Call it Thinglish: Language that gets better results.
Most Thais speak no English — at least, not enough to carry on even a rudimentary conversation. Fortunately (with one noteworthy exception, explained below), the waiters, hotel clerks, and go-go boys you’re likely to encounter will generally speak enough English to do their job. You can make it easier for everyone if you understand certain principles, and follow a few words of advice.
Speak slowly and clearly, using simple words. Avoid slang. Pause very slightly between words. You stand a better chance of being understood if you say:
You go store. I wait here.
I’m gonna hang around here for a while. Why don’t you check out the store, grab a few things, then come back.
Do not raise your voice merely because you were not understood. Don’t seem flustered or annoyed. To do so will create barriers that make further communication harder or impossible.
Don’t expect to convey a complicated idea. Suppose you want to tell a new friend:
I’d like to go to the beach tomorrow, but I’ve got to wait till my cousin calls tonight, to see what his plans are.
Fuggedaboutit. You’re trying to communicate too many nuances and conditions. If you don’t know what your availability will be for tomorrow, then wait and make plans tomorrow.
Omit a lot of words. Omit past or future tenses of words. Omit articles. Don’t bother with plurals. Skip the word “to” when using infinitives. What’s left? Just the good stuff.
The Thai language lacks past and future tenses. A speaker may use a term like “yesterday” or “tomorrow”, but verbs have only the present tense. Likewise, Thai lacks articles and plurals. Unless you’re dealing with someone who’s truly fluent in English, these words are more likely to confuse a listener than to be helpful.
Obviously, some of the above concepts are necessary:
I want a date with you.
is different from
I wanted a date with you.
But instead of using the past tense, wanted, use a word that describes the time:
Yesterday I want date with you.
Although in that case, why bring up the subject up at all?
A traveler to India learned to avoid yes-or-no questions when he needed information. “I would ask someone, ‘Is this the way to the village?’ and point to the direction I thought was correct. Invariably they would answer Yes, even if the village was in the opposite direction. Another American finally explained to me that they felt it would be rude to contradict me.”
A similar pitfall, though for slightly different reasons, awaits visitors to Thailand. In Thai, the “polite word” (discussed in the Thai language page) has several meanings. It can translate “yes” or as “I understand” or “I hear you” or even as “uh-huh [I haven’t fallen asleep on you]”. To convey any of these intended meanings, Thai speakers conversing in English may simply use the word they learned as the translation: “yes.” So beware: A Thai speaker who answers yes to a question may simply be saying (with typical Thai tact), “I’m still listening; you haven’t bored me to tears yet.” Kind of like you used to do with your grandmother.
In English, two apparently opposite questions:
Do you want more dessert?
Don’t you want more dessert?
carry the same intended meaning. If you’re still hungry, answer “yes”.
Most Thai’s, however, will take the second sentence at its literal meaning. They’ll respond “Yes” to mean “That’s correct; I do not want more dessert.”
You’ll be better understood if you entirely avoid questions that include a negative, and to try to avoid questions that only call for a yes-or-no reply.
Thai pronunciations of English
The sound L often becomes N at the end of the word in Thai, and Thai speakers often handle English the same way. A waiter may ask:
Would you like the bin?
If you’d ready for the bill, reply yes. Also be prepared for a trailing L to be dropped entirely: email = emayo, hill = hiow.
The sounds L and R will be interchanged, and often dropped or pronounced more lightly than we would, especially when they’re next to another consonant. An R at the beginning of a word often is pronounced like L. Thus room may be pronounced loom; adult becomes adoot.
Sibilants such as S or SH may be dropped, or changed to a soft T, at the end of a word: house = how.
Other differences between Thai and English
Though less important, an awareness of these other distinctions can help you better communicate in Thailand, and to understand why Thais speak English the way they do:
The verb “to be” is dropped in simple descriptive sentences.
The house is red becomes simply (remember, articles are also not used): House red.
The subject of a sentence, especially if it’s you, is dropped when it is clear from context.
I want some coffee =Want coffee.
Tonality is different in Thai than in English. In Thai, the same word takes on different meanings depending on the tone in which it is spoken. In English, we use tone to show emphasis. Thai speakers will often accent the wrong syllable of a word, or use a monotone. Once you’re aware of this, it’s easier to understand them.
We said above that the Thais you’re likely to encounter will generally speak enough English to do their job, but with one exception. That exception: cab (and tuk-tuk, and samlor) drivers. Often they will speak no more than ten words of English, read no English, and be unable to read a map. You’ll want to have your destination spelled out on paper, in Thai script, as explained on our transportation page.