After putting in a lot of effort to learn the Thai language, it can be frustrating when you get the impression that Thai people don’t actually want you to speak it. When I first noticed this, I tried to pass it off, and thought perhaps it was just my perception. But I’ve heard others say the same thing. I’ve also had an employer who expressly forbade us from speaking Thai in the workplace – even outside of the classroom – and made it clear that they did not want to employ foreign teachers who spoke Thai. Of course, it’s not always like that, and Thais are well known for their readiness to flatter the foreign visitor who speaks a few words of Thai. But there are times when you feel they’d rather just stick you in the category of dumbass farang who doesn’t have the mental capacity to speak their language.
I’ve had a few people ask me why this is, and I’ve come up with a number of possibilities that may or may not be at the heart of this problem.
1. Language is power
Being able to speak a language that others can’t gives you power over them. It puts you in a position of superiority. It allows you to trick people and say things about them that they don’t know you’re saying. So when some Thai people discover that you speak Thai, they feel as though they have lost that power, and they have to watch what they say around you.
2. Inferiority complex
Deeply rooted in the minds of Thai people is the feeling that white westerners are somehow better than they are. They see our glitzy culture from afar, and it seems so appealing, so affluent. They realize that until westerners discovered Thailand, the country was still benighted, and the majority of people were pitifully poor. We brought with us technological advancements and an outwardly more civilized system of society, which Rama V – one of the most popular kings – began to introduce during his reign. Nowadays, Thai people model their society on ours: their music is more westernized, their dress style has lost its eastern flavor, they have modern shopping malls, and everyone wants to speak English. The point I’m trying to get at here, is that when we come along and learn Thai, seemingly quite easily, perhaps in a year or two, the inferiority complex comes back to haunt them, making them feel that once again we have somehow outsmarted them.
3. You’re listening to Thai, but you just don’t hear it
It’s one thing to speak Thai, but do you really understand the deep meanings behind the words, phrases, idioms, etc? The truth is, most of us don’t. It would be hard to have such a deep understanding of the language if you didn’t grow up with it. This is another reason why I think Thai people don’t want us to speak Thai. To them, their language is more than just words. It’s the way they think, the way they interact, the way they view the world around them. So for a foreigner to come along and learn their language at surface level, it’s almost like we’re doing an injustice to the sanctity of their language. I’m sure most Thais don’t think like that, but it’s worth considering when asking why Thai people don’t want you to speak their language.
4. You’re an alien, you’re a legal alien, you’re a farang in Thailand . . . .
Foreigners often hold a privileged position in society in that they are exempt from certain cultural obligations or expectations. No one minds too much if a farang doesn’t wai people in Thailand because everyone understands that this is not his or her culture. But Thai people are expected to wai their elders and superiors, otherwise they would seem rude, and risk losing respect. As a foreigner learns Thai, it puts Thai people in an awkward position: do we treat you as a Thai or a foreigner. Although it may be clear from the way you speak and act that you know a lot about Thai language and culture, on the surface you still look like a westerner. As a foreigner, you are accepted as a guest, but as you become more like the Thais, you become subject to their scrutiny. Thais, when they are well acquainted, often talk to each other in a very direct manner, making jokes about each other, and everyone has a good time. As a foreigner – even though you may speak good Thai – the Thais may be reluctant to treat you this way.
If you’ve been searching for an answer as to why Thai people don’t want you to speak their language, I hope this blog post has been helpful for you. After racking my brains, these four possible reasons were all I could come up with. If you have any of your own theories on why Thais don’t want you to speak Thai, please share them here, or leave a link to your own relevant blog post. Hopefully most of the time you will have a good experience of the Thai language; these examples are the exception, rather than the rule. Finally, I hope I haven’t offended any Thai people in putting forth my rather critical analysis of your culture. I love Thailand, and I am honored to have lived here for over three years now. I continue to try and speak your language properly, which constantly reminds me how lucky I am to speak English without having to think about it!