Here’s an experience you may be able to relate to:
After months of grilling, you decide to test your polite classroom Thai taught by your lovely Thai teacher.
Where’s a good place to start? A cafe perhaps.
How difficult could it be ordering a sandwich in Thai? Should be easy, you assume.
A waitress walks to your table. You clear your throat, ready to prove yourself.
“Ph…ph…phom aow neung sandwich kup…” She giggles. But clearly, she understands what you said and scribbles down the order.
Then she asks, “ao krʉâng dʉ̀ʉm arai ká?” You freeze.
“Errr…phom…phom…” Quick! Say something in Thai…anything!
“WAT DRINGG YUU WANN???” Says the waitress with a smirk on her face.
Thai Waitress 1 – 0 Farang
What went wrong?
What happened to those months of Thai classes?
1. Lack Of Exposure
Thais have low tolerance for foreign accents. It’s not intentional, but the Thai government does not promote regional dialects, so Thais have very low exposure to different accents.
If you speak to them with a thick accent, many will just shut down and everything you say will sound like white noise to them.
In most cases, you need to have acceptably comprehensible pronunciation to initiate a decent conversation with a Thai person.
2. Consider The Status Of That Person
People from different backgrounds will react differently to how you speak Thai.
It’s generally easier to talk in Thai to the working class, such as street vendors or taxi drivers as their English is limited and they are quite positive about foreigners making an effort to learn their language.
It is however, harder with educated Thais or those of the middle or upper class who can speak English reasonably well. It may also be because they see this as an opportunity to practice their English, or those who already speak English confidently may see it as a sign of defeat if they speak Thai to a foreigner.
With this group, you need to be straight with them that you want to improve your Thai. Just ask politely if they could speak Thai with you. If they’re still adamant about it, work out a 50-50 Thai and English deal. But if they’re stubborn enough to refuse your request, you may just have to give it a pass or find new friends!
Having mentioned all of the above, it’s probably better to start by chatting with street vendors or taxi drivers first. This will help to improve your listening skills and pronunciation before talking to more educated Thais.
Speaking of pronunciation…
3. Good Pronunciation Is Almost EVERYTHING
Good pronunciation will get you t-shirts at MBK for 199 baht versus the 500 baht farang price.
Record yourself speaking Thai and compare it with the way Thai people speak. It will help to iron out the kinks in your pronunciation.
4. Improve Your Listening Skills
If you don’t understand what Thai people are saying, don’t expect them to speak Thai to you, especially if they can speak English.
Whenever possible, get your Thai teacher to speak Thai to you the natural way. In most cases, you’ll realise that how they talk to one another is often very different from what you learn from the textbook.
Take a step further and immerse yourself in the language by watching Thai movies or TV programmes. Even if you don’t understand anything, it would at least help you get used to the way the Thai language sounds.
5. Find A Thai Speaking Buddy
Most thai language schools are only given 1-3 hours of your time per lesson to teach you how to speak correctly. Unless you spend all your time in school, no school can control what you do during those 21-23 hours outside class.
Think of it as going to a gym to lose weight. 2 hours of hard exercise isn’t going to make you lose weight instantly. It just doesn’t stop after the workout. You need to follow up by eating the right food and getting lots of rest. The same goes to learning Thai.
You need to PRACTICE speaking Thai outside school and the best way to do it is with Thai friends you don’t feel shy speaking Thai to.
Make sure these friends can help correct your pronunciation without making you embarrassed.
6. Learn How To Read
Not all schools teach reading from the first day for a very good reason, and that’s not a problem.
Once you’re able to converse in Thai however, you should learn how to read in order to get the exact pronunciation of all the consonants, vowels, and tones.
Transliteration is a kick-starter to help build your vocabulary quickly, but for a better understanding of Thai pronunciation, move on to the next level and learn how to read.
BONUS: 6 Problem-Solving Tools
Learn these essential phrases that will help you solve communication breakdowns.
1. “Pûut ìiktii dâai mái?”
“Can you say that again?”
2. “Pûut cháa cháa nɔ̀i.”
“Speak slowly please.”
These 2 phrases will come to your rescue when you can’t catch what Thai people are saying. Use them instead of going speechless on the spot.
Or try this for a quick response:
3. “Arai ná?”
Make sure you say it softly and politely though, or it could come across as slightly rude.
Or try this if you don’t understand a particular word used in a sentence:
4. “___ kʉʉ arai?”
“What is ___?”
Use it when you don’t understand the meaning of something, like an object or a single entity.
But if you don’t understand a whole sentence or a phrase, try this:
5. “___ mǎaikwaam wâa arai?“
“What does ___ mean?”
Pro Tip: Now here’s a sneaky one. You could also say “mǎaikwaam wâa arai?” or even “mǎaikwaam wâa…?” on its own, and it would translate to “what are you trying to say?”
It’d sound like you sort of understand, but the person talking to you isn’t clear enough. Use this if you want to look or sound smart while actually not understanding much or anything at all!
Last but not least, here’s a phrase that will help build your vocabulary. It’s not for face-saving, but it will certainly help add more Thai words to your basket.
6. ___ paasǎatai pûut wâa yang-ngai?
“How do you say ___ in Thai?”
If you demonstrate to Thais that you can communicate independently despite knowing very little, you’ll eventually gain their trust and they will stop patronising you by switching to English. Do understand however, that it is usually out of good intentions to help you through communication dead-ends. But of course, that doesn’t always help to improve your Thai.
So, how to get Thai people to speak Thai to you?
Focus on acquiring good pronunciation and explain to Thai people that you want to speak Thai as much as possible. Try solving communication problems independently using all the phrases above. It would make it clear to the people around you, be it your lover, friends, colleagues or strangers, that you need their help in your new linguistic journey. Who can refuse such an honest plea like this?