Common Mistakes Westerners Make When Attempting to Learn Thai

Do you know your Tom Yam Gung from your Sawadee Kap? Learning the Thai language can seem daunting from the get-go, but don’t fret about it. Anything that’s worth something in life always takes a bit of dedication and desire. The answer to my original question is that Tom Yam Gung is a spicy shrimp soup, while Sawadee Kap is the Kingdom’s standard greeting term.

Thai child monks cleansing in a stream in Northern Thailand. Image from Pixabay

Are you thinking about learning Thai or visiting Thailand? Do you want to get it right from the start? Here are some common mistakes Westerners make when attempting to learn Thai.

Thai is a basic language

It’s believed that there are approximately 2,864 words in the Thai language. When comparing that to the 171,476 words we currently have in the Oxford English dictionary, it would seem that Thai should be easy to learn. Because most Thai words are monosyllabic, it can give the impression that the Thai language is quite a basic one. That is not entirely true. The monosyllable words are often pieced together to create other terms that have broader meanings. Although to this day nobody knows the exact amount of Thai words, it’s far more multi-faceted than you initially perceive.

Failing to understand tonal languages

The most common mistake Westerners make is they fail to understand that Thai is a tonal language. Most languages across Northern Europe are monotone, which means the tone of each word stays pretty much the same. Thai language shares linguistic roots with ancient dialects such as Sanskrit and uses several tones when spoken.

There are five main tones that you seriously need to remember when learning Thai: high, low, mid, rising, and falling.

As a westerner from a monotone language background, you might say one word in Thai that you think means a certain thing, but because you failed to recognize the correct tone, it could mean something completely different. It can get you in trouble if you are not careful. You might think you are asking “how much does it cost to pay for a sun lounger?” But in reality, you just asked: “how much does it cost to fund the military coup of a small African nation?” Make sure you get your tones nailed down.

Elephant and a lady playing in the crystal blue waters of Southern Thailand. Image from Pixabay

The Thai language has regional dialects

It’s important to remember that although the main Thai language is Central Thai, there are many varying dialects that will be difficult to catch by ear. However, everyone across Thailand understands Central Thai, which is the one spoken around Bangkok and also taught in schools and used in everyday communication.

Don’t be surprised if you are on the Thai side of the Thai-Cambodian border and a person speaks to you in something that resembles Thai but is its own entity. Just speak Central Thai with them and they will understand.

Learn Thai with language lessons, not in a bar

Many Westerners, especially males between the ages 45 and 65, come to Thailand and attempt to learn pigeonhole Thai from sultry hostesses at nightlife venues. They pick up all the bad words and habits, fail to understand the varying degrees of tones, and simply make a mess of it.

The only way to learn Thai properly is with lessons from a professional Thai language teacher or instructor. If you are serious about learning Thai, you will take the recommended path of purchasing affordable Thai lessons with a pro. You don’t want to accidentally become the dictator of an African nation when all you wanted to do was relax on the beach, do you?