Cultures — and not only the Thai culture — define themselves through their language. The common Thai saying “Mai bpen rai” (it doesn’t matter) and the many polite final particles you hear in everyday Thai conversations are just a few signs of some underlying principles. The deeply rooted belief in karma which basically means what comes around goes around influences most areas of Thai culture. The language is not immune from this same influence.
Harmony and saving face matter. Sometimes they matter so much that discussions can end in in the courts as none of the parties involved want to talk directly about problems or try to find an agreement together. But even in the court room, Thais usually speak softly and politely (both are signs of authority and confidence). However, it is easy for foreigners to perceive them as weakness or lack of assertiveness.
The Thai culture is also a culture of mutual personal compliments and many nice things foreign people get to hear are sometimes taken too literally. These are just a few insights you will get while learning Thai. As a Thai language teacher, many other insights about the Western and Thai culture surface.
But the question is — how do westerners learn Thai?
Most westerners enjoy a systematic approach to learning languages. This requires formulas they can use to construct their sentences and rules they can stick to. Luckily Thai grammar is relatively simple, while the
reading and writing system is more of a challenge.
But the biggest challenge is to get a feeling for the abstract sound of the Thai language. For many it is the first tonal language they learn, which means the pronunciation of syllables alters the meaning of words. If you call an older person “phii” with a falling tone you are polite but if you repeat the same with a rising tone you end up calling them a ghost…
One thing many people who haven’t learned Thai don’t recognise is that speaking Thai and understanding Thai are more different than one might think. A lot of times you have to derive the meaning of sentences from the context of the whole conversation or fill in the gaps because in everyday Thai conversations many people omit words or even parts of sentences.
So how do westerners learn Thai effectively? The fight is won on two fronts. Understanding and speaking. By listening and immersing themselves in the Thai language as much as possible they can train their ears to pay attention to the tones while the brain learns to connect all the information to understand the full range of meanings.
To learn to speak Thai you have to get used to the “weird” sounds that come out of your mouth while speaking and develop the confidence to practice whenever possible.
Speaking Thai has tons of benefits and while many want to learn the language simply to tell others what’s on their mind, the process of listening and getting insights into the complexities of Thai culture may be just as beneficial.
This guest contribution was written by Jay Ohdinger, one of the founders of Learn-Thai-Podcast.com. It is a website that offers free video and audio files for learning Thai and a complete online course for those hoping to master the language. New Mandala readers with comments on this online undertaking — and there are more than a few professional Thai language teachers, and fluent Thai-speaking westerners among the NM cohort — are encouraged to pipe up.