Depending on your travel destinations in Thailand, you might meet locals who speak perfect English as well as the ones who don’t speak the English language at all.
In this article, I will explain why so many Thais don’t speak the English language. I will also share some basic phrases in the Thai language for you to write down.
So, do people speak English in Thailand? The English language is widely understood, spoken, and written in the biggest cities of Thailand as well as in the major tourist destinations. In the rural parts of Thailand, there are fewer close to no locals who speak or even understand the English language.
With more than 30 million tourists visiting Thailand each year for locals who know the English language it is a real opportunity for them to develop their business.
In such cities as in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket the importance of the English language is huge for another reason as well – knowing the English language is a sign of higher social class.
But if you’re planning to escape the big crowds and to travel throughout the beautiful countryside of Thailand be aware that most likely no one will understand what you’re saying unless you will speak the Thai language. With a few exceptions which I am about to explain in this article, you will have to find other ways how to communicate with locals.
So if you feel okay improving your sign language skills by applying them in real-life situations, it is relatively easy getting around Thailand without knowing the Thai language.
Is English Common In Thailand?
English in Thailand is more common in such big cities as in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket, but in the countryside, there is hardly anybody who speaks English good enough to have a real conversation even about a basic topic.
Nevertheless, I can think of several situations when the language barrier might be an issue in the big cities of Thailand as well.
So here is the list of random situations you could potentially face in Thailand with no one being around who could speak English with you:
- when using public transport in Thailand
- when doing shopping in some less known markets
- when talking to police
- when asking pedestrians for directions
I’ll briefly explain each of those situations, so you know what to expect when in Thailand.
Using the English language when buying tickets for public transport in Thailand
To purchase tickets for the metro or the Skytrain is easy because you can change the language to English in the ticket issuing machines.
Also, when buying tickets from the ticket booths, the booking clerks will understand the English language. Make sure you pronounce the name of your desired station loud and as clear as possible. This way, you will make it an easy process for both yourself and the booking clerk.
Another reasonable way and unique experience of how to get around Bangkok is the city bus, but it is unlikely that the cashier on the bus will speak any English.
As not too many tourists choose to use the city buses, you won’t be able to ask them for a bit of advice. So be prepared to use the sign language.
The use of the English language in Thai markets
Do not expect the Thai market sellers to speak fluent English and especially in the rural areas of Thailand.
As the most often used English language words or phrases in Thai markets, you will hear – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, one hundred, two hundred, and so on.
You must have heard the phrase “Same, same, but different.” If not, go to any market in Thailand and ask either that Louis Vuitton bag is real or not 🙂
Do Thai police speak English?
In case you need any assistance from the police in Thailand, it is better to contact the Tourist Police first.
As this force consists of locals, who speak good English and volunteers from other countries, it makes it an easier communication with a group of people who are willing to help you.
Tourist Police will often translate your conversation with the real police.
Tourist Police phone number in Thailand is 1155.
Will random strangers answer in English when asked for directions?
In most cases, no! But they will gladly help you by gesturing with hands while speaking Thai 🙂
I remember this one case at the Suvarnabhumi Airport when I asked a random airport worker for directions to passport control. This Thai man didn’t know a single word in English, but he was so happy and enthusiastic to help me.
You shouldn’t always trust those good people because they might misinterpret your question in the first place. For getting the correct answer to your question, it is recommended to look for someone who speaks at least some English.
Is English widely spoken in Bangkok?
As English is widely spoken in Bangkok, for English speaking tourists, it is relatively easy to get around the city.
Thai people will speak English in all major tourist attractions.
Shopping at most shopping malls and convenience stores in Bangkok will be no problem at all.
Calling to a fancy rooftop bar and ordering a table will be no problem as well.
Please be aware of those Thai people who will approach you and speak fluent English because it is a sign that you’re about to be scammed.
It will happen near the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand. Often they will say that those attractions are closed because of the national holiday or for some reason another. The best advice is to keep calm and to ignore them by walking away.
Thais are shy, and they won’t approach you for no particular reason. Thai people being shy also partly explains why they do not speak English.
Why Don’t Thai Want To Speak English?
The main reason why Thais don’t want to speak English is that they are shy about their accent. Interestingly many Thais would like to have an American or English accent.
While it might sound silly, it is what it is. Many locals who would honestly answer to this question would say the same thing.
Sometimes they don’t try because of fear that others might look down on them. This article is written by Thailandtravelessentials.com
Of course, it can not be said about all people, but many Thais who understand and could speak English choose not to do so. The sad part about it is that quite often those are also the English language teachers in Thailand who don’t feel confident about their English skills. It makes them avoid speaking English as well.
On the other hand, for many Thais and especially in Bangkok, the ability to speak the English language is a sign of higher social class.
In Bangkok, it is possible to meet Thai people who communicate with each other in fluent English.
With so many tourists visiting Thailand, which helps businesses to develop the English language has to become more popular. But for now, it is nowhere near to be called a second or even a third language in Thailand.
Why Thai Can’t Speak English?
It wouldn’t be correct to mix up the answers to this and previous question together.
While many Thais are shy to speak English, there are a lot of people who don’t understand the English language at all, and it is to do with the education system in Thailand.
Technically many Thais study the English language for 12 years, but after the studies, they cannot understand nor speak English.
According to the EF English Proficiency Index for Schools – a study of the acquisition of English skills by secondary and tertiary students, Thailand ranks only 64th among the 88 listed countries and regions.
The highest English proficiency in Thailand is in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
To see the full report, click HERE.
When comparing the regions, the highest English proficiency is in central Thailand, but the lowest English proficiency is in the northeast.
So the main reasons why Thai people don’t want to or can’t speak English are:
- shyness (accent, dialect, wrong pronunciation)
- lack of encouragement to speak in English
- not having real conversations in English classes
- only technical English grammar is being taught in English classes
- English language teachers being poorly educated and therefore teaching with mistakes
Do Thai People Learn English?
As it is already mentioned in this article, Thais learn English in schools and universities, but it doesn’t mean that can understand, write or talk English after that.
For many Thais, the actual way how they truly learn the English language is by having real-life conversations with foreigners.
Often taxi drivers, speedboat and long-tail boat drivers, street vendors, and other people who have the chance to communicate with tourists are the ones to learn the English language quicker than others.
You probably won’t be able to hold any meaningful conversations with them in English, although some taxi drivers could be very talkative and fluent in English. Of course, these still won’t be the most meaningful conversations you could have, but rest assured that you will be offered to buy everything from the driver!
For those entrepreneurs in Thailand who don’t want to or they can’t speak English, but they have to deal with tourists they have thought about workarounds to solve communication issues.
For example, in many bars and restaurants, the menus are in the English language. So even if the staff doesn’t speak any English, you have to point your finger at the dish of your choice from the menu.
Of course, nowadays the access to the internet in Thailand plays a vital role in learning the English language as well. Watching English movies and listening to English songs helps, but often those are Thai youngsters who learn by using technology.
You might have heard that people from the United States, Europe and other parts of the world move to Thailand to live there and often they earn for a living by teaching the English language. For those students who have the opportunity to learn from a native English speaker, it is another way how to learn the English language.
Some Thai Phrases You Should Know
The land of smiles, they say!
Learn some of these basic Thai phrases, and you will surely see some big and honest smiles towards you. And not for the reason that your pronunciation was wrong, but because you tried your best to show some respect and interest in their country.
- Hello – Sa Wat Dee
- Yes – Chai
- No – Mai
- Thank you – Khob Khun
- Bye – Laagorn
What do Khap and Ka mean?
First of all, the Khap (Khrap) is used by male and Ka by female, and it is a polite way how to end sentences when speaking in Thai.
For example, if you would like to say thank you in Thai language and you’re a male, you should say Khob Khun Khap. If you’re a female, you should say Khob Khun Ka.
So Khap Khun Ka for reading this article and have a safe trip to Thailand!