Thai language overview: learn more about Thai language and get useful tips for your visit/stay in Thailand.
Thailand is one of the top travel destination globally, but Thai language is not nearly as wide spread as English, Spanish, French or Mandarin. What language do Thai people speak? how should you prepare before making a visit? find out more below.
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What language do Thai people speak?
People in Thailand speak, read and write Thai – an official & national language of Thailand. Thai language is said to have been derived from older languages like Pali and Sanskrit.
The characters and vocabularies also share some similarities to languages used by our neighboring countries like Laos and Cambodia (Although I could barely make sense of characters while traveling in Cambodia).
Language similarities also extend to English where many of commonly spoken Thai vocabularies are borrowed from English. Some potentially useful borrowed vocabularies will be shared below in the tips section below.
English language proficiency in Thailand
While Thai language is dominant, Thais learn English as part of the school curriculum from primary school until college. Having said that, locals still have low English language proficiency relative to other Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Thailand has a “very low” proficiency rating according to Education First – in fact among the lowest in Southeast Asia. You would naturally have no problem in countries with high to very high proficiency ratings like Malaysia or Singapore. Personally, I have had little troubles navigating countries with lower ratings like Vietnam and Indonesia as well.
This information looks at countries as a whole, but you will find a more English proficient population in big or touristy cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and many more. Do not let the number deter you just yet because we will further examine Thailand as a travel destination in more detail.
Thailand is a top tier travel destination
Many Thais only speak basic English, just enough to help visitors to get by on day-to-day activities. You may find some activities inaccessible without speaking Thai, however there are still plenty to enjoy.
Thailand is among the top tourist destinations despite its low English proficiency. 2019 data from World Tourism Organization put Thailand as the 7th most popular destination globally with 40 million arrivals. The country has been serving more than 10 million visitors annually since the 2000s, and this makes tourism the key industry for Thailand.
You will face some language barriers without speaking Thai language, but Thai people are very much used to interacting with visitors. Shops and businesses in big, touristy cities have English websites, menus and signs. Most hotels, restaurants and leisure facilities would have English (or translated) information prepared – ask if you do not see one.
Adding to the above, Thai people are friendly like every Southeast Asians. So if you are patient enough to communicate, you can eventually get the information you are looking for.
Thai language barrier: what to look out for?
You can anticipate a certain degree of communication challenges but most tourism related activities in big or tourist-friendly cities are likely to be prepared for non-Thai speakers. Large operators (of places like shopping malls, hospitals or apartments) also offer communications in English which make extended stay in Thailand possible.
English options are available in some restaurant menus and mobile applications.
So where can you expect to face the Thai language barrier?
You can expect a lower level of English proficiency in the more rural parts of the country. Getting by with English will be less of an issue in cities like Bangkok and other touristy cities like Chiang Mai.
Small mom-and-pop and street side shops
Street side vendors or “hole in the wall”-style mom and pop shops are generally less prepared to serve non-Thai speakers. Some shops may be equipped just enough to tell you that you are purchasing chicken, but you may not get the remaining details like it is a “grilled chicken marinated with cumin served with sticky rice”.
Thailand is famous for street food and night markets. Chatuchak market and Train night market are both famous and the vendors are used to serving non-Thai speaking customers. However, other local markets in Thailand are not as ready to serve non-Thai speaking customers.
We recommend avoiding public buses in general (a combination of Thai language constraint and safety concerns). BTS and MRT trains are a lot more well equipped to serve foreign visitors. Taxi is also a valid alternative, some drivers are used to serving non-Thai customers even when their English proficiency might be very basic. It would still be a good idea for you to know how to pronounce your destination in Thai or have a map (or Google Map!) opened when getting on a taxi.
Tips and tools to help with the Thai language barrier
Get a local tour guide
Getting yourself a local tour guide is probably the most effective way to overcome the language barrier in Thailand. Some guides also come with a private car and this would be the most convenient way to get around.
Thai locals are friendly so you should not be reserved about asking for communication assistant. For example, if you are having difficulty talking to a shop keeper, trying asking local youth for help.
Make use of Google Map and Facebook
Google map and Facebook pages contain a lot of information on shops and restaurants. You can look at their menu along with review & rating by checking Google or Facebook ahead of your visit. This popular noodle spot for example, has their whole menu in Thai, English and Chinese which is clearly posted on their Google map page.
Install Google translate
While using Google translate sounds like a no brainer, you would be surprised by the accuracy of the Thai language pronunciation produced by Google translate.
Learn useful words in Thai language that are borrowed from English
Learning Thai is the most effective way to overcome the Thai language barrier. However, this may be too time consuming if you are not planning to stay in Thailand for an extended period. Having said that, you will have a much easier time by learning some Thai vocabularies. Thai people understand “Thai” vocabularies that are borrowed from English!
Should Thai language deter you from visiting Thailand?
No! do not let the language barrier deter you as there is still plenty to enjoy in Thailand. You can have a much better experience by doing some preparation ahead of time. You should also note that traveling has since changed due to coronavirus so be sure to check out Thailand’s latest travel restrictions as part of your preparation.
Planning your first trip to Southeast Asia but have language barrier concern? You can consider other countries like Singapore, Indonesia or the Philippines as your first destination (But do not forget Thailand!).
Other materials for Thailand travel preparation: