Let’s face it, life is easier when we understand each other. Communication is essential wherever you go. So, if you’re considering traveling or living in Thailand, you’d not be alone in wondering, do most Thai people speak English?
In the 2020 EF English Proficiency Index, Thailand ranked at 89th place out of 100 countries. In big cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Pattaya, you will find people who can speak English. But daily, you might encounter many people who cannot speak English, especially when you travel to provinces.
How Openly Do Thai People Speak English?
Interestingly, even when they understand English, some might still refuse to talk with you in English or even pretend like they don’t understand you out of fear or shyness.
So, it’s safe to say that it can get pretty frustrating to communicate in English with the local people. But of course, if you go to department stores, hotels, and high-end restaurants, you will find people who can speak English. Also, most of the younger generation can speak (or at least understand) English very well.
However, there are many ways for foreigners and non-Thai speakers to enjoy their everyday lives in Thailand despite the language barriers and knowing very limited Thai language.
Here is what communication is like for foreigners like us in the Land of Smiles, where English is limited.
One thing foreigners should understand is that it’s easier to communicate in English with the locals if one just forgets all the grammatical rules and make short sentences focusing only on the main points. This is because most Thai people speak what is known as “Tinglish.”
Tinglish is the method of conversing in English without using the proper grammar and/or sentence construction (2).
For example, Thai people use many clipped words when speaking in Tinglish, like saying ‘sewen’ instead of ‘7-11’. Propositions are often omitted in the sentences, so instead of ‘Where can I go for the toiler?’, local people are more likely to understand ‘Where go toilet?’.
Tinglish also has a lot of sentences that are spoken in literal translation from Thai to English, which can be pretty confusing for foreigners and expats who are not familiar with such usage of English.
Tinglish is used very widely, even on the official signs in public areas, as seen in the picture below.
As a general rule, just forget all the grammar rules and sentence structure you might have learned in the class and focus on catching the main points. If the vendor or the hotel receptionist says ‘No have’ when you asked for something, it means they don’t have the thing you asked for.
If the taxi driver asks you where you want to go, just say the name of the place you would like to go to and forget about using proper sentences like ‘I would like to go to this place please,’ because it will just confuse him and probably cause a lot of stress for both of you.
How Else Do Thai People Speak English with Foreigners?
Body Language is the Key:
It’s actually the universal truth for every foreigner. There have been many anecdotes that said that ordering meals at food courts is the most effective when one just simply points to the food displayed on the menu.
Also, body language helps a lot when trying to explain or ask for something. Want the vendor aunty to pack your food for takeaway? Use body language.
Want to tell the direction of your hotel to the taxi uncle? Use body language. Simple and effective! You will also see that Thai people use a lot of body language to communicate with foreigners.
And that’s actually how one can even pick up some basic Thai words and Tinglish, by observing the body language Thai people use when they speak in English, or rather ‘Tinglish.’
With the Help of Smart Phones and the Internet:
Local people, especially the older generations, use the Thai language when it comes to numbers. Instead of saying ‘1, 2, 3’ to count, they will just use ‘หนึ่ง (nùeng), สอง (sǎawng), สาม (sǎam).’
Vendors are more likely to just show the price on the calculator when asked about the price. It’s a very common sight in the markets and fashion malls like Platinum Mall to see the vendors holding calculators or using the calculator app on their smartphones every time to let their customers know the price.
Google translate is something local people use a lot when they need to speak in English as well. When using online shopping applications such as Shopee or Lazada, both of which are very widely used in Thailand, the shops are likely to use google translate more often than not for inquiries made in English.
Grab drivers or food delivery riders use the auto-translated chat. This is why many foreigners and expats prefer to use Grab often. It saves non-Thai speakers from the trouble of explaining the location, which most of the time is not understood by the drivers due to the different accents or ways of pronouncing the words.
Now, you might be thinking, ‘Is google translate even accurate?’
Well, it’s not 100% accurate, but it helps to get the context in general, like how Tinglish works.
And even if all the things that have been mentioned above failed, fear not! Thai people are very friendly, and they are happy to help you most of the time.
More often than not, they will try their best to communicate with you, be it in Tinglish or by using body language, and they will even try to find someone who can communicate in English to help you.
You will see many nice people who are willing to step in and help out even without needing to ask for their help. Also, as above, many people from the younger generations can speak fluent English, making it easier to communicate than years ago.
Therefore, even though Thai people who can speak English are very low compared to other countries, it should not be a problem to visit the Land of Smiles.
1. EF Education First. EF English Proficiency Index. EF Education First. [Online] 2020. https://www.ef.com/assetscdn/WIBIwq6RdJvcD9bc8RMd/cefcom-epi-site/reports/2020/ef-epi-2020-english.pdf.
2. Speaking Tinglish for Professional Communication:. Bennui, Pairote. 3, s.l. : Silpakorn University Journal of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Vol.17(3): 233-266, 2017, 2017, Vol. Vol.17.