Do People Speak English in Thailand?

When booking a trip to The Land of Smiles, you might wonder how difficult it will be for you to get around as a tourist who speaks absolutely no Thai. Will there be a large English-speaking population in Thailand whom you can converse with to get around? 

Most people in Thailand do not speak English. Although large cities have many people who can speak elementary English words or phrases, nobody speaks English in the rural areas. It’s prudent to learn basic Thai or go on a guided tour when going to Thailand. 

This article will take a look at why Thai people do not speak English. Keep reading to learn whether or not you can get by in Thailand without speaking Thai.

Do Thai People Speak English?

Most Thai people do not speak English. Thailand reported very low levels of English proficiency, scoring 89th out of 100 countries according to the 2020 EF English Proficiency Index. Even if you meet a Thai person who does speak English, they’ll act like they cannot understand what you are saying. 

The rationale behind this is to save face. Thais are very prideful and have a very perfectionistic culture. They do not like being imperfect or wrong at anything. 

Therefore, even if they know how to speak English, they’ll avoid speaking it out of fear and shame of having the wrong accent or saying the wrong thing. 

Can You Get By in Thailand Without Speaking Thai?

You can get by in Thailand without speaking Thai if you stick to the larger cities, as there’s a surprisingly large number of people who speak English. Barring the fluent speaker, if you speak very slowly, ignore grammar rules, and emphasize the point, quite a few Thai people will understand you. 

Most restaurants in large cities will have someone on hand who speaks a minimal amount of English, so you can order what you want. 

Even if they don’t, you can rely on the standard tourist ‘point and gesture’ to get what you need. However, there are specific instances where you will need to know a few Thai phrases. 

If you’re taking a taxi, you should know how to ask your driver to turn on the meter or ask how much money it will require. 

Some markets might have sellers who don’t understand any English, so you should learn to ask for the bill or basic Thai numbers to say how much of something you want.

In the rural parts of Thailand, you will not find anyone who speaks a lick of English. I recommend having a tour guide if you want to go off the beaten path as it will be challenging to communicate with the locals, even if you have a phrasebook. 

Why Is English Spoken Poorly in Thailand?

English is spoken poorly in Thailand due to their education system. Schools emphasize rote memorization over communication skills and don’t have a conducive learning environment. Thai people also have nobody to practice their English with, resulting in the deterioration of their skills. 

Even Thai students who have taken English as a second language over the years have difficulties speaking it. There are various reasons for this:

Lack of Interest From Students

Most students who take English never achieve a high level of interest in the subject, hindering their learning. This is not encouraged by the school environment, where not all English teachers are proficient in English. 

Improper English Teaching in Thai Schools

Thai schools often lack a proper structure when teaching English. Instead of learning English for conversation and basic understanding, schools often emphasize specific vocabulary or grammar structures. This is borne out of a desire to improve general English proficiency, but it often ends up achieving the opposite effect. 

Lack of Practice in Society

Since mostThais don’t speak English, English Thai speakers rarely have an opportunity to practice with others. Furthermore, speaking English is a cultural faux pas.Thai speakers who try to communicate in English are thought of as snobbish. English is the language of the elites, so intentionally speaking it as a Thai person is like lording your elevated social standing over everyone else.

English Use in Major Cities in Thailand

  • Bangkok – Bangkok is the capital of Thailand. It is a city that is used to many tourists coming through each year. This is due to Bangkok’s beautiful golden statues and stunning temples. There are also some of the most luxurious hotels available to stay in, as well as budget-friendly options, making it a city for everyone. Even with as many tourists as it does receive, Bangkok has kept its culture, history, and religions intact. The risks associated with travelling to Bangkok are medium. The English language can be understood in Bangkok more than most of the other cities. This is because it is a transport hub for intentional travellers.
  • Chiang Mai – Chiang Mai is located in the center of Northern Thailand. It is a city often visited by tourists who want to get away from the business of the world for a bit. Surrounded by mountains and beautiful countryside, Chiang Mai is a tranquil city with very low danger risks. While pick-pocketing and terrorism risks are considered to be medium threats, the risk of mugging is considered to be very low. English is quite common in Chiang Mai especially in the tourist areas. In the areas frequented by locals, some people may be able to understand it, but very few will be able to speak it properly.
  • Krabi – Krabi Province is home to the city of Krabi. But while the city is quiet and not a very bustling place, tourists who come to visit spend most of their time in Krabi Province where the beaches and hotels are beautiful and luxurious. Given that so many tourist visit Krabi, the people of Krabi do tend to speak English quite well.
  • Pattaya – Pattaya is known as a resort that is on Thailand’s Eastern Gulf Coast. It is a city that is well-known for its sex industry. Many of its tourists are there for sex and wild parties. English can be spoken by some people in Pattaya. Some of the signs will also have English on them which helps tourists navigate around.
  • Phuket – Phuket is the largest island in Thailand. It is also one of the most beautiful locations with fantastic beaches and different activities for tourists to participate in. Most people in Phuket can only speak very basic English. It is enough for them to conduct simple transactions, but they will be unlikely to carry on a conversation.

What Languages are Spoken in Thailand?

  • Thai – The Thai language makes up 30% of Taiwan’s native languages. It is comprised of several different languages that are considered to be regional. It is also thought to have its roots in Sanskrit, Pali, and Old Khmer.
  • Lao – The Lao language can also be referred to as Laotian. It is most commonly spoken in the northwest region of Thailand. It is considered to be one of the minority languages in Thailand.
  • Yawi – Yawi is the language most used by Malay Muslims in Thailand. Yawi is also used to conduct business and commerce in areas of the rural south. It is considered to be one of the minority languages in Thailand.
  • Teochow – Teochow is a dialect considered to be part of the language, Chinese Minnan. It has its roots in ancient Chinese. It is considered to be one of the minority languages in Thailand.
  • Moken – Moken is an indigenous language of Thailand spoken by the Moken people who inhabit Mergui Archipelago. It is an area that is shared between Burma and Thailand.
  • Hmong – Hmong is spoken by the Hmong people. There are approximately 3.7 million people who speak Hmong as their first language.
  • Phu Thai – Phu Thai is the most widely spoken of the indigenous languages. It has approximately 870,000 speakers located throughout the regions in Vietnam, Lamos, and Thailand.
  • Khmer – Khmer is part of the language of Mon-Kmer. It is the most widely spoken of the five languages that make up Mon-Kmer, and is spoken by approximately 16 million people in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
  • Akhan – Akhan makes up one of the two languages of Sino-Tibetan that is spoken in Thailand. Its speakers are mainly in northern Thailand.

Is English necessary in Thailand?

  • Tourists – For most locations in Thailand, English is not a commonly spoken language. It is quite often understood, but residents of varying areas don’t speak it fluently at all. For tourists, travelling to Thailand can be frustrating because no one understands them in the rural areas. Bangkok is the most popular of Thailand’s tourist destinations. While some of the residents can understand English, they aren’t able to communicate very well. This makes it difficult for tourists to navigate around the town, hire taxis, and shop. However, some tourists do say that the people are so kind and happy in Thailand, that in some cases, speaking English isn’t necessary at all. There almost doesn’t appear to be a language barrier because of the use of gestures, facial expressions, etc.
  • Locals – Many people in Thailand don’t speak English at all, or only in very small amounts. This is unfortunate as Thailand relies heavily on tourists for the economy to grow and prosper. However, Thailand is given the opportunity to learn English through schooling, if they so choose. One of the main reasons Thailand isn’t very focused on learning English, even though it could help their economy, is because they are afraid it will take away from their unique cultures and first languages that make up their national identity.

English vs Thai

So Thai is by fair the most common language in Thailand. For native English speakers it is probably useful to compare the two languages.

  • Vocabulary – In Thai vocabulary is often built through compounding other words. Take the word for honey which is nam-phueng which is made up of the words for water + bee. This word construction is different to English. In terms of loanwords from English, Thai has in recent years taken on more and more. The existence of words like dinosaur dai-no-sao or shampoo chaem-phu can make learning some Thai vocabulary easier.
  • Grammar – Verbs don’t change for tense or subject, nouns don’t have a case system and word order is the same as English. On balance the grammar of Thai isn’t too difficult, but it is different to English.
  • Speaking/listening – There are quite a few new sounds that you wont have experience of with English. To add to that, Thai is a tonal language with 5 tones in total. This can make learning Thai difficult at first if you have no experience with other tonal languages.
  • Writing/reading – Thai is written in an abugida script. This means that for each syllable there is a symbol denoting a consonant around which are placed vowel and tone markers. This style of writing is pretty alien to English speakers and take many months to master.

Overall, the speaking/listening and the writing/reading are going to be problem areas for learning Thai. If you are interested to find out more about how hard Thai is, then follow this link.

Basic Phrases in Thai

  • Good morning – sawatdee don chao
  • Good afternoon –  sawat dee tohn bai
  • Good evening – sawat dee tohn yen
  • Yes – Chai
  • No – Mai 
  • Goodbye – wái jəə gan
  • Thank you – khop khun

Final Thoughts

Thailand is famous for its amazing tourist destinations. Few places in the world can compare. Consequently, many English speakers from all over the world flock to the country.

This has meant that a lot of the local Thai involved in the tourist industry have learnt English to a level sufficient to have a basic conversation. In total this is around a quarter of the population.

That being said, it is always useful to have a little Thai in your toolkit if you plan to get off the beaten track. Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Do People Speak English in Thailand?”

  1. I’ve had a very depressing 4 months in Thailand. All I can say to would-be polyglots is that if you aren’t in the top 10% of charming and social, do not do Bangkok or Pattaya. They see my skin color and immediately address me in English. It is horrible. In Medellin, Colombia and Paris, France both (by contrast) I learned more of the local languages in a single week than I’ve had exposure in 4 months in Thailand due to my horrible choice in locations to stay. In all 3 cases I came as an absolute beginner. And in the case of Thailand, I’ve taken 5 hours a day of classes the entire stay but it was an absolute waste of time being here because I had 0 real life encounters with the language.

    I know there are people who will want to argue with me. (1) Yes, I have no idea what kind of an experience intermediate learners will have. It may or may not be excellent for them in Bangkok/Pattaya. I understand that, because in China I sometimes dealt with being addressed first in English, but also became adept at completely shutting them down with a few syllables of very polished Mandarin. (2) As a beginner the problem is not whether or not I can convince someone I’m interacting with to start speaking Thai. It just doesn’t work like that. If you are in a country/location where locals start in the local language, they’ll say the things they ought to to you freely and with a full range of expression. If people are speaking English first, they’re generally in avoidance mode and will say as few things as possible. It simply robs you of the opportunity to have hundreds upon hundreds of natural encounters in which case 4 months would be enough to decipher (even as a beginner) almost anything that could come up in a daily life situation. I’ve done this enough times to realize you have to simple completely avoid these geographic locations at all costs.

    Reply
    • Justin, some great points there. I currently live in China in one of the big cities, but I travel to many less frequented regions with work and I am able to get some much more practice done when on these trips.

      Reply

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