For a while now I’ve been meaning to do some work with Thai Language on my blog, for a number of reasons. First, I thought it might simply be of interest. Second, I’m hoping at least some might stumble upon this (these! It’ll be a series!) and find it useful. And finally, obviously, I wanted to show off my skillz. Haha… jokes, jokes…
But really, largely through Wayne’s particular dedication to picking up the language, we’ve really made an effort to become more familiar with and adept at speaking Thai. Our first attempts came in the form of Pimsleur: audio files we’d heard about from a friend in China. The tracks focus largely on learning through repetition, and use loop methodology to incorporate past phrases and vocabulary into later lessons to assist with memorization. These were actually quite useful as a jumping-off point and there are many languages on offer. For a full list (and free lesson for each!) click here.
Shortly after arriving I decided I’d also be interested in attempting to become at least partially literate; to be able to make some sense out of the strange squiggles of which the written language is comprised. I discovered this site (LearningThai.com), and more specifically this reading resource that uses a real Thai children’s book (Manee and Friends, evidently long since out of print in Thailand) to teach the characters and some basic vocabulary. I actually found it very useful, and after only a few lessons was already able to start picking words out of signs and sounding out unfamiliar words. (The Thai writing system, though obviously very, very differently structured than our Latin alphabet, is also phonetic.) That being said, I haven’t really bothered to master my writing in any sense of the word, so don’t be fooled by the actual Thai you’ll come across in these posts… it’s all taken from Thai-Language.com, a most excellent online Thai/English dictionary. (Thai2English.com is another one I like.)
Then there were a few books (the one from TeachYourself being my favorite) and the fact that for a few weeks (months?) last term we were getting lessons twice a week from a lady in town. All to bring my Thai to the level of, well, as I’ve said before, “That of a Toddler, on a Good Day.” But strides are strides and here we are!
Okay, so now that the overture is… over, onto the phrases! In the future I’m thinking of just doing one or two “Words of the Week,” and they may be chosen more for their amusement value than usefulness. But for the first post of the “Crash Course” I thought I’d rather choose a few phrases that could be a bit more necessary.
1. Sawatdee ka (f.)/Sawatdee kap (m.)! (สวัสดีค่ะ/สวัสดีครับ)
“Hello!” (and “Goodbye,” for that matter)
I suppose this is as good a place as any to point out the “ka” (“ค่ะ“) and “kap” (“ครับ“) particles that come after many Thai sentences and expressions. They are gender-based politeness particles; when speaking in formal situations or with someone unfamiliar to you, females should end nearly every sentence with “ka” and males should do the same with “kap,” (also seen written “krup” or “krap,” and indeed there is a Thai “r” [“ร“] in the word. However, with most Thai speakers I’ve come across the “r” in a “kr” combination is hardly pronounced. Plus “krap” just makes English-speakers giggle). In informal situations this can be left off, though in certain expressions (such as “Hello” and “Thank you”) it is almost always heard regardless of the relationship of the speakers. “Ka” and “Kap” also serve as the words for “yes” for their respective genders, again, regardless of the formal or casual nature of the conversation.
When an older person addresses a younger person (especially if he or she feels particularly endeared to that person) he or she may substitute the particle “jia” for “ka” or “kap.” (Though I swear I was once told this was the particle used by ladyboys, and the first time I heard it in real conversation found myself thinking, “That old lady really had me fooled!”)
2. Kap koon ka (f.)/Kap koon kap (m.)! (ขอบคุณค่ะ/ขอบคุณครับ)
And I suppose this is a good place to point out that you might end up seeing a lot of the “same” words (ie, “kap” and “kap”) pop up with different meanings. There are a few reasons for this, but the most important is that Thai, like Chinese, is a tonal language. Unlike Chinese, which has four tones, Thai has five. I won’t claim to have made any attempt at mastering the tones. It’s a really hard thing for native speakers of a non-tonal language to do, but in theory they are really important. That being said, context can be of great assistance when determining the meaning of words. “Gai” in one tone (“ไก่”) means “chicken” and in another (“ไก”) means “latch.” If your tone’s slightly wrong, and you’re in a restaurant, chances are your waitress will know you’re not asking for some latch in your fried rice. (Though we have come across some pretty daft waitresses…)
For the record, the potential “kap”/”kap” confusion in an expression like, “Kap koon kap!” isn’t actually even tone related… the words are spelt completely differently; the vowel sounds and final “p”s actually differ ever-so-slightly, but to an English speaker, at least initially, they’re relatively indistinguishable. Just remember the “a” is pronounced as “ah.”
3. Koh tot (ka/kap)! (ขอโทษ [ค่ะ/ครับ])
“Excuse me!” [Whoa… a Google image search for “Excuse me” kicks back some really braincell-killing results, though this almost made the cut. Take it away Chris Brown…]
From here on out we’ll just assume the “ka”s and “kap”s are optional (but when in doubt, err on the side of caution and use them). In addition to a simple “Excuse me,” Koh tot can be used as “I’m sorry!” (as an apology, not to express sympathy) and to get someone’s attention.
4. Sabai dee mai? (สบายดีไหม)
“How are you?”
Literally, more or less, “Are you well?”. Sabai is a very versatile word in Thai… “comfortable”, “okay”, “relaxed”, and “fine” are among its many meanings. You’ll see many bars/bungalows/restaurants in Thailand called “Sabai Sabai” (doubling an adjective can intensify its meaning), a popular Thai phrase that illustrates Thai mentality to a large degree.
“Sabai sabai” also makes an appropriate response to the question. Others include, “Sabai dee!” (“I’m well!”), “Sabai dee maak!” (“I’m very well!”) and “Mai sabai…” (“I’m not well…” This is also a way of saying, “I’m sick.”). Again, “ka” and “kap” are optional endings for any of these statements.
5. Mai kao jai! (ไม่เข้าใจ)
“I don’t understand!”
If you were familiar with any of my China blogs (or at least the last two: the ting bu dong diaries and the ting bu dong diaries 2) you’ll know that I become reliant on expressions that indicate my linguistic ignorance to the point of blog-title-worthy infatuation. And for good reason! Though it’s generally pretty obviouswhen there’s a lack of understanding, what with the blank stares and nervous giggling that accompany the condition; I think locals do appreciate you being able to express the fact in their native tongue. As a teacher, it’s also a good one to know as students generally aren’t shy to blurt it out after you’ve given what you thought was a very simple set of instructions at a slow pace in graded English.
6. Mai pen rai! (ไม่เป็นไร)
I really wanted this to be a five-item list but “Mai pen rai” could simply not be left off a bare-essentials Thai list. It’s like Thailand’s “Hakuna Matata“… a problem free philosophy indeed. Much like “Sabai sabai,” “Mai pen rai” captures the easy-going Thai spirit very well. “No problem,” “Don’t worry about it,” “I don’t mind,” “Whatever!”… or anything of this nature could serve as a translation given the situation. For the most part, it’s a really great atmosphere to be in the midst of. Of course there are those moments (like when your drive to work would be much improved by the completion of a repaving of a significant section of the road that’s been “in process” for three months) when you think maybe there are some things some people should worry about! (Ugh! What a downer thing to say! Nevermind all that, I’m loving it! Mai pen rai, baby, mai pen rai!)
Thai Crash Course Part 2: 5 Useful Questions | Thai Crash Course Part 3: 7 Commonly Used Adjectives | Thai Crash Course Part 4: 5 Useful Verbs | Thai Crash Course Part 5: Numbers | Thai Crash Course Part 6: Question Words