For those of you who have been to Thailand, it’s probably struck you how poor the standard of English is here. Even those who have been educated in the best schools are not so competent. So, considering that, poor people and the lesser educated can barely manage to blurt out things like: “Where you go?” “You!” and “You like Thailand?” Other Southeast Asian countries are way ahead in their English speaking abilities. So with ASEAN looming in 2015, the Thais have a LOT of catching up to do.
So why are they so bad at English? Considering that most of the kids here are studying English around 6 days a week, you would think they would be a little better. I remember one Saturday I asked a student of mine “How are you?” I’ve been teaching this kid for over 10 months and he turned round and said “Praewa arai?” Which means something like “What does that mean?” When he finally did answer me I got “8 Years old.” He thought I’d said “How old are you?” Seriously, I mean, how hard can it be to remember a simple question like that? I’ve been in Thailand for nearly 4 years and I’ve never taken Thai lessons but if someone asks me “Sabai dee mai” it’s the easiest thing for me to understand. I could answer that question after about 2 days in Thailand.
I have my theories about why Thais are not good at English, and I also have some hard evidence taken from my daily experiences. One of the reasons, I believe, is just their sheer lack of interest in learning. The Thais have some saying that apparently, when translated, goes: “If I think too much, I get headache.” That basically sums up the average Thai: They don’t like thinking or anything serious. During a typical English lesson, you’ll be lucky if you can get the kids to just shut up and pay attention to you, if they improve their English skills, that’s a bonus.
Another reason may just be their very laid-back approach to life. This kind of ties in with their lack of interest in learning but also has roots in their religion. Thais are “Buddhist” (supposedly) and they seem to have taken some of the Buddhist teachings as a cue to be lazy. Buddha taught that we should always strive to be happy, come what may, and that we should accept the things life throws at us with aplomb. As it goes, this kind of leads Thai people to have a rather “never-mind” attitude towards everything. Also their relentless “positive thinking” get’s in the way of progress sometimes. I used to teach adults in a language centre and one night I chose technology as a topic of discussion. I asked them the question: “Do you think technology is always a good thing?” Most of them said yes. Then I asked them to consider the misuses of technology such as weapons of mass destruction and one of the students turned round and said: “Oey! Think positive na ka!” WTF! I learned a great deal about Thai positive thinking that night: That it is in fact just complacency and laziness. The truth is, the average Thai doesn’t give a damn what happens in the outside world, as long as it doesn’t affect them.
For those of you who can read Thai, I’m sure you’ve noticed the amazing number of English words now used in modern Thai advertising. So how then do they expect to learn English if every English word they learn is transliterated into the Thai script, leaving the original word barely distinguishable? I see it all the time: service becomes serwis (with a falling tone); Central become centan; square become s’kware. The point I’m making is, they don’t want to learn English. They just see English as a way to make more money. English is the international language of business! But as far as speaking goes, they want to remain Thai: proud; nationalistic; arrogant. However, all languages evolved like that. After all, how many words in English came from French, German, and Latin etc. Perhaps Thais will learn English, just don’t expect it to be the English we know and love!
I arrived at Mukdahan bus station at approximately 8:30 on Monday April 1. I’d managed to get a few hours sleep under my blanket on the bus, but I was feeling pretty groggy all the same. As I said before, I’d been to Mukdahan many times, so I knew the layout of the bus station and where to get the tickets. The bus station is small and the ticket offices are easy to locate being near to the entrance. The ticket was remarkably cheap. I think it was about 40 baht! I bought a strong coffee and went to wait for my bus.
Within about 20 minutes of buying my ticket I was on the way to Laos. We stopped first at the Thai border control to officially leave the country. This is the point where everybody stampedes off the bus and selfishly pushes their way to the front of the queue; me included! When I finally reached the end of the queue, I was instructed by the passport officer to go inside the main building and speak to his boss. As I was cancelling a working visa, I guess he figured I needed special attention. As it turned out, the man in the office looked at my passport for all of two minutes then stamped it to show that my working visa was now officially void. I guess I was lucky. I’ve heard stories of teachers being charged 15,000 baht for similar reasons. Eventually, everybody was through and we got back on the bus. We crossed the Friendship Bridge, which allows some nice views of the Mekong River.
Now I had to get a visa on arrival for Laos. I suddenly felt like I was in a foreign land. Seems strange to say it, but I actually feel quite at home in Thailand these days. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Laotians. The bus stops at the border control, and once again it’s out for stamping and all that kind of stuff. I went straight to the window where I saw other foreigners. Usually the best course of action. The guy gave me a form to fill out and an arrival/departure card to fill out. The arrival cards in Laos are actually rather nice and they have a few useful phrases for you to use while you stay there. Sabai dee bor means the same as Sabai dee mai, or How are you? The Laos actually understand Thai as their language is very similar. I guess it might be like the difference between Spanish and Catalonian Spanish.
Your visa on arrival will cost about 1,500 baht. Make sure you take passport photos along with you. I was lucky, I had some in my wallet, though I had completely forgotten about this point. Once you have all your documents stamped and signed just go to the window where all the other foreigners are standing and get a stamp in your passport. You have to pay 40 baht for this, I’m pretty sure they’re just skimming money off of you but it’s not too much.
The time was now 10:40. Remember the Thai embassy closes at 11:00. I felt a bit like James Bond making a last minute dash to save the entire planet from imminent destruction as I jumped into a tuk tuk and sped off for the embassy. I had no idea how far away it was, but I was putting my money on it being close enough to get there in 15 minutes.
To be continued…….
Benjawin Poomsan Becker – Lesson 1 Vocabulary
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Things have changed a lot since I first arrived in Bangkok. I remember the sense of bewilderment I felt at the sheer vast ugliness of it all, the archaic overpasses, U-turns, concrete skeletons strewn across the landscape, rickety buses chugging in and out of the traffic, colourful taxis in a variety of pink, yellow, blue, green, or occasionally brown, sometimes from age, sometimes by design. Read the rest of this entry
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!