“Farang Speak Thai?!”

Want to go to the toilet? Learn to read Thai first!

Well, I shall certainly have to admit to a slight delay there in the writing up of this new blog, had a darned bad head cold for a few days. Probably due to the freaky weather lately that has been changing as often as me daughter does her diapers.

Anyway, after writing to the likes of our nation’s notorious leaders and the bewilderment of Bangkok, I thought, just for today to pick out of the bag a subject that surely even torments even the hardest-hearted of Farang from time to time and that is ….learning the Thai Lingo!

For sure, there are plenty-a funny sites to be seen here in the Land of the Guava and Green Tea. But as for the Thais they find nothing funnier than the site of the Farang trying to speak Thai.

Every Farang in Thailand has probably had to endure the daunting task of attempting to have himself understood, in Thai, in the middle of Nakhorn Nowhere – only to have a whole group of passer-bys stand around looking on in bemusement.

Then we have that other type of Thai, the ones working in shops and restaurants that run-away at the sight of a Farang coming in thinking the frivilous alien doesn’t speak a word of Thai. This escapade happens every day in the land’s shoeshops. Half the salesgirls on seeing a Farang (of course they dont think for a minute he might speak some Thai) enter the shop decide that they need an urgent pee and flee to the toilet thus escaping the embarrassing situation of trying to speak English. If that isnt enough for the pitiful Farang when trying to learn Thai, they are innumerable Thais who on working in the tourist areas deliberately try NOT to understand the Farang speaking Thai. Fair enough, these sorts of folk dont like the prospect of Farangs speaking Thai (ie. Roo mak) as of course they find it difficult to swindle money out of them.

Overall however, most decent Thais appreciate any Farang who makes a go at learning their frustratingly difficult sing-a-song sounding lingo. Even the most basic of three word sentences on being heard by a Thai will be complimented with ‘Farang phoot Thai Keng’ (Hey, this Farang speaks excellent Thai!).

Probably the two most difficult areas of the Thai lingo for the Farang are 1. The pronunciation of the vowel sounds. 2. The tones. And the biggest tonal classic cock-up for the Farang is ‘Suay’ roughly translating as nice-looking/beautiful. Just how many Farang have insulted both their loved ones (and themselves), who on saying ‘Fairn phom suay mak mak’ with the wrong tone have stated (instead of the meant my girlfriend is beautiful) ‘That girlfriend of mine has been darned unlucky to have met the likes of me!’ Then, one of the worst imaginable cock-ups is when the Farang who on needing the directions to a travel agency say ‘Ran Khai Tua’ with the wrong tone. ‘Tua’ as in ticket is in that tricky ‘mai jat-wa’ tone and most Farang end up saying “Excuse me how do I get to the shop sell body?” (instead of shop sell ticket) only for a tuk-tuk driver on hearing this to come rushing over flashing out his brochures of some down-right kinky massage parlour!

Then, for my first couple of years here in Thailand I spent a couple of them down in the south where most of the local Thais can’t even speak Thai themselves but instead a defunct dialect completely incomprehendable to the rest of the country Then, I had this Mr Lek guy have me stay at his house for a couple of months to teach him English for free food and bed. What a headache that was! As his shop-house was the biggest egg-selling one in town I only had to tell the motorbike-taxi drivers ‘Take me to the shop that sells chicken eggs’ translated to Thai that is ‘Ran khai khai kai’. Get yer tongue ‘round that one!

Anyway, after a couple of years in the south I was pretty fluent, what with having studied it before too that I returned to Bangkok with me head in the air and confident to the brim about my ability of Thai. How wrong I could have been! I had instead, became fluent with this hoarse southern accent with some of the south’s mind-boggling lingo mixed in. Probably the worst habit I had picked up down south was saying ‘teen’ for feet instead of ‘thao’. Well, don’t blame me as that’s all they said down south (‘teen’ is an impolite word in ‘proper’ Thai) and Thais are pretty sensitive about such a part of the body. Thinking back, I can imagine the look the Bangkoks shoeshop salesgirl would have had when I said ‘I need a pair of ‘rong teen!” would be just like a vagabound foreigner in our own country rudely telling the asst along the lines of ‘I need a pair of shoes for me ‘friggin feet!’.

Now, after a six month stretch lazing away on the beaches of Krabi (dead quiet in those days) I had learnt loads-a local lingo that if used anywhere else in the country who be understood as much as Double-Dutch. One word I picked up was ‘bia’ as in money. On arriving in Bangkok I used this word there a few times only to have the listener look at me dumb-founded and reply to the likes of “What the heck are you trying to say?’ Our friends down south can’t even be bothered saying the months as if they were too difficult and do instead just say ‘deu-an 1’, ‘deu-an 2’ (month 1, month 2 etc).Then foreigners will be glad that they don’t have to try and pronounce ‘Krungthep’ cause some of the dialects still use ‘Bangkok’ (very old Thai) but pronounced slightly differently ‘Bang-gok’.

During me time here in Thailand I’ve had the chance to travel and work all over the place and having spent a long while in Laos too, has meant that I’ve become pretty proficient in Laotian as well as Thai. I have however refrained myself from speaking this certain lingo/dialect outside of the north-eastern region these days. Wondering as you may, why. Just say for example ‘Bor pen i-yang’ (Mai Pen Rai) in Bangkok and all you’ll hear in return is the likes of ‘Farang mee mia Lao!’ (Farang must have a Lao/Isarn wife). To Farang of course, this is not funny, but to most Thais this is pretty hysterical!

Picking up a phrasebook and learning Thai just that way is fine for starters but not if you wanna be any ‘good’ in the language as many-a phrase/word etc.. just don’t translate properly Thai>English and vice-versa. Now: boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband what a darned headache those words just are in Thai! On first learning Thai the Farang believes Fairn = Boyfriend/Girlfriend and Mia = Wife. Of course that’s not always the case and is instead often Fairn = Wife/Husband and Mia = Girlfriend (in the case of the two living together in sin without being married, just like in the west).
Getting back to Fairn = Wife, well that’s a polite way of saying ‘the wife’. As often enough ‘Mia’ is rather impolite (to a lot of folks). Then ‘Phanraya’ (the formal word) sounds far too poshy polite! Not knowing therefore what to actually call ‘her’ resort to ‘Fairn kong phom’ (me girlfriend) as it sounds cute and like they are still in love. Sure, half the country believes that the lovey-dovey stuff stops when you get married, just like the rest of the world I suppose.

Confused? Well, if you aren’t you ought to be!

“I want to go to Cen-tron”

Well, as Thailand has developed an excess amount of English has dissolved into the Thai language which is known as ‘Tap sap’ (words from the tap/faucet). So many of these words are now in daily usage, especially in Bangkok, that you could almost hold a conversation in Thai in English ie. ‘Chan ja charge battery nai hotel’ translated to English means ‘I’m going to charge the battery (phone) in the hotel’. Drink, support, notebook, coupon, cap, basic etc… are just a tiny sample of the English words now being used in spoken Thai. Then, over the past few years two of the new trendy ‘tap sap’ words amongst the brainy Bangkokians have been ‘work’ and ‘get’. If you don’t get what someone is going on about just say ‘Mai get!’ ( I don’t get it) and then polish that off with ‘Mai work’ ( It’s not working ie. in the terms of a plan or relationship etc..)

Currently top of the dastardly corrupt usage of ‘Tap sap’ has got to be ‘take care’ here it’s used for anything similar to this word in sense. Forget even the bothersome ‘of’ just say ‘I take care you’, ‘He take care me’, ‘We take care customer’, ‘The girl take care fish’. Then, as for savage ‘Tap sap’, the stevesuphan award of the week goes to the word ‘dic’ (as in dictionary). Me myself had got well used to using this word with my students, that was until I met my new grade six class this year. Somehow or another the whole darned class had found out before that this word does sound extremely similar, if not the same, as a naughty word from the English language.

You should have seen the complete class roll-up in laughter when I ordered them to ‘Ok, get out your dics’. As for the rest of the other classes, they still haven’t the faintest.

Besides just ‘Tap sap’ there are also plenty of ways to communicate in Thai and that certainly includes non-verbal communication. Most Farang on trying to get their tongue around ‘Gep ngoern duay krap’ (Could I have the bill please?) fail to realise that just a small swirling circley action of the index finger is more than enough to get the message across. As for the smoker-farangs they just needn’t bother having to tongue-twist ‘Thee Khia Buree’ to ask for an ashtray when just a tapping resemblance to ‘flashin the ash’ will be thoroughly understood.

I’ve seen some major misunderstanding though between Thais and Farang and I remember one classic example many years back down there on Koh Samui. While sat at a bar chatting to the cashier in walked this Farang who looked as if he, just five minutes ago arrived in the country. Obviously thinking the cashier didn’t speak a word of English asked (Do you have….? And thinking she wouldn’t understand the word ‘cigarettes’ puts two fingers to his lips making a smoking action. Certainly outraged by this, the cashier walked over to the guy and said right to his face ‘If you want buy ganja you come the wrong place!’

One particular annoyance that I still encounter even to this day is when some Thais just love correcting a tricky word that you have just slightly mispronounced and have a right laugh at your expense. It wouldn’t be too bad if the critic could put together the most basic of sentences in English himself. The worst offending examples of this have to be ‘Central’, ‘Robinson’ or ‘Mc Donalds’ etc.. Of course half the population seemingly don’t realise that these are in fact English words and not Thai at all. Just say one of these words to a Thai and you’ll be getting a telling off along the lines of ‘No, you say not correct, you must say Cen-tarn!’

And finally, being cheesed-off at times with this corrupt usage of English within the Thai language have on occasions given the Thais a bit of their own medicine. I remember on the skytrain when taking me young daughter Candy with me once, I had her stand at the window while I was teaching her the likes of ‘This is Victory Monument’ etc.. with all the onlookers looking on probably thinking ‘Oooh how cute! ’That was until on arriving at Saphan Kwai where I shouted out rather loud ‘And this is Buffalo Bridge’. Of course all the schoolgirls started giggling away to themselves while the elder straight-faced folks pierced their eyebrows giving off one of those ‘What kind of language is that to teach a child!’ looks. Sod them, Saphan Kwai translates as Buffalo Bridge does it not?

On the second occasion however my joke back-fired and all Candy could say in her badly pronounced Thai-English was ‘Hey dad, Buffalo Brit, Buffalo Brit.’ Out of the skytrain I soon gave her a well deserved ‘clip ‘round the ear’ to remind her of some of her origins.

14 responses to ““Farang Speak Thai?!”

  1. Richard Smith

    Excellent!

  2. Wow! LOL! You put it all together so well!

  3. ” farang speak Thai ” so cute ^_^

  4. Kitjar Na Bangsar

    Great piece!

    i note that Thais in Malaysia also speak the Southern Thai dialect, rather different when you hear them speaking!

  5. It’s really funny! 🙂

    Learning any other languages is always interesting and fun, especially learning the pronounciation.

    My mother tounge is German. I have been learning quite a lot of languages in my life (Indonesian, English, Chinese, Dutch, French, and Spanish).

    Then I’ve tried to learn Japanese and Thai language autodidact. So far, based on my experience, I think the most difficult language to learn is Thai, I’m not sure whether it is because I don’t have a tutor who can explain me the grammar/pronounciation/writing or because Thai language itself is a very complicated language to learn.

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    Just expanding on what Kitjar said.

    In the deep south they speak ‘Yawi’ which is a completely different dialect in itself. I know nothing of this language but that its half way between Thai and Malay.
    If any of you Thai learners have problems with the five tones then howbout Laotian, that has six. Then the worst of all must be the Cantonese which ive heard has a staggering eight!!

  7. Another fun and entaining piece.

    My daughter got a good laugh when I was on the speaker phone and my fan said she was going to get her “talking dic” and I seem to provide never ending amusement to my friends with my southren accent pa saa Thai.

  8. good article

  9. “Just say one of these words to a Thai and you’ll be getting a telling off along the lines of ‘No, you say not correct, you must say Cen-tarn!’”

    Hey! No kidding! The exact same thing happened to me during my first year here!!! The taxi driver corrected me and told me off (in a lecturely manner) it should be pronouced as “Cen-tarn” Ladphrao and not “Cen-tral” Ladphrao!
    Untill now its still one of funniest story I share with my S’pore friends. 😀
    Oh ya, and Lotus… its Low- task… 😀

  10. I have seen this.. Then there is the Taxi not stopping as the driver is afraid of the same. Or speaking Thai and the Thai person looking at you not understanding and you know you are saying it correctly. All part of Thailand 🙂

  11. Hi Steve.
    Reading through all your archived blogs. I hope some “Tam sap” arrives in Wichianburi by the time I go to live there in 18 months.. My language skills presently amount to little more than “Ein bier bitter” and “Un biere pression si vous plait.” (I was very bad at languages at school.)
    I figure jumping in at the deep end is the only answer. There are few farangs living in Wichian and my new wife Kai will not be with me 24/7 to translate.
    For now I get by with a dozen phrases and the invaluable “Phoot Thai nit noi” and ” Phoot cha cha.”
    I have a growing collection of Thai language CD’s and DVD’s (Buythaibooks.com!) which may help when I actually take them out of the shrink wraps.
    More on day to day life please.
    Love to Nong Candy, reminds me of Kai’s daughter,Praw,whom I miss terribly.

  12. I loved reading this article. I am just visiting in pattaya for work with us military, and am really trying to learn the language. I don’t really find the Thai language to be that hard to learn. I have begun learning French soome time ago, but stopped because it was boring. Some day I will move here and really learn how to be a good falang.

  13. I can not stop laughing to this article.It is really hilarious and so true.
    Last time, I went back home with my bf.
    He could not stop laughing when the noodles shop guy said “Farang Mai sai Prik ”
    It was cute …Ha ha Ha We thought so too.
    I don’t feel any embarrasing with Thai-Engrish.
    At least, They try to communicate to Farang in our own way with big smile.

  14. A sensitive and penetrating insight into the thinking of the Thai Nation.
    On a more personal note (apologies), as a teacher of English you might want to take more care: your text is riddled with mistakes: incorrect expressions, changes of subject/verb agreement half way through a sentence, sentence structure and so on. Not a great advert for a teacher of English – even if you have a greater command of the language than the people you are teaching it to!