Bangkok is a very cosmopolitan city with many different nationalities living and working together. English is widely spoken and is the language of business. It is very easy to get by with only learning simple words in Thai. The first words to learn are ‘hello’ (Sawadee krup/ka) and ‘thank you’ (Kap Khun krup/ka).
All major businesses, shops, banks and post offices will have English speaking staff as well as the airport, bars, restaurants and tourist attractions. If you live, work and socialise in expat circles, you may feel like basic Thai, which you will pick up as you go, will be enough. However, you will find it much easier to live day to day with more advanced knowledge of the Thai language. You may have Thai friends, Thai staff or frequent Thai establishments where a better knowledge of Thai is necessary or you may simply want to learn the language out of respect or interest.
Whatever the reason for learning Thai, it will certainly be beneficial to your life while you are in Bangkok. You will also be shown a lot of respect by both Thais and foreigners and you will find negotiating much easier. An added benefit is that you will be able to pick up on Thai culture and customs more quickly. Learning to read Thai is a smart move if you plan on staying in Thailand for a longer period. Many important purchases, such as a condo or car, will be much cheaper if you are able to read Thai and thus gain access to Thai magazine and websites.
It is possible to get a grasp of Thai from friends and everyday activities, but it is a difficult language to learn because of the tones. You should also be careful to learn ‘proper’ Thai as the way you speak is one of the most important clues Thais use to determine your social position. Many words which are spelt the same have completely different meanings because the tones are different and if you do not get the tones right, it will be hard to make yourself understood. However, the grammar is much simpler than a language such as English meaning that there are far fewer words to learn and no subjugation of verbs.
There are a number of places offering Thai language courses and where you decide to go will depend on the school’s reputation, where you live, how much free time you have and how much you want to pay.
The choices include local colleges and universities, language schools and private lessons. A walk down Sukhumvit will provide many options and some of the best ones are detailed below.
- AUA: 179 Rajadamri Road, Lumpini, http://www.auathailand.org; Offers both private and group lessons starting from 4200 THB for 60 hours per person.
- Baan Aksorn: Sukhumvit Soi 33, http://www.baanaksorn.com; Offers both group and private courses from 400 THB per person per hour.
- Chulalongkorn University: http://www.chula.ac.th Offers intensive group class at US$1,000 for four weeks.
- PRO Language: Times Square Building, Sukhumvit Road (between Soi 12 & 14), http://www.prolanguage.co.th; Offers group classes. Contact school for price.
- Thai Language House: Ploenchit Centre, Sukhumvit Soi 2, http://www.thailanguagehouse.com; Offers both private and group lessons starting from 5000 THB for 30 hours per person.
- Thai Language Hut: Sukhumvit Soi 43, http://www.thailanguagehut.com; Offers both private and group classes starting from 7000 THB for 30 hours per person.
It’s really not possible to say how much time is needed to learn to speak Thai. It’s possible to learn enough basic Thai to get along in just a few months provided you with study and practice. It is hard to become fluent and very few foreigners ever reach that level. If you do, a new world of opportunity will be open to you. Some of the most successful foreigners in Thailand are those that have taken the time and effort to really learn Thai culture and language.
How much time and effort should you put into it then? Thai as a language is only spoken in Thailand and as such is not really useful outside of the country. Most expats who stay for many years in Thailand eventually decide to learn Thai to a higher level than the basics, but as already stated, in expat and business circles it’s absolutely possible to live for years without ever having to speak much Thai. Many upper-class Thais have also studied abroad and have learned English. These educated Thais often prefer to speak English with foreigners as they are anxious to practice their language skills. It’s definitely worth taking a basic course at first, though, it’s fun and it’s a great way to meet other foreign expats.