Preparing for Thailand

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  • Learning the Local Language by Tristan Rentosn 2012

    At Super English, we receive many questions from incoming teachers and potential applicants regarding Thai language. How much Thai do I have to learn to get by? What’s the best way to learn Thai? Is it difficult? Does Super English have Thai language teachers? I am not an expert in speaking Thai, but seeing as though I have been living in Surat for over a year now, I thought I’d have a go at trying to bring a simple explanation to this potentially complex problem.

    1.  How much Thai do I have to learn?
    This is somewhat of a “how long is a piece of string” question, there is no simple answer. Let me put it this way: Surat Thani is not a tourist area, 99% of tourists here are just passing through on their way to Koh Samui. Therefore, with no tourists to look after there is no need for most of the locals, even the shopkeepers or restaurateurs, to learn English. Even at a global MNC (like 7/11 or Pizza Hut – we have both here) the staff will only speak Thai.

    To avoid any awkward situations, such as getting ripped off or receiving the wrong meal, you will need to learn
    the following:
    1. Numbers (most important).
    2. General greetings and pleasantries (How are you, excuse me etc.).
    3. Ordering food and drinks.
    4. “Take me too _____” for Tuk Tuk drivers.  
    5. How to bargain (not imperative, but a good skill to have in Thailand)
    These are just the basics, however if you are prepared to learn above and beyond the aforementioned then your Thai experience will be richer. The locals will appreciate any effort you make to speak Thai, even if you make a right mess of it (they will also laugh at you, but they don’t mean anything bad by it).

    2.  What’s the best way to learn Thai?
    To learn properly, you need to have a native speaker assist you. You cannot learn Thai solely from a book, the tones are too complex and you will mispronounce many words! The Thai staff at Super English will be happy to assist you, we also have many Thai friends who have been helping teachers for many years and will be prepared to give you a hand. It does help to have a good Thai book to build your vocabulary, I can recommend Thai for Beginners (orange cover) by Benjawan Poomsan Becker. It’s easy to follow and the transliterations actually come close to the Thai script when pronounced.

    Regarding the method, I found that the best way to start conversing in Thai is to find a native speaker who will be patient enough to sit with you, teach you new words, fix your mistakes and have a conversation (this is where the aforementioned book comes in handy). This might sound a bit far fetched but Thai people are very sociable, they really like foreigners and are always up for a drink and a chat after work.

    3.  Is it difficult?
    Yes and no. Thai language does not have many of the complexities that English has, such as tenses and
    articles. There are also less words to learn, and some words have more than one meaning depending on the context. Thai people also commonly omit pronouns if the context is made clear. The difficulty in learning Thai comes with the tones. There are 5 tones in all, which means that any word could potentially have 5 different meanings depending on how it’s pronounced. For example, maa could mean horse, dog or come depending on the tone. If you get the tone wrong, then you have changed the word and changed the context of the sentence; this is usually when confusion and misunderstanding comes in.  

    When you first hear a Thai person pronounce the 5 tones, they all sound similar and you can’t help but wonder how they manage to hit the right tones when they speak so quickly! I started off by practicing each word with the different tones and took it from there.

    4.  Does Super English have Thai Teachers?