The Intricacies of the Thai language

As part of our Asian language series, we take a look at Thai. We explore its roots and complexities, and look into the nation behind this striking language.

Tourism is one of the leading industries in Thailand, accounting for approximately 20% of its GDP. Millions of people flock to Thailand every year, from all over the world. Very few, however, think about learning the language.

The Foreign Service Institute places Thai in Category 4, for language difficulty.

Therefore, Thai is classed as a language with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English, requiring approximately 1100 hours of study before fluency. Thailand is also the home of other related Tai languages. Native speakers class them as very distinct regional dialects; these are spoken in the north, northeast, and south of the country.

Where is Thai spoken?

Thai is spoken by approximately 60 million people in Thailand exclusively. Despite being separate languages, Thai television is broadcast in Laos too; the national language is closely related to Thai.

Across the world, Los Angeles, has an estimated 80,000 Thai immigrants. This means that it has the largest concentration of Thai speakers, outside of Thailand.

The Thai script

The script used for Thai is completely unique for the language. Its origins can be linked to a south Indian script, introduced into mainland South-East Asia during the 4th or 5th century AD. Thai is written from left to right, however there are no spaces in-between words. Spaces are only used in specific circumstances, as the equivalent of a full stop or comma.

There are 42 consonants in Thai.

Many of these prove to be superfluous: there are four ways to write ‘s’ and six for ‘t’. A lot of letters are barely used, often only for words borrowed from foreign languages.

Learning Thai

Thai is a tonal language, in contrast to English and most European languages.

There are 5 distinct tones in Thai.

The 5 tones are; mid tone, low tone, high tone, falling tone, and rising tone. Using these tones incorrectly can result in saying completely different words, and lead to much misunderstanding. This can be incredibly difficult to both understand and to use.

Similar to other languages from this region of the world, there are no tenses in Thai.

The language relies on other indicator words. Hierarchy is also a vital part of both the language and the culture. There are many different pronouns in Thai, and using the wrong one may lead to offense. Similarly, Thais consider the head to be sacred, and therefore when speaking to some of a higher social standing, it is important to keep your head lower than theirs.

It is always a minefield when learning languages that have significant cultural, as well as, linguistic differences. This is just further evidence that languages are not only the words we use, but also the entire history and culture of the people using them.

What to keep in mind when translating into Thai online

The grammar and syntax of Thai means that when translating from English, the text will expand by around 15%. Vowels are represented by using symbols either above or below the word. This means that extra space is required when translating. These changes mean that professional website localisation is vital when translating into Thai.

It is proven that consumers prefer to browse websites in their first language.

Despite approximately 25% of Thai speakers also speaking English, multilingual SEO is a necessary addition for greater business in the country.

Should we be learning Thai?

Thailand is a newly industrialised country, with a growing economy. Learning a language and being connected to a different culture can be a very rewarding, albeit challenging, process. Although Thai seems incredibly difficult to learn at first glance, it is worthwhile learning the language, as it will allow you to appreciate and explore the country in an entirely new way, off of the beaten track.

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