My very first contact with Thai nationals happened years ago during an internship in the United States. For a year we worked side-by-side on a small international team with three Thais and everyone adored them: they were kind, witty and welcoming people. However, a tiny issue dogged them like a shadow: most of the time no one could comprehend much of what they were saying! Being a linguist with a few languages under my belt, I was nevertheless shocked by my Thai colleagues’ spoken English skills. Though their written expressions were almost perfect, when they opened their mouths their English magically turned into a cryptic language similar to the one made up by J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Two problems arise when talking to Thais in English. One is the accent dilemma, as most locals apply Thai rules when pronouncing English, and the other is a vast difference in grammar and sentence structure.
Some of us who’ve settled in Thailand have learned to break into those insights and have adapted accordingly. But I’ve discovered that in order to avoid comical and frustrating scenarios most English-language native speakers could well benefit from a few language tips. As an English-language teacher here for about two years before becoming a writer I quickly identified a couple of problem areas.
‘Thaiglish’ pronunciation – when you don’t understand what’s being said:
My English students were all adults, typically placed into one of three groups: Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. Yet, I quickly learned that pronunciation was a problem of the same intensity at all levels. In fact, I found that it was easier to teach beginners how to speak properly than it was to correct those who were already fairly fluent – old habits die hard…
But there was no way around it, so with patience worthy of an army officer, I created entire classes focused on pronunciation practice. Initially dreaded by my students, those classes quickly became rewarding little niches full of fun and laughter – and surprisingly, they turned out as valuable for me in my own study of Thai.
You see, in Thai there are sounds that come about by joining consonants we know. Not only there are d’s and t’s but there are also their combinations of /dt/, there are p’s and b’s but also a mix: /bp/ and so on. Furthermore, there is an array of sounds that don’t get pronounced at the end of words – following a (Thai) rule that makes all t’s, d’s, n’s, and s’s almost silent. When applied to English, as we all know, this creates linguistic chaos.
Imagine that what’s in brackets in the words below isn’t pronounced but that those exact words are indeed being referred to:
Wi(ne), wi(fe), whi(te), sou(nd), tow(n), smi(le), hou(se), ki(nd)
Basically, most of the time, while you don’t quite understand what your smiling waiter is saying, it’s safe to assume he is ‘swallowing’ the second half of words. So in pursuing clarity, slow down and repeat the key one(s) while accentuating their second half (“You mean, how is my wiNe or my wiFe?”). Also, spelling important words out often helps. As I’ve already mentioned, Thais’ pronunciation conceals their knowledge and, unless beginners, they tend to read and write with more understanding than you would assume.
Proper English – when you are the one who’s being misunderstood.
Ever asked for a knife at a Thai restaurant but got a napkin instead? It can be frustrating indeed… But each time you are misunderstood by a local, there are things you could’ve done to prevent that from happening.
Firstly, although its alphabet is complex, thankfully Thai is a language with a simple sentence structure made up of subject-verb-object or an adverb. There are no articles, no tenses, and no plurals.
In reality, if you’re having an important conversation with a local and measurement of some sorts is a crucial piece of information, I would suggest that you double- and triple-check that you really understand one another. For example, if a Thai colleague tells you: “I go to Phuket Tow(n) with my frien(d)”, it theoretically remains unclear whether they’re referring to a single or several friends. Not only that, but this may be an invitation to go with them (tonight, tomorrow, next week) or simply a sharing that the event has already taken place.
Some of those parameters may naturally reveal themselves through the context of the entire conversation and this is often the case. But when talking about quantity, however, I always accentuate TWO menus or FIVE plates, and when talking about time I make sure my todays, yesterdays and tomorrows are clear as crystal as well.
Furthermore, expressing politeness in these two languages is as different as night and day. While Thais add a polite ka/krab at the end of every single sentence, in addition to frequently smiling, wai-ing and nodding, in English we use long strings of words to express the same notion. But if we know that, in Thai, these points are achieved quickly, it is no surprise that expressions such as, “Would you be so kind as to…” or “Do you think we could possibly…?” are met with blank stares. All those words without even reaching the key one? Quite a challenge!
In the end I wish you good luck and great experiences in The Land of Smiles. A knack for languages is a good talent to have, I’ll admit; but I also know that even the smallest of efforts to expand our communication skills is often vastly rewarding. Try adapting your English a bit while here and see what happens. It’ll often be for the good.