The photo above is of Gaun with my brother on the eve of our wedding in early 2014. You don’t need to speak Thai or English to see that she is dishing out some advice with enthusiasm 🙂

I have had a couple of occasions recently on my Facebook page HERE to discuss the benefits of learning Thai for a westerner living here. I thought the topic was one we have all thought about at some stage and tackled to a greater or lesser (or not at all) degree so it was worth adding to the blog for a different audience. My initial post on Facebook was related to the use of Isaan/Isan language as separate from Thai and I think this short introduction forms a useful starting point:

I occasionally get the urge to write something that doesn’t involve photos and instead provides background information on the wonderful area of Thailand I live in called Isaan/Isan/Esan. For many Facebook readers this will be of little interest but for some of you who share my passion for better understanding this region, then I may or may not be expanding your knowledge (some of you have been here far longer than me).

This entry will form the basis of another blog post I am minded to write called Isaan – Language and Etiquette, which will be useful reading for anyone looking to settle in the area. I will let you know when published.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked from the many visitors who come to visit us is “Have you learnt to speak Thai?” The answer to that question is easy, being generally a “no”, but it does raise an aspect to life here that you might not realise if not living in the region.

I am not the only one not speaking Thai in Isaan (although this is only through a lack of knowledge in my case) – most other people aren’t either as a matter of choice! As stated in Wikipedia:

The main language of the region is Isan, a dialect of the Lao language. Northern Khmer, a dialect of the Khmer language of Cambodia, is also spoken in the southeast. Standard Thai is understood by everyone and is used for all official matters. The number of speakers of Isan has been estimated at between 15–23 million, the majority of those living in Isan.

The dual language aspect of reality here is a farang challenge when you want to learn to speak like a local, or at least understand what’s going on around you.

If you hadn’t picked up on this aspect then most online courses and language schools will teach you Thai – the official language of Thailand. This is fine if you want to base yourself outside of Isaan and, as Isaan people speak both languages, knowing Thai allows you to converse with most people in this region as well. This is totally useful if you are working here or where you initiate a conversation in a social or everyday situation. Isaan people will understand you and reply in Thai.

However, the big drawback comes if you are an observer to any gathering of Isaan people. They will be talking in Isaan and NOT Thai and the two languages have NO relationship to each other. In the vast majority of cases they use totally different words, it’s not just a question of accent, as it would be say in the UK or the US.

I could be the world’s best Thai language speaker, but when my family get together I would be as equally in the dark to what was going on as I am now! Walking in the street, the markets and all situations where overhearing and understanding what others are saying, which is considered part of everyday life, I would be in the same position as a non-speaker of Thai. In my case my family are incredibly polite and considerate and if I was wanting to get involved in a conversation they would likely switch to Thai but in a general sense that won’t happen of course.

Learning Thai is still the best option because it gives you coverage everywhere but don’t think that by doing so you will have an insight into what Isaan people are actually saying about you -) Be even more respectful of your Isaan partner because she mostly likely speaks three languages, and that’s two more than me!

A family buffet for Songkran (Thai New Year) in 2018

The whole topic of speaking Thai/Isan has been raised before on the blog, hidden away in comments people have made on a variety of topics and these give an insight into some of the problems that you yourself may already be experiencing and can relate to. The one that stands out for me is this one:

Comment:

Hi Tony, so impressed and happy for you finding your paradise with such a loving lady. I am 14 years in Thailand and make my living in the restaurant and bar business in Bkk. Amy my gf have been together 6 years and I couldn’t be luckier to have found her.

We have a condo in BKK, a house by the sea in Bang Saray – close enough, 2 hours to get to work 2-3 days per week. We are now building a home on the 26 rai of land we bought years ago near Amy’s family in Buriram. The house is about 500m from the family and so very private but close enough for a bike ride to visit her mom and cousins. It is really security for Amy future after Im gone as she is quite a bit younger than me. Like you, Amy and I are very private people and the family is very respectful of our space, but they are lovely people and will be my closest neighbors with no other farang in our village.

My question relates to communication with her family at weekend get togethers. Amy loves to cook with her mom and sisters and I’m happy to see her enjoy this time with her family. With Amy cooking and chatting with the girls, I have no one to help translate for me.

This often leaves me with the men drinking beer and having some laughs. The problem is my Thai is very rudimentary, I cannot keep up with conversations especially after lots of Leo’s – they are very loving people and I care a great deal for them (like you they are prosperous farmers and have never asked for any money.) BUT I feel lost when it comes to conversation with them, It soon gets frustrating and frankly boring to sit there and have no idea what anyone is saying – I tend to look interested, and chuckle when they do but cannot add much to the party. I usually make it through dinner and beers but call it an early evening to great relief.

Tony how do you handle these situations? I don’t want to pull Amy away from the joy of being with the girls, chatting and cooking and bonding with family. I have no idea how to fit in?

This is of particular concern as within the next 3 years we are planning to move to our Buriram home (semi) full-time – I’ve met some farang and play golf and enjoy chatting up the local expats but I’m no bar fly. I think the answer is learn to speak Thai (or better Khmer) which at 59 I have tried and not been able to memorize or retain much. And the Thais speak too fast in most cases for me to pick out the words I do understand.

So, Tony would love to understand how you cope with this issue and join in the fun with your local relatives and village friends?

Many thanks and kindest regards,

Friends at the farm with Yuan and Lud.

My Reply:

Thank you for such a detailed and personal comment. It always gives me such pleasure to read about other farang that have hit the Thai jackpot with both a delightful partner and a family that is supportive and non-demanding.

I can very much relate to your question on fitting in socially with other Thais when you don’t speak the language. I have exactly the same problem and I am sorry to say that I can’t offer you a magic solution, as I haven’t discovered one! I might be a bit more “protected” from this situation than you currently are. Although we live 100 metres from the family home Gaun spends very little time there. Cooking is done here and the family don’t expect us to join in the everyday meals. The main family social contact tends to happen when we visit the farm most mornings for coffee and catch up with Yuan and Lud, Gaun’s younger sister and best mate plus her husband. There are more “formal” events for things like birthdays and I enjoy them, as you do, but as an observer only. My only consolation to not understanding what’s being said is that I suspect it is mostly pretty everyday stuff, and we might both get bored with the price of rice, what to plant next and who’s doing what to whom (well maybe that bit would be interesting!).

The only consolation I can offer is that when we were visiting family during the period we lived in Chiang Mai, we didn’t have our own base so were more involved on a social level. Gaun was obviously pleased to catch up on everything so the interaction between everyone was more intense. Since we have moved into our own place and are living here permanently the need to “socialise” has decreased as it is all done more informally just as it happens. This has taken the pressure off my involvement although I still enjoy the occasional evening meal when we join them at the family home or taking them out to an Isaan buffet. Maybe you will find your situation “relaxes” once you and Amy settle into a normal non-visiting lifestyle. Just a thought.

I do find living a village life throws me back on my own resources more than a city environment might do with more farang involvement. I have found that I have had to adapt to being comfortable with me (!) as I am my own best friend and companion if you see what I mean. Even with my relationship and the pleasure I get from my Isaan family (and my darling wife of course) it is a life of basically living on my own and entertaining myself. I think that is a real challenge to the rural lifestyle and the number of farang who flee the village for the southern entertainment havens are testament to the difficulties. However if you can find a comfortable balance and build in some escape time then, in my case anyway, I have found it to be wonderful and I wouldn’t swap for a city condo anywhere in the world.

Gaun being Gaun at a friend’s housewarming party.

Jeff then got back to me at a later date with this insight, which is a brilliant solution that has worked for him, without having to learn a new language:

Great insight as usual mate. Good news! The communication issue at family gatherings has improved dramatically. Here is how I’ve overcome to great extent the awkward feeling of not being able to actively participate in Thai conversations with the guys sitting around during family get togethers.

I am a football and Muay Thai boxing fanatic. So are all the guys in the family. We all played the sport and love the live matches. So we plan our get togethers around Buriram FC (or EPL) football matches!

With matches starting at 6pm it fits nicely with the girls grilling and making dinner. Football is our mutual joy and a solid connection – we all know the game and are loyal fans of our home town side. Our focus is on the match, we cheer and laugh and celebrate goals! Drink loads of Leo’s have a nice dinner during the match then when the match ends it’s been a fun 2 hours and time to head home!

We occasionally host the weekly dinners. But most times we watch at Amy’s mom’s home. So we can depart when the match is over and dinner is done.

I can’t tell you how much this has changed the dynamic of our weekly get togethers. It’s actually enjoyable, it’s always more fun to watch footy with mates that love the game.

Amy and I still work at our businesses part time in BKK. And live 80% of the time at our seaside home in Bang Saray. I don’t think I’m cut out for the rural life full time. But this sporting solution has proven to work like a charm during our visits to Buriram.

Tony all the best! Your insights are spot on and a good reality check for newbies and old timers alike.

Feeding local monks. It would be interesting to hear conversations in situation like this.

More recently the topic of learning Thai came up again as a number of replies were posted in reaction to comment that started as a non-language post. I have included the whole thread because there are various views on the subject, and I tend to be on the outer by not being a keen student of Thai/Isaan. The conversation started as follows………

…………..and then heads into a discussion on language with Guy’s response below:

Guy – not really bothered about the going out – there’s enough Birthday Parties going on in the village to keep me entertained, and if I build a house I’m sure the hobbies will follow – I want a small sculpture studio/ photographic studio with good natural light in a the mornings and maybe a vehicle restoration project on the go, something unusual. I’ve got a million and one ways to keep myself entertained. That’s not the problem.

It’s more the constant pigeon English/ Thai and sign language, that wears me down. If I had one person in the village that spoke a reasonable level of English that I could chat to for a couple of hours a week I think that would do me……..but I haven’t and it drives me nuts !

I keep myself busy with Max Igan and Dustin Nemos, etc, on YouTube but it’s all one way conversation ! And that can do as much harm as good too, I end up talking to the screen!

Frank to Guy – I’ve been married to a lovely Thai lady for 9 years, and I agree with you about the “constant pigeon English and sign language” it does wear me down too, plus I’ve got my Thai stepson and stepdaughter, also my Chinese son in law, living here as well so it’s constant communication misunderstandings and explanations. I’ve learnt some basic Thai, no Chinese, I can’t have a conversation as such in Thai, which makes it hard, but I’ve learnt to switch off when they are talking, it’s not about me anyway, but food chat mostly. I plan on “extended holidays” to Thailand when I retire in two years, keep my home here of course. We’ll just have to see how it goes, I’m also interested in old cars, woodwork, and may even take up photography! Building and setting up a home and garden will keep me busy for a while also. Don’t you just love the one way conversations? Ha ha Cheers Frank 

My birthday party 2017.

Tony to Guy– sounds like you have a great plan to keep yourself occupied. Understand completely about the need to speak ‘normally’. It initially worried me but the blog and outlets like what I am doing right now, allows me to express myself even though it is in written form rather than speaking. The blog has also socialised my life in a way I never envisioned. Just this month we have been invited to a farang wedding and also have two separate visits from blog readers staying two nights locally to meet, see what they have read about for real and have a chat. It’s a regular thing so I get to practice English several times a month plus Gaun is pretty good and getting better all the time.

Tony to Frank – Your point about the scope of conversations even if you could speak the language is a good one Frank. Local gossip and what crops to plant might be equally uninteresting as not being engaged at all. It’s not like you are missing out on conversations about sport, world affairs and other farang BBQ topics is it.

Jim – Really easy solution – improve your conversational Thai. Listen to the conversations around you. Irritate the crap out of your wife by often asking for translations. Don’t be shy to join a conversation, even if it means that your pronunciation will be corrected! Get used to the blank looks you get, at times, from your conversational victims! You will be amazed at how quickly you begin to understand enough of the words, to extrapolate the gist of the discussion. Most farange simply switch-off, resulting in a feeling of isolation, even when they are in a group.

Family and neighbours.

Tony – That’s true Jim but my comment to Frank states the conversations you will hear in an Isaan village scenario might be of limited interest to a farang looking for more expat stimulating topics!

Jim – Conversation is a two way street. I find that I can introduce meaningful issues into conversations, by asking appropriate questions. My family can be quite a serious bunch, if the topic of conversation demands it. I prefer to, rather, exploit their natural sense of humor. I spend a bit of Thai learning time mastering something amusing, that I can introduce into the conversation to elicit gales of laughter. It seems a hell of a lot funnier when it comes from a farange.

Frank to Jim – Good tactic Jim to encourage a conversation. In my humble experience I find once Thais learn basic English they are satisfied and won’t improve beyond that. My dear wife continually confuses tomatoes and potatoes, which results in some funny meals at times! Patience is the key! Frank

Jim to Frank – Exactly correct, Frank. In my family, only my wife and step daughter can speak passable English. All the other family members cannot speak or understand English in any form. There is absolutely no need in their lives for English proficiency. Therefore, the onus is on me to learn Thai, should I wish to communicate with my extended family. I am never sure, when speaking to them via my wife, that what I said is what she conveyed to them. Sometimes, she simply does not really understand my thoughts, as expressed in English. I cannot live with that helpless feeling that comes with the lack of Thai language skills. I object to having to have a chaperon everywhere I go, to speak on my behalf. I object to someone, other than myself, ordering my meal in a restaurant. I have been self sufficient all my life, and that is not going to change in Thailand.

Guy to Jim – Hearing You loud and clear Jim……….I never feel comfortable with people whose grasp of English is poor doing my translating for me. My girlfriends Mum is so sweet so I would rather converse with her in sign language and my poor Thai than trust to someone else’s poor translation. When we are travelling in a ‘truck load’ of people I tend to put my headphones on these days and listen to music.I feel it is a lot less stressful than picking up bits of a conversation or them feeling the need to try and explain stuff to me about a funny thing that happened twenty years ago, for instance.

Jim to Guy – Guy, the ABSOLUTE best way to master a new language is to listen to the locals. When I need to communicate (shopping is a good example), I will learn the appropriate Thai beforehand. When they built my new home (and I apologize for my French) I quickly mastered the Thai for ‘what the f…..ck is this’.


I am not offering a must-do solution because each person has their own priorities, capabilities and goals. As you can see from the words I have borrowed from others there are different approaches to the same topic and as long as what you do works in your situation then that’s ideal for you. I have lived here five years and am still a pre-school Thai/Isaan speaker. I do get by with Gaun’s enthusiastic assistance and slowly expand a basic vocabulary although at this rate I will never be conversational. Jeff’s football and Muay Thai boxing solution works to the level of his requirements and others want to go the full monty and learn Thai (or Isan).

I am publishing a number of posts recently that I hope provoke a response in the comments section because I would be so interested to hear of your situation and what works for you.  I know other would be as well so don’t be shy – jump in and let us all know your thoughts.

BTW the question asked before you can lodge a comment is planned and it stops the vast number of totally meaningless automatically generated rubbish that gets around my blog spam detector otherwise. Gems such as this one:

hour hands for clocks

Purchase high quality clock kits that’s available and now available and at great prices get it now, today only!

or:

It seems difficult to determine a precise definition for this current line style.
Best of luck networking both on and off bond. Because of this the excess skin possibly be cut and removed.

So please answer the question phone a friend if it’s too difficult 🙂 and leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.

 

Tony