Life As An Expat in Bangkok – Part 3: Language

funny thai bathroom sign

When I moved to Bangkok, I was already armed with a few Thai words acquired from previous visits, but I quickly learned that it is difficult to communicate with a vocabulary of hello, thank you, shrimp, and elephant. In order to get by in my new country, I started learning Thai so I could order at restaurants, buy bus tickets, and bribe the police – you know, the essentials. 

I started learning Thai at the most obvious spot: the alphabet. In case you don’t know want Thai writing looks like, here is a sample:

thai-writing

The first letter in the alphabet is ก and it makes a G sound. Like A for Apple, each Thai letter has a corresponding word. For ก is it gai, or chicken, and it is spelled like this: ไก่. It is two letters. It took me about a week to learn it.

After I learned ก, I started to tackle the other 44 consonants. It was slow going. I found myself constantly staring at signs and billboards trying to sound out words and make sense of the exotic Thai squiggles. This accomplished very little, other than making my head hurt very badly.

My wife also threw herself into learning the script, and one night I heard her shout out from the other room, “Holy $%^& I just read CHICKEN!” It was a minor victory, but I understood her joy.

Thai language

Like A for Apple, each Thai letter has an associated word. There are 44 consonants and no one seems to know how many vowels.

Even though I can’t speak much Thai, I can write my letters very well. My handwriting in English is so bad I can’t even read it; my Thai writing is a work of art. At some informal restaurants and busy street stalls, patrons write their order on a piece of paper and give it to the waiter. I love these places because I can show off my beautiful Thai writing. At a food stall near our house, the owner was amazed, “You write pretty!” she said in amazement. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what she said – my wife had to translate.

At the dentist office I asked for paper so I could write my address. I didn’t know if I’d be able to talk to the taxi driver after having my wisdom teeth ripped from my jaw pulled. “I can write it in Thai for you,” said the kind receptionist. “Oh, I can write in Thai,” I said with an air of indignation. I showed her my writing after I was finished and she started clapping like a proud teacher.

Visiting home I showed my precocious 9-year-old niece how to write her name in Thai. [See Footnote 1] She was immediately fascinated, wanting to learn how to write other words. I started teaching her and within an hour she knew all the words it too me three months to learn.

“Uncle Jeff, why are all Thai words so short?” she asked.

“Well, they aren’t. I only know how to spell short words,” I said glumly.

Once I started speakingThai, like most expats the first words I learned were “Taxi Thai.” We live off of a main road called Ramkamhaeng, and it is quite magical to get in a taxi anywhere in this metropolis of 13 million people and say the nonsensical phrase “Rom Kom Hang Roy Sip Song” and be taken to within a half mile of our house. From there, I can move the car by using my voice. I say dtrong pie and the driver goes forward; I say long saphan leo sigh and he turns left after the bridge; I say yute tee NEE and he stops. It is like a form of Jedi mind control.

As I have learned more and more Thai, it has actually made communication more difficult. On the rare occasion I actually produce a coherent sentence and pronounce everything correctly, the people respond in rapid-fire Thai and I am exposed as a fraud. Moreover, when people say something I don’t understand, I accidentally revert to Spanish, saying “Como?” or “Otra Vez” or “Repita por favor.” As you can imagine, Spanish doesn’t get you very far in Southeast Asia.

Thai sign

I like to walk around non-touristy areas with my camera, and there are three words I always overhear:

  1.  ฝรั่ง – Farang – Foreigner
  2. ถ่ายรูป – Tai-roop – Photo
  3.  แมว – Maeow – Cat

I hear locals say farang not in a bad way, just in a surprised way. Like, “Hey, there is a foreigner in our neighborhood. That is unusual.”

I overhear hear them say tai-roop as they talk to each other. They see a sweaty pale man taking photos in their neighborhood and are amused and maybe confused. Sometimes I hear tai-roop and look over to see a local striking a pose with a silly face while flashing peace signs because that is what Thai people do.

The other word I hear is maeow, the Thai word for cat that sounds like “meow.” This is my favorite Thai word. [See Footnote 2] I am always stopping to photograph cats. I reward them with tummy rubs and chin scratches. Locals think this is hilarous. When I snap cat photos, I often hear farang, tai-roop, and maeow all in the same sentence.

I have been in Thailand about 12 months in total, and I am embarrased that my language skills are not better. I try to speak Thai, and I know the locals really appreciate the effort, but I can’t have any sort of meaningful conversation. If I keep plugging away I am sure I’ll get there eventually. Until then, I’ll continue to get by with simple words mixed with hand signals and a dash of Spanish.

_____

[Footnote 1] I realize that everyone thinks their 9-year-old niece is precocious, but mine really is. I am not biased – I have 10 nieces, some are precocious, others not so much.

[Footnote 2] My other favorite Thai words are:

  • Tung Tao – Sock – translates to “foot sack.”
  • Nam Pung – Honey – translates to “bee water”
  • Maeow Nam – Seal – translates to “water cat”

Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language? 


If you would like to learn Thai, here are few great internet resources:

46 Comments on “Life As An Expat in Bangkok – Part 3: Language

  1. I remember the posts about your Spanish, haha. I think I would have to use a translation app! The only words I ever seem to learn are the swears!

    • I learned the swears in Spanish but not yet in Thai, although I know that to call someone a “monitor lizard” is really bad. I don’t know how to say it in Thai, but I got in a very rare argument the other day and could have used a few local cuss words!

  2. Cats, everyone in Southeast Asia loves cats (myself included, half my pictures are easily of stray cats easily). As for Thai, I think the hardest thing is how they say their words, I was always laughed at if I didn’t excentuate the word in the proper way. I also love that I’m not the only one that starts spewing Spanish when I can’t think of the right word haha. I personally speak a Spanglenisian, Spanish-English-Indonesian. Great post!

    • Yes, the tones are the hardest part of Thai, but I didn’t have time to get into that! Near and far are both “glai” but with different tones. How messed up is that?

      We have a neighbor that feeds all the cats. We call it “cat street” because there are dozens of friendly cats there. Anytime I need a kitty, I just to there.

      Spanglenisian sounds like a good language to know. Maybe it can be officially recognized someday.

      • Wow, damn Thais and their “glai.” Hopefully you have good vision, otherwise if someone asks if you’re near or far-sighted a real bit of confusion could ensue.

        It should be in the running to be a real language. A common example of my sentences is: “I went to the pasar minggu… ayer…”

      • “I went to the pasar minggu… ayer…” I love it. Sometimes we do it as a joke, sometimes on accident!

    • Thank you for the good grades. Maybe when I get back next year I’ll graduate to having a basic conversation!

  3. Jeff, I am impressed you are doing so well the language, both speaking it & writing it. I think I would find it so overwhelming!

    • I may have given the wrong impression! My speaking is terrible, but yes, my writing is beautiful 🙂

      It is overwhelming, mainly because there are not many similar words. With other European languages there are at least many borrowed words but not with Thai!

  4. My master’s is in Linguistics, with a specialty in second language acquisition, and I speak 3 languages other than English (all European), but I cannot fathom learning a language like Thai! I suppose if I were thrust into it, I’d do OK, but I think it’s great you are making the effort and having some success, even if you think it’s minimal. My favorite observation of yours was that when you speak just enough of a language to convince your listener that you might know it, back comes a string of words that you have no hope of comprehending! Happens to me all the time – even in languages I think I know well!

    • The lack of shared words is a big problem. When I learned Spanish, for example, every word that ends in -tion in English like information, is the same in Spanish but with a -cion. Right there, I have dozens of words that I already know. In Thai, every new word is an adventure!

      I bet with your background in languages that you’d pick it up fairly quickly. The biggest thing holding me back is that I work from home and use English, so I don’t have much interaction during the day. My wife is much better at Thai than I am. The other thing holding me back is my IQ and effort 🙂

  5. I often default to Spanish, too, when I am traveling in a foreign country and don’t speak the language. Funny how that works! I admire your efforts at even trying to learn Thai. I am sure it is crazy difficult. Any guess as to why your English handwriting is so bad, and your Thai is so good?

    • I think my Thai writing is good because I write it very slowly and precisely. It is a beautiful written language with little circles on most letters. In English, I write too quickly and it is sloppy like a doctor’s signature.

      I assume Spanish was the first foreign language you learned? I am getting better at saying Mai Kao Jai or cha cha kap instead of ?como? but it is slow going!

  6. Another excellent post Jeff. I am so seriously impressed that you learned the script! And in only three months. We had the same way in Mexico to get taxi drivers to take us home – only in Spanish of course. I understand the Spanish words arising – now when I try to say anything in French half of it comes out in Spanish. Oh and I learned a new Spanish word – repeta. Very useful. And not enough can be said about the cat photo – brilliant!
    Alison

    • I have probably said “repita por favor” more than any other Spanish phrase! I recently read that when learning difficult things, it can lead to greater retention because your mind has to work harder, and I think that has been true with the script. I am not very good at all in Thai, but I can sound out the words. Of course, I have no idea what 99% of them mean, but I can sound it out!

      That was a fun moment with the cat. The cleaning lady was getting attacked on all sides by cats, so she stopped and started playing with them. We were both laughing so hard.

  7. My Vietnamese is still terrible, and I don’t even have a new alphabet to learn. There is at least one similarity with Thai, though – the Vietnamese word for cat is “meo.”

    • I’m headed to Vietnam next week, so I will be armed with at least one word now – meo! Thai has 5 tones, but Vietnamese has even more tones, right? If your Vietnamese is so terrible, how do you get those amazing portraits of locals? Everyone seems so relaxed in those photos.

      • Yep, there are six tones in Vietnamese (annoyingly). When I’m taking portraits, I tend to rely on my very basic Vietnamese, and just being open and friendly – I always aim for a “harmless eccentric” kind of vibe. It helps if I’m in the right mood as well – if I’m not feeling relaxed, then it just doesn’t happen.

  8. I am in awe of what you have learned in 12 months. I’d probably still be tripping over *hello* and *thank you*.

    I had to laugh at the card with the 44 consonants on it. It didn’t help me at all because I couldn’t figure out what most the pictures were!
    I guess precocious I’m not 😉

    • I may have oversold how much I’ve learned! I am not very good at all. There are 44 consonants, and at least 14 vowels but I’m not sure. With that many consonants, many of them make the same sound which is annoying!

      • Your brain is accumulating critical mass and one day it will gel together … at least that’s the concept 🙂

  9. I guess the fact that Thai is a tonal language makes it harder to learn than other Southeast Asian languages (notably Indonesian, Malay, and Tagalog). Anyway, a progress is a progress, Jeff. Maybe soon enough you’ll encounter that moment when your Thai will improve significantly afterward. Just keep practicing, and make as many local (human) friends as possible.

    • I do need to make more human friends! I work from home right now using English so I don’t have a lot of interaction. I need to work on that.

      How did you learn English? Did you teach yourself?

      • My father made me take an English course when I was still in elementary school. But it was not until a few years later when we moved to another city and met this really talented English teacher that my understanding of the language grew more quickly. Apart from that I grew up watching American TV series and movies, which helped me learn how to use English in daily conversation. But as is the case with other languages, you have to keep practicing.

  10. Very impressive that you have learned to write Thai letters. Perhaps I should have started my son off with these as his penmanship in English is a disaster. I love that first image of the toilet do/don’t. I saw a few other toilet etiquette images in Cambodia that for the life of me I couldn’t decipher. I’ll eventually get to posting these. This was yet another entertaining post Jeff.

    • Based on the comments and our personal experiences, this sounds like a common thing, which makes sense I guess. I don’t see him often, but there is a toothless crazy man in the area who speaks Spanish to me. I can practice with him to keep up those skills!

  11. It’s a lot of fun to read, but I know how difficult it is to learn a new language. Good luck in learning it is worth a lot of effort.

  12. I really love your posts Jeff! Keep em coming. I most specially LOL’ed at the “reverting to Spanish words” one. Learning to speak a new language is fun and challenging for me (not that I know more than three. my Spanish at best is very primitive). Learning to WRITE is another story specially when they do not involve the traditional letters. Hats off to you!

    • I have learned that I am not alone in reverting to Spanish, or the first 2nd language I know. It seems like a natural reflex!

  13. I did the same for Hindi years ago. I could write and read the script – very slowly, pick up a few snippets of conversation, order food and groceries in the market. But have a proper conversation – forget it! Now in Chiang Mai and kicking myself I didn’t at least learn numbers for prices of goods in the market. I fare a little better in Malaysia/Indonesia but mostly it’s English and hand signals for me.

    • For some reason, I haven’t learned the Thai numbers yet! I need to do that for markets and to avoid ripoffs! Hindi script is so pretty, like Thai. I love how those look!

  14. Loved the cat action shot! Always great to learn the lingo and don’t be too hard on yourself! Spot on with the way you have to adjust your smile once you get the fast replies; where you feel like you’ve been caught in a lie in regards to how well you can speak the language! Haha, brilliant 🙂

    • The cat shot is one of my favorite’s too. I’ve been gone all summer so I am dreading restarting my Thai speaking – it will be bad!

      • The shot reminded me of that perfectly timed photos website 😀 I’m sure you’ll settle back into the lingo in no time! All the best

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