Why I learnt Thai and why you should too!

Why I started

Mid last year after being in Bangkok for almost a year I decided that I should finally enrol myself in a Thai language course and really start to improve my language skills.  I’d been putting off enrolling in a course because I never really knew how long I’d be in Thailand for, partly also why we haven’t quite got around to getting a more comfortable couch for our apartment (We will soon!).  But after repeatedly talking to people who’d been in Thailand for 3, 6, and even 13 years in one case and they hadn’t learnt much Thai yet partly because they also never really knew how long they would be staying and also because they found it easy to avoid the need to speak Thai.

For me though, I never felt comfortable not being able to ask simple questions, or make myself understood.  I prefer to eat on the street, go to those places that many foreigners don’t venture and I want to be able to get to know people on a different level.  I felt to be able to do that in a way that was going to be meaningful for me, that I need to start my journey of learning the Thai language.

So I enrolled in two months of full time classes and improved pretty quickly.  I managed to understand the tones,  form simple sentences and slowly build up my vocabulary.  But after two months of full time studying and volunteering I was getting a bit worn out and needed a break.    What was meant to be a one month break has sadly crept into 4.5 months,  but 4.5 months filled with making my first reservation in Thai, ordering food in Thai,  chatting with Taxi drivers about where they are from, and many more experiences I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t take the leap.   I am in no way fluent in Thai, not even close but I definitely understand a lot more than before.   I’m going to make an effort over the next six months to continue to improve, potentially sign up for some night classes (now I’m working full time).

Why you should start

Reason 1: Excited smiles
Even trying to speak a little Thai will often be greeted with a huge smile from the Thai person you are speaking to, generally followed by “Phuut Thai Daay” (You can speak Thai).   Thai people know that their language can be hard to learn, especially the tones, so they seem to be genuinely happy when you make an effort to speak Thai.   I think even if you are coming for a short trip to Thailand, then pick up a phrase book, watch a few You Tube videos (Thai with Mod is a great channel) and make the effort.   It’s not only a sign of respect  but just knowing a few phrases will elicit a smile.   Everyone loves to be smiled at – it makes me happy and them.

Ice cream shop, petchaburi

Kristal with the friendly ice cream shop owner

Reason 2: Finding you way a little easier
One of the best things about learning Thai has been it’s made getting around a lot easier. Understanding what the bus conductor is saying on the bus, telling the taxi driver where to go, ordering your drinks without lots of sugar, booking accommodation – it has all been easier now that I can speak and understand Thai more. Living or travelling in a country where you don’t speak the language can be really challenging – you do adapt and figure out ways to get by. You start to block out the language and don’t really hear it anymore. But after learning a little Thai I’d get excited on the bus when I knew what the conductor was saying or on the skytrain and I understood the announcements. Having a little Thai meant that simple tasks I could easily do at home like buying a stamp weren’t as challenging anymore and all I needed was a brief sentence.

Reason 3: Potential discounts (or not getting ripped off)
I’m not saying that everyone tries to rip you off in Thailand, not by a long shot but in touristy areas the prices are often inflated for farang (Foreigners). You might not get the Thai rate at an attraction by speaking Thai (though your work permit definitely helps in those situations).  But you might get a small discount on food, drink, souvenirs etc.   A couple of months back while visiting Autthaya with my mum I repeated got discounts on my purchase from water, coconuts, noodle soup to the Tuk Tuk tour.   Not only was I happy with my small discounts but my mum who was visiting was impressed with my language skills.

Buying fruit

Checking whether the fruit was sold by the kilo or not

Reason 4: Understanding when people talk about you
I think people generally know when someone is talking about them no matter what language they are speaking in.   But when you know the language and they assume you don’t it’s definitively more fun. Yes, I probably shouldn’t be eavesdropping, but when it is clearly about you then I think you have the right. Knowing the language in these situations lets you have more of a heads up, maybe help you not get ripped off, or chime in with a little Thai and see some surprised faces.

Reason 5: Connecting and making friends
Bangkok is a big city with a large expat population and it is relatively easy to meet other foreigners. But to make friends with Thai people can be tricky if you don’t speak Thai and they don’t speak English. I want to be able to make friends and get to see a different side of Thai culture. For me this is something that I’m still working on but the Thai friends I do have (mostly English speaking) definitely appreciate it when I try to speak Thai, even help me learn and improve.

Me at Preschool

My last volunteer day – Cake Time! Being able to speak Thai helped me connect with these cute preschool children.

My language school

I attended a Rak Thai Language School (RTL School) near Ploenchit BTS Station. At only 6000 baht for 1 month of lessons (6o hours), it was professional and affordable.  I started at beginners level 1 and found the pace and difficulty of material to be very good.

With this school and many others if you start at beginners level you have to complete 3 months of speaking Thai classes before you can move onto reading and writing.  This was a little disappointing as I wanted to learn speaking, reading and writing all at the same time but I couldn’t find a school which offered a high number of hours per month and introduced all three at the beginning.

I would recommend contacting a number of different schools and asking to observe a lesson of the level you wish to start.  Most schools offer this and it gives you a great idea about whether the style of teaching, class size and general running of the school fit with your needs.  For a starting point, the website Women Learning Thai also has a great review section of different language schools in Bangkok.

If you decide to make the leap and start learning Thai I wish you all the best.  I think your time in Thailand however long or short will be better for the effort you make.


© 2014, Kristal Collis

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