Most people think that they have to learn the language of the country in which they are going to live. Moving to Thailand, you might think that you need to learn Thai in order to live and work here.
But this is not true. And, unfortunately, people give up great job opportunities because of this misinformation.
I have found that I can get along quite well living in Thailand without speaking the language. English is the international language and there are many Thais who have learned to speak some English.
I say “some” English because many Thais do not study to learn the language: they simply pick up useful words and phrases that help them interact with foreigners.
I’ve learned that, when speaking with a Thai, if I keep my English simple, it is quite easy to communicate with the locals.
For example, Thai people are not familiar with some of our idioms such as “fine and dandy.” So I’ve learned to avoid as many idioms as I can.
Another thing I’ve learned is that there is not much in the way of verb tenses in the Thai language, so I stick with the present tense. For example, if I say, “I come here yesterday and…” a Thai person will more easily understand me than if I say, “I came here yesterday.”
But one of the most important things is to learn to be polite and smile and speak quietly. In other words, to “act” Thai when you are speaking in English.
I have seen so many foreigners fail because they explode and shout. Expressing emotions, especially anger, in public is not a part of the Thai culture. So having a little understanding of Thai culture helps as I communicate in simple English with a Thai.
Another way that I’ve found to have successful encounters with Thai people, is to learn how to greet a Thai when I first meet them. A smile helps. Saying, “Hello” in Thai really helps. And accompanying that with a “wai” really really helps!
I go into a shop or restaurant or place of business and approach the Thai person I need to talk to. I smile, “wai,” and greet them with the short Thai phrase that is the English equivalent of “Hello.” The Thai person returns the greeting and usually the smile and the “wai.”
Then what happens? I ask, “Do you speak English?” I either get “a little bit” and then we’re off and running. Or I get “moment,” and in a “moment” an English-speaking Thai appears.
Having said all of that, gradually picking up some Thai, just as they gradually pick up some English, will greatly help your experience in Thailand. Thai people appreciate that you have attempted to learn some of their language and it shows that you respect their culture.
Also, if I venture outside of the city, I find that knowing some Thai phrases can be very helpful. Thai people are less likely to know English when you travel away from the larger towns and cities.
Nonetheless, you can definitely live and work in Thailand without knowing how to speak Thai.
Just remember to smile!