Language in Thailand

Language in Thailand

When the Tai people migrated south from China into the area that is now Thailand, they brought with them a distinct language. The Thai language is a part of the Tai-Kadai language family, and is closely related to the Lao language. Today, over 60 million people worldwide speak Thai.

Thai is a tonal language. Every syllable is pronounced with one of five different tones: high, mid, low, rising, or falling, creating a sound that many people describe as melodic.

Example of written Thai language.

Flickr Photo by Cati Kaoe

At first glance, Thai grammar might seem simpler than English grammar. Verbs don’t need to be conjugated based on the subject, or on the tense. The language, however, has many nuances and subtleties, generally created by adding a particle or grammatical marker. A particle added to a sentence can add emphasis or soften the tone; it can distinguish between a statement and a questions; it can also give information about the timing and duration of an event.

Thai Script

Thai is written with a phonetic script that was developed in 1283. Developed by King Ram Khamhaeng, the Thai script is influenced by the writing styles of the Khmer empire. Written Thai has changed little since its development, and ancient texts can be fairly easily deciphered by anyone who can read modern Thai.

44 different symbols represent the consonants, while vowels are written by adding one or more of the 15 vowel symbols onto the consonants.

Dialects in Thailand 

In modern Thailand, there are four main dialects spoken. The people of North-Eastern Thailand, with their Lao heritage, speak a dialect that contains many similarities to the Lao language. In Thailand’s Northern region, remnants of the ancient Kingdom of Lan Na remain and influence the spoken language.  This distinct northern dialect is often referred to as Lannathai.  The dialect spoken in Southern Thailand is heavily influenced by Malaysian languages.

The central dialect, spoken in Bangkok, is used and understood throughout the entire nation. It is the standard dialect used for education, media, and communication.

In addition to these different dialects, there are also important differences in how the language is spoken based on situational and social circumstances. For example, certain words are reserved for royalty, while others are used only by religious figures. Thai also has specific words and rules to be used in polite and formal interactions.

Other Languages in Thailand 

Thai is spoken by roughly 80% of Thailand’s population. However, there are many different ethnic groups living within Thailand, and they often have their own distinct languages.

Dialects of Lao are commonly spoken, especially in areas where there is a strong historical and cultural influence from Laos.  In the south, Malay Muslims speak a dialect of Malay called Yawi. Thailand also has a fairly large Chinese population.  Various Chinese dialects are spoken by about 14% of people throughout the country.

English is a mandatory subject in schools in Thailand.  However, especially outside of the cities, few people are able to speak or understand more than a few words of English.

Helpful Links

Many teachers who decide to teach English in Thailand for an extended period of time find it worthwhile to study Thai. Whether you want to seriously study Thai, or just know how to order some basic food in a restaurant, putting in some time studying the local language is a great way to enrich your experience in Thailand. We’ve put together a few links to help you kick start your study of the Thai language.

Learn4Good gives a good list of the schools in Thailand where you can study the Thai language.

Thai Language Hut offers classroom or Skype lessons. This website has extensive free online lessons, with phrases, dialogue, and a good introduction to the Thai alphabet.