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

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