OK, I should start by apologising to some degree for the topic description which might appear on first impression to be an attempt to make fun of Thai speakers. To be honest, you would have more ammunition making fun of me listening to my monotone Australian accent speaking Thai let alone my attempts to properly pronounce Thai words. I wouldn't say I'm tone deaf, I'm simply not accustomed to applying the importance of tones when I speak. Anyone who has looked at learning Thai will know that the simple word “Mai” can have 5 different meanings depending on the tone used. While tones are important, sentence context will also assist in the same way as “there, their, they're” would be difficult to discern even for an native English speaker without some context being provided.
The topic heading is a tongue-in-cheek joke I have with my wife, who has completed English courses and can speak and write quite good English (when she wants to). Once in a while, my wife reverts to pigeon-english and instead of correcting her, I just reply in the same pigeon-english which gets the point across and she corrects herself (and she to me in contrast with speaking Thai).
I'll admit that I spent some time trying to learn ways in speaking Thai, through various self-learning study tools. Regrettably, due to limited opportunities to practice speaking Thai, I've now forgotten more than I can remember. I still remember enough to get the drift of basic questions asked to me at times from friendly taxi drivers etc like – can you speak thai, where I'm from, what Amphur in Yasothon do I stay etc.
Speaking Thai – Do you need to learn?
Simple answer is no, subject to the following caveat. You will always gain more from your travels the more you can interact with the locals at their level. The more you move away from the main tourist hubs of Thailand like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Hua Hin, Phuket, Samui etc, the more important it is to have some basic Thai language skills. The alternative of course is to have someone travel with you who can speak Thai/Lao. I have fallen into the latter category as my wife resists my efforts in speaking Thai and refuses to assist me despite many requests which I've since given up on.
Should you learn some Thai
If you intend to be a regular visitor to Thailand, you should definitely get some basic Thai under your belt. I would recommend to start out with learning to count between 1 – 11 because you are then 90% complete in being able to speak any number thereafter (actually easier to learn than somebody to learn numbers in English). After that, you should just focus on what words or sentences you think you will encounter or interested in. For example, I love going to markets so learning how to haggle the price, colours, “do you have any more” etc made it easier to learn.
OK, so you know some basic Thai
Knowing a few words and sentences doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be understood by everyone you encounter. I've observed this more so in Isaan than anywhere else, with my attempts to speak Thai are met with blank faces a lot of times. Other times, I might as well just go back to speaking English because it has the same result. I put this down to two things but in no particular order on which impacts more:
- My bad ability to use tones when speaking Thai; and
- It can take some time before the locals realise you are trying to speak Thai.
Sometimes you can see it being the proverbial lightbulb coming on and you get this (in Thai/Lao) “ooooh, you're speaking Thai”. Quite an embarrassing and humbling moment when that happens but it doesn't discourage me.
Should I speak Thai to other foreigners
Definitely not! It makes no sense whatsoever. A funny story I can share that happened earlier this year when I was in Ubon Ratchathani when a young American girl (about 16 I would guess) approached me. I actually saw her and her two western fellow students a little earlier walking around in school uniform which was out of place catching my attention. I then saw her approaching me and with a smile and expecting to be greeted in English, I was confronted with “pood dai pasar anggrek dai mai” (Can you speak English?). I just started laughing at her, not to be mean or rude, but she caught me by surprise in a way I never expected and just trying to give a reply made me laugh even more because I found myself in a conundrum, do I reply in Thai or English?
After a brief moment I was able to reply and decided to reply with “dai, pood dai” (Yes I can speak). I then I switched to English and said “But why didn't you just ask me that in English to start with instead of speaking Thai?”. She paused for a moment and then laughed and I laughed a bit more knowing my point dawned on her. I will say though that I didn't have any problems understanding her Thai. Turns out she was just wanting to have a chat about stuff generally and explained the 3 of them were on a school exchange program for 2 weeks with a group of other students sent to different parts of Thailand and they drew Ubon.