figuring out what language you have in common. A Thai who speaks some
English has come more than half-way in the effort to communicate with
you. Here's how you can do your share. And if all you have in common
is bananas well, those are appreciated, too.
pen rai: a slogan and a philosophy
life and culture
ost Thais speak no English at least, not enough to carry on even a
rudimentary conversation. Fortunately (with one noteworthy exception,
explained below), the waiters, hotel clerks, and go-go boys youíre likely to
encounter will generally speak enough English to do their job. You can make it
easier for everyone if you understand certain principles, and follow a few words
Speak slowly and clearly, using simple words. Avoid slang. Pause very
slightly between words. You stand a better chance of being understood if you
You go store. I wait here.
Iím gonna hang around here for a while. Why donít you check out the
store, grab a few things, then come back.
Do not raise your voice merely
because you were not understood. Donít seem flustered or annoyed. To
do so will create barriers that make further communication harder or
Donít expect to convey a complicated idea. Suppose you want to tell a new
Iíd like to go to the beach tomorrow,
but I've got to wait till my cousin calls tonight, to see what his plans are.
Fuggedaboutit. You're trying to communicate too many nuances and
conditions. If you don't know what your availability will be for tomorrow,
then wait and make plans tomorrow.
Omit a lot of words. Omit past
or future tenses of words. Omit articles. Donít bother with plurals.
Skip the word "to" when using infinitives. Whatís left? Just
the good stuff.
The Thai language lacks past and future tenses. A speaker may use a
term like "yesterday" or "tomorrow", but verbs have
only the present tense. Likewise, Thai lacks articles and plurals. Unless
youíre dealing with someone whoís truly fluent in English, these words
are more likely to confuse a listener than to be helpful.
Obviously, some of the above concepts are necessary:
I want a date with you.
is different from
I wanted a date with you.
But instead of using the past tense, wanted, use a word that describes the
Yesterday I want date with you.
Although in that case, why bring up the subject up at all?
A traveler to India learned to avoid yes-or-no
questions when he needed information. "I would ask someone, 'Is this the
way to the village?' and point to the direction I thought was correct. Invariably they would answer Yes, even if the village was in the opposite
direction. Another American finally explained to me that they felt it would be
rude to contradict me."
A similar pitfall, though for slightly different reasons, awaits visitors
to Thailand. In Thai, the "polite word" (discussed in the Thai
language page) has
several meanings. It can translate "yes" or as "I
understand" or "I hear you" or even as "uh-huh [I havenít
fallen asleep on you]". To convey any of these intended meanings, Thai
speakers conversing in English may simply use the word they learned as the translation:
"yes." So beware: A Thai speaker who answers yes to a question may
simply be saying (with typical Thai tact), "I'm still listening; you
haven't bored me to tears yet." Kind of like you used to do with your
In English, two apparently opposite questions:
Do you want more dessert?
Donít you want more dessert?
carry the same intended meaning. If youíre still hungry, answer
Most Thaiís, however, will take the second sentence at its literal
meaning. They'll respond "Yes" to mean "Thatís correct; I do not want more
Youíll be better understood if you entirely avoid questions that
include a negative, and to try to avoid questions that only call for a
Thai pronunciations of English
The sound L often becomes N at the end of the word in Thai, and Thai
speakers often handle English the same way. A waiter may ask:
Would you like
If you'd ready for the bill, reply yes. Also be prepared for a trailing
L to be dropped entirely: email
= emayo, hill
The sounds L and R will be interchanged, and often dropped or pronounced
more lightly than we would, especially when they're next to another
consonant. An R at the beginning of a word often is pronounced like
L. Thus room may be pronounced
Sibilants such as S or SH may be dropped, or changed to a soft T, at
the end of a word: house
Other differences between Thai and English
Though less important, an awareness of these other distinctions can
help you better communicate in Thailand, and to understand why Thais
speak English the way they do:
The verb "to be" is dropped in simple descriptive sentences.
The house is
red becomes simply (remember, articles are also not
used): House red.
The subject of a sentence,
especially if it's you, is dropped when it is clear from context.
I want some coffee
Tonality is different
in Thai than in English. In Thai, the same word takes on different
meanings depending on the tone in which it is spoken. In English,
we use tone to show emphasis. Thai speakers will often accent the
wrong syllable of a word, or use a monotone. Once you're aware of
this, it's easier to understand them.
We said above that the Thais youíre likely to
encounter will generally speak enough English to do their job, but with one
exception. That exception: cab (and tuk-tuk, and samlor) drivers. Often they
will speak no more than ten words of English, read no English, and be unable
to read a map. You'll want to have your destination spelled out on paper, in
Thai script, as explained on our transportation