Clicky

What Languages (& Dialects) Do They Speak in Thailand?

What Languages (& Dialects) Do They Speak in Thailand?

what language do they speak in thailand

Do you know that not every country has its own language? Many colonizers banned the colonized from speaking their language, resulting in language loss.

But what about Thailand? What language do they mostly speak there?

In Thailand, all locals speak Thai. It is the country’s official language, and people use it in spoken and written form. However, Thai people are not 100% unified in how they speak. They also have 4 dominant dialects, distinguished by regions, including Central, Northeastern, Northern, and Southern.

Thai people consider their language a national pride. And if you want to stay in Thailand for a while, you should at least know about its existence. Read on to learn the beauty and nature of the Thai language.

What Language Is Mostly Spoken in Thailand?

As mentioned, Thailand is one of those countries with an original language. So, the locals opt to speak in their mother tongue: Thai language.

You will hear Thai people speak Thai no matter where you go. Thai people use the Thai language in every setting, whether in daily lives, official authority contacts, or festivities and events.

Like Spanish and French, foreigners like you can learn Thai too. However, it might take a different kind of effort to master its delicate linguistic features.

The challenging part about learning Thai, many English speakers agree, is the “tone” or the “musical quality” of the language. And that’s understandable. If your first language doesn’t have a tonal system, it is almost impossible to spot the difference at first.

But what is a tonal system?

Basically, it’s how one word can change its meaning based on the tone you choose to articulate. Different languages have different numbers of tones. For example, Chinese has 4, while Thai has 5. (Source)

That explanation might confuse you a bit. So, look at the following example to understand “tone” better. Reading a blog like this will probably not give you a clear perception of how Thai tones work and sound. But at least you can understand the general mechanics.

This example will use the term that reads “cow” (คาว).

In the Thai language, there are 5 tones — starting from 0th to 4th. Each tone will have a distinct pitch and meaning.

  • “Cow” in the 0th tone (locals call it “สามัญ” or “Saman” tone) means “smell of meat, blood, or fish.” It could also describe the main course of a meal in different contexts.
  • “Cow” in the 1st tone (locals call it “เอก” or “Ake” tone) means “news.”
  • “Cow” in the 2nd tone (locals call it “โท” or “Toe” tone) means “rice”
  • “Cow” in the 3rd tone (locals call it “ตรี” or “Tree” tone) doesn’t mean anything.
  • “Cow” in the 4th tone (locals call it “จัตวา” or “Chattawa” tone) means “white.”

You might notice that the meaning in each tone of “cow” is totally unrelated. And that’s because each tone isn’t a derivation of “cow.” They are 5 different words that Thai people would rarely mishear one for another.

If you wish to learn to speak Thai, it is paramount that you train your ear first. Or else, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish these 5 tones and simulate them. It would be like a tone-deaf person trying to sing musical notes (not that it’s impossible, but it’s tough).

Does the Thai Language Have Dialects?

As discussed, the Thai language has variations linguists call dialects. And there are many.

Most Thai dialects have different tone ranges, accents, speech patterns, and speeds. Some dialects even have their own set of vocabulary and grammar. And as a result, communication using multiple dialects can be stress-inducing.

Despite the many dialects in Thailand, you can distinguish them into 4 large groups. Each group is characterized by its region and “mood.”

Central (or Common):

This dialect is the most widely spoken in Thailand. You can hear this dialect all over the country, especially in the central, eastern, and western regions.

Since this dialect is Common, Thai people choose to speak Central in national-level events and ceremonies. Or else not everyone would understand what was going on.

It is hard to describe the characteristics of this dialect. Why? Because when Thai people explain their regional language, they compare them with the Central. So in a sense, the Central dialect is self-explanatory. 

You can think of the Central dialect as the “US dollars” of the international currency world.

And, of course, not all Central dialects are the same. For example, the “Suphanburi” accent — a branch of the central dialect — has notable tonal differences from the “Bangkok” accent. Thai people can tell if someone was born in Suphanburi right away just from hearing how the person speaks.

(It will be too long to “write” about “tonal differences,” but you get the point.)

Northeastern (or “Esan”):

This is arguably the most famous dialect in Thailand (if you count Central as a “language,” not “dialect”).

As the name suggests, this dialect is widely used in the northeastern region. Thai people usually describe this dialect as “fiery and spicy.” This is thanks to how the locals use this tongue with a more vibrant tone and faster speech.

Many Thais joke that this dialect borrows its “fierceness” from the local spicy food and harsh weather. Northeastern foods are famous for their extreme tastes. And the climate there is usually hotter and drier than in other parts of the country.

Northern:

You can see this dialect as the opposite of the Northeastern (even though they are next to each other). Why? Because the Northern dialect is famous for its “calm and soothing” voice.

Widely used in the north, the Northern dialect usually involves slow speech, extended syllables, and lengthy vowel sounds. And as a result, most northerners are viewed as slow talkers.

Furthermore, this dialect seems to have narrower tonal differences. It doesn’t mean that they have less tone than 5. But it means the difference between each tone is more subtle. So, Northern sounds tend to have less up and down pitch than other places.

These “calm” characters can be seen as the influence of neighboring countries like Laos and Cambodia. But you can also say that it’s thanks to the colder climate of the region.

Southern:

Southern dialect arguably has the most “character” in the Thai dialect. Why? Because southern culture is different from other parts of the country thanks to the coastal landscape and neighbor influences.

So, when someone speaks in the Southern dialect, most Thai will think about the different coastal life of the southerners immediately.

This dialect is famous for its fast speech and nasal voice. Most Thais describe this way of speaking as “coppery” because it sounds like the ringing of copper.

Southerners also have more original vocabulary than other regions. And with new words comes new grammar. So, if you are not a local, it can be challenging to understand a word the southerners say. Even central Thai people have a hard time understanding southerners’ conversations.

What Are Other Languages Spoken in Thailand? 

Even though Thailand has its own original language, many Thais are eager to become at least bilingual — especially the younger generations. So, don’t be surprised if your Thai friend can speak 2 or 4 languages.

This interest in other languages partly stems from the economy of the country. Thailand is a famous tourism country, especially before COVID-19. So, whoever can communicate with foreign tourists has an advantage over those who can’t.

The business scene in Thailand is also populated with foreign investors. So if you can speak other languages, you are more likely to land a job in an international company and get bigger pay.

Another reason for Thai people’s interest in other languages is their lineage. Many Thai have a Chinese bloodline and prefer to communicate in half-Thai-half-Chinese in their household. This familial preference automatically enables their bilingual capability.

Now, it’s time to look at the 4 dominant foreign languages spoken in Thailand.

1. English

English is the most common 2nd language choice for Thai people. Why?

No, not because Thailand was colonized.

It’s because English is included in modern Thai compulsory education. And that means most members of the newer generations already have at least the basic knowledge of English before graduation.

In other words, they understand English to a certain degree and can respond in English too.

However, most Thais are shy and don’t like to stand out. So, they might refuse to communicate with foreigners even though they know the language. And this isn’t exclusive to English. Other languages face similar problems too.

Furthermore, it’s (unfortunately) safe to say that not all Thais are educated equally. So, do not expect every Thai to understand English. Some people don’t even know how to say “Hi.”

2. Chinese

As mentioned, there are many Thais with Chinese bloodlines. And these Chinese-Thai sometimes prefer to communicate in Chinese or at least a mixed language.

Another factor that promotes the use of Chinese in Thailand is Chinese schools. You can see them in most major cities in the country. They teach and communicate with their students in Chinese daily.

On the economic side, many Chinese companies have a branch in Thailand. And even big local companies in Thailand are share-owned by Thai-Chinese families or Chinese investors. So, being able to speak Chinese is an edge in one’s career.

You can also argue that Chinese is the actual No.1 choice for Thai people’s second language. Not English. However, there has never been an official survey, so it’s still uncertain.

3. Japanese

Like the Chinese, many big Japanese companies and factories are in Thailand. So if you can speak the language, you have a better chance of winning a well-paying job in these places.

However, Thai-Japanese families are not as abundant in Thailand. So, it’s still a “wow-worthy” phenomenon to find a Japanese-speaking Thai. 

And besides, schools dedicated to Japanese communication are also rare. Most Thais learn Japanese from specialized language institutions or pursue a Japanese-related degree in Universities.

Another reason for Thai people to learn Japanese is the media. Thanks to the boom of Japanese idols, YouTubers, VTubers, and anime, more and more Thai people are studying this complex language.

4. Korean

In the Korean case, it’s more about personal preferences.

K-pop and K-drama are definitely big in Thailand. Several Thai superstars are also in this industry. So, people pick up this language to immerse themselves deeper into these entertainments.

Of course, some want to live in Korea too. Many younger Thais dream of living in foreign countries. This is caused by inner political conflicts and the country’s “not-so-rich” economy. And Korea happens to be one of the popular destinations.

So, don’t be surprised if you know a Thai friend or two who has a degree in the Korean language. It’s one of the more popular courses these days.

Does Thai Have a Written Language?

Like the spoken counterpart, written Thai also survived the test of time.

The language has an “alphabet” system like English. You can mix consonant and vowel letters to spell words with different sounds and meanings. This system is opposed to the “Character” system of the Chinese and Japanese. (In short, one character has specific pronunciations and meanings)

There are 44 consonants and 24 vowels in the Thai alphabet — with 4 tone indicators (the 0th tone doesn’t have a written symbol) and 10 numbers (0-9). (Source)

Most foreigners would say that written Thai is difficult because the lines are long, curved, and confusing. And that is understandable. However, with proper guidance and consistent practice, you can memorize and write the Thai alphabet within a month. 

Spelling words would take longer than that, but it is definitely possible. Thai spelling can be tricky since there are silences and tricky combinations — not to mention tone subjugations and other exceptions. So, you might have to perform mental gymnastics to get around them.

But, of course, languages are all made up. And they are not perfect. Sometimes you have to take their linguistic features as what they are and move on. Or else you will be stuck trying to find a reason forever.

Should You Learn Thai if You Want to Live in Thailand?

The short answer is “yes, definitely.”

Learning Thai allows you to make a deeper connection with the locals. It will also make your life more enjoyable since you can easily understand the news and contact the authorities. And besides, being able to communicate with store clerks and vendors is convenient.

But more than anything, learning the Thai language will help you understand Thai culture better. Because — in case you forget — language is a kind of culture too.

Once you understand the language, you can spot the connections between one culture and another. And as a result, you may fall deeper in love with the country.

But of course, learning Thai will take time and effort. If you choose Thai as your second language, you must get through the mind-blowing fundamental linguistic differences. Not all languages operate on the same concept and mindset. And it can be a Herculean task to wrap your mind around them.

But if you give it a proper time, you can master it. So, learn Thai if you can. It can expand your horizon more than you think. And if you are still unconvinced, you can check out the 12 reasons to learn Thai.

Thai Language vs. Others

If you were bilingual, you would already know that all languages are — in a way — the same. And by that, it means they all work differently from each other.

Of course, similarities exist. And they are no coincidence since many languages have the same root and origin.

Thai language might look and sound strange to you. But that is more reason to appreciate it. These differences make your trips and travel one of a kind. So, enjoy these divergences.

Like always, if you want to learn more about Thailand, stay with ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.

Jordan Sully

I'm a Thailand fanatic who has been traveling to the Kingdom since 2017. The country has given me so much, this is my small way of giving back. I hope the articles on this site help you to learn more about Thailand and inspire your next adventure to The Land of Smiles. Thanks for checking out ThaiGuider!

Recent Posts