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Travel Guide > Asia > Thailand

Thailand Languages

  
 
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The official language of Thailand is Thai. Like Mandarin and Vietnamese, Thai is a tonal language (think about the difference in your voice when saying "yes." versus "yes?" - that's tonal) which can make it tricky for Westerners to learn quickly, but despite this, everyone will appreciate any attempt you do make so pick up a phrasebook and give it a go. Thai is a language with many dialects, though the Bangkok dialect, also known as Central Thai, is used as the standard and is taught in all schools. Language schools can be found in all larger Thai cities, including Bangkok and Phuket.

In the Muslim-dominated south, dialects of Malay that are largely incomprehensible to speakers of standard Malay/Indonesian are spoken. Various dialects of Chinese are spoken by the ethnic Chinese community, with Teochew being the dominant dialect in Bangkok Chinatown, and Cantonese speakers also forming a sizeable minority among the Chinese community. Down south in Hat Yai, Hokkien is also widely understood due to the large number of tourists from Penang. The eastern Isaan dialects are closely related to Lao and there are dozens of small language groups in the tribal areas of the north, some so remote that Thai speakers are few and far between.

Public signage is generally bilingual, written in both Thai and English. There is also some prevalance of Japanese and Chinese signs. Where there is English, it will usually be fairly phonetic - for example "Sawatdee" (meaning hello) is pronounced just as it reads: sa-wat-dee. There is no universal agreement on how to transcribe Thai letters that don't have an English equivalent, so Khao San Road for example is also commonly spelled Kao Sarn, Kao Sahn, Khao San, Koh Saan, Khaosan, and many other variations. Maps with names in both Thai and English make it easier for locals to try and help you.

English is the most popular foreign language taught in Thai schools, so many young people have a basic grasp of English, though few are fluent. Most "front desk" people in the travel industry speak at least enough English to communicate, and many are relatively fluent; some also speak one or more other languages popular with their clientele, such as Chinese, Japanese, German, etc.

Many Thais have trouble pronouncing the consonant clusters of the English language. Common confusion comes from the fact that Thais often pronounce "twenty" as "TEH-wen-ty", making it sound like they're saying "seventy". Therefore it is a good idea to make use of the calculators that street vendors may offer you in order to avoid confusion about prices offered when buying goods.





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