Thai Language, Translation
Learning the Thai language is a key to
Our brains and cultures are largely wired around language, so that understanding the language architecture and the meanings of words and phrases is a good viewpoint for understanding where this culture is coming from.
Some people try to rely on a machine translation, but thus far they continue to be very poor (still as of 2017 as I'm updating this article), between European and Asian languages. I've seen more than 20 years of hype of the potential for machine translations and machine learning, but it's still terrible, so I won't be planning on relying on it for anything important.
For example, in one instance in 2016, a guy was getting upset about the translation of his girlfriend's Facebook posting, after she went out of town, in reference to a guy named "Andrew" in the translation of her posting. It ended with "He's big" (as if size matters). A human translator found no mention of any "Andrew" in the Thai text, and the "He's big" came from the translation of the name of the geographical location at the end, Khao Yai, a national park. (Khao could be translated many ways, one of those being "them", but in this case the machine also surprisingly chose a gender, "him". "Yai" was translated into "big".) Don't set your heart on a machine translation...
If you're a new business person or individual who needs to be productive right away, or where reliability and quality are of value, or who is pressed for time for particular results, you may need a verbal translator as well as written translation at the start -- by a human.
A good service provider with a wide range of rates and services can be found at www.thai-english-translation.com Their website also discusses many elements of the Thai language and issues in translation.
A good place to learn the Thai language is the Thai Language Hut, run by a good British guy, Mark Shee, whom I know and recommend. It's located near the Phrom Pong skytrain station, down soi 43, colocated with Travel Today Asia. They can also suggest things to do in Thailand!
There are others who offer Thai classes via Skype and other video chat services.
I strongly recommend people follow a systematic process for learning Thai. Unfortunately, I never learned Thai language by classes or any particular program, but instead learned it from Thai friends and associates bit by bit over time, plus trying to read signs, and an occasional book (one with cassette tapes -- if you're old enough to remember cassette tapes). I wish I had done differently from the start. In current times, there are YouTube channels and DVDs like Rosetta Stone.
Learning to speak Thai is well worthwhile, and better sooner than later.
As you learn Thai, you will not only become more functional and less frustrated, but you will also vastly extend your range of Thailand experiences, and also come to appreciate the culture. The extent of your understanding of the Thai culture will be limited by how well you understand the language, as it is the core of the Thai mentality.
Nonetheless, I know many expat managing directors and others who have spent years in Thailand and not learned the language. I, myself, had spent 4 months in Thailand before I started to learn the language, as the main Thais I dealt with initially could speak good English. Professional Thais can usually understand and can often speak English well.
However, in those same managing directors, I have usually seen shortfalls in their understanding of many Thai nuances which can be important.
(Indeed, I wish that I had started to learn it earlier. I initially didn't think I would be here long or would do much interaction in mainstream Thai culture. Thailand was full of good surprises, so I extended my stay, which was partly dependent upon success along new lines of work. Learning the language at the outset could potentially make a big difference to others.)
Whether to learn Thai, and how much, all depends on what kind of existence in Thailand you wish for in your experiences, how long you may stay, and how much you are really willing to work to learn the language.
The good news is that the language isn't really very difficult, the most difficult part is the first few months when the hearing part of your brain needs a little experience with this language's various sounds. Also, your brain starts to process the patterns, which are simple for Thai. After you learn a little bit of the language, you start to learn it faster and it becomes fun -- the more you learn, the easier each new increment gets.
Other websites cover the Thai language very well, and I'd rather not reinvent the wheel (though their teaching/learning style often differs from my own). Instead, I would like to just point out the main features of the Thai language, give some tips about learning the basics, and relate my experiences in learning Thai. After that general guidance, I list some websites and non-web resources to help you.
Thai language is easier to learn than European languages in these ways:
Thai language is more difficult to learn than European languages in these ways:
Most expats learn just basic spoken Thai, not written Thai. However, learning the alphabet and then being able to read new words I am learning has helped me to hear the words better as well as pronounce them more clearly. Sometimes, you can also see the root meaning in some new words, thereby helping to remember the word and linking it to your more general understanding of the language and culture.
Many expat men learn Thai by falling in love with a "long haired dictionary" and lovingly remembering every sound they express, both from phrase books and when out-and-about together. It's a good way, just copying them, and love certainly helps memory! (The chemical testosterone itself improves memory in both men and women.) It's best if you find a pleasant tutor who pronounces words fully and properly. I should admit that this was my first big jump forward in learning Thai, one particular lady with a radio quality voice, a penchant for being precise, and a gentle, lovely personality.
If it's an office or other high class lady arrangement, then the foreigner will learn a classier dialect. Otherwise, the foreigner may learn a lower status choice of words, phrases and pronounciations, especially if you learn from a bargirl. Like everywhere, your choice of language partially establishes your class and respectability.
Countless times, I have heard foreigners proudly exercising their learned Thai to other Thai people in a professional environment, but using crude "bargirl Thai" (some bargirls speak well but many do not). Imagine walking into an office on Wall Street and speaking street language from the lower part of town. Imagine a Thai executive coming up to you and saying "I ain't got no phone number for da big guy of Acme. Gimme it." There are also a lot of crude words, phrases and gestures. Further, there is a different accent for various parts of Thailand, and Thais may know where your pronounciation teacher came from.
If you use the Isaan (northeast) dialect, well, did you know that the vast majority of prostitutes come from Isaan, the dryest, most remote and poorest part of Thailand? Most prostitutes also have a 6th grade education or less, from a country school. This is not to judge prostitutes as bad, as I don't think that categorically, but if you want to speak Thai in an office environment and gain the respect of the highest number of people, then it's best to recognize the differences in regional dialects, including the bar microcosms. In Bangkok, your odds in smooth business are best when you speak central Thai.
That said, there is nothing wrong with speaking Isaan Thai, aka "Lao", just like if you turn up in any major city speaking with a country accent. I love traveling thru Isaan because the people are so nice and hospitable, it's reasonably safe, and it has many beautiful places.
You just may notice that many people from Isaan speak central Thai while in Bangkok, but then revert to their native dialect when they return home.
Thailand is a class conscious society much moreso than the West, and polite charm rather than assertiveness helps get one ahead, much moreso than dialect or mastery of the language. Thai is a politely spoken language in good business, and as there are different ways of saying the same thing in general social conversation, sensitive word choice and demeanor can make a difference in the course of things.
It's usually not a majorly significant factor if a foreigner of established position or skills speaks some bar Thai, or gets their Thai very wrong in word choice or grammar, as Thais will generally forgive non-native speakers and take it all in good humor. Nevertheless, it's at least enjoyable to be sensitive to all elements.
It is always recommended that you learn Thai from a formal school. However, realistically, in this busy and unpredictable world, what businessperson can schedule in regular classes? I never could and never did. However, I learned before the age of video calls and now there are online teachers. If I could go back and do it all again, then I would have started with an online or DVD course, and might hire a professional tutor who is patient and puts out effort to explain things in context, after I had learned a certain amount from the online or DVD course.
A good DVD course is the Rosetta Stone program.
One way to remember Thai words, especially if it's not convenient to see their spelling, is to picture something in your mind. For example, the word for "mirror" is "krajoke", so you might picture a crack/krack and then think of a broken mirror as bad luck and joke about the superstitious. Krack joke. Krajoke. Likewise, a vehicle like a car or bus is a "rote", so picture a "row" of cars in traffic. Row, rowt / rote.
Funny story: One day with my girlfriend in a mall, she saw a kangaroo with a baby in its pouch which was removable as a separate doll. The word for kangaroo is "jing-joe". I already knew that "true heart" was "jing jai" so I pictured the opposite, a guy named Joe hopping from lady to lady to remember "jing joe". So I joked "jing jai, mai chai jing joe" (true heart, not kangaroo). She laughed and told the story to many people. She circulated among some superstars, and less than a year later a popular Thai song came out which had a line that said "Jing jai mai chai jing joe" which was a hit! So I guess I made the nation laugh.
(I also made up a word "pu-ching" which did not previously exist in the Thai language. People ask what should we call a Thai transvestite, "him"/"pu chai" or "her"/"pu ying", so I just merged them as "pu-ching". However, this deliberate effort hasn't caught on, unlike the flippant joke.)
I found learning Thai to be fun, though challenging, and you should be patient, not trying to learn too much too quickly. I have noticed that attitude has made a big difference in others' success. If you enjoy analyzing alien writing and signs (especially funny advertisements), hearing new sounds, and piecing together sentences with new structures, without being shy (Thais are easygoing), then Thailand is a good playground for this kind of adventure.
A few simple notes which don't fit anywhere else:
Passively hearing a foreign language is easier than creatively speaking it. Thus, understanding Thai will be easier than speaking it. The same applies to Thais in hearing/speaking English.
Many Thais are shy about their English.
However, be careful about Thais who don't normally hear English. They will often pretend that they understand, and say "yes", when in fact they don't understand. This is a common problem in Thailand! Tip: Sometimes, you must speak slowly and clearly, and choose your words carefully, avoiding slang and sophisticated words.
Learning to Read Thai
As noted before, most foreigners who can speak Thai cannot read or write Thai at all. If you don't have time for classes, then you might want to follow my rather substandard way of learning to read Thai.
The written part I learned from reading my name written in Thai, Thai street signs, company names, and various other words whereby I knew the sound so I could start to figure out which letter made what sounds. That was supplemented by presenting some questions to Thai friends who explained some of the rules of Thai spelling & pronounciation.
I could read geographical signs (such as names of places on street signs) and many words and sentences before I knew many of the names of letters of the alphabet. It would be like an Asian knowing how to read/pronounce the word "gift" but not knowing the names of the letters -- "gee, i, ef, tee". In other words, I knew the sounds made by those letters, before I knew the names of the letters, e.g., like knowing "w" is pronounced "wwwww" in a word before knowing it is a "double-you".
Based on this, I can get around on transportation systems with no English, fill out basic forms with no English instructions, understand some basic instructions written in Thai, read a lot of signs, and be functional at about an elementary school level. Most enjoyably, I can see the roots/origins of many words. For example, the Thai word for "newspaper" is "nong-sue-pim" which literally means "book typed" (as I had already learned the words for book and typing). "Police" is spelled "tam druit" which means "do inspection" though it's pronounced "tal luit" which sounds like "do blood" (and how I originally remembered the word before seeing it spelled).
Many words are pronounced a little bit differently than they are spelled, but most words are pronounced exactly as spelled. However, it is important to know that some particular letters at the end of a word change their pronounciation dramatically, such as to an "n" or "t" sound.
The absence of space between words is not a big problem after you learn to read some Thai because you start to both recognize words and see the patterns of particular letters which tend to denote the endings and beginnings of words, as well as recognizing words in the stream. However, it's still not as easy as if there were spaces between the words.
(Thai is my fourth language, after Spanish and Russian, the latter a different alphabet but not a problem after a week. Reading a different alphabet has never been nearly as difficult as many people imagine. In Russian, some of the letters are the same as English in appearance but very different in pronounciation, e.g., P => R, y => u, C => S, B => V, H => N, and there is more potential for brain short circuiting in the cursive version ... In Thai, there's nothing like that -- all the letters are very different, and there's no cursive script.)
I get along well enough for my own purposes, but I recommend that you do better than me. I am very impressed by those rare expats who can do better than I do -- and relieved to not need to step up in handling communications tasks around us! These guys have almost invariably learned it formally. Therefore, I recommend you do so, too. However, don't go too far in formal education, because there are also many people who have been thru the books and classes to an extreme but still don't smoothly interact with Thais. You need to get social, sit back and absorb awhile by osmosis, and then try to get into the rhythm for speaking.
When you speak and read Thai well, it can become a burden when you are with expats who don't. It's fine if they enjoy dealing with the challenge and you don't mind just kicking back patiently with your time and let them flounder, quietly cringing from time to time. I have a difficult time letting others make mistakes without helping them with the solution, so it takes some self-control to tolerate. However, when you need to get business done, then there's no time to waste on fun and you must help them. Likewise, I need help -- I have professional translators in my office, and I can take one to my business meetings so that I don't miss anything.
The most pressing need to learn the written Thai language is just finding your way around. Many signs with geographical names do not have an English, "romanized" (A-Z) version. (If you can't read Thai, then you would be oblivious to this.) Sometimes, they are romanized but there are many different ways to romanize, for example:
Ram Indra = Raminthra
You can go down one expressway and see the romanized name of the same town or exit road spelled differently on different signs as you approach, but of course the Thai name is the exact same on every sign.
Of course, many don't have ANY English, especially when you go well outside of city centers.
There is no single standard set of rules for transliteration (i.e., romanization) of Thai into English, and vice versa, to the best of my knowledge. If there is, then not many people follow them. For example, different books on learning to speak Thai, written by language professionals, use different romanization systems (usually discussed at the beginning of the book). After reading one book, if you pick up another then you may need to learn a considerably different way to learn pronounciation by romanization.
It is better to just learn to read and right the Thai letters, and forget about romanization!! Think in Thai.
The ability to read Thai certainly helps in pronounciation, both correcting major mistakes as well as refining your pronounciation. After seeing how something is written in Thai, I have been able to hear a significantly different sound in Thais speaking the word, and after that I spoke so that I was better understood.
I don't recommend my 100% "osmosis" method of learning Thai, but if you're like me and you just don't have the time to formally learn Thai, then with a positive and fun-loving attitude you can still do it.
(But you won't learn much under the influence of alcohol. Try a nice tea or coffee instead.)
I previously had a lot of links to places to learn Thai, but many kept dieing and moving, so I've temporarily disabled them pending further review.
A Little History
Some people say that the Thai written language is only about 800 years old, but that's not true. Other written languages were in Thailand before that, but the first Thai king, Ramkhamhaeng, standardized the Thai alphabet by combining the alphabets of other languages of the time into a standard Thai alphabet. Thank Goodness there were phonetic alphabets in Thailand around that time, not Chinese!!
The Tai language group actually covers a large area which reaches up into southern China and Vietnam, and is geographically centered somewhere around Laos. Thai is actually a far southern part of this dialect, but developed into a standard written language by the historical Thai powers. Thai and Lao remain very close, with nearly identical alphabets. Khmer is significantly different, but you can see some things in common between a lot of the characters in their alphabets.
Once you learn Thai, you will be able to hear the different accents and dialects between central, southern, northeastern, and northwestern Thai. The written language is of course exactly the same. It's like the differences between British and American English.
We are very fortunate that Thai is a phonetic language, unlike Chinese. However, from my travels, I have sensed that people in countries which adopted A-z, i.e., "romanized" their language, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, may have an easier time switching between the two languages.
Of course, English is so widespread around the planet because European powers were the first to systematically establish colonies around the world, and then after World War 2 when European colonies started giving way to indigenous nationalist movements, the US had become a superpower in technology, business, culture (e.g., Hollywood), and of course politics. Then came computers and Microsoft...
Of course, it was the great Roman Empire which spread the phonetic alphabet of A-z widely, whereby other languages such as English adopted the alphabet of the Romans / Italians (should I italicise that for emphasis?). Rome started as a unique city of immigrants, originally a relatively poor part of Italy, but a melting pot with a mix of ideas and crafts, unlike richer cities who shunned immigrants, which seems to have a lot to do with Rome's eventual greatness (and America's).
The Roman alphabet was derived from the Greek cyrillic alphabet. (Notably, the cyrillic alphabet spread to Russia and other places, but you know how superpower Communism didn't get far...).
In turn, the Greek alphabet was derived from the first phonetic alphabet in the Mediterranean, which was Phonecian. Before that, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and maybe some other places had Chinese-like "logographic" writing which was difficult. Indeed, it was difficult to record knowledge and share it without quite a language education (and some allege that higher classes may have benefited from that to maintain their power).
When the Phonecians broke with tradition and created a phonetic alphabet, which everybody could learn quickly and easily, and use in business and education, it was very empowering and popular with the people. That was more than 3000 years ago. Phonecia was a network of city-states around the Mediterranean Sea, spanning a large geographical area. They were master traders and maritime explorers, and a mainly peaceful society, reigning between around 2300 and 3500 years ago. Without easy to learn phonetic writing, things could have developed much differently.
"Phonecian" => "phonetic" -- something to think about the next time you thumb type on your mobile telephonecian.
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