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Language Schools for Expats in Thailand

Submitted: August 2014

For westerners the Thai language may be exceptionally difficult, primarily due to its status as a tonal language. Many South East Asian languages (including Chinese) are tonal. In the West, our general experience with tonal language is limited to raised pitch at the end of a sentence (indicating a question), and the sarcastic tone that indicates flippancy or mockery. However, in a tonal language such as Thai, a change of tone will change the meaning of the word itself, often to a completely unrelated one.

This makes the Thai language difficult to learn for westerners with no experience of learning tonal languages. In addition to the problem of tones, Thai also has five different levels of formality (registers). For an expat, only the differences between street Thai and formal Thai matter; many expats will pick up some street Thai from bars and other ‘social’ situations, but this is full of slang and poor enunciation. As such, walking into the Oriental and speaking in street Thai is the equivalent of walking up to a desk clerk and demanding “Oi mate, gis’ a bleedin’ room will ya?” Both are unlikely to get you the best room in the hotel. It is therefore sensible to get some formal instruction in the language if you are going to take it seriously, as speaking polite formal Thai will often yield better results.

The best way to jump-start the learning process is to spend some time back at school; this might involve anything from attending evening classes after work to spending a month on an intensive one-on-one course. Some of the language schools in Thailand also offer courses lasting up to a year, which include an educational visa for the period of the course. The cost of classes varies quite a lot, but generally group classes can be had for around £5 per hour and one-on-one lessons for around £8-£10 an hour.

Many classes concentrate mainly on the spoken language, which is fine if that is all you want; however if you intend to live in Thailand for a significant period it is suggested to you attempt to get to grips with written Thai as early as possible. There is no formal method of transliteration from the Thai alphabet to the English one, as even the name of Bangkok Airport can be written at least four different ways. This makes directions a nightmare if you do not understand at least rudimentary written Thai. For example, you might have the name of a street written down in the English alphabet, but upon arrival at the area be unable to find the same street due to the sign writer having a completely different idea about how to spell it.

If you are looking for a qualification to demonstrate proficiency in Thai, the Ministry of Education runs the P6 exam. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that this exam is difficult for expats, and that the qualification itself is mainly useless when applying for work or a resident visa.

As for finding the right school, the most important thing to ask yourself is what you want to get out of it. If you are interested in more than just class-based learning, many schools provide sight-seeing tours. These help with your language development, and give information regarding the sights and sounds of Thailand that a guidebook will not. They may also provide communal outings such as shopping trips or restaurant visits, which both help with learning vocabulary and provide a useful crutch in the form of an accompanying language teacher, in case you run into a situation that your limited Thai cannot handle. A guided trip to a restaurant may also encourage you to try the wide variety of food on offer, and discover some new favourites.

Generally, schools will run classes for students of all levels of ability, ranging from total beginners to accomplished speakers taking refresher courses. You will likely be assessed on arrival to see which class would be suitable, but it is important to make sure that the school will allow you to move classes if you find yourself in a class that does not suit your ability.

There are many different factors involved in the final choice of school. These include:

Many schools have their own websites, which should give detailed information of courses offered and location details. A list of Thai language schools (including reviews) in Bangkok can be found here, and here are some tips on learning Thai. Lonely Planet has some information here. It is also always worth checking with the nearest university in Thailand to see if they offer courses.



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