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.