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

Thai Language

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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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.

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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
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