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Not Knowing the Thai Language? How-To Survive Thailand or Work with Thai Businesses

For those of you who don’t know, the main (and only) language in Thailand is Thai. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized. This means there have been no other languages that we adopted apart from Thai. We did learn English in school and I’ll go a bit into further detail in this post. But if you are wondering about the possibility to work with Thai businesses or travel to Thailand without knowing the Thai language, let’s read on!

How To Survive Thailand or Work with Thai Businesses Without Knowing Thai Language?
Thai language is a tonal language and vastly different from English.

Do They Speak English in Thailand? How Did Thais Learn English?

The general answer to this would be no, we do not normally speak English in Thailand. It would be unusual to communicate with family and friends in English. However, if you have run into any Thais speaking English to each other, that means they are probably students in International School. This is because there is a new trend, among a mid-to-high-class family, to have their children study in an International School system which will require them to speak English with their children as often as possible.

Another time that we communicate in English is when we are working with foreigners, usually in big multinational corporations. During the work setting in a multinational corporation, we either need to have a meeting or presentation in English because non-Thai-speaking colleagues are participating, or we normally write in English when it comes to Powerpoint presentation, email, or reports. Having said that, employees of the multinational corporation will need to pass an English test or an interview conducted in English.

English is actually mandatory in both Thai and International schools. However, in Thai school, we would be learning English for about 2-4 hours a week. And they have been giving so much emphasis on grammar than English for everyday usage. When I was in elementary school, you can be sure that I can memorize all the present-past-future tense of a verb. But I would be so perplexed when you ask me ‘what’s up?”‘, because my mind would run a thousand miles an hour for an accurate tense to use for the answer.

One more problem with education is that we hardly learn from a native speaker. Even if I did have a chance to learn English from a native speaker, it was like an hour a week and with a normal size class of 40-50 students…..It was as good as I myself watched Friends on reruns from HBO. So among all English skills, reading and writing might be the easiest among educated Thais (those who learned English from schools, not from direct contact with English speakers).

What Percentage of Thais Can Speak English Then?

Based on the data from AEC in 2014, about 10% of Thais can communicate in English. This means most people cannot communicate in English with you. As mentioned above, you can expect that employees in a big corporation can speak English. Another industry that I notice people are pretty good at communicating in English is tourism. Their English might not be native-speaker perfect. But I think it is good enough to speak a few nouns to let you know how much the taxi ride costs, or how no further discount can be given for your elephant pants!

How To Survive Thailand or Work with Thai Businesses Without Knowing Thai Language?
Thailand is called a Land of Smiles for a reason. You will find Thais the easiest to approach and start a conversation with.

Is It Offensive To Speak English to Thai People Then?

Not at all! At least you won’t understand their responses even if they think it is offensive, just kidding! I would recommend you try to communicate in English first, but with the right approach (more detail in the next section). You won’t know until you try either talk or write to them in English and see if they will respond.
These are some scenarios that you can expect if you are in Thailand, approach Thai people on the street and speak English to them.

  1. They will smile. Thailand is called the Land of Smiles for a reason! We are kind and when we do not know how to respond, we SMILE! But after that smile, they can completely ignore you.
  2. They might giggle, especially the ladies. This is because they feel shy and do not know how to tell you they don’t speak English. Do not take this personally. It’s just like when you got so timid and you cover it up with a giggle. After then, they probably ignore you.
  3. They probably ignore you right away and act as if you are a guy in an invisible cloak.
  4. Until you find the one, they will respond nicely to you that they speak ‘no English, no English, or you might find the one that can fluently talk to you! Read on how to spot that one!

What if you approach the businesses in Thailand with English messages or emails then? If they cannot speak English, you can expect no response or just a couple of responses but then crickets. Under this circumstance, I still recommend you to try to approach them with an English message first.

Because, again, you can never know if they can or cannot communicate in English. And also, reading is easier for Thais than listening. Therefore, you should try to write to them first. They might be able to respond. For more information on which platform is best for communicating with Thai businesses, click here.

How To Survive Thailand or Work with Thai Businesses Without Knowing Thai Language?
You can easily survive in Thailand without knowing Thai language. Most street signs and menus now have English on them.

So, The Big Question is
A) Can You Survive Traveling in Thailand, or
B) Do Business with Thai People
Without Knowing the Thai Language?

Let’s first talk about traveling first. I am confident that you can survive and can pretty much enjoy your experience in Thailand not knowing the Thai language. Just like when I traveled to Japan or Vietnam, I could enjoy it even not knowing the local language. You have more than one helper, that I’m sure of. Firstly, your bestie, Google Translate, I downloaded the app on my mobile whenever I travel to the country I think English is not its native language, be it in Asia or Europe like Norway or Italy. It is true that some of the products or services like a local express boat ride in Bangkok or a local snack might not have an English label or description for you.

Google Translate Camera option will be your best friend during the trip. Having said that, signs and descriptions at the popular tourist attraction will contain the English version for you. I just traveled to Phrae, a relatively small city in the North of Thailand, I couldn’t find many English signs there. However, at Pae Muang Pee Forest Park, which is one of the most popular attractions, there was a perfect English translation of the park’s history and information.

And secondly, you will definitely be able to find some local Thais that can speak English. At least in the city area of each province. The younger generation has received a more developed education. Hence, I do believe that in every province you visit, there will be someone who can speak English in the city area.

Now, when it comes to doing business with Thai people. You might need an extra hand on this. I still believe Google Translate will be handy in communicating with Thai businesses, at least for the initial negotiation period. Click here, for more detailed information on how to best communicate with Thai businesses.

However, as your project proceeds into further phases, you might need a reliable Thai person (or someone who can communicate well in Thai) to help you with it. This is to avoid misunderstanding in your contract and agreement and also to ensure that you have someone locally to follow up on the deal for you until the end of the project. If you have more questions or need more help, please also feel free to contact us.

In Summary, Google Translate Or A Trustworthy Middleman

It is true that using the Thai language is the best to avoid misunderstanding and smooth operation, especially if you are working with small businesses like product suppliers or accommodation. However, because only a small percentage of the Thai population speak English, you can expect to work with them in Thai or Thailish! So, be prepared to bring your bestie, Google Translate with you to Thailand or to your business meeting.

And don’t forget that if you are doing business with Thais, before you are going further with the project and payment, it is best to involve a reliable Thai person to help you with this (especially if you feel like the Thai business that you are working with does not have what it take to carry on your project requirement which is given in English).

What about you? Have you had any direct experience working with Thais? How difficult did you find it to be? As always, if you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment below. I am more than happy to connect and help you out.

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