I thought I would put together some of the advice that either I have been given and I believe it’s worthy of passing on or from what I have discovered on my own which has helped me along the way. I will assume you live in Thailand and you deal with more locals than you do farang. I will also assume you are just beginning your foray into learning the Thai language. Caution, I am not qualified to teach anyone the Thai language, read with a bit of humor.
Advice. Never trust any Thai advice from someone not qualified to teach anyone the Thai language.
Careful where your conversation goes. If you are looking for dire information or are having some sort of difficulty and you need an absolute answer, ask in english first. You can always fall back to Thai if you are misunderstood.
There is no shame in approaching a Thai in english. Just smile when you’re doing it. Thai is one the hardest languages to learn and the Thai people are very proud of that fact.
Listen, listen, listen. You will approach a point where you realize that you know many words and phrases but absolutely cannot pick out what your Thai friend is saying. Don’t fret, it just takes time and here is all you need to do. This is certainly the most important piece of advice I can give you: Watch Thai TV, use YouTube, pay attention to what your friends are saying to eachother. If you do this over a remarkably short period of consistency, you will accomplish 2 milestones. 1) You will start to pick up on words and phrases that are routine to everyday conversation and 2) You will begin to discern one word from the next. Slowly as your listening improves, you will easily be able to begin hearing words you know, leaving you only to fill the gaps with the words you are hearing but do not know.
Wish I knew how to say that. When you find yourself in a situation where you have just said to yourself “I wish I knew how to say/ask that in Thai”. Write it down! Ask your teacher or friend later. And write the answer down, dammit!
Use every resource. Find a good restaurant with a good waiter and good food. Go there often. Tip the waiter an extra 10 baht each time and talk to him/her in Thai. They’ll ask you something crazy in Thai like “Care for that with holy basil and celantro?”. When I hear things like that, I give up. I have no idea what you just asked me and from that point on, your brain kicks back into english (you can’t prevent that instinctual reaction). Here is where you get your monies worth… Ask them to speak a little slower. Then after they have repeated it and you are still confused, just ask them if they know how to say it in english. See next bullet.
They will laugh at you. Do not get upset or feel embarrassed. If you haven’t already witnessed it yourself, the Thai people use smiles and laughter for just about every emotion. Giggling at you is just an honest reaction to your attempt to speak Thai. While it feels like humiliation, it only stings for a second. Within no time you will have mastered when and what to say in Thai. More importantly though, when to say anything at all.
Get it? I am guilty of not following this next advice enough. If you don’t understand, tell them you don’t understand.
Tones 1. If you are unsure of the right word and/or correct tone, it’s probably best you not try and guess. Please don’t call your new mother-in-law “dog” (măa) instead of “Mom” (Mâe).
Tones 2. Speaking of tones, listen up, if you are not going to bother to listen and use the proper tones, don’t speak Thai. You will make absolute zero sense to everyone you talk to. And, it makes you look lazy and unkempt. You’re better than that.
Losing your shirt. Not so much language related but a good piece of advice for living in Thailand: Put your shirt back on, nobody wants to see that shit.
Find a teacher you like. Leave a teacher you don’t like. When you have a teacher you would like to pay to teach you Thai, insist you are getting the Thai language you prefer. If you want to speak to locals using less formal words and a little bit of slang (you know, just everyday talk), let your teacher know that. Insist on getting a well rounded education. Learn the multiple words and phrases for things like “eat” and “want to” but ask what the common word or phrase is. I ask my teacher 10 times a class, “and what do you say when you are talking to your friends?”.
Reverse advice. Learn to speak pigeon english. Learn talk english with friend, make understand. Any activity that makes your brain work harder when you are talking is good for the brain. As you learn pigeon english, you will have a great understanding on how to phrase words when speaking thai. Think about it. A phrase like “I am going to the market” in pigeon english spoken from a non-native english speaker may come out something like “I go market”. It’s not lazy or lack of education, in fact, it’s a direct translation from Thai to English. “I am going to the market” in Thai is “Bpai dtà-làat” or simply, “Go market”. So, a direct translation from Thai to English is “Go market”. Plain and simple and enough said. You really don’t need all that extra information. As you learn to speak pigeon english you will become that much better at phrasing into Thai.