Thai Language Thai Culture: Do Thais Want Me to Speak Thai?

Thai Language

This article was originally posted on

  • Get your FREE Thailand Cheat Sheet ​by entering your email below. The ​Sheet, based on ​our experience with living and working in ​Thailand for 10+ years, shows you how to ​save time and money and ​gives you the tools the thrive in Thailand.

Do Thais Want Me to Speak Thai?…

Since I have been submitting a bit of grammar in the series Using High Frequency Thai Vocabulary, I thought it was time to comment a little more on the cultural side of living and attempting to communicate here in Thailand, especially as this series is called Thai Language Thai Culture. So today I would like to tackle a cross cultural misunderstanding that I have observed for a long time now – and luckily in describing it we can come up with a language lesson.

The Misunderstanding…

The Thais don’t want me to learn how to speak Thai! Every time I try speaking Thai to them, they tune me out, or switch to talking to me in their broken English.

First of all I have a few general comments about the above complaint. Whenever you hear someone say “Thais” do this, or “Thais” do that, be aware that there are over 65 million Thais and the person speaking probably has only met a few of them, so his knowledge of what they ALL do is limited. It is quite difficult to stereotype Thais when dozens of languages and dialects are spoken, and when many cultures and sub-cultures are represented.

Also, I wonder if the same percentage of people who feel this way (that Thais don’t want them to learn Thai), are the same people who tell us that it really isn’t necessary to learn Thai tones. I would bet the correlation is high.

I have found that if it is a language misunderstanding, then 95% of the time it is because I am either saying something incorrectly, or more likely, I have gotten my tones, vowels, or consonants completely bungled.


Thais really don’t want me to speak Thai?…

We can maybe find the answer in this short anecdote.

I was at the golf course the other day, at the 19th hole having a cold drink, when two Farang golfers went up to the desk and asked for some soft drinks. Here is how the interchange went:

Serving girl: กี่ขวดคะ /gèe kùat ká/
Golfer: ซ่อง /sông/

The girl looked at him strangely, and in fact took a step back with a confused and fearful look on her face.

So the Farang golfer, getting a little annoyed at her reluctance to understand what he was saying, shouted back at her:

Golfer: ซ่อง, ซ่อง /sông, sông/

Finally, obviously irritated, he raised two fingers. It was only then that the girl knew what he wanted, so got him the two drinks he was supposedly asking for.

I am sure this is a situation which would make someone think that the girl just didn’t want to understand a person speaking perfectly understandable Thai – and in the context of ordering drinks she should have figured out what he wanted. Right?

Except, here is the translation of what was said:

Serving girl: How many bottles would you like?
Golfer: Brothel.
Golfer: Whorehouse! WHOREHOUSE!

You see, the Thai word used by the golfer was ซ่อง /sông/ (falling tone) meaning “brothel”. Or if shouted angrily as he did, it would be more like “whorehouse”. Our golfer wanted to say the number “two”, สอง /sǒng/ (rising tone) in Thai. Instead, he sounded more like crazy Hamlet yelling at the equally crazy Ophelia, “get thee to a nunnery!” – nunnery being an Elizabethan slang for “whorehouse”.

Let’s put ourselves in the serving girl’s place. First off, when answering the question of how many bottles of the soft drink he would like, the customer replies “brothel”, confusing you a bit. And then he follows up by angrily shouting “whorehouse” at you. Is he pulling a Hamlet, telling me I should get myself to a whorehouse? Even in the context of ordering soft drinks wouldn’t you be a bit perplexed at someone yelling “whorehouse” at you?

I have found that when we are communicating with someone using their language (doesn’t matter which language), and they do not understand us, then we are probably not saying it correctly. The onus is on us.

Our listener really does want to understand us, but when gibberish comes out of our mouths then he/she sometimes go out of their way to try using their own limited skills in our language to make the communication happen.

The Silly Farang…

Here is another example. A silly Farang wants to ask the shop owner for his business card.

Silly Farang: มีนามบาทมั้ย /mee naam-bàat mái/
Businessman: Same confused look as the serving girl above.

Silly Farang: นามบาท นามบาท /naam-bàat, naam-bàat/
Businessman: No change in expression.

Silly Farang: มีชื่อ บ้านเลขที่ บอร์โทรศัพท์ /chêu bâan-lâyk-têe ber-toh-rá~sàp/
Businessman: Oh! นามบัตร naam-bàt

Here is the translation:

Silly Farang: Do you have a name baht (long “aa”, บาท = “baht”, currency)
Businessman: (To himself: “What the hell is a name baht?”)

Silly Farang: Name baht, Name baht
Businessman: (To himself: Please let this crazy man leave my shop!)

Silly Farang: It has your name, address, telephone number.
Businessman: Oh! A “business card”. (short “a”, บัตร = “card”)

And BTW, that silly Farang getting his vowels all wrong was yours truly, and it happened to me just last week. So I still know, and probably will forever, how it feels to make a fool of myself in Thai.

Advice: If you say something in Thai and everyone either looks confused or begins to burst out laughing at you, then at best you got the tone, vowel, or consonant wrong. Or worse, the mistakes you made have turned what you wanted to say into something off color or ridiculous. Or even worse, you’ve insulted the listener’s family or his manhood. When this happens, don’t blame the listener.

Don’t think they don’t want you to speak Thai. They just want you to speak intelligible Thai. There are so many variables in producing a Thai word, tones, vowels, consonants, that any one of them being just a little off will cause you to produce a completely different word than the one you wanted to. Hey, no one said this was going to be easy.

So when you make a mistake and everyone is laughing, just smile (I myself do a big belly laugh when this happens) and throw up your hands and say, “I’m just a silly Farang” and laugh along with them. And everything will be fine.

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

48 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Do Thais Want Me to Speak Thai?”

  1. yep…for sure…as if you wouldn’t realize he’s saying two bottles….song is a counting word…referring to number, I’ve heard Thais pronounce it with falling tone…no tone…any tone…shouted over the band to the waitress at the pub….it’s always understood…this girl just wanted to be a little racist asshole and punish a foreigner for even trying to use her superior language…the same way I’ve seen Australians do to Chinese at the bar who are speaking clearly understandable English…sure with a thick Chinese accent, but still very understandable…the Aussie bartender will hold her hand up to her ear: and look perplexed: ‘what, what…can’t understand ya mate’…Then as the poor Chinese person walks away.,a little smirk and elbow bump to her workmate….but then when you pull them up on it…: ‘oh no no…honestly, I just couldn’t understand’.
    The amount of times I have seen westerners state even the most basic phrases or even single words, quite understandable…and the little strumpet with fake braces behind the counter just looks at her workmates, and not the westerner, like she’s being so inconvenienced and just says: ‘a-lye-na’…
    My Thai language skills are very basic, I’m no language expert…but you know who understands when I speak Thai no problem…my wife’s 8 year old son…because he has no predjudice and no need to put down a foreigner to prop up his own ego.

  2. Some people will understand what you’re trying to say easily others will pretend like your completely off. The fact that the girl didn’t undestand the reply is stupid. the sound of the word is close to the expected output and if she was unable to get that she was being an a*****e. I don’t care if it wasn’t exactly correct! I’ve been speaking english to all kinds of people for decades it was mostly not a problem when words were malformed if they were sounding close to what they inteded. She should have expected something resembelling a number not the word whorehouse (which happens to sound close to a number)
    I’ve been told by both thais and half-thais multiple times that it’s cute to have a pet farang speak some thai, but they wouldn’t want you to understand everything for some reason.

  3. Over the last year of living in Thailand permanently ( although immigration insist I am a tourist been there too often) I have on numerous occasions heard ex pats explain why you should not bother learning Thai. One of the reasons given is that if you do not get the pronounciation 100 percent correct, it can have a different obscure meaning. In practical terms my experience is almost the exact opposite to the experiences quoted above. My Thai sounds like a Glaswegian speaking Thai and sounds nothing like the Thai spoken by Thai people. Every Thai person I speak to has instant comprehension of meaning. Thais have become used to Thai spoken in European sounds and have no difficulty understanding it. I am quite fluent in spoken Thai, but like most, when I hear it spoken between Thais, or listen to the Telivision, it may as well be another language that I have no knowledge of that is being spoken, regarding how much of it I can understand. It also needs to be appreciated that some Thais don’t like non Thai people speaking their language. I had heard, as many do, the stories of Thais having a preference for new tourists who know nothing of Thailand. To my sad regret, it seems that there is some element of truth to this. A Thai woman who teaches me Thai advised me ” if you like a girl, don,t let her think that you understand Thai, because she might not like it, because she will think you have little money”. I love Thailand, the people, the culture but Oh. Money, money, money. It is however, slight annoyance more than made up for by all the pluses that you find.

  4. Dustin,

    I taught at the university level in Thailand for a number of years and still have friends from that time. All have advanced degrees in English and a number of PhDs. No one has to prove anything about their English abilities. When we meet I usually start out in English with the required greetings and formalities. Then when we get to talking about family, what we have been up to lately, our health, and what retired life is like we usually switch to Thai. I never “insist” on speak either language, it just happens. I know that if I were in America I would be speaking to anyone who can in English. So here in Thailand I don’t see it strange to speak to people in Thai.

    BTW, have you ever noticed when there are 2 or more foreigners and a group of Thais everyone speaks, or tried to speak, English. I find that lately I have been speaking Thai to the foreigner in the group as well as the Thais. In America, if there are two Thais and a group of Americans I never see everyone speaking Thai. So speaking Thai here is just the right thing to do, even if the foreigner’s Thai is basic.

    As for you, 4 out of 5 may just not be enough, or you are talking with people who may have something to prove. Keep it up though and good luck with getting to a 5.

    Had a problem yesterday when at the hospital the nurse said, in Thai, “I see you are allergic to Sunfa.” I didn’t understand her and had her repeat it a few times after which she tried in English. Then I realized that she was talking about the “Sulfa” drugs I was allergic to. We then slipped back into Thai. Almost no one at the hospital expected me to speak Thai – which probably shows the paucity of foreign Thai speakers that they encounter. The nurses’ English was not better than most people’s Thai. The doctors on the other hand were quite good speakers of English.

  5. You answer the question with examples of foreigners who make mistakes in speaking and therefore perhaps mistake inconveniencing Thais for them not wanting to speak Thai with them. However you do not answer in the context of IF the foriegner speaks good enough Thai not to be making these mistakes, and IF the Thai on the receiving end speaks as good of Engilsh as the foreigner speaks Thai. What then? Which language would the Thai prefer to be speaking. I have been tested at a 4 out of 5 in speaking Thai, which is VERY good. I deal with a lot of educated Thais, or many less educated who think very highly of themselves and their status. These people almost universally feel insulted when you insist on speaking Thai. They would rather demonstate their class by speaking English. In any language misunderstandings arise, even when both parties understand the words: “The bathroom is down the hallway” you say “There are two hallways, which one?” Thais usually think this means you didn’t understand the words, rather than require clarification of the concept. Or you stop to think, “Do I want the chicken or the beef” they usually yell in English “Chicken or Beef” as if you pause for thought was trying to process the words rather than make the descision in your mind. Once at the airport going through the final security check before getting on the plane, the security people refused to recognize that I speak Thai, even though I initiated several times in Thai. They muddled through in broken English. As I turned my back to leave I heard one say “He/she refused to speak Thai with us.” I turned back and said “excuse me but I would have preferred to speak Thai with you” they replied that the Thai woman in front of me had refused to speak Thai with them, and insisted on English. This incident solidified for me that Thais who can, would prefer to speak English over Thai in situations in which they wish to signal class or superiority. This often includes when meeting with a foreigner, regardless of their Thai language ability.

  6. Tod,

    A teacher of mine recommended that book as her favorite grammar resource… I looked for it at Chulabook a while back but couldn’t find it. 🙁

  7. Hi Todd,

    Thanks for this. Very informative about ending particles. Question: Are you sure the term isn’t คำเสริม and not คำเสิม? The first one means a “word added” whereas I can’t find a meaning for the second.

    And I think a translation of the definition would be useful.

    It is defined as a word used to show the intention and the attitude of the speaker in relation to the listener of which there are 3 types. 1. words showing mood, 2 words showing questions, 3 words showing status.

    Thanks again.

  8. I found an easy to understand (if you can read thai) book which has a great chapter about “ending particles” although they’re not called คำลงท้าย.

    The book is appropriately titled; ไวยากรณ์ไทย (Thai Grammar) by นววรรณ พันธุเมธา ISBN: 974-9993-27-6.

    Chapter 7 is called คำเสิม และคำเรียก-ร้อง. The opening sentence says;
    คำเสิม คือ คำที่เสิมเข้าไปในประโยค ช่วยแสดงเจตนาและท่าทีของผู้พูดและแสดงความสัมพันธ์ระหว่างผู้พูดกับผู้ฟัง แบ่งได้เป็น ๓ ประเภท ดังนี้

    It goes over the inz-n-outz of using them correctly and which ones do what. There are a lot of good examples and there are far more than the few polite ones we’re spoon-fed in school. In fact, there are a TON of them which convey subtle emotive value to what’s being said and establish the relationship between speakers..

    I have gone thru the chapter a bunch of times, tryin’ to become more proficient in the use of these particles. Some are quite subtle; just a tone shift between นะ & น่ะ changes the implied meaning.

    That chapter in the book is well worth reading over and over until you can nail those endings!

  9. Hugh,

    I think you might be right about คำลงท้าย. Caveat: I am no grammarian, and my Thai is limited (as is likely obvious!) but I did a little digging and The Royal Institute dictionary has this entry for คำลงท้าย:

    คำลงท้ายหมายถึงคำที่ใช้ลงท้ายคำหรือประโยค ในภาษาไทยมีคำลงท้าย ๒ ประเภท คือ คำลงท้ายที่ใช้แสดงความสุภาพ และคำลงท้ายที่ใช้แสดงสถานะของเหตุการณ์

    Which I think more or less means: “‘ending particles’ means words that are used at the end of sentences or other words. There are two types: ending particles that are used to show respect, and those that convey situational status.” It then goes on to give examples for ครับ ค่ะ จ่ะ ล่ะ and others.

    As for หางเสียง, longdo says: “tone of voice” goes on to define ไม่มีหางเสียง as ไม่มีคำลงท้ายที่แสดงความเคารพหรือความสุภาพ (I think) as speech that doesn’t have ending particles that show respect or politeness. So maybe คำลงท้าย are the particles themselves and ไม่มีหางเสียง is not using them in a polite and respectful way or perhaps otherwise being rude or abrupt?

    คำสร้อย seems to be the word for particles used in poetry at the end of verses or lines.


    At first, I misread “grammarian” in your post as “grammarine,” which might actually be a good term for people that are enforcers of proper grammar. A bit like grammar police, but perhaps more strict? 🙂


    Anyways, interesting topic, and would love to hear some expert advice on this myself. 🙂

  10. Michel,

    I don’t ride taxis very often but if the driver was an older man then maybe I would use ครับ with him. Being 68 years old I ครับ fewer people now.

    I may not have been correct in using หางเสียง for “ending particle”. Your definitions are better although sometimes the ending particle is used to add the emotions. Asked my wife about this and she says that คำลงท้าย might be a better word although it has other meanings. There is also a word คำสร้อย but not sure of that. Any Thai native speaker grammarians around who can help out?

  11. Thanks for enriching my vocabulary with หางเสียง,Hugh.But Mary Haas says for it:”the intonation at the end of an utterance,revealing or betraying the speaker’s emotion”while So Sethaputra says:”tone of voice,twang,ring”.Can its meaning be expanded to mean the use of polite particles?
    I was reprimanded thus myself by a Thai friend while I was chatting with a taxi driver in BKK:มีเชล หยากพูดไทยกันต้องใช้ ครับ นะค่ะ (so taxi drivers were”in”!)Not wanting to condone hierarchic behaviour while still trying to fit in a hierarchic system,I decided to”khrap”anybody except children and close friends.After all,an excess of deference can be no offence…and surely,a gardener or a waitress known or unknown to me would rate on a par with any taxi driver who crosses my day.

  12. Michel,

    I just saw this Yesterday in a movie. Someone at the dinner table said “Pass the salt.” And the woman at the table was rather put off by the abruptness of the statement. Of course the person should have said, “Please pass the salt.” Speaking to a superior or in a formal situation without using “hang siang”, the “khrup” and “kha” words, would come across here just as badly.

    Who I don’t use “hang siang” with: My gardener, my golf caddie, a waitress, my wife. Who I do use it with: My neighbors, the owner of the golf course, the restaurant owner, my wife’s family.

  13. Just one more thought on Thai civility:We are perceived as rude when we do not”Khrap” or “Kha” (ครับ , ค่ะ)at the end of our utterances.Few foreigners are aware of the fact and use it enough,some not using it at all! The word ครับ is a contraction of ขอรับ meaning”begging to bear”,by itself showing the traditional deference that ruled Thai social interactions in the past but still alive today in lesser forms.

  14. Thanks,Tod for the valuable Silpachai link! It does not shed a light on the semantic slip though.It may not be known at all,or could have happened for that word just because of its harsh sounding effect(“khôt”)or borrowing the sense of”bigness”of the social clan or the cow itself…unless its sound ressembles another”dirty”item’s and has absorbed its nastiness? It may only be a passing fad among the youth,typically.
    Just one thought about”sugar-coated”speech:that is just how most Thais like their language used,and most would be shocked to hear any คำหยาบ from a foreigner(there are degrees of course).Let’s keep in mind that most foreigners are already perceived as rude or at least too ตรงไปตรงมา in speech(volume included) and attitude.Up to the individual then to estimate the situation,his audience and the effect he wants to make.
    But I believe we should strive to know the whole gamut of a language including its borderline items because we gain more from listening than from speaking when trying to understand a culture.

  15. I have no idea how the word for lineage/family line โคตร morphed into the closest thai equivalent to the “f-word” in english as you’ll ever find.

    I learned the inz-outz of โคตร from the you tube channel of Alif Silpachai; the USC linguistics grad student. That kid plain and simple ROCKS with languages+

    As far as profanity, vulgarity, slang. EVERY language in the universe has and uses those things. Now the key is knowing your audience well enough, knowing the cultural aspects (which thaiz factor in, but which I mostly ignore) of when it’s appropriate and how “ฮาร์ดคอร์” you’re going to be.

    Thaiz of every demographic routinely curse, use slang expressions, ask snarky questions to one another in their daily lives. Thinking foreigner speakers of thai should avoid those things is one reason our thai doesn’t sound “natural, it’s too sugar-coated and sounds fake.

    I’m at the point where I can use profanity/vulgarity about as much in thai as I do when speaking english (which is frequently and with feeling!).

    About all I’ll ever do as an excuse for my coarse language is say, I speak ตรงไปตรงมา, use คำหยาบ and that it’s a สันดาน (inborn negative trait).

  16. To Hugh:I agree,a foreigner should not use slang with Thai people they are not intimately familiar with,or best:not at all.
    I also leave out of my vocabulary such terms.But I do not believe you want to punish yoursef by refusing to know and use a given word just because it has a vulgar derivative! โคตร is such a word that has a noble and clean status so can be used fearlessly even by ultra civilized farang s in its original sense of”ancestry”.Funny thing though:its root is โค (khô)meaning “cow”in skt.while the French slang equivalent of its impolite derivative also has to do with that animal:”vachement”,coming from “vache”(cow)!…
    Now wait a minute! Is it a coincidence that “cow”sounds like “khô”(โค)or did it originate from Vedic Sanskrit via Indo-European?

  17. Michel,

    You just may have the answer to all this. I myself never go to tourist shops nor do I eat at tourist restaurants.

    And for the language lesson from you, if the dictionary say “vulgar” or even “slang” in referring to a certain Thai word, I leave it out of my vocabulary. I am pretty good about using these words in English but not yet in Thai. Maybe after another 45 years of speaking Thai, but not yet.

  18. Again,to Todd:(Unrelated to the topic at hand)You have written:
    เเกพูดอังฤษโคตรเเย่ The use of the word โคตร in Thai,pronounced”khôt”(h.) is an interesting mystery to me:It is Sanskrit,meaning an exogamous part of a caste(varna)in the Hindu system and pronounced “gotra”(written in Devanagari:गोत्र).Its original meaning in Thai is “ancestry”.But strangely it also came to be used in a vulgar sense,somewhat akin to the English American slang”a helluva lot”or the French slang”vachement”.Talk about a semantic and even a (unique)register shift!.Maybe the Khmer did it? Anyone knows its story?

  19. ถูกต้อง Todd and Hugh! It seems to me that Philbo is misinterpreting alien behavior in defensive mode as many expats who are still not swimming in the local flow do.No offence intended here,Philbo,I see it as a common psy.attitude akin to the obsession of not getting ripped-off in alien markets.But there is one typical Thai attitude that I have noticed around places frequented by foreigners in droves:They have preconditioned themselves to not understand you,having been exposed to so many failing attempts in communication when not show-offs in Thai by eager foreigners and do not have the patience nor time for any more.Indeed,tourist places are the only places in the country where I have seen restaurant staff frown and ask me again what I wanted and even more often switched right away to English.I am just another annoying ฝร้่ง coming to disrupt their well-oiled routine!

  20. Todd,

    I totally agree with you on this one. Really, unless you are a conspiracy theorist, why would one believe that anyone would go out of their way to give you a hard time with the language? And now that there are so many really good foreign speakers of Thai around, especially on Thai TV, some of the same appearing on these pages, running into someone who is able to speak Thai is becoming quite normal. My advice is to say what you can, understand what you can, and keep working at it. No one is out to get you. That is called paranoia.

  21. I gotta weigh in on this. In the 10+ years I’ve been here I’ve rarely (as in almost never that I can recall) met a thai who wasn’t glad I could speak to them in thai (even way back when my thai was pretty sucky). Sometimes they’re down right over joyed and glowing by the fact I can speak to them in their language!

    In all my travels thru-out this country, I’ve never had one put me on the spot, try to take the piss or switch into a ภาษาท้องถิ่น.. Now I have run across thaiz who just couldn’t understand me, not because my thai is that bad but because of their preconceived idea that foreigners can’t possibly speak thai.

    I think the poster known as “Philbo” is confusing the thaiz replying at normal speaking speed to a foreigner who says they speak thai . Add into the mix that it’s my own personal observation foreigners here over-estimate their ability in thai by about 100% and you see where this is going.

    I have found if a thai asks a foreigner พูดไทย้เป็นรึป่าว (colloquial thai) and the foreigner answers with the spoon-fed phrase ผมพูดภาษาไทยนิดหน่อย it gives the thai a false idea of a foreigners ability in thai. By using the word นิดหน่อย you’re depending totally on the thai persons definition of the term, which can vary quite a lot. It’s far better to use พูดงู ๆ ปลา ๆ or even พูดไทยไม่ได้ and go from there. Both those phrases (even if slightly self-deprecating as to your true ability) will make a thai gear down and speak to you slower.

    15+ years ago foreigners who could speak passable thai here were thin on the ground. Sometimes they were such a novelty that thaiz would go get their friends just to show off a foreigner speaking thai. Now, the fact a foreigner can speak thai doesn’t have near the novelty factor even in a one buffalo village in Nakhon Nowhere.

    I will relate this slightly off topic tidbit as well. I’ve run across thaiz who just have to โชว์พาว (show power) or โชว์ฟอร์ม (show form) and insist on speaking english with me. Usually after a couple mangled barely understandable english sentences from them I’d say แกพูดอังกฤษโคตรแย่ พูดไทยดีกว่า (You totally suck at english speaking thai is better). Unfortunately thaiz, especially ones showing their power don’t take kindly to being told they suck at english (even if that’s an honest assessment). I finally started sayin’ to them; Speak thai so I can practice speaking thai with you.. It works all the time and I’ve never had a thai NOT switch into thai so they could “help me practice”.

    Good Luck..

  22. Hi guys
    First time poster. I have lived in Thailand now for 2 years down south (Suratthani), up North East (Nong Khai) and now in the middle (Samut Prakarn).
    My Thai reading and writing is easily better than my spoken, but in answer to the original question, I have found that SOME (not all by a long shot) Thais do like to make the effort to make Farang squirm when it comes to learning the language… and particularly in the provinces I have noticed, if a Thai gets wind that you can understand a fair bit, they can and will switch to Isaan, Laos or Khymer so that they can speak without you understanding…
    Now, why would certain people do that if they didn’t want you to understand?

  23. Alana,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I know many people who speak Thai well and they never seem to have this problem. I know many who don’t speak Thai well, and they do have this problem. When Thais don’t understand a person it is usually because 1. they are not understandable, or, and this happens often and to me, 2. the person you are speaking to doesn’t understand Thai.

    I had this happen to me just two days ago. I was in Nakorn Sawaan and asked a waitress something. She looked at me like I was speaking Martian, turned to the boss and I asked the boss who understood me perfectly. Turns out that the waitress was Vietnamese and didn’t speak Thai. This happens up here in Chiang Mai too with the Burmese (even though many are Shan who speak a dialect of Thai). The tribal peoples are usually multilingual so they do pretty well.

    As for tonal changes: As a Thai hears it a misspoken tone is not a simple little change like from “three” to “tree”. More like “three” to “scree” or maybe “three” to “throw”.

    “How many do you want?”
    “I want Scree”.

    “How many do you want?”
    “I want throw”.

    Maybe a linguist could decipher what the speaker means from context but a person with a 4th grade education, probably not.

    Solution to the problem – say the tone correctly in the first place. It will mean working your tatooty off but good things don’t come easy.

    Lots of luck.

  24. This is something I’ve been struggling with lately… While I think it’s definitely the language learner’s responsibility to convert what they mean, and not the listeners responsibility to try and understand them, I seem to be constantly shut down when I try and speak Thai – even when the person I’m speaking to understands me. Three times in the past month I’ve asked questions in Thai that the person I was speaking with understood…only to have them call someone else over to deal with me in English.

    It also often seems like context means nothing. Like the case of the golfer saying ‘whorehouse’ – if I asked someone in English how many bottles they wanted, and instead of ‘three’ they pronounced ‘tree’, I would get it…

  25. Khun Kaew,

    Thanks for your comment. You are correct in that most Thais have a rudimentary knowledge of English so using non-perfect Thai with some English will get you understood. But there are basically two types of Thai language learners. The first is satisfied just to be able to communicate an idea. The second wants to speak Thai at a higher level. For them, this will take lots of hard work and saying tones and pronouncing words correctly is very important.

    Language is a tool, like a hammer or a saw. Some of us are content just to be able to hammer in a nail or cut a piece of wood. Others strive to become master carpenters. We are all on our own road.

  26. You dont need to speak all of Thai word to Thai people. We know you are foreign and nowadays most of Thai people can speak English espeially in scenery town such as Pattaya, Bangkok or Cheingmai. If you say two they will know that you mean สอง.
    Ps. I’m Thai. Can speak English a little bit.

  27. There’s a recent article in the Bangkok Post about ghosts. I’ll quote here more extensively than I would do because they lock their articles after awhile.

    EDIT: no longer online…

    Bangkok Post: Ghosts in the Darkness.

    Ratchadamnoen Nai Avenue is listed in tourist guidebooks for its prominent cultural icons _ the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha Temple and many others. But just a short stroll away, to the side of Atsadang road, known locally as Khlong Lot, stand rows of shop houses, local restaurants _ and, at night time, dozens of “ghosts”.

    Phi khanoon (jackfruit ghosts) is the name given to the group of street sex workers who wander around the Khlong Lot area _ which is littered with jackfruit trees _ looking for customers.

    During the day, Khlong Lot is active with many local businesses. But the setting at night is different entirely. Further down the road, an unusual change in the landscape occurs; in the dark alcoves of buildings or unlit sois linger women with long hair, white faces and red lips _ the “jackfruit ghosts”.

    The name derives from the fact these women usually remain in the shadows, often beneath jackfruit trees. They are visible only when a car approaches to negotiate a price for the woman’s services.

    On another side of Khlong Lot, around Sanam Luang, a similar scene plays out _ though the age and appearance of these women is much different. The ladies around Sanam Luang area are called the “tamarind”, so called because of the plentiful tamarind trees which grow there.

  28. Hugh,

    Further reflection makes me wonder about the term “ghost” here. Poetic though it might be, do you think it signifies something derogatory, something compassionate, something strange, or just a sad acknowledgement of how some people have to hide in the shadows to survive?

    I just had a lesson with a Thai teacher of mine where we talked about cemeteries. I related two stories about people I knew who were being comforted visiting them, and she replied that visiting cemeteries in Thailand would be scary.

    It made be think that Thai ghosts are certainly scarier than Western ones.

  29. Keith,

    I have also heard the term ผีมะพร้าว (coconut tree ghost) for freelancers who walk the beach in Pattaya. For sure it is not a nice thing to call someone.

  30. I was involved in a similar situation in Barcelona. One of my co-workers walked into a bank wanting to change some money. When the teller didn’t understand her, she walked to the center of the floor and loudly asked (in the classic “if I speak louder, surely they will understand me” fashion) if there was anyone there who spoke English. There almost certainly was, but no one spoke up, and who could blame them? I approached a teller and managed to facilitate the transaction with my limited Spanish, Barcelona’s second language.

    The word “ingénue” was certainly a diplomatic choice, even if she were “of a certain age.”

    Regarding the bar girl patois the woman spoke, it reminded me that the Bangok Post had an interesting article called “Ghosts in the Darkness.” In it, freelance ingénues around the Grand Palace are said to occupy different areas based on their age: young “ghosts” in an area populated by tamarind trees and older “ghosts” in an area populated by jackfruit trees. ผีมะขาม and ผีขนุน respectively, I would guess. Either one sounds like a bad thing to call someone. There are male ghosts there too, but the article didn’t say what kind of tree they have.

  31. The word “ingenue” (a naive, innocent girl or young woman) worked with my spell checker and it was chosen after discarding a number of not so attractive other words. I mean, she called me fat. But I have already started my diet so I guess I should thank her.

  32. It never fails to rile me up when foreigners spitting out horrifically mangled Thai get irritated because the person they’re talking to goes “off script” or doesn’t answer in the way the speaker is expecting.

    In Tops Market and at my local 7/11 I’ve confronted foreigners about the way they treat the staff. Usually by sayin, “Hey don’t you talk to my friends like that!” Then again I’ve know those workers for years and years, drink with them, eat lunch with them, etc..

    Now, I’ve never had to rely on 10 years of martial arts training (which I don’t have) to envision some fat Jet Li movie outcome; but I have had occasion to step back and flip my cane up so I was holding it with both hands like a club (which is what my cane looks like to begin with).

    My grandfather taught me courtesy doesn’t take a college degree, and I don’t cotton to foreigners or thais being rude to any of my friends when I’m within earshot. . .

    What’s happened to you Hugh? You rarely cast dispersions, err aspersions towards anyone, let alone a Thai.. Finally starting to grow a spine in your old age?

    You did get me on the word ingénue because you didn’t use the diacritic, although Merriam Webster’s got me sorted out…

    Still, kudos to you for sticking up for someone you didn’t know.

  33. This just happened:

    I was at the golfing range when a Farang went to the girl at the window asking for more balls. He said เท่าไหร่ /tâo-​rài/ – “How much?” in heavily accented Thai. The girl answered ลูกใหม่หรือลูกเก่า /lôok mài rěu lôok gào/- “New balls or old ones?” There is a difference in price.

    The farang started getting angry and shouted เท่าไหร่ /tâo-​rài/ again. It is interesting to note that the prices were written on the glass right next to his contorted face. The girl answered with the same question about which balls he wanted. Furious the Farang called over his girlfriend, an aging ingenue, and said “Ask this girl for balls, she is too stupid to understand me.”

    I was standing right next to him when he shouted this out, seemingly for all to hear. And I have to say I blew a gasket. I told him I didn’t want to hear him talk that way about the girl again (she was only about 16). He said “She IS stupid. And so are YOU.” I told him what the girl had asked and that maybe his Thai wasn’t as good as he thought it was. Then the aging ingenue butted in just as he had pushed my arm. This caused me to take a battle stance with my fist cocked and as close to fisticuffs as I have been for years, The aging ingenue asked the girl what she said. She confirmed what I had told the nasty Farang.

    Now because of my martial arts training I pictured the whole confrontation, ending with Farang on the ground and me holding him in a wrist lock with my foot on his throat. So, knowing that is the way it would end, I backed off. It took 10 years of karate training for me to be able to do that particular move.

    That is when the aging ingenue started yelling at me with the best bar girl type English (I really don’t know where she might have learned this so I’m just guessing, but it was pretty stereotypical) ending by calling me fat.

    Well, that is true, and I could have retorted with “I might be fat but you aren’t young anymore.” But since I got into this confrontation by defending a young girl from a nasty old Farang, I didn’t want to end it by being equally insulting. So without me saying another word they left the range in a rage.

    I later apologized to the young girl for causing a ruckus. She thanked be profusely for defending her, waiing again and again. Then she said ฉันโดนหลายหน /chǎn dohn lǎai hǒn/ – Loosely “I have been the recipient of this kind of behavior many times before.”

    It turns out that after the two screamers left, and with adrenalin flowing through my veins, I started hitting the ball about 25 yards further than I normally do. So it didn’t turn out all bad.

    But I guess now I really have to lose some weight.

  34. It seems like any time I say something wrong in Thai, what I actually say is something off color or insulting. Do Thai’s have an over abundance of off color / insulting words or am I just lucky?

  35. Once while watching a TV show with some friends there was a scene of people riding horses. My friend asked me if I liked to ride horses. I tried to answer by saying that I was afraid to ride horses (ผมกลัวขี่ม้า), but suddenly the room erupted in laughter. After everyone calmed down they explained to me that what I had said was, “ผมกลัวขี้หมา” (I am afraid of dog poop). I had made a mistake but that was when I learned how important pronunciation and tones can be. It was hilarious and I was actually glad that I could provide my friends with such amusement. Sometimes with the right crowd especially kids you can have some fun mispronouncing things …. just for a goof. Language learning like everything should be fun.

  36. I know perhaps two Thais who perhaps would rather I spoke English to them. One is an artist who speaks English better than most Americans I know, the other is applying to Harvard graduate school.

    One of the most profound joys I have in learning Thai is the sincere appreciation Thai people show when a farang like me shows interest and effort in learning Thai.

  37. I have a slightly different perspective on this, given that my first foray into an Asian tonal language was in Vietnam, where they refuse to speak a word of Vietnamese to foreigners even if your Vietnamese is 10 times better than their English. Most aggravating.

    So I’ve been very pleasantly surprised in Thailand — I find that they expect to conduct business in Thai, which is fair enough.

    Perhaps my experience in VN taught me some tricks as to how to swing the language exchange in my favour. Or maybe it’s the shyness/laziness/whatever of the Thais by comparison. Or maybe it’s the kind of people I have interactions with here. But I can’t recall meeting a Thai who has insisted on speaking English to me.

  38. Opps! Just realize I spelled the Thai word for banana wrong. I wrote ล้วย and it should have been กล้วย. Cut and paste error. As the Japanese Kakuza on the Simpsons once said as bowed low in apology, “Forgiveness Please”.

  39. Hi Salem,

    Thanks for your observations.

    There is a group of people who say that Thais really don’t want foreigners to speak Thai. There is also a group of people who say that tones are unimportant. Look this up and you will see that there are lots of each. I said that I WONDER if members of the first group might also be members of the second. Here is why.

    Most people who know some Thai and try to use it and then find that the listeners don’t comprehend a word that they say, from my experience, are often speaking toneless Thai, or at best, wrong-toned Thai. I myself am an often perpetrator of the latter mistake.

    But I realize how important tones are when speaking Thai, and I know that if I use the wrong tone, or consonant or vowel for that matter, (and I have given frequent examples of my mistakes on these pages) then it is my fault, and my responsibility to get it right.

    So, do you see why I WONDER?

  40. Some good points there Hugh;

    In one article I’d written for Cat, I mentioned that when I’m gonna interact with “strange Thais” (as in Thais I’ve never met before), I do the “Thai language dance” FIRST. I don’t just walk up and start spittin’ out the Thai.

    It is my experience that Thais make a snap judgement call when they see a foreigner approaching that we are gonna speak English (because so few of us really speak anything close to semi-coherent Thai). They flip some switch in their brains from the normal position of ‘listening for Thai’ to the ab-normal position of ‘listening for English’. If a foreigners just starts belting out Thai; the Thai they’re talking to wouldn’t understand any of it, because they weren’t listening for Thai but for English.

    Even as blunt and coarse as I am, I’ll say, “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you, I speak Thai with a really foreign accent, but I think you can understand me, right?” Usually there’s an immediate look of relief which flashes across their face and then we can interact just fine. I think it’s that “cold intro” (launching right into the questions we have) which freezes them up. Plus, that short interaction lets them gauge how off-toned my Thai is and what my accent sounds like.

    I believe it is my responsibility to get my point across to them in something which is as close as I can get to speaking their language. In the same breath I also believe they hafta try to listen to me too.. I’m not adverse to using mime, charades, even drawing pictures if it seems the person I’m talking to just can’t get it. Now as I outlined, if I feel the person I’m talkin’ to in Thai isn’t getting it because they won’t invest the minimal effort it takes to understand my version of Thai, well, that’s when we put the carrot back into in my pocket and bring out the stick.

    I totally agree with you about the fact that most Thais don’t care either way whether we’re here or not. They don’t even put the effort in to be ambivalent about us, they just ignore us. If we don’t directly impact their lives (positively or negatively); honestly I believe they just plain don’t care one way or another.

    Most foreigners I run into here here have a very skewed perspective of their worth in the eyes of your average Thai.

    You have the same problem I do, when I goof up language wise it’s ALWAYS in front of a group of Thais I haven’t interacted with before and it’s always a HUGE “fox-paw”. I seem to do just fine one on one, or with my group of friends.

    I also get immense pleasure out of tryin’ to become more proficient in the language so we do share that in common too..

  41. Tod,

    Always glad to have you around. Keeps me on my toes.

    I believe that the serving girl was in her first day on the job, as I had never seen her before. She was about 17 years old and possibly serving her first foreigner. Contrary to popular belief most Thais usually have nothing to do with foreigners, and don’t care much for them or their money. But they are sometimes thrown into a situation where they have to interact, as in this case. The reason most foreigners feel the opposite (e.g. Thais love our money, etc.) is because this subset of Thais are the people that foreigners usually encounter (those who want something from us or those who don’t mind too much that we are around – probably a minority of Thais who feel this way, btw. Most don’t give a rat’s patootie about us.)

    Which leads me to the question: When we are speaking a foreign language is it the speaker’s responsibly to get it right or the listener’s responsibility to figure out what we mean – even when what we are saying is basically gibberish.

    Tod, I think you hit on an interesting aspect of Thai culture here. Many Thais, even those who have studied English for a thousand years like most of them do, would rather try to decipher our terrible pronunciation or grammar or incorrect word usage than to have to use the language they had been studying forever and possibly making a fool of themselves. I know. I have gone up to former students and said “Hi, how are you?” and they have answered “สบายดี”. And that is after 16 years of studying English.

    So if your listeners are working hard to understand you it means they either really like you, or they are really averse to trying out their English, or both.

    My own answer to the above question: It is MY responsibility to get it right.

    Faux Pas alert: Just yesterday I was talking to room full of Thais explaining how I liked a certain Thai sweet(Whenever I make a really bad mistake in Thai it is usually with about 20 people listening.) – it was bananas steeped in coconut milk and sugar.

    I referred to the sweet as ล้วยแม่ชี /glûay mâe-​chee/ – “Nun’s Bananas”. Everyone in the room looked at me funny with puzzled looks on their faces and I of course then knew I had once again screwed up. The correct words I was told should have been ล้วยบวชชี /glûay bùuat-chii/ “To enter into the nunhood bananas” (Who makes up these names anyway? The color of the bananas is similar to the color of the nuns’ robes, of course.) – Close but no cigar on that one.

    So I got corrected, didn’t feel that anyone should have figured out what I meant until I got it right, will probably never make that mistake again, and then had a great big belly laugh – my raison d’etre.

    I told you I will probably never get it right, but I am having lots of fun trying.

  42. Hugh – You didn’t finish your story. Did the two golfers each visit a different brothel or the same one?

    I think it’s good that a proficient Thai speaker like yourself can admit to your own mistakes (the business card not the brothel). That gives a little encouragement to us all in that even the best can trip over their tongue sometimes.

  43. Interesting post as always, what with the “Hugh’s-take-on-all-thingz-thai”. Sometimes I wonder if we live in the same country, lol…

    I’ve found that IF you say things like the thais are used to hearing it said, rather than inventing a sentence outta thin air, even if your intonation and vowel length is off the thais will almost “auto-correct” in their head and understand you.

    That “ซอง-ซ่อง-ซ้อง-สอง-ส่อง” anecdote highlights a particularly strange thing which happens here ALL the time. That girl does nothing but hawk beverages all day, day in, day out. I’m sure those weren’t the first two foreigners she’d ever interacted with either. However, for some strange reason she wasn’t able to make the leap in logic that the answer to กี่ขวด was สอง even though it was said with the incorrect tone.. The disconnect these people exhibit where they won’t use context to work out incorrectly pronounced words is mind wobbling. I can’t even count the number of times a thai has spit out such mangled engrish that if it wasn’t for the context I’da had no clue what they were tryin’ to say. For some reason they just don’t seem to be able to do that though.

    When thais correct my thai by parroting it back to me, or when they burst out laughing is a HUGE rub for me. I never laugh when these people butcher english nor do I correct them if I know what they’re tryin’ to say. When they laugh I say in as clear of thai as I am able to; “I can always switch and speak English if that’d be better OR you can try to understand me, your choice”.. The laughter usually dies away and presto chango, suddenly they seem to understand my errant Thai just fine. I think of it as a carrot and stick. Threaten them with a stick (speaking only english) and they’ll take the carrot (listening to what you’re sayin in thai) every time.

    Still, interesting post as always…

  44. Many good points. However, after ripping people who generalize, this:

    “Also, I wonder if the same percentage of people who feel this way (that Thais don’t want them to learn Thai), are the same people who tell us that it really isn’t necessary to learn Thai tones. I would bet the correlation is high.”

    is a bit rich. 🙂

  45. 😀 Poor Hugh. Poor me! Poor farang that tries to speak Thai! But seriously, I’m so used to butchering the language that I am not annoyed like I used to be. I automatically think, or say out loud, “I must be saying it wrong.” But I never yelled like the golfers. Good to know, BTW, what the wrong tone means 😛

    I actually like businesses that let me speak Thai (aka humor me) and usually I make the joke, when they start speaking English, that they (the Thais) are showing off – letting me know their English is better than my Thai 😉

    But as an English teacher and daughter of Thai mother who spoke broken English, I’m willing to be patient. And I have an ear for what they are trying to say…which is funny cause my friend said it was amusing to listen to the Chinese tourists and Thais speak English. They couldn’t understand each other but he could understand both parties.

    Good post Hugh! I don’t like that excuse either!!!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.