Tongue Thaied in Thailand

Street Food Vendor in Bangkok

“Kor thai loop dy my krup?”

Thais are genuinely surprised to hear foreigners attempt to speak their language, even in Bangkok, the epicenter of expat homebases and a city that sees upwards of 12 million visitors annually. Some foreigners speak Thai fluently, of course, and many others speak enough functional Thai to order food, give directions, and exchange brief pleasantries in the native tongue.

Though if/when I move back to Bangkok I plan to finally enroll in language classes, I’m currently in that latter group. Occasionally I can smoothly pull off an entire, say, grocery store purchase without the cashier realizing that I’m merely reciting previously rehearsed and memorized lines, but follow-up responses and questions to my functional Thai bring the exchange to a dead stop. I’ve gotten a lot better, but my Thai vocabulary is still embarassingly minimal.

I do try and I do aspire to learn more, however, which unfortunately is more than many permanent expats can say. It’s shocking to meet or hear about people who’ve been in Thailand for years and still don’t speak a lick of the language. Many of the (lazy) men who marry Thai women inevitably (unfathomably) lean on their wife to handle all the communication; I heard a story once about a guy who has two children with his Thai wife and literally doesn’t speak any Thai, even though his children both don’t speak any English. Truly a Super Dad, that one.

Thais are generally a mellow bunch, however, so perhaps it’s their lack of expectation that you speak their language that contributes to the linguistic malaise that infests so many expats in Thailand. One need not speak any Thai to get by perfectly fine, especially in heavily touristed destinations like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Almost everything is in English and many Thais speak at least some English (especially the younger generations), which is convenient for visitors, but which also indirectly fosters an unreasonable expectation amongst some foreigners that everybody speak fluid English all the time everywhere. Don’t get me started.

Adventures in Linguistics

My Thai friends are happy to help untie my tongue-twisted attempts at Thai, so it was over dinner one night at the world-famous (at least in my world) Jae On that I coaxed how to correctly say and enunciate “Can I take your picture?” out of my friends Joy and Em. (Yes, the same Joy and Em who prepared this amazing home-cooked Thai feast for me and my wife.) Until this point I’d always resorted to the ol’ pantomime of smiling, holding up and pointing at my camera, and saying “okay?” when I wanted to snap somebody’s photo.

“Kor thai LOOP dy my krup”, said Joy, emphasizing “loop”.

My wife and I repeated it back in mangled farang speak a few times until they smiled and nodded and exclaimed “ka!” when we finally got it right. Em neatly wrote it down for us in phonetic Thai so we wouldn’t forget, and I looked forward to showing off my latest memorized Thai phrase the next day. Like I said, though, Thais don’t expect foreigners to make even half-hearted attempts at speaking their language, so even if one’s pronunciation is nearly pitch-perfect, their ears (and brains) are not conditioned to hearing Thai words roll off your tongue–to them, you sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher Mrs. Donovan.

This vendor, above, plants her cart most weekday mornings in a short soi just off Rajdamri Road, near Big C and a number of currency changers. I’d seen her many times on my way back and forth to CentralWorld Plaza and tasted her glutinous, disgusting-in-a-good-way coconut cakes a few times, and decided she was the one I’d bounce my spiffy new memorization off of for the first time.

Keeping my camera concealed in my pocket, I smiled, approached her, and slowly, clearly, said “kor thai loop dy my krup?” She responded with nothing but a blank, dumbfounded stare–the one that says “who is this crazy farang and what the hell does he want from me?” Get it all the time.

I tried again.

“Kor… thai… LOOP… dy my krup?” Her confused expression lingered.

I tried once more, then again. Still nothing. Shit.

I gave up and finally produced my camera and pointed in her direction, thinking that was that… but by then I had sufficiently confused her to the point where she was laughing hysterically and calling for translation help from a friend who’d just pulled up on and parked his motorbike nearby. He walked over and asked me what I needed, so I again pointed at my camera–he motioned towards CentralWorld and said “ba-tuh-ries”.

“Ohhhh… hahaha.. uhhh… my (no), my, my.. uhhh… kor thai loop dy my krup?”

My fifth and final attempt was met with a second befuddled look of incomprehension so, finally, I just took her photo then again pointed at my camera. They both at last understood what I was trying to say and what I wanted, and we all shared a good laugh about it under that searing midday sun in May. (A day doesn’t go by in Bangkok where I don’t share at least one sincere laugh with a random Thai on the street.)

It didn’t work that time… but at least I tried.

Related Reading:
+ Revisiting a Favorite Old Haunt in Bangkok
+ Eating Out is an Everyday Joy in Bangkok; The Rare Home-Cooked Meal is a Special Treat
+ Where to Find a Michelin Star, Ice-Skating Rink, and Body Shape Solutions Under One Roof in Bangkok

One Response

  1. W February 20, 2012

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