Thai alphabet

Thai alphabet

Learning Thai has its many challenges but one of the great joys for me has been encountering the Thai script. At the start I felt like a five-year-old-child, sounding out consonants and vowels, trying to transform them into words with meaning. But once I got the hang of it, a whole new world opened up before my eyes. And yet so many expats who have moved here don’t know how to read Thai, with most I’ve met not even attempting to, despite having lived here in Chiang Mai for many years and having local partners (and children). People claim that it’s too hard. But the truth is it really isn’t that hard. Interestingly, these long-term residents can usually speak Thai, ranging from badly to very well, which means that Thailand is not like countries where some people seem to go out of their way to NOT learn any language other than English, such as expats in Abu Dhabi.

On the face of it, this illiteracy is baffling because Thai is not like Chinese or Japanese, which can arguably take years to master properly; with concerted effort, it’s possible to grasp the basics of reading Thai after a few weeks or months of study. Someone I know who moved here from the UK a decade ago (and, as an aside, possesses a PhD), jokingly refers to the Thai alphabet as “squiggles”. He can speak Thai reasonably well but claims to enjoy not being able to read Thai because it means he can’t read any of the advertising around and that it is a relief to not be subjected to more words when his life was already so crowded with English.

Within the first week of moving here, I found myself a tutor, whose rate is very affordable for the average foreigner ($7/hr) and started learning the Thai alphabet. (There’s also the common and even less expensive option of enrolling in a class.) Thai might not be the easiest alphabet to learn, when you compare it to other languages that use Roman-based characters, but it’s very systematic, and certainly more so than English. The tones can be hard to remember because the writing system does not depict all the tones (the way Vietnamese does, for example), but there are actually very clear rules governing tones. All in all, it doesn’t take a great amount of effort to know how to read a basic restaurant menu, even if you may not know how to pronounce every word correctly.

Funnily enough, when I had previously been a tourist in Thailand (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Khao Lak, Phuket), I hardly ever saw the Thai script because in the popular areas of Thailand that cater to tourists, the overwhelming  majority of signs (and menus) use English or non-standardised Roman characters to depict Thai. The benefits of making it easy for tourists to be here aside, the invisibility of written Thai is yet another indicator of the cultural imperialism of English in lower income countries like Thailand – and also shows that the Thai people are complicit in devaluing their own language. Thailand may be the only country in south-east Asia that wasn’t colonised by the British or the French, but that perhaps doesn’t mean as much as you would think these days, given that Thailand probably has the largest number of foreigners living here compared to its immediate neighbours. And the number of expats coming to places like Chiang Mai seems to be growing at the moment.

Choosing to be illiterate in Thailand and not have quality of life diminished in the slightest, clearly shows how easy it is to get by here if you have money. (Migrants from nearby Myanmar and Laos, who are seen as having a ‘lower status’, have a completely different experience.) There are of course times when not knowing Thai is a great inconvenience, such as when dealing with the immigration office, but those frustrations don’t seem to translate into these expats deciding to master Thai; more likely they would ask around to see if people have a good translator or agent they can pay to take care of these matters.

Overall, the expectation around linguistic transactions between foreigners and locals is that Thailand must conform to the global language. This also includes expats who come from countries like Germany, Japan and Korea; if they are going to speak a foreign language, English is the main one they’ll choose. And of course, it’s the more practical option. It’s not as though I haven’t often thought to myself that I’ll have so little use for Thai outside of Thailand! But the attitude that so many expats here have of refusing to acknowledge crucial aspects of local culture would not be so easily tolerated in many countries, such as in European countries with far smaller populations and even smaller cultural footprints than Thailand. But people can get away with it here, largely because there’s no expectation that expats need to integrate any more than they want to, and literacy is the first thing that gets crossed off their to-do lists once it’s obvious how easy it is to get by without knowing how to read.

Illiteracy is commonly seen as an indicator of exclusion, disadvantage and marginalisation, but for many expats in Thailand, illiteracy is actually a sign of their privileged position.

Author Sheila Pham

More posts by Sheila Pham
  • Really interesting post. I think that you overestimate the willingness of monolingual English speakers to learn any language, even in European countries. In fact in my direct experience of Holland, Germany and Poland I have come across countless English speakers who make no effort to learn to speak or read the local language.
    I can testify as a learner that Japanese is very difficult but the two syllabaries Katakana and Hiragana are easy to learn. After that it depends on how much Kanji somebody can learn. If I lived in Japan I am sure that I could manage more than the 200 or so I know. Again though I know of many westerners in Japan who make zero effort in Japanese.
    To be honest, if countries make it easy for somebody to live through English then most English speakers will take the pragmatic, easy option. I can understand this though I am interested in languages so I have always learned about the language anywhere I have gone.

    • Sheila Pham

      Hi Aidan, you might well be right about most monolingual English speakers, they often do take the easiest option. What I was really getting at was just how tolerant the Thai people are of this attitude; surely some European countries are not? I was thinking of countries like Denmark, which is becoming increasingly closed to foreigners, no matter what background they’re from. And let’s not forget English speaking countries…migrants can get a lot of flack for not speaking English and not “integrating”.

  • Gary Paolini

    Thanks for this interesting article. As a teacher, I spend a lot of time thinking about and observing the dynamics of learning, and learnings important correspondent resistance to learning. My experience has been that people generally commit to learning what they feel a sort-term emotional reward–and predict a long-term emotional benefit–from doing so. What passes for long-term differs by situation and individual. When I first arrived in Hanoi, for example, I gobbled up that difficult language with a passion and an optimistic sense that I would be using it and that it would help me. Importantly, I had an emotional connection to it–a sense that emotional rewards awaited me. And indeed there were some short-term gains. Other expats saw no benefit beyond simply getting through practical situations with greater ease. When I became disenchanted with Hanoi, I disconnected from it emotionally, and my vocabulary scattered to the four winds. Thanks again for this thoughtful article.

    • Sheila Pham

      Hi Gary, thanks for your comment! What you say makes a lot of sense; there probably is an emotional connection required for expats to want to learn the language of the country they find themselves in, particularly given that there’s no *need* for them to learn. Of course, what is meant by an ’emotional’ connection would differ from one person to the next. However, in Vietnam it wouldn’t be so hard to learn how to read even if you didn’t make an effort to learn. Even though you lost interest by the end, you could probably still pick up a menu and recognise words.

  • khan

    Hi Sheila

    Thanks for your sharing very grounded experiences of learning Thai and the political dynamics of the expats illliterary as being there privilidge postion in Thailand and elswhere. Your post is defintely reflexive of a larger discourse of rapidly growing ELT world market, I suppose.

    Human beings evolved language for cooperation among each other but concerted efforts of capatlist market have given rise to English language the ‘ new religion of the world’, therefore everyone has to learn it. Otherwise, they will not be heard!

    Thanks once again

  • Hi Sheila,
    Your post reminds me of an experience I had living in Moscow some years ago. I was the (soon to be separated) spouse of an employee of a multinational. Being a language geek, I was studying Russian 20 hours per week and speaking Russian as often as I could. I must say I was getting pretty good at it. One day I was with a group of expat wives, all sitting in their expat compound complaining about Russia, Russians, and anything Russian. I scolded them for being so closed-minded and told them that I was having a great time. I then got up and started speaking to the housekeeper – in Russian. The expat housewives of Rossinka were aghast – and they couldnt understand a thing! Guess I was never cut out to be a corporate wife! : )

    • Sheila Pham

      Clearly not! By the way, is it just me, or is it a quintessential part of the expat experience to complain about the local culture/people etc?

  • Mary Forbes

    I think you’ve touched on the perception some expats have of being ‘top of the food chain’ (it’s amazing how corrupting those frequent-flyer-points can be).
    The expats I’ve worked with/for were mostly ordinary people with ordinary skills. However, overseas they are transformed: they make buckets of money, live like kings, & have ‘servants’!
    Sadly, the 21st century expat is basically the same model as previous generations. Their promptly assimilated attitude, which transformed workers into servants, was shocking to me.
    A person who employs someone to perform a task does not generally regard that individual as a servant (surely “my cleaner” is used in the same context as “my dentist, hairdresser” representing the choice of individuals based on skill and personality, not ownership?)
    Your article is very kind. Many Australians abuse (overtly or covertly) those they judge as being blasé about the ‘customs’, and are especially rude to those who appear reluctant to learn the lingua franca.
    You raise a salient point referring to the fact that Thailand wasn’t colonised … so why support a colonialist attitude?
    Have you read Paul Theroux’s essay “Tarzan is an Expatriate”?
    Kind regards, Mary

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  • 000

    I understand that there may be no need for expats to learn Thai and I’m not judging anyone, however, my personal values involve the need or at least some sort of effort being made in learning the language of the country/community one is in. This is to have an awareness of one’s surroundings in terms of culture and language, being able to interact with members of the community and not being self-sufficient (e.g. dealing with the immigration office by yourself).

    It’s interesting how there is a strong presence of English in Thailand which therefore leads individuals to not feel the necessity to learn Thai.

    When I studied abroad, everyone, no matter which country they were from, could speak English or had an interest in learning English. English was not the main language spoken in the countries they were from which got me thinking about how easy it is for me to communicate with others, because my native language is English, but how hard it must be for them to express themselves in a foreign language on a daily basis. I felt strongly about this because I have gone through the process of learning a foreign language and understand the difficulties or limitations one has in expressing themselves. I think the proliferation of English as a global language is unjust because it is all about access. We cannot choose the place we will be born in and thus, the lottery of life decides whether we will be able to speak particular languages.

    I feel quite upset about the Thai people being “complicit in devaluing their own language” in their own country, because they are catering towards foreigners coming to Thailand who may not have any interest in the Thai language or culture. If this were the other way around, in Australia, there would not be such support for foreigners here. They would just be expected to know English. Again, the injustice of today’s linguistic landscape.

    One of the main reasons why I decided to become an ESL teacher was because I cannot stop the spread of English, but I can help others learn and adjust to this unjust change we have been living in.

  • rajni jaishi

    I think this is the scenario in most other small countries which do not care to put their language first. The local authorities and the language policy is to blame for the fact that it is convenient for an expat to feel s/he can get by well in a foreign country without knowing to read the local language. While living in Kathmandu, I saw that those sites where tourists throng, the locals have trained themselves very hard to speak English just to cater to the tourists. So, all those communities and groups around the world which rely largely on foreign currency as their income, it is a sad situation. We all, knowingly or unknowingly are contributing to the dominance of English but little do we realise that it is happening at the cost of our own precious language and culture.


    Thank you for a thought-provoking article! “Illiteracy is actually a sign of their privileged position” strikes me hard.

    I think Thailand is an interesting country, and the way Thai people develop their tourism services always wow me. I went to Thailand in 2005 and I swear to you, most of the vendors, waiters and waitresses, shopkeepers, zookeepers, etc. could speak Vietnamese (my mother tongue)! I was only 12 years old at that time, and it was also the first time i went abroad. I was under the impression that I was supposed to use English outside of Vietnam, but Thailand just shocked me, in a positive way. It is not only foreigners from higher income countries felt privileged in Thailand, I guess.

    Considering that this was published 6 years ago, I believe things have changed now in 2017. Thailand has obviously gained a ‘status boost’ thanks to their flourishing economy. More and more people are becoming interested in learning Thai. Most of the expats in Thailand that I know can speak at least bits of the language. Moreover, with the spread of Thai people around the world, notably here in Sydney with lots of Thai restaurants, whose menus are in both Thai and English, I think the Thai people are doing a great job in preserving and promoting their own language.