Being Heard in Thai (in Thai)

Monday, October 15, 2007 at 7:00 am 4 comments

Besides the technical difficulty of speaking the language, there is an additional hurdle to being understood in Thailand. When approached by a foreign stranger, sometimes Thais are not “in Thai mode,” and they may completely miss the meaning because they expect to hear English. Really, expecting English is a perfectly rational reaction, given the ratio of foreign speakers to non-speakers. The problem is, while in the wrong language mode, a listener will not understand even the most well-executed statement. Most people have experienced this when they hear a foreign language from others in earshot or from the television, and it has this sort of spooky similarity to gibberish in their own language.

The solution is to make a Thai switch over to Thai mode before you communicate anything substantive. I have had some success by using the phrase หวัดดีคับ before I say anything. This is course the common Thai shortening of the formal สวัสดีครับ, but as a foreigner, there is a world of difference between สวัสดีครับ and หวัดดีคับ. The former means “I am a tourist” while the latter means “I have been here a while.” In my opinion, that is all it takes to be interpreted correctly the first time.

Whenever I hail a Taxi, or enter a shop, or pretty much do anything with a stranger, I always start with หวัดดีคับ exactly. It’s not informal, it’s a message with meaning, and I think it helps quite a bit. In general, as a foreigner, the informal spoken expressions are crucial to master as they will flip the subconscious switch of some listeners who may otherwise be unprepared to listen. So, for example, เอ๊โทษคับ is another one I use to flag down a guard when asking how to get someplace.

Entry filed under: General. Tags: .

Voicebox / กล่องเสียง Following footsteps / เจริญตามรอยเท้า

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rikker  |  Tuesday, October 16, 2007 at 12:35 am

    You’re exactly spot on. Great post. I’ve experienced this many a time, and it used to bother me. It’s a legitimate phenomenon, probably peculiar to countries where the number of foreigners who have a good handle on the language is relatively few. I’d classify Thailand that way.

    Of course it’s perfectly rational. Statistically speaking, it’s also rational for a Thai to assume that if I am speaking Thai I’ll likely be incomprehensible at it, which gets them to the same conclusion: “it’s okay to tune out what he’s saying”. I think the English idiom “tune out” is exactly what’s going on. And I use the same trick of forcing the switch to “Thai mode” with a phrase so common that they can’t help but understand it as Thai.

    I first formulated my thoughts on this phenomenon (and the related phenomenon that I call “foreigner invisibility”) in a rather lengthy comment on a friend’s blog back in May. Reading it for the first time in five months, the comment is a bit esoteric. Call me the “blog comment philosopher”, I guess. Ha. Anyhow, I wrote:

    Here in Thailand I regularly experience “foreigner invisibility.” That is, Thai people brazenly cut in front of me in line all the time. In line to make change at the skytrain, at KFC, wherever. That’s how I perceive it, anyhow. But at the same time I can easily understand that they’re operating within the logic of their personal universes. I still don’t entirely understand it, but I do believe it’s not based on an intention to cause me frustration. And when I say, “excuse me, I am in line,” I’ve never met any other reaction that their getting in line behind me. It’s truly as if I am so far removed from their pattern of expected experiences that in a sense I do not exist in their minds. They may not have even consciously observed my presence. It’s a phenomenon I am still puzzling out.

    More common (and easily understood) is the phenomenon of speaking Thai to a Thai, and having them try to explain to you with hand signals or broken English that they do not speak English. They’re listening on a different channel, because I–-as a fluent (in the generally accepted sense of the term) Thai speaker–-am presenting an exception to pattern of experience they have developed throughout their entire life. If you had never heard a duck speak English, even if it did, you might still hear “quack quack.”

    I think I’ll go mash up our comments for a post on my own blog. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • 2. Jason  |  Tuesday, October 16, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Right. I disagree that “tune out” is the best word; “out of tune” is subtly different but more accurate. “Tune out” may sound like malice or refusal to cooperate when the reality is just a prudent subconscious reaction. In my experience, if you can force “Thai mode” then everything works out just fine.

  • 3. rikker  |  Tuesday, October 16, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    You’re probably right about the subtle connotations of the phrase “tune out”. The point is that it’s a logical assumption–not motivated by malice or caused by ignorance. Cheers.

  • 4. Louis  |  Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    It runs both ways. I speak to Thais daily via ham radio and when someone decides to speak English with me I often do not understand for a few sentences. Highly tonal “good mornings” or “how are you” do not help. Thanks. This blog is great. w0it


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