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The official language of Thailand is Thai, which is spoken by about 90% of the population. However, dialects of Thai vary considerably in different parts of the country. Central Thai has about 20 million native speakers and is understood by the vast majority of the population. The other major dialects are Lanna in the north and Isaan in the north-east.
The standard dialect, spoken in Bangkok and the surrounding Chao Phraya valley, is known as Central Thai or Siamese. This variety is taught in schools. All dialects of Thai belong to the Tai-Kadai group of languages, spoken in other parts of Southeast Asia and in Southern China, from where they originate.
Of the 70-odd other languages spoken in Thailand, most are related to Thai. The largest of these are Lao in the north-east and Lanna, spoken in the Chiang Mai area. Lao is particularly close to Thai, and as you approach the border with Laos, Thai dialects (such as Isaan) merge into Lao dialects. Chinese languages are spoken by many ethnic Chinese, particularly the Teochew dialect of Minnan. Other languages include the related Mon and Khmer near the Cambodian border, Burmese and Karen near the Burmese border and Malay in the far south.
English is spoken by quite a number of educated people, tourist dealers and businessmen and is increasingly taught in schools. However, in the rural areas, you will find very limited English-speaking ability.
Hence, If you are planning to settle down in Thailand for any amount of time, it is nigh on essential to gain some ability in Thai. While you may be able to get by with English and basic Thai for a while, the longer you stay, the more likely you are to be in a situation where fluency is required. The need may arise when encountering a practical problem or it may simply be that you want to learn Thai to help you to understand the local mindset.
The best variety of Thai to learn is Central Thai, as this is spoken as a first or second language throughout the country. If you are living away from the centre of the country, you could opt to pick up the local variety, though this will have less currency elsewhere.
Thai is one of the more difficult languages to learn. Nearly half of Thai vocabulary is borrowed from Sanskrit, Pali and other Indian languages, so knowledge of one of these languages will help a little. Otherwise, language learners from most countries will usually be in the dark.
A particular problem with learning Thai vocabulary is learning the tones. There are five tones, one of which is on each syllable. For example, if you say a word with a rising tone (as if you’re asking a question), it may mean something completely different from saying it with a level tone. It is quite important to get tones right, else you may say something nonsensical or insulting. The best way to learn them is to practise with a real Thai person, either face-to-face or online.
The Thai script traces its roots back to India, though it has diverged so much that it is often difficult to see the similarities. Furthermore, as Thai has fewer sounds than Indic languages, there are many redundant letters in Thai and spelling can be unpredictable.
In addition to the dialect varieties, learning Thai is further complicated many social registers. In everyday situations, Street Thai is fine to get by with. However, in business meetings and other formal situations, Elegant Thai is required. Among the other varieties, there are also Royal and Religious versions of Thai. On the plus side, Thai grammar and syntax are simple to learn. There are no genders, no verb endings and no plurals.
Thai language courses are widely available via the internet as distance learning projects and can enable you to achieve the necessary standard. The BBC website offers free Thai language courses and provides useful information about the language. Meanwhile, Open Culture lists a number of websites that offer Thai language tuition. There are many Thai schools in the southern islands, particularly on Phuket.
Once you have gained basic knowledge of Thai, one way to improve on this is to participate in language exchange sessions. These can be carried out in real life meetings or over the internet. They normally involve two to four people speaking in their mother tongue for half of the session and using the language they are learning for the other half. Some expat websites offer opportunities for these sessions, as does Language Exchange. This site offers free membership and provides opportunities for conversations in Thai and 114 other languages.
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