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 and how it operates.
Limitations of Machine Translations
Some people try to rely on a machine translation, but thus far they continue to be very poor (still as of 2022 as I'm updating this article), between European and Asian languages. The roots of words, the structures of the languages, the idioms, etc., make translating between languages from distant parts of the world quite different from languages all in Europe. There is also the very different Thai alphabet.
A machine language translation may look pretty on the screen, but that doesn't mean it's good in meaning.
I've seen more than 20 years of hype and click bait 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. Machine translations are fine for many quick and casual things, but for anything professional, you really should use a human translator. For better understanding the culture and how Thais think, overreliance on machine translators without trying seriously to learn Thai can be a trap.
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... This one was somewhat funny, but there are much worse misunderstandings which have happened both socially and in business.
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.
If you must rely on a machine translation to send a message to somebody else, then choose your words and phrases carefully for their literal meanings, avoid idioms and slang, and start it with something like "This is a translation from English to Thai translated by a computer, not Thai language typed by a Thai person. I hope the translation by computer is correct."
Thai started off as my 4th language. Like others, it was most difficult at the beginning, but the more I learned, the easier it got to learn additional over time. It takes a little while for the brain to process the new patterns. Learning a foreign language and culture is fun for me. If it's not fun for you, then it may be better for you to turn to other endeavors in life, because when something isn't fun, it becomes much more difficult and tedious, and usually people don't perform well.
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, menus, forms, and other things, and an occasional book teaching Thai (one with cassette tapes to hear it -- if you're old enough to remember cassette tapes). I wish I had done differently from the start. For years, I thought I would be departing Thailand before long, so I didn't invest too much into learning the language at first. You might want to consider likewise.
In current times, there are YouTube channels and very well prepared DVD courses like Rosetta Stone.
Once you've learned the basics, you can practice Thai with a native speaker by Skype or other video call service. However, I recommend you first study the basics by other means.
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.
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 and tones. 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. Also, emotions tend to etch memories strongly.) 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.
Many foreigners have spoken the Isaan (northeast) dialect, in word choice, accent, and demeanor, simply because that is the source of the largest proportion of ladies seeking out relationships with foreign men for financial support. Isaan the dryest and poorest part of Thailand. I like the people in the Isaan region because they are so nice and hospitable. However, many of the more highly educated ladies and gentlemen from there learn to speak the central dialect in professional and high social circles, even though they may speak Isaan back home. On the other hand, many prostitutes speak a lot more Isaan in their social circles, and the bars and areas of prostitution have a disproportionately high percentage of ladies from Isaan. Many have a 6th grade education or less, from a country school, and most don't have a high education. 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 level and larger numbers 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 (as I did in my home country, arriving to the Washington, D.C., area with an Arkansas accent, though I did get a lot of chuckles and parroting from colleagues at first ... until I adjusted my accent).
I love traveling thru Isaan because the nice people, it's reasonably safe, and it has many beautiful places. The people there appreciate when I try to speak Isaan.
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.
It is my strong perception that Thailand is a much more class conscious society than my native country, the US, and I think more than most western countries. However, polite charm rather than assertiveness also helps get one ahead in Thailand, 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. 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 over the internet via video call 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 foreign guy in Thailand 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 transgender, "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. Still haven't heard puching used in the Thai language. Maybe it's too sensitive and political a word.)
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 King Ramkhamhaeng standardized the Thai alphabet at that time by combining the alphabets of local written languages into one standard alphabet which is the basis of the current alphabet. Thank Goodness there were phonetic alphabets in Thailand around that time, not Chinese logographic standards!!
The word Thai comes from Tai people who migrated down from a region of what's now southern China, Vietnam, and Lao, and filled in the political vacuum after the collapse of the Khmer kingdom which had previously controlled much of Thailand. However, the Tai people did not just bring in their written language. Instead, they merged their language with the indigenous language in Thailand, and adopted the phonetic alphabets which already existed in the area now called Thailand.
For example, many words which give the honorable title to a politically high level person come from the Tai language, because the Tais basically took over much of the political administration of Thailand after the Khmer collapse. However, it's beyond the scope of this article to go into much more detail about which words have what origins. Suffice it to say that Thai is a merge of languages, but took the name of the Tais who migrated into Thailand from a part of the planet just northeast of Thailand, with the biggest waves of migration probably starting around the collapse of Khmer power.
Before King Ramkhamhaeng standardized the Thai written alphabet, there was more than one phonetic written language which had been used over the previous centuries, including the Khmer language. These were imported from India. The Khmers were Hindu, but Buddhist texts had also come from India going way back. King Ramkhamhaeng merged sanskrit-derived alphabetical characters with pali-derived ones, and trimmed down the total number of characters.
The Tai language group actually covers a large area which still reaches up into southern China, all of Lao, and Vietnam. Thai is actually a far southern dialect of the Tai language, but developed into a standard written language by the historical Thai powers, then this written version moved back up north as a phonetic alphabet. I've heard that there are even places in southern China with Thai writing (but I've never been to that part of China). Thai and Lao remain very close, with nearly identical alphabets. Khmer is significantly different, but you can see many things in common between a lot of the characters in their alphabets. The Lao people round their characters (and are a culture of soft, gentle people), whereas Thai characters are sharper. They are largely derived from an older version of the Khmer alphabet, which has gone its own way in design modifications since that time.
However, to say that Thai is a southern dialect of Tai would be very incomplete oversimplification. Thai is actually a merge of languages which took on the name "Thai". There are many Tai words and phrases in Thai, but it's not like the Tai language just came in and replaced the indigenous language. They merged. Many words in the current "Thai" language have Indian, Mon, and other origins.
Buddhist temples served as education centers for local people, including teaching people how to write, in a decentralized way. Old traders and explorers from around the world reported relatively high literacy in Thailand and some other parts of Southeast Asia, with some current academics claiming it might even have been higher as a percent of population than much of Europe up until maybe the 1700s.
I have looked up the roots of various words, and read academic studies of the languages, but this is far beyond the scope of this article. However, it's worth mentioning that the Tai people spread all the way into northeastern India and brought their language there many centuries ago, and though they got overwhelmed over the centuries. They also spread into more nearby northern Myanmar with substantial influence. They tended to settle into a lot of mountain valleys so they should not be confused with hilltribe people in Thailand, who are of a different ethnicity and have a very different language.
There were actually multiple kingdoms run by Tai descended rulers in what is currently the territory of Thailand, but eventually these became more closely allied and merged, a very long story, and the country was called Siam. After the nation switched to a constitutional monarchy in 1932 the government changed the name of the country to Thailand.
There were multiple dialects of Thai, and variations of alphabet, some highly variant, but in the 1800s due to the pressures of western colonial powers along the borders, the Thai government, by necessity for strong nation building, suddenly standardized the Thai language to central Thai and enforced the central alphabet and dialect upon the entire country. This was quite some feat.
You may see the similarities to England and English. The name England comes from "land of the Angles" whereby the Angles were migrants from what's presently an area around the border of Germany and Denmark, but what was called "Anglia" at the time, who sailed to Britain in large numbers, and despite their initial minority status, eventually established themselves politically in what's now a large country (England is of course part of the United Kingdom) and language named after them, even though the English language is actually a mix of multiple languages and uses the Roman alphabet. The Angles moved in after the Roman Empire was in collapse and the Roman army departed, similar to how the Tais moved into Thailand after the collapse of the Khmers. So, the Tai people and English people have some similarities.
The standardization to central Thai is a relatively recent phenomenon. Though the standard alphabet is now long established, there are still some regional variations in words used informally, and accents.
Once you learn Thai fairly well so that your brain processes the sounds with familiarity, you will be able to hear the different accents and dialects between central, southern, northeastern, and northwestern Thai. It's like the differences between British and American English, and the variations of English accents and language usage within the UK and within the US.
A Bigger Picture of Languages
When I first came to Asia and traveled around, I found that Thais could not speak English as well as people in some other countries in Thailand where the language had been romanized, i.e., they used an A-z alphabet instead of their own indigenous alphabet, such as Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam. I think that those people may have an easier time switching between English and their own language because of the alphabet shared between them.
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, Microsoft, and then the intenret...
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?). Some other alphabets were replaced, such as Runes in Europe, with the same words being spelled in A-z.
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. The Phonecian alphabet was adopted by many languages. 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.
Professional Language Services
There are service providers who offer one-on-one Thai classes via Skype and other video chat services.
One of many is a good place called the Thai Language Hut, which last I heard was still 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.
Back in 2002, I started a professional Thai translator and interpreter division, at ThaiEnglish.com . It did fairly well as a business, so I expanded it with my team. I had other things I was also focused on, so I eventually turned it over to a close expat business partner who had been running it day to day and doing a very good job, and he ran it for more than 10 years, until he eventually returned to his native New Zealand shortly before COVID arose, and currently has no plans to come back. I'm looking to retire. Our website is still up, but I am looking for somebody who might be interested in taking over that business or buying it up. We have lots of standard operating procedures and best practices, translation templates for many kinds of government documents, and guidance on how to run this business.
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