Learning Thai, or Muttering Some Words from a Book

The next step in my relationship was learning Thai. I knew it would be important to speak my girlfriend’s language. In fact, if you ask me today the number one reason why American/Thai relationships fail, it’s because the American doesn’t bother learning Thai. Yeah, there’s the whole age difference thing which is the real number one reason American/Thai couples fail. But 60 year old men coming to Thailand and picking up 20 year old girls that work in bars should already know it’s not going to work out. Let’s keep it real. However, Ping and me are the same age, and are actually serious with one another. Like any serious relationship…communication is the key.


Communication was all we had. We were 8,867 miles apart. Yes, I googled that nugget of info. Thanks to technology though, the two of us could see each other on video every day. However, we still needed to be able to speak the same language. Or, is that 3 languages? My wife is Thai Isaan. Isaan is the northeastern region of Thailand. No, Thailand isn’t all the same and it does have cultural differences according to region. One of which is language. All children learn Thai (or Central Thai) when growing up. However, the Thai Isaan also have their own language. Plus, Ping knew some English. The simple stuff remembered from her school days, some from Google Translate, some from books, and quite a bit from Youtube videos. Her favorites are American pop songs translated to Thai. 


I put Isaan language on the back burner at first, and focused on strictly Thai. Only now am I really digging into Isaan. At first, I don’t know if I was so much learning Thai as I was just muttering some words from a book. Actually, it was a few books in the beginning. They do not create all language books equally. Okay, I’ll just say it, some books suck ass. I settled on Lonely Planet’s Thai Phrasebook and Dictionary. It’s a good one that I still use to this day for the dictionary. Meanwhile, I was also teaching Ping more English. Some of those early days were just the two of us teaching each other. Not only were we learning together, we were strengthening our bond.


While this post isn’t meant to be a language lesson, I would suggest studying pronunciation keys first for those interested. I knew if i could pronounce Thai correctly then I could read romanized Thai. While Thai has its own script, language books also use romanization. Simply, books translate the script to the English alphabet. For example, สวัสดี becomes ‘sawatdee’, which means ‘hello’. Thus, an English speaker can speak the word if the pronunciation is known. That’s the easy part though. Thai is a tonal language. Learning the different tones is what proves difficult, or rather remembering when to use the tones when you aren’t looking at a book.


I could notice my improvement in real time. First, I always had my book close in hand. Then, probably a couple of months in, I was using the book less. I could have long conversations with my girlfriend in her language. Eventually, I didn’t need the book at all. I still use the dictionary when discovering a new word, but I’ll be learning Thai for years. What’s important is that Ping and I can now flawlessly talk to each other and switch between 3 different languages. The real test of my skills was traveling to Thailand, but that will be discussed in future posts.


Would I order a banana in Thailand? No, but I’m not afraid to use what I know of the language with native speakers. The word for banana and the word for cock are very similar sounding if you are curious. Trust me, I’m not hungry for a cock, although pronouncing banana wrong in Thailand only earns you a friendly laugh. Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to order a dozen bananas. For now, I just keep improving and learning Thai. No longer am I just muttering some words from a book. Well, there’s still some of that at times, hence the expression…excuse my Thai.


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