The Moral Dilemma Of Learning Thai As An Expat

When my wife and I first moved to Thailand, like many expats I presume, we told ourselves we’d likely only be staying a year.

Consequently, we were hesitant to take Thai language lessons as we weren’t sure it would be worth our while. Nevertheless, after a fellow expat teacher friend of ours who’s relatively fluent in Thai offered to give us lessons for a friendly price, we thought, why not?

Before taking the lessons, we would ignorantly stumble around Bangkok asking vendors tao rai (how much), only to be embarrassed when they, not surprisingly, responded in Thai and we couldn’t understand.

Similarly, when we would show our teacher ID cards or work visas in an effort to get the local price at national attractions, we looked foolish when we couldn’t respond to such simple questions as khun poot tai dai mai (do you speak Thai), khun maa jak nai (where are you from) or sa baai dee mai (how are you).

Beyond the foregoing reason of wanting to pay the Thai instead of farang price, there comes a certain point after living here that you feel somewhat embarrassed and/or obligated to learn at least a little Thai. This is particularly so when asked the ever so common question khun yuu meuuang thai gee bpee laaeo khrap (how long have you been living in Thailand).

If your answer is less than a year, personally, I think it’s acceptable if you don’t know the local language, though even then you should probably know at least a few key words and phrases.

If your answer is over a year, however, particularly if several, and especially if you have no plans to leave anytime soon, then I think you’re faced with a real moral dilemma of whether or not to learn Thai.

Back to my story, after six months of taking lessons, I had learned most of the key words and phrases, most of the alphabet, and most importantly for my purposes, all of the numbers.

In short, I could: a) exchange the normal conversational pleasantries; b) recite all of the numbers so as to ensure I would always be able to negotiate the best price; c) order all of my favorite Thai foods without needing an English menu, or any menu for that matter; and d) get around in a taxi or tuk tuk by knowing the directions.

But after six months of taking Thai lessons, I felt as though I had hit a wall.

learning thai as an expat

I knew enough so as to give myself at least a little credibility among the Thais, but certainly not enough to be conversational, let alone fluent. I knew that in order to achieve that level of proficiency, it would take me not just another six months, but probably several years more of lessons, and tons of practice in between. By way of example, my wife lasted six months longer than me in our Thai language course, and her Thai is not much, if at all, better than mine.

And so I did what I suspect most expats do: I gave up.

Had I been in a different situation, for example single and looking to mingle with the Thai ladies, I likely would have continued my endeavors as many of my single expat friends have successfully done (in both the language and not surprisingly, female department). But as a married, and yes, faithful (unlike some of my expat friends) man, the extra effort required to master — or even to just become conversational in — the Thai language just didn’t seem worth it.

Like many fellow expats, here I am several years later, still at the same level of proficiency I was after my first year here.

So now the question I pose is, do we, as long-term (e.g., a year or more with no definitive plans to leave) expats, have a moral obligation to learn (or continue learning) Thai?

It was one thing when I had only been living here a year and could exchange the aforementioned pleasantries, but after living here for several years, I must admit that I do feel guilty not knowing more of the Thai language, particularly when confronted with the ever so popular “how long have you lived here?”

The problem, as I see it, is two-fold. First, from a practical perspective, second from a legal one.

With respect to the former, Thailand is SO Western-friendly that it makes it nearly impossible to muster the energy required to master the language, especially for a native English speaker who isn’t accustomed to the symbols, tones and lack of punctuation seen with Thai.

Particularly for someone like me who spends the majority of their time at an international university where everyone is encouraged (and often forced) to speak English, finding the motivation to enhance my Thai language skills has proven even more difficult.

And while I spend about half of my free time in my very local neighborhood of Hua Mak where almost no one (notwithstanding the university students) speaks English, I spend an equal amount of time in the expat/English friendly areas of Sukhumvit, Siam, Silom and Khao San where there’s really no need to know Thai.

Moreover, although knowing a little Thai will likely get you a better price when negotiating with a local vendor, it often doesn’t help at government-run facilities like national parks and temples where even a work visa and fluent conversation often isn’t enough to get you the Thai price.

In my experience, if often depends more on the kindness or lack of care of the Thai worker than your linguistic fluency or any documents you might be able to show them. This constant state of flux is likely sufficient material for a separate article, but suffice to say, it certainly doesn’t offer any further motivation to enhance your Thai skills.

Second, with respect to the legal aspect, though many countries, including Thailand, require you to learn their language as a prerequisite to gaining citizenship, none, to my knowledge and based on my admittedly limited research, require you to learn their language simply to be an expat (i.e., a temporary resident with no voting, property or citizenship rights).

Perhaps if countries like Thailand, with an ever-growing expat community, imposed some sort of minimum local language competency requirement prior to gaining expat status (for instance, prior to renewing your one year work visa), more farangs would feel it incumbent upon themselves to learn the local language.

It would certainly make the dreaded all-day, annual pilgrimage to the immigration office more palatable, as presumably many expats would choose a different country to live in that didn’t impose such stringent requirements. But then again, maybe we (or Thailand) should ask ourselves (or itself) — do we really want people living here who make absolutely no effort to learn the language or otherwise assimilate to the local culture?

learning Thai as an expat

By Georgie Pauwels (CC BY 2.0 Licence)

Knowing how protective Thailand is over its tourism industry and how hard it strives to appeal to the ever-growing Western masses, I sincerely doubt this will ever happen, or at least not anytime soon.

But with the growing problems in America (gun violence, racial tensions and political differences) and Europe (Brexit and multiple crumbling economies), I can only assume that the number of expats in Thailand will increase exponentially in the coming years.

When this eventuality does happen, how will Thailand cope with the increased number of expats? Perhaps imposing some sort of minimum language requirement isn’t the worst idea after all.

The only question I would have is would my admittedly basic skills make the cut? I sure hope so, for if not, rest assured, I’ll be back in the classroom (learning, not teaching) in no time.


Featured image is by Stellapark025 and used under a Creative Commons licence

Facebook image is by shankar s. and used under a Creative Commons licence



About Author

After practicing law for eight years at two of the largest firms in the world, in July 2013, David and his wife decided to take an extended honeymoon through South America and Asia, ultimately settling in Bangkok where he’s been teaching law and English at an international university ever since. David has visited over 50 countries on 6 continents and continues to practice law while also teaching and running his blog. Follow his adventures at The Stave Diaries, on Instagram and on Twitter.

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