“Do I need to learn Thai to live well in Thailand??”
This is a common question people ask before coming to Thailand.
They worry how they will work, make friends, go on dates, order food, or just go about their day to day life if they can’t speak Thai.
But depending on who you ask, it may not be as important as you think.
So let’s dive into the topic of learning Thai as a foreigner or expat in Thailand.
A little background on me first:
I’m an expat who’s been in Thailand for over 6 years now, and I can speak Thai better than the average expat.
No, I’m not fluent (and I still have trouble getting those pesky tones right!), but if I want to have a basic back and forth conversation about a variety of topics, I can.
I know the Thai alphabet well enough to make out basic words.
So with my experience in mind, let’s go back to the initial question,
“Is it necessary to speak Thai to live a good life here?”
I say absolutely not!
In my 6+ years here I have been surprised just how well you can get by without having to speak a word of Thai.
I’ve met expats who have lived in Thailand far longer than me who can’t say more than a couple words in Thai (and they can’t read a single word in the Thai script to save their life!).
But despite all that, they have still managed to live great lives in Thailand and go about their day to day life.
Yes, it will be challenging at times and the language barrier WILL get in the way, but that’s to be expected.
However, at least for me, it has always been doable.
Thinking back to my own experience of when I first came to Thailand and couldn’t say a single word, yes, things were more difficult than now with my basic Thai skills.
But I still could get around Thailand, order food, talk with taxi drivers without needing to use any Thai.
I’ve found most Thais you will encounter (regardless of education) will know the very basics of English.
Yeah, it will probably be broken English like, “Hey, where you go? I take you. 200 baht”. But they get the point across.
And you can’t say the same about many other countries in Asia!
Korea for example was quite difficult to get around without speaking any Korean. Even in Seoul which has a decent amount of foreigners, I didn’t really encounter any Koreans who could speak to me at a basic level of English like the Thais could.
From taxi drivers to convenience store employees, I couldn’t communicate with them at all. I had to use google translate and show them if I wanted to get my point across.
And this was a bit of a surprise for me because Korea is considerably more developed and wealthier than Thailand, so I had just assumed that the level of English amongst the common people would be higher.
But that wasn’t the case in my limited experience (7 days in Seoul on holiday). And I had a similar experience in Vietnam.
Whereas in Thailand, it’s not uncommon for even the old street vendors to know numbers in English.
So despite what the reports say about Thailand being near the bottom of Asia for English ability, I have found Thailand to be a very livable place without knowing Thai.
With all that said, I would still recommend you try to learn Thai if you want to stay here long term.
It’s not an easy language for native English speakers to learn, but you get so many insights about Thai people and Thai culture from the language.
And it opens up a whole world of interactions with Thai people who can’t speak English. And knowing Thai will be more and more beneficial the further you get away from tourist hot spots like Bangkok, Pattaya, and Chiang Mai.
So this blog post is already longer than I anticipated!
Let me just sum up my opinion as a 6+ year expat:
No, you don’t need to learn Thai to have a great life here. But if you do learn Thai, you will find it opens up new doors and will make your life here even better!
I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
If you agree with me, let me know.
If you think I’m full of it, let me know too! Let’s try to make this a friendly place of discussion for all foreigners in Thailand.
If you want to learn Thai, ThaiPod101 is a great resource to get you started. They give you a bunch of free resources to level up your Thai language skills in the shortest time possible. If you are interested, please click the link below:
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