Whether you are an expat or a world traveler, learning Thai is a worthwhile effort when spending any amount of time in Thailand. I’ve been staying in Bangkok for almost two months, and I’m finding it quite difficult. That’s why I’m learning Thai (along with Vietnamese and Japanese…but that’s another article).
A common misconception is that most Thai people speak English. Well. I can’t speak for Chiang Mai or Phuket or even Krabi Island, but that’s not the Bangkok I know.
- Everyone here expects you to understand Thai. The tables are turned. Now I know what it must feel like to immigrate to the States from a non-English-speaking country. When I worked at my sushi restaurant, I remember speaking English to every customer (unless I spoke their language), even if they could barely understand me. What else could I do? If they’re in America, they must understand some English. It’s the same here in Thailand. What else can they do? They figure, If this foreigner is in Thailand, they must understand some Thai.
- Body language is a lost language here. Related to Reason #1, whenever a Thai person tries to communicate something with you, they just throw words your way without a single facial expression or gesture to demonstrate the meaning. It’s very frustrating. Especially when I find myself swimming in the air, flapping my wings, in the middle of 7-11 and everyone is staring at me.
Even if they know English, Thai people are generally too shy or embarrassed to use it. It’s a matter of saving face. If they’re put on the spot in front of other people, they will feel very uncomfortable. That being said, some may try to have a friendly chat with you when you take the initiative.
- Save money with intercity transportation. Some of the buses require a different amount depending on the distance. I’ve been charged the highest fare just because the ticket lady didn’t feel like trying to ask the foreigner where she was going. I’m sure I would have saved a few baht if she’d asked. (Just speak up as soon as you can!) There is a sort of open-air truck taxi called a songthaew that is a cheap way to navigate areas where buses don’t run. Unfortunately, they have set routes, so you have to know where they are going in order to ride one. This calls for a combination of reading their signs and asking around.
- Save time with intercity transportation. If you can read and speak Thai, then you’ll be able to figure out which is the best route to take–MRT vs. BTS vs. bus vs. van vs. truck vs. songthaew…vs. walking or taxi or tuk-tuk. There are so many choices! And, with the way the traffic is, there usually is a better choice than the first one you opted for. For example, there is one area that I go to quite often but no buses run on that street. In medium traffic, it takes 40 minutes by taxi and 1.5 hours by bus. Why the difference? Well, because I have to transfer buses halfway, and then walk for 20 minutes after I get off the second bus. If I took 1 bus and 3 songthaews there, though, it would probably take me only one hour, since they go along the most direct route.
- Save money when shopping. Bartering in English, of course, is possible at the big markets like Chatuchak. But you can have the freedom of bartering anywhere you go if you at least know the numbers, “yes”, and “no”. Not to mention that you could get a lower price out of appreciation for your effort to speak Thai.
Not to mention that the Thai culture is beautiful and heart-warming to get to know. Between the food being delicious, the traditional clothes being gorgeous, the shopping being stupendous, and the people being so sweet, I have plenty of incentive to build my vocabulary!