While you can definitely enjoy your Thailand trip speaking only English, you’ll be infinitely rewarded for learning just a few words in Thai. Unlike in many parts of Asia, Thais will expect you learn at least hello and thank you in their language. It’s the least you can do for a perfect vacation, right?
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Learning Thai before your trip
Learn Thai Podcast is a downloadable series of videos, MP3s and PDF Thai language lessons that I use myself, and highly recommend. There’s a free version for basic ‘holiday’ Thai and a paid course if you have any hope of ever holding a conversation. I’m just over a year into using the paid version and have nothing but praise for it. As outlined below, Thai is not a language you can just “pick up”. Believe me, I had ten years of optimistic laziness before I gave in to actual effort with language lessons.
Lonely Planet’s Thai phrasebook ranks #1 on Amazon for learning Thai (and, very strangely, often #2 for learning Vietnamese). If you’re a visual learner, this book is helpful to have words and phrases to look at while asking Thai speakers for pronunciation.
Any efforts to learn a word or two of Thai will pay off. Again, unlike many parts of Asia, Thais will be far happier to teach you their language than pester for English tips.
How does the Thai language work?
1. No Latin alphabet
There’s no standard method to write Thai words in the Latin alphabet. (Whereas Chinese has ‘pinyin’, for example). So you might see ‘sawasdee’ (hello) written any number of ways. Where popular sites and places do have standard ‘English’ spellings, they can add even greater confusion. For example, Bangkok’s Airport, BKK, is written Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport. Yet ‘Suvarnabhumi’ is pronounced more like ‘Sawannaboom’.
You actually can’t win so, when you learn a new Thai word, just write down how it sounds to you.
2. Remember your French?
Just like French, Thai pronouns are selected by gender. (However, the speaker and subject’s relative status are considered, too).
3. Good news – No conjugation!
Verbs aren’t conjugated in Thai. Instead, the sentence gives context to the tense. (E.g. the words ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ would indicate past or future tense). This makes it an easy language to learn to speak badly!
4. Bad news – Thai has 5 tones!
Thai has five tones, making the language one tone harder to learn than Mandarin. (Consider it the pay-back for lack of verb conjugation). Pronunciation will be your Everest…
Your first time to Thailand?
To start off on the right foot (fully aware of what ‘the wrong foot’ can entail), easily arrive a savvy cultural expert:
- Etiquette: How to be the rudest tourist in Thailand
- Dress code: How to prepare for Thailand
- Travel tips: Packing, culture and more