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Language barrier


I soon learned my Thai-English phrasebook was of little use.

Was it because my pronunciation was so appalling? Because I kept messing up the tones? Or was it because so many Thais just assumed they couldn’t understand farangset (white foreigners) and so didn’t try? English was widely spoken in heavily touristed areas, but once off the beaten track I might as well have been talking Swahili.

After a couple of months on Koh Samui I’d picked up some of the basics, thanks to the patience and persistence of the bilingual Thais I’d befriended. After renewing my visa I shifted to Koh Phangan where, in the mid 80s, tourism was just beginning to become important and many locals were no more fluent in English than I was in Thai. That was a great help. Not only were people more patient with my own poor communication skills I was also discouraged from linguistic laziness by the fact that if I couldn’t express myself in Thai I often couldn’t be understood at all. Of particular assistance was my friend Nong Kaew, a young kickboxer from Chaiya who was trying to learn English at about the same pace I was trying to learn Thai. We developed a kind of Thai-English pidgin. Its utility was enhanced by the fact we shared a dark sense of humour that consistently delivered hilarious pay-offs from even the most imperfect exchanges.

My burgeoning skills were to be put to the test in Krabi.

At that time most foreigners used Krabi as a brief transit point on the way to the nearby island(s) of Koh Phi Phi. As a consequence there was little incentive for the locals to learn much English. An exception was Max, the hip and sophisticated young Thai who ran the Deadhead Guesthouse where the few longer term visitors usually stayed (Max himself was a devout Deadhead, hence the name). But on the tropical streets of Krabi English was about as useful as fleece-lined jacket. I’d be OK though. I’d finally picked up enough Thai to be able to make my basic needs understood, albeit not to hold a proper conversation. Or so I thought.

On my second day there I decided to visit the famous Tiger Cave Temple, Wat Tham Suea. The only means of transport available were the samlor (three-wheelers) lined up in a rank near Krabi markets. The drivers likely spoke no English but that would be mai pen rai (not a problem) for me, right?

I confidently approached the first driver in the rank. “Phom yaak ja pai Wat Tham Suea (I want to go to the Tiger Cave Temple)”. Blank incomprehension. Try again with more careful enunciation and attention to the tones. Still nothing.

OK, I’ll try the next driver. “Phom yaak ja pai Wat Tham Suea.”

Mai khao jai (don’t understand)”, a Thai phrase I’d become quite familiar with.

Hmm. Maybe I need to try something more simple.

Aow pai Wat Tham Suea (want go Wat Tham Suea).” Another confused look.

Well, these guys are samlor drivers. Obviously if a farang is trying to speak to them it’s because he’s trying to get somewhere. So I’ll strip it down to the destination and let them work out the rest.

The final driver had been watching expectantly as I made my way down the rank. He seemed eager to speak to me, though he wasn’t going to cut in on his colleagues. A wide grin spread across his face as I approached.

Wat Tham Suea?“, I said, with little trace of my earlier confidence. He looked at his watch and replied in near perfect English.

“It’s about a quarter to ten”.

From → autobiography

  1. Wow, that pronunciation must have come straight out of phrase book phonetics ! I arrived in Bangkok 1984, just wondering if you were in the islands then…


    • I first visited Thailand in 1985 but didn’t go north of Bangkok until 1988. By 1996 I’d visited just about all the provincial capitals as well as several villages and about half a dozen islands. My Thai never got much beyond phrasebook level, though my comprehension and pronunciation improved. I can still more or less eavesdrop on Thai speakers on Australian public transport, though a lot of it goes over my head.

      Part of my problem in Krabi in 1986 was that although I’d been learning Thai from southerners they’d been teaching what was pretty close to Krung Thep standard (or TV-Thai as one friend called it). In Krabi they speak the faster and more clipped Pak Thai dialect and slowing down only seemed to make me even more incomprehensible to them.


  2. Yes, Central standard Thai is the best place to start. 1985, I was still going around Kaosan Road at that time, working for an NGO in Bangkok, stumbling with tones. I remember being downtown asking a row of taxi drivers if they could take me to my apartment near a department store: Pa Ta Pinklao but the name was Pa Ta and I thought what could difficult about that? Two syllables, easy… but no, nobody could understand at all! The tones were wrong. I was guessing, trying everything, voicing the two sounds in different ways like my throat-vocalization was an instrument, the way a bird sings. Got it in the end but forgot it immediately…


    • I was sort of OK with tones from fairly early in the piece. When I tried to memorise them from the phrasebook it was no go, but after I’d heard a Thai say it I remembered it as a sort of song fragment. But I still messed up a lot when I automatically used tonal emphasis as per English.

      For example, some Thai interrogative words use the same rising tone that English speakers often put at the end of a question. Even though I knew it wasn’t right it was enough to trick me into often using rising tones inappropriately when I was asking a question.

      Also there’s the fact that Thais too use tonal emphasis but without ‘corrupting’ the inherent tones of the words with it. I never mastered that and had to try to speak in a sort of flat, robotic way to avoid messing up my tones.

      But what I initially found hardest were the Thai sounds that don’t really exist in English – such as the distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants. At first I couldn’t even hear the difference much less pronounce it. That was complicated by the fact I was simultaneously trying to learn Hindi with it’s own unfamiliar sounds and so when I managed to pick one up from one language I often ‘blurred’ it into the other and made myself incomprehensible in both.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry about lateness in reply. It’s an interesting subject, I like the idea of a ‘song fragment’. Also noted is the tendency to use English language intonation, as in the question form rising tone at the end of a sentence – this really screws things up. I have this problem too about not hearing some initial or final consonants. I’ve had a few teachers and currently stuck with the tones and these ‘silent’ consonants. It’s a work in progress, maybe I should be ‘singing’ more than I am.
        Hindi is interesting as a way into Sanskrit using the Devanagari script, and the Thais who live here say there are these similarities in Sanskrit vocabulary that give them motivation to learn the language.


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