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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby Rick Bradford » Fri Oct 10, 2008 7:25 pm

I'm very interested in the view from both sides on the question: how do Thais regard foreigners who can speak Thai?

As some of you may know, I learned fluent Vietnamese during my long stay in that country, and the attitude of the Vietnamese to my speaking their language ranged from wariness to outright hostility.

Even when it was clear that I spoke much better Vietnamese than my interlocutor's English, they would always try to force the conversation back to English, to the extent that I had to pretend to be Ukrainian or (less plausibly) North Korean to force them to speak their own language.

I think their reluctance came from a combination of factors: to maintain a strong cultural barrier between 'them' and 'us'; the feeling that conversing in their language meant they had lost control of the transaction (everything in Vietnam is a transaction); a naturally secretive nature; and possibly a desire to be polite to me and even to improve their English. Even way out in the boonies, among the water-buffalo and the rice paddies, someone would always scuttle off to find an English speaker, however limited, even when I had demonstrated fluency in Vietnamese.

The idea of a website/forum such as this, where people come together to fine-tune their knowledge of the language and culture, is unthinkable in Vietnam.

As I begin to learn Thai, my question is, naturally, are there any similarities in Thailand to the situations I have mentioned above?

(EDIT: I hope nobody is offended by this rather direct post -- I ask out of genuine interest and desire to understand.)
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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby zackxx » Sat Oct 11, 2008 3:08 am

Interesting topic Rick and yes there are similarities. I will try to avoid generalizations and speak here from my own experiences as a 'fluent' Thai speaking farang (read: speak Thai better than most Thais speak English!). I would be interested what Thais on this forum might have to say...

I have found that with non-English speaking Thais and/or Thais with limited exposure to foreigners they "treat you as if you are Thai". I believe this more comes from the fact that 'in their world' all people they mix with speak only Thai so why should I be any different...

Then, quite ironically, there are Thai who may have studied overseas in a "farang" country and/or associate with farang here. "In their world" they have only ever spoken English to foreigners. So before you open your mouth they have already decided that the 'noise that is going to emanate from your mouth' will be in English. So when you do speak in clear fluent Thai this may throw them off a bit. They might even not understand what you say as their brain has not yet registered: huh? "white face speaking my tongue!" This is a new experience for them.

Often its a case of finding out who speaks what language the most fluently so as to aid effective communication. Although as you pointed out is often doesn't work out that way.

A foreigner speaking clear fluent Thai is sometimes perceived by some individuals in this second group (but rarely the first) as "someone who knows too much". I often get the comment "น่ากลัว" thrown back at me. Maybe out of a sense that they don't have the same advantage as with non-Thai speaking farang. Then of course one might ask why do they feel they need to have an advantage?... I suppose only Thais who feel this way can answer this question.

You may have heard the slang term "banana" to describe a westernized Asian person. They may have been born and bred in the USA and totally lost any sense of their traditional customs & cultural behaviour. Similarly an Asian language speaking farang may lose some of their appeal to some Asians if they appear white on the outside but yellow on the inside!

This point is of interest if your contact with locals is more on a personal/dating/courtship level rather than on a business level that you mentioned.

Then there is a third group, similar to the first group, but may speak fluent English who are totally accepting of your language ability, are totally supportive and look at you the person and do not judge, treat or behave differently because of your language ability.

And I have always found that because of my Thai language acquisition I am able to converse with potentially 65 million Thais, unlike my expat friends who limit themselves to the 10 million or so English speaking Thais or worse: insulate themselves into solely expat bubble.

I will always speak English to hotel reception/airport check-in etc as the Thais manning these jobs may still have poor English (low paid jobs) but will have spent hours learning a language so i don't wish to rob them of that effort.

I have had it, more so when speaking Thai on the phone, that when the Thai person on the other end hears your accent they will switch to English. It can be annoying if you interpret this as them implying "you speak bad Thai so lets just speak English ok?". (with the assumption they make that you do speak English!) Moreso its them trying to accommodate you and making the effort so I will not let my ego get in the way.

Then there is the whole issue of some Thai who feel they can ask farang very personal questions that I know, after being here for many years, they would hesitate to ask even their closest Thai friends. This I have found to be irrespective of language ability. Possibly because we're outsiders and always will be? Indeed the more fluent you speak Thai the more questions of this type your likely to get. Best to play dumb I guess!

My own Vietnamese travel experiences brought to the hill tribes in the North. Certain tribes (White Thai) speak a northern Thai dialect with many similar Thai words so I was able to converse with them directly and dispense with our Vietnamese/English speaking guide. It was great to have that direct contact with locals. I wished I could also speak Vietnamese also but maybe will rethink that now after reading what you have written.
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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby Rick Bradford » Sat Oct 11, 2008 3:40 am

^zackxx

Thank you so much for your answer which was much more insightful and thorough than I could have hoped for.

Most of what you say resonates with my Vietnam experience.

I'm sure there are many people who will have much to add and I would also be grateful for their input, particularly from the Thai viewpoint.
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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby Nan » Sat Oct 11, 2008 11:21 pm

First, I would ask "Who was the ones who estimated or judged that your Thai speaking or Vietnamese speaking are fluent or better than their English speaking?". If you did it yourself, I think you should rethink about it and ask for someone who can tell you frankly if your speaking can be considered as 'fluent' or not.

If you got a frank answer telling that you are fluent, then you have to consider who you are talking with and the dialect they use. If they use different dialect to the dialect you know, then that is another problem why they don't talk in that language with you.

Another reason is, in a formal meeting which there are people native in different languages, English must be the best choice to use in this situation. It's kind of giving honor to foreigners.

When you say you are fluent, I wonder if you could have a deep discussion with the native in their langauge or not? No offense though, just curious. Because sometimes even the native themselves have to explain what they said in their own langauge to each other. :D

A foreigner speaking clear fluent Thai is sometimes perceived by some individuals in this second group (but rarely the first) as "someone who knows too much". I often get the comment "น่ากลัว" thrown back at me.

Ones who have this idea should be girls who want to keep some secrets from you which I often heard or read about them when they talked about their farang boyfriends. :D Or, your colleagues who don't trust you on somthing. If you are among friends or people who don't have any idea to take advantage of you, this should not happen.

Anyway, in my opinion, one's experience can't talk for others. It depends on which group of people you are dealing with.

As to myself, I will speak which langauge to anyone base on how they can hold the conversation. If they want to speak Thai, it's fine. I will speak to them in Thai. But some thought that they could speak Thai, when I tried to speak Thai to them, they couldn't get what I said. Then I had to switch it to English if it needed.

Yesterday, I was in a store, a foreign guy approached me asking something in Thai which I could get only the word "เท่าไหร่" and from his body language pointing to thing he asked me for it, I then got him a price tag with some English explanation. I knew that he would like to speak in Thai but from what he tried to talk to me, I didn't think he would understand if I explained it in Thai. I didn't have time to do that, so, it's probably that he might get the same idea as you guys that I was implying "you speak bad Thai so lets just speak English ok?" I didn't want to be rude but I was in hurry and it's a benefit for himself not for myself to understand things I explain. Anyway, I admire everyone who make an effort to study Thai and try to speak Thai langauge when they are in Thailand. :)

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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby zackxx » Sun Oct 12, 2008 7:52 am

Thanks Nan for your input: much appreciated!

I think you answered your own question about fluency in the example you gave of the farang asking for the price. You made a judgment call (not a third person) in determining that the farang's Thai fluency was not as good as your English fluency hence you decided to communicate further in English. My 'claim' to having obtained some degree of Thai language fluency is partly based on experiencing many situations like this.

The word "fluent" when it comes to language is a big grey area so I tried to define what I meant by fluency in my post. I suppose its a combination of having adequate vocabulary together the ability to speak this vocab together in a clear, coherent & comprehensible way. Others may define it differently.

Indeed as a native English speaker I find there are subjects such as finance or medicine that speaking even in English I would struggle to speak fluently on. Similarly with any a language. My particular field is architecture and I find I can speak Thai more fluently on this topic than many Thai not familiar with this field. Example: ask any Thai person in the street what a 'บานเฟี้ยม' is and chances are they will have no idea although they are probably standing right in front of one! [note I have just added the word 'เฟี้ยม' to the Thai-language.com dictionary!]

Some years back I did do a Thai-English consecutive interpretation course at Chulalongkorn University. Naturally to enter this course you had to have some degree of fluency in both Thai and English and after a fluency test it was the university that decided the level of fluency required, not me. I trust this answers your question? BTW I was the only farang in the class!!

In addition your shop anecdote seems to reiterate what I said about Thais just trying to be helpful. ;) And your right Thais are so supportive of Thai language learners: ever tried to speak survival French in Paris? Or as Rick may attest to: Vietnamese in Vietnam!
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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby mangkorn » Sun Oct 12, 2008 10:48 am

Interesting. I must say that my experience is perhaps different from some others. I have found that in virtually 100 percent of my interactions, Thai people are happy, quite relieved - or even ecstatic - when it is clear that they can speak in Thai with me. I insist on doing so, but I certainly don't have to force the issue at all (except in the fairly rare occasions when I am approached by someone who is trying to impress me, and then usually with an ulterior motive).

Maybe it's because I don't tend to be where farangs usually are to be found, I don't know for certain. But I have never encountered, in three and a half years, anyone who ever resented my speaking in Thai, nor even resisted in the slightest way, once they realized that I could converse well enough - in fact, even before I could converse well enough. From the outset, be it from dogged determination or just pure ego on my part, I have never spoken English with Thai people - not even over the telephone, nor at the bank, nor in any other occasion when it may be much easier for the objective. As difficult as it was (and sometimes yet can be), I personally think it was and is better for me to force myself to speak Thai in every case.

Admitting to stubborn pride as the prime motivation, I have still never come up against resistance (even the occasional tout will revert to Thai soon enough). But then, I don't hang out with hi-so snobs, nor bargirls. :D

Perhaps I should say that, even though I live in the capital, here in the district where I reside it would be pretty difficult to find people who can speak English well - to their own comfort level, I mean, which is a pretty important distinction among Thais: many people can speak it very well, but don't think that they can. That is true even in banks, or the phone company office, and, especially, in the local tax bureau. And that is just okay with me. I always carry my handy dictionary, for the unfamiliar words. In every case, there may be opportunity to learn something new. :)
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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby mangkorn » Sun Oct 12, 2008 11:54 am

zackxx wrote:Similarly an Asian language speaking farang may lose some of their appeal to some Asians if they appear white on the outside but yellow on the inside!

I've never quite understood that "yellow" idea. I don't see it. Many people with Chinese blood look very white to me - much whiter than I do - while most of the Thai people that I hang out with are actually ผิวสีน้ำผึ้ง

Then again, I don't know why they always say ผิวดำ - maybe I'm color blind? :D
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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby Rick Bradford » Sun Oct 12, 2008 4:13 pm

From the outset, be it from dogged determination or just pure ego on my part.

Zackxx, I know that feeling well, plus the suspicion that there was some ego involved on my part. Very well put.

I am glad to note from these posts that most Thais are open, even relieved, to encounter foreigners who speak Thai.

Perhaps I was a little harsh about the Vietnamese in my earlier post. They have had much less access to foreigners, even less to ones who can speak Vietnamese, so when they see a mat da do mui nhon (red-face long-nose) coming into view, they automatically think "Uh-oh, better find an English speaker." To make them understand that the noises you were making were actually Vietnamese, you would have to preface your key points with a long preamble, to get their ears attuned...

That said, there is a large section of the Vietnamese population who have some limited English skills but want to pretend that they have more, partly as a status thing, to appear sophisticated, plus the fact that anyone can get a certificate in English without having any real command of the language, so they think they're better speakers than they actually are (opposite of the Thais, I gather). Shyness is not a part of the Vietnamese character.

So what proportion of foreigners (residents rather than tourists) take the trouble to learn Thai? I'm really referring to people who make a conscious effort to study the language as opposed to those who pick up a few phrases here and there.

I know this is a broad and vague question, even general impressions would be valuable.
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How are Thai-speaking foreigners regarded?

Postby Nan » Sun Oct 12, 2008 10:03 pm

I think you answered your own question about fluency in the example you gave of the farang asking for the price. You made a judgment call (not a third person) in determining that the farang's Thai fluency was not as good as your English fluency hence you decided to communicate further in English.

Well, I didn't claim that my English speaking is fluent, in fact, I would say it's terrible. :D But what I judged him was his Thai which is my native. From how he form his question and how he spoke it to me could give me an idea how good his Thai was. And most of all, he understood what I explained to him. :D

When people know that you or anyone can speak Thai but they don't speak Thai to you, they might have their reasons to do so which I think it should be
1. They want to show off
2. They want to practice their English
3. From having heard you speak Thai, they thought it would be better to speak in English which at least you would understand it better than speaking Thai to you.

If I met any foreinger who I think they can speak Thai well enough, no need to be fluent, I would be even happy to speak in Thai to them. It would make my life easier. :D

My particular field is architecture and I find I can speak Thai more fluently on this topic than many Thai not familiar with this field. Example: ask any Thai person in the street what a 'บานเฟี้ยม' is and chances are they will have no idea although they are probably standing right in front of one!

I agree. But if you heard a technician tell you about a mechanical part in Thai, will you know what it is? For example: รถของคุณขาไก่เสีย เดี๋ยวผมเปลี่ยนใหม่ให้ or เดี่ยวใช้กาวขี้หมาอุดก็อยู่แล้ว

Oh, by the way, I know what 'บานเฟี้ยม' is. :-P

Anyway, I didn't say that I have doubted with you guys speaking Thai ability. I just want to point out that the ones who can say that wheter you are fluent in that language should be the natives not yourself.
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Postby zackxx » Sun Oct 12, 2008 10:10 pm

From the outset, be it from dogged determination or just pure ego on my part.

Rick- this is a quote from Mangkorn, not me, although I alluded to 'ego' in my original post.

Of the three general Thai groups I mentioned it seems that Mangkorn associates mostly with the first which explains his experiences.

If you mix with Thais who work for international companies & NGO's, airlines or even the Thai partners of your farang friends you will meet those in the second or third group.

Typically there is a high turnover of farang in these types of jobs: stationed here for maybe 1-2 years, if that, before they move on. Thats not enough time to get a good grasp of Thai even if they had the motivation to do so given that they work in an English speaking environment. This may partly answer your question Rick although who knows what the proportions are.

I remember going to a NGO cocktail party with a farang friend who worked for the same international NGO. The Thai host whom I had never met before worked with many farang who at most had done a crash course in survival Thai before their contract started. This was the Thai host's total exposure and experience of farang speaking Thai. That was, of course until I arrived, on the scene!

I had hardly started to introduce myself in Thai when he promptly said quite bluntly "just speak English to me". Obviously he had pigeon holed me into the same group of farang he had alsways associated with. It seems working with farang had also taught him speak more directly! I was happy to speak English to him but during the course of the evening when I was conversing in Thai to a separate group of Thai people he came over and joined the conversation. Probably more curious about me than anything else. I also noted that his English was perfectly understandable but became worse if our conversation came to talking about more complex ideas. I suppose I have helped that host broaden his mind a bit?

To come back to your question Rick I suppose basically there are farang here that want to learn and those that don't or whose effort is limited to being able to at least order a beer, count or tell a taxi driver where they want to go. My farang work colleague has been in Thailand 40 years, falls into this second group. I personally couldn't live here like this!

But its OK if you're not interested to learn the language. It just means you always have to surround yourself with English speaking people. And maybe even put your trust in those people otherwise the information you get is 'filtered'.

This brings me back to my 'น่ากลัว' comment in my original post: possibly there is an aspect of 'control' associated with some Thai befriending a non-Thai speaker?

But as Mangkorn has alluded to: the support many Thais give even the most limited language beginners goes a long way in boosting one's morale into perservering with it.
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