Learning Thai is More Than a Study of Words & Grammar – Part 1

Lanta International Language School

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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“Mai pen rai” means “no problem” or “no worries”…

All languages are pointers to understanding the culture of a country or nation, and the Thai language is an excellent example of this. However, it is important to understand that an awareness of the culture, is also essential in understanding how to interpret the language. The two are twined together.

Let’s take a classic phrase in the Thai language as an example. Most visitors to Thailand leave with the familiar ring of “mai pen rai” in their minds. Literally translated this means “no problem” or “no worries”, and it is common for first time visitors to Thailand to think something along the lines of, “Wow, these people are amazing, nothing is a problem to them! They are so laid back, nothing worries them!”

On the face of it, this is, in many ways, true. The Thai people see intense emotions such as anger as a weakness, and do not like to lose face. It is important to them to be able to cope with situations calmly, and many would say this is an excellent asset, and indeed an element of the Thai culture which visitors find extremely appealing. Yet in truth, it is important to realise that sometimes there is a problem, and sometimes it’s a big one.

Thai people can be really angry and upset, even though they say “mai pen rai”. You can find out weeks later that what they really meant was something different. This can give rise to many misunderstandings when westerners react by saying “but you said so”, or, “but you told me that it didn’t matter”, when the Thai person has obviously grown furious.

For accurate interpretation of the Thai language, it is important to understand that it is a “HIGH CONTEXT” language, whereas Western languages tend to be of “LOW CONTEXT”.

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In a high context language true meaning of what is being communicated can be established not just by the words and their meaning (as in low context languages), but also by the body language of the speaker, by what is NOT being said, and what should be understood without mentioning it (in this context) etc.

In the situation described above, the Thai person will have very clearly expressed what he/she wanted or meant, but not with words. A Thai counterpart would have understood, but as westerners listen more to the words than the context, a big misunderstanding may well have occurred, even though both people were correct according to their own culture.

To understand the Thai language, look deeper…

In order to gain a sound grasp of the Thai language it is essential to look deeper into the culture, and into the way things are said. You may learn from a book that “mai pen rai” literally means “no problem”, however holding conversations with Thai people, listening to Thai people, watching Thai people, reading between the lines, and being advised on cultural differences will provide you with a greater ability to understand what a Thai person really means. Or, to put it simply, if a Thai person is not smiling when they say “mai pen rai”, then generally there IS a problem….

Tina Gibbons
Lanta International Language School

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