word play (เล่นคำ /lên-​kam/)…

In every group of Thais, especially Thai men, there will be one or two who are really brilliant in word play, punning, and especially the กลับคำ /glàp kam/ Thai word play. This is where you take the first sound of one word and exchange it for the first sound of another word, and then flip the positions, ending with something usually amusing and most often off color.

For example: I was asked to join a seniors’ golf club tournament. I asked what the name of the organizing club was and was told that it was the กล้วยไม้ /glûay-​máai/ – “Orchid” Club. I knew something was funny when the whole group began to laugh hysterically at this name. I didn’t see the joke, yet. What is so funny about orchids?

What was happening was that they were playing with the words and using กลับคำ word play. Here is how you do it: take the two words that make up “orchid” กล้วย /glûay/ and ไม้ /​máai/ and switch the first sound of each and then reverse the order of the words.

กล้วยไม้ /glûay-​máai/ -ใกล้ม้วย (/glâi/ + ม้วย /múay/). ใกล้ = “close” and ม้วย is one of the Thai words for “death”. So the กล้วยไม้ or “Orchid” seniors club, when flipped was the quite appropriate, ใกล้ม้วย, the “Close to Death” club of us senior citizens. And a big laugh was had by all (including me once it was explained).

Here is another one: If someone talks about you and uses the Thai nonsense syllables เกลี่ยมัว /glìa mua/ then I wouldn’t take that as a compliment. Flipped, the nonsense syllables come out to กลัวเมีย /glua mia/ – literally “afraid of the wife” but having more of the idiomatic meaning of p’ whipped.

You can spend time learning this kind of word play, and many foreigners do, but I find it much too linguistically mind boggling to figure these things out and it would take too much time away from learning to just say things the way they are.

Once again I have been rather “G” rated here but be aware that กลับคำ word play almost always turns a nice innocent Thai word into a very off-color term.


Reading Thai is a great way to spend your energy. But a lot of people fool themselves into thinking that reading alone will lead to speaking fluency. Developing skills in one doesn’t always translate into becoming skilful in the other.

I have run into two very different types of Thai learners here. One who speaks as much as he can; learning vocabulary as it is needed in everyday communication, making as many verbal mistakes as possible, learning from those mistakes, listening to how words are pronounced and repeating them verbatim.

A second type is one who reads Thai constantly. They learn all the tone rules, build a great vocabulary, and know Thai grammar in and out.

The first ones have a good chance of becoming fluent in spoken Thai. They may or may not become literate though unless they start hitting the books.

The second ones will be quite literate but unless they get their heads out of the books and start to speak to others, all the vocabulary, grammar, and tone rules may not help their speaking ability.

In order to learn how to speak one must speak.

Of course the best is to do both, basing the time spent on each on what your goals are for learning Thai. Some people may even use reading as a way to avoid speaking. If your goal is reading fluency then that is no problem. If your goal is speaking fluency then the time spent not speaking would be considered one of those detours to fluency.

To avoid that I would learn to speak first and only after developing a bit of language efficiency would I start spending time learning to read – just as any native speaker of any language would. Then, fluency may not be far behind.

Thais are master wordsmiths and the Thai language is full of slang and idioms and sayings and proverbs and rhyming. Have fun with the language but remember not to spend too much time off road at first. Put enough time into learning to speak standard Thai and later, if you can combine the two, you’ll reach your destination.

For those who would enjoy a short detour these 2 CDs, with accompanying books, and these websites, are lots of fun. Also, I have written some advanced reading textbooks and a vocabulary builder that you can have as free downloads if you ever decide you want to read Thai newspapers.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand

14 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Detours in Becoming Fluent in Spoken Thai”

  1. Tod, you didn’t deliver a rant at all. Well worth reading. It does come down to how one wishes to spend one’s time.

  2. Hi Todd,

    Well thought out rant. I wanted to say a bit about grammar and grammar rules. I taught English for a couple of decades and I don’t believe I ever taught a grammar rule. If I were asked why a certain phrase was said a certain way I answered “because that is the way native speakers say it”.

    There is a difference between prescriptive grammar – we say things a certain way because the rules says so; and descriptive grammar – we say things a certain way because that is the way native speakers say it. For instance “I am liking this very much.” breaks all the prescriptive rules of standard English but for a native speaker of Indian English it seems to work out just fine.

    Prescriptive grammar rules came after the language was already being spoken and the they are an afterthought. Just as writing is an afterthought of spoken language.

    So how did I learn Thai grammar? The same way I learned Thai tones (listening to my wife though you would think that I never learned Thai tones). I listen to what people said and I said it the same way.

    Faux pas alert: I broke that rule yesterday when I brought my lawn mower to get its blade replace. The mechanic said it might be a few days to find the right blade. So, trying to be cute, I wanted to say “That’s okay, the “grass” (หญ้า /yâa/ ) isn’t very tall yet.” Instead I said that the “medicine” (ยา /yaa/) isn’t very tall yet. That is what I get for saying something I had never heard said before. Of course when he stared at me like I was an idiot I realized my mistake, corrected it, and got a big laugh.

    Moral of the story: I need to listen better.

  3. Apologies in advance for what may seem like me hi-jacking this post; (Cat if it’s too off the mark delete it!)

    On one hand I find it extremely irksome when some foreign learner of thai spouts off, “To speak thai clearly you need to read thai”.

    There are FAR more people who learned thai conversation via karaoke from the FSI material or the conversational thai levels at any one of the Union-clone schools, than there are people who learned to speak thai via thai script.
    Don’t hate the messenger, hate the message if you want, BUT; it’s a numbers game. Those Union-clone schools have been churning out competent speakers of thai since Union Thai opened almost 50 years ago. Heck even Chula teaches their conversational thai via karaoke!

    Hugh’s earlier comment shows that he could speak thai quite well BEFORE he undertook learning to read. He undertook reading to further his ability in thai. So either he learned thai via osmosis, or more likely seeing as he was in the Peace Corp, he learned it via karaoke.

    He might say he never studied grammar rules, blah-blah-blah, but he just didn’t know he was being taught them. He was exposed to grammar rules via inductive learning; seeing how the language worked, how it went together and by learning to speak thai within those rules without ever having them spelled out for him! Honestly that’s the BEST way to learn rules of any sort!

    So the short answer Owen is; NOPE you don’t need to read a single character in thai to speak totally understandable, well structured coherent thai and it would appear for many years; Hugh was walkin’ talkin proof of that!

    The other side of that is; what’s the down side to learning to read thai? Wait for it, just another second, done! Breaking news flash; there is NO downside to learning to read thai!

    If you don’t want to learn to do it, don’t. Now you might imagine that from your perspective it has a low “bang-4-the-baht” in terms of effort versus benefit, but that’s just your take on it.

    There are literally a gajillion books and magazines on almost every topic in thai. Certainly something has to appeal to you.

    Most of the foreigners I see giving up on learning to read are being given the wrong material to learn from. It’s dry, dated, stuff which doesn’t appeal to them. Heck learning to read thai is hard enough, especially if you’re having to choke down “a day in the life of Somchai the rice farmer”, “life in a one buffalo village in Nakhon Nowhere” or “holidays in thailand”.

    Reading thai has given me access to things we as foreigners would never be exposed to and which are never taught to us. I get a TON of new vocab outta reading stuff in thai.. Now I dunnno that I speak any clearer; because my thai still has an accent like the hillbilly from Ohio that I am; but man oh man do I got vocab!

    As far as เจ้าอารมณ์; plug it into Longdo’s dictionary and see what comes up, he nailed it; although there are many more colloquial terms which would work too.

    Unfortunately the term you used งอนตุ๊บป่อง isn’t one of them.. I hear that term used in situations where kids (and gurlz too) will sulk to get their way..

    I personally wouldn’t ever use it when telling someone I’m in a petulant state of mind (and I’m like that almost all the time!)

    Sorry for the rant!
    Tod Daniels

  4. I am but the dust beneath your feet, Hugh, but you haven’t convinced me one bit.
    And from my uncomfortable location, may I look up and ask why เจ้าอารมณ์ translates into ‘petulance’? Right off, it would seem to me to mean “stiff upper lip”.

  5. Owen,

    Let’s try: Petulance = เจ้าอารมณ์ /jâo-​aa-​rom/; เจ้า = master อารมณ์ = emotion.

    I don’t know if that is any better but it seems to be a fun word to use.

    The reason I took up reading was because I put myself in the place of an illiterate person back home and how difficult it was to get through a day without knowing how to read. Then I realized that I was completely illiterate being here. So I decided to change that. And in the end it really did help me to speak a higher level of Thai. But I had already been speaking understandably for many years.

  6. Most who learn Thai fluently-ish insist we have to write and read first. I’m suffused with petulance [งอนตุ๊บป่อง ?] each time I read this. I couldn’t disagree more. Reading and writing Thai would be lovely, just lovely, but what am I to read, what am I to write? Nothing, basically. I was in a huge provincial hospital last week trying to locate a patient where all the signage was in Thai only, as it should be. So, I asked.

    The only time reading would be handy in my daily routine would be a menu. But I can speak enough to explain I don’t eat red meat, pork, duck, frog, etc. and this usually leads to a pleasant discussion, sometimes with someone else chiming in, and three, by definition, form a Thai-Pod.

  7. Thanks David,

    Although I have an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)from NYU I have not lifted a grammar book in over 37 years. And I don’t intend to do so now, English or Thai. Thanks for the info though. Maybe some others who are interested in reading about grammar will be able to use it. I myself like studying the language, not studying about the language. But each to his or her own.

  8. Khun Hugh

    I think Khun Tod is referring to pages 27 to 29 of ไวยากรณ์ไทย by นววรรณ พันธุเมธา. I think you will find slightly more detailed discussions in Chapters 6 (pages 83 to 89), 15 (page 203) and 30 (pages 359 to 368) of A Reference Grammar of Thai by Shoichi Iwasaki and Preeya Ingkaphirom. In my comment above, I said:

    “As you were talking about not just any situation but that particular situation, นั้น should be used instead of นั่น:

    ในสถานการณ์นั้น เขารู้สึกอึดอัด”

    I have made a mistake in that I have suggested that in your sentence, นั้น functions as a deictic demonstrative (in the sense of pointing to people or objects in the immediate speech environment). I think the correct analysis is that นั้น here is functioning as an anaphoric demonstrative. This type of demonstrative is also known as discourse deixis. An anaphoric demonstrative may be used to refer to a person, object, event, word or idea previously mentioned in a discourse. I imagine that สถานการณ์ is introduced or mentioned in an earlier sentence(s). So in your sentence, which comes later, นั้น allows you to refer to the idea previously mentioned. (Adapted from page 87 of A Reference Grammar of Thai)

  9. Thai does have quite a few “spoonerisms” which I think are called คำผวน. Most of the time they’re used the same as we use ’em in english; to make something bawdy, off color or racy sound innocuous. In another post of yours I mentioned “see the bear”; เห็นหมี which is an example of a thai spoonerism.

    As far as idioms, I have been working on a list of them (which suit my persona and way of speaking thai) from a book called 5000 thai idioms. Unfortunately there is not that much info as to which ones are โบราณแล้ว. I hafta take my list out soi side to vet it with real thaiz every so often.

    On your post about เที่ยว there’s a good one for dead; ไปเที่ยวไม่กลับ; it’s often used when talking about a pet which has died.

    Another good one for old but still alive is ดินยังไม่กลบหน้า “dirt isn’t covering my face yet”.

    Funny enough (or not);
    Those นี่ นั่น โน่น นู่น – นี้ นั้น โน้น นู้น words often throw me for a loop too.. However, I just got a book called ไวยากรณ์ไทย by นววรรณ พันธุเมธา. In it they go over uses of those words in such clear terms and use such good examples, that even I understood the explanation and FWIW I’m pretty darned dense!

  10. นั่น is used as a demonstrative pronoun whereas นั้น is used as a demonstrative modifier/adjective.

    นั่น is used as a demonstrative pronoun, to refer to a person, object or action. Say you want to refer to Wilai’s father (who is not near you but he is not too far away from you). You could point out Wilai’s father to your listener and say:


    There are three patterns when นั้น is used as a demonstrative modifier/adjective. Say you want to modify the noun บ้าน (the house is not near you but it is not too far away from you).

    1) นั้น comes after both the noun and the classifier


    2) นั้น comes after the classifier alone


    3) นั้น comes after the noun alone


    Pattern No. 3) is not really correct Thai but may be used informally.

    When we want to describe a house (not just any house but that particular house), it would be ungrammatical to say:


    As you were talking about not just any situation but that particular situation, นั้น should be used instead of นั่น:

    ในสถานการณ์นั้น เขารู้สึกอึดอัด

  11. David,

    Maybe you can help us with this. I am not a Thai writer, I mostly cut and paste. But what is the difference between นั้น and นั่น beside the first being high tone and the later falling. They both mean “that” but I recall that there is a difference in usage. Can you explain it.

  12. Dear Khun Hugh

    Great post as always. I think you meant to type นั้น instead of นั่น, when talking about “that situation”.

  13. Todd,

    Glad we agree for once. ไม้ใกล้ฝั่ง is a good one. ใกล้ม้วย is word play (where you flip the words) whereas ไม้ใกล้ฝั่ง is more of a proverb (“a tree on the bank”).

    Let’s hope I’m not too near the bank of the river. I hear the thunder in the distance (for real) as the rainy season has arrived it appears up here in Chiang Mai, and I don’t want to get washed away, yet.

    Thai is unbelievably robust in these kinds of sayings.

  14. OMG! Hugh you wrote a post I agree with 110%!

    I don’t know if I should be afraid that I’m turning into you or be impressed that we both share the same ideology as far as what it takes to learn the thai language.

    You can’t build a skyscraper without a solid foundation sunk deep into bedrock. I equate that with learning thai; you need a rock solid foundation or good base-line grasp of conversational thai BEFORE you delve into other material. You also need to be able to recall the stuff you learned and spout it out as needed when you converse with thaiz in thai.

    I also agree that wicked good thai reading skills don’t equate to wicked good thai speaking skills. In fact I’m walkin’-talkin’ proof that it don’t work that way! I can read and comprehend almost anything in thai I have even a passing interest in; but my spoken language skills are woefully lacking comparatively.

    I know some pretty adept foreign speakers of thai who totally die if a simple conversation goes “off script”. By that I mean, the answer comin’ back from the thai they were speaking to was not the pre-programmed answer they were spoon fed in thai language school.

    Being able to receive the information comin’ back to what ever you said, goes hand in hand with being able to speak. Speaking and comprehension are two sides of the same coin!

    When you’re learning thai conversation, as soon as you get outta class, see if you can’t practice using what you just learned with real live thaiz.

    Speak out! Right, wrong, what ever, just try! Don’t be so caught up in needing to say it right that you don’t say anything for fear of saying it wrong.

    I have found thaiz as a rule to be some of the most gracious and understanding people when it comes to foreigners tryin’ to speak thai. They are more patient by a factor of 100, than say Americans are about people who don’t speak english in the US.

    Now idioms, slang, etc DO have a place in a foreigners thai language skillset.. However, they’re “one trick ponies” without a base-line of understandable conversational thai to back it up or further the conversation.

    Henry Ford said; “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

    Tod Daniels says. “Stop thinkin’ you can’t, start thinkin’ you can and you will.”

    BTW: never heard that ใกล้ม้วย. I usually use ไม้ใกล้ฝั่ง “a tree near the bank/shore” (which will wash away with the next rain), to mean old people with “one foot in the grave”. .

    Good Luck!


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