Thai is not the world's easiest language to learn, unless you are Thai. It is a tonal language belonging to the group of Ka-Tai languages. The five tones are monotone, low, falling, high and rising. This means that the same word spoken with different tones can have different meanings. The snag is that it's extremely difficult for speakers of non-tonal languages to hear the difference in tone. Add to that the fact that Thai uses its own, unique alphabet and you have the recipe for a tricky language. However, Thai is a charming language, and certainly not impossible to acquire. You can pick up very basic words and phrases quite quickly, and that's worth doing since Thai people appreciate foreigners speaking their language. In fact, it's almost a necessity in some places as English is not always understood.
If you want to at least attempt a minimum of communication, find yourself a Thai phrasebook in any good bookstore, at least in Bangkok.
A few points to bear in mind:
- You will frequently see Thai words written in "English". In fact they are not written in English, but "transliterated" from the Thai alphabet into the Latin alphabet. Bear in mind that this system of transliteration is not only for speakers of English. Speakers of any language using the Latin alphabet can read and understand it. So don't be surprised if the actual sound represented is not exactly what you expected.
- Although you will see Thai words transliterated with consonants at the end, the consonant is hardly pronounced.
- You will sometimes see the same word transliterated in different ways, even for place names. Just accept it! If it bothers you, you'd better learn to read and write Thai.
- Thais use the words khrap and kha at the end of sentences as a mark of politeness. These words have no real meaning. Which word to use? If you're a man, you say khrap. If you're a woman, you say kha. Pepper the appropriate word liberally in your speech. It will work wonders.
- Thais use the word falang (or farang) to describe foreigners, though not all foreigners. It means something like "Westerner". Foreigners from Japan, for example, get another label.
- The word for I depends upon the speaker's gender. If your'e a man, you say phom. If you're a woman, you say chan or dichan.
Here are a few basic Thai greetings and phrases to try: