Thai is, of course, the national language spoken in Thailand. Many people in central Bangkok also speak English, although fluency differs greatly. A number of other different languages are also spoken in Thailand, particularly when close to the borders such as Burma and Laos.
Thai belongs to the Tai language family, which is a group of related languages and also includes Laos, Burma, Northern Vietnam and southern China.
There are four main dialects: Central, Northern, Southern and Laotian. Central dialect is spoken in Bangkok and surrounding areas. Central Thai is also always used in business.
There are also a number of other different and less common dialects including:
Although to foreigners who have just arrived in Bangkok (and admittedly others who have been here for some time!), Thai might sound a very complicated and difficult language to learn, you can in fact start having a short conversation when you have only learnt a few short phrases. The Thai people really appreciate it if you have a go at speaking their language, and will help you with your pronunciation. Although they seem to have a bad reputation with tourists, taxi drivers are usually great people for practicing language skills with.
One of the most basic and important things to learn when speaking Thai is the small changes for female and male; if you are female it is good manners to add ‘ka' to the end of a sentence and for a male, 'krub'.
Many people who work in Thailand will find it helpful to learn to speak the language and one of the best ways to be able to hold longer conversation and understand more Thai is to attend a language school.
Tuition at most Thai language schools is around 100-300 baht an hour for a class. Many schools will offer blocks or even yearlong courses which can be cheaper. However, some schools which offer yearlong courses require full payment in advance.
Many reputable schools will offer a free initial trial to see if you like their style of teaching before signing up to a course. Different schools offer different teaching methods and styles, so it is recommended that you try as many different classes as you can - whilst one method might work for some, it may not work for you. Some classes offer no interaction whereas others will not allow any English to be spoken at all.
Take your time to research a school before signing up for a course. Many foreign residents use language schools as a means of obtaining an education visa to allow them to legally remain in Thailand. There are some schools that have been set-up to cater to this clientele and run the schools as a purely money making venture with poor quality teaching. It is not uncommon to hear of people who have attended Thai school for two years who are still unable to speak any Thai!
It is also possible to learn Thai online through Pimsleur. Like the language schools, they offer a free starter taste session, and recommend you try and commit 30 minutes a day. The main benefit of this programme is you are able to proceed at your own pace, and if you need to repeat a class then you are free to do so.
Recommended language schools in Bangkok:
Speaking, reading and writing are all taught, and classes are available for beginners, intermediate and advanced students. Do expect to receive homework!
Helpful reviews regarding most of Bangkok's language schools can be found on www.womenlearnthai.com. This is a very valuable resource for those trying to learn Thai.
Whereas some benefit from a class, others benefit from private lessons. This will allow you one-on-one time with a Thai teacher and that classes can be arranged to suit your weekly schedule, and can even be held at your home.
Recommended private tutors and schools include the Thong Lo Institute and Jentana and Associates
In Thailand it's also customary to talk to strangers, so people will talk to you anywhere you go.
An exchange partner is an excellent resource for practicing a new language with a native speaker. As an added bonus, language exchange partners can help you understand the culture of the area and inform you of local happenings. Questions about gift giving, festivals, nightlife, and greetings can be addressed without worry. In the best case sceneries, an exchange partner is not only your ambassador, but a friend.
Despite having recently been chosen to the World Book Capital for 2013, people in Thailand are not known as being particularly big readers. Buying books, especially English books, can be very expensive and, unlike most western countries, there isn't a public library system in Thailand. There are, however, some private libraries (which most Thais don't seem to know about) that stock Thai and English books and manuscripts.
Neilson Hays Library - (195 Surawong Road, Bangkok) Unofficially considered to be Bangkok's best private library with more than 20,000 volumes of fiction, non-fiction and children's books in stock you can join on either a 6-month or annual membership. The Neilson Hays Library is also known for its used book sales. Not only do they sell old books from the library's collection but members also encouraged to bring their own used books to donate so there is always a bargain to be found. Membership is certainly not cheap at 2,500 baht (53 GBP or $71) per adult and 1,700 baht (36 GBP or $48.50) per child, but that will allow you to borrow 6 hardcover books at once. The library has a popular cafe and has several interesting monthly art exhibits.
Siam Society Library - (131 Asoke Montri Road (Sukhumvit 21), Bangkok) If you're interested in Thai or SE Asian history, then this is the place for you. Located in a stunning building, that is worth a trip to see alone, this is a reference library with a large selection of books on Buddhism, fine arts, art history, culture, and humanities. It is also well known for its extensive assortment of rare books, maps, palm-leaf books and manuscripts. The library has been open for more than 100 years and also organises study trips within Thailand with the primary aim of increasing awareness about Thai culture. Basic membership starts at 3,500 baht (74 GBP or $100) per year. Although expensive, this will provide you with access to the library, enable you to participate in the field trips and lectures, and allow you discounts on book purchases.
National Library of Thailand - (Samsen Road, Dusit) The National Library has been open since 1905 and houses an extensive compilation of rare texts and books as well as ancient Thai books. This is the largest reference library in Thailand, and is predominantly used by scholars and students as the National Library of Thailand holds many books that are simply not available anywhere else.
Chulalongkorn University Library - (Phaya Thai Road, Patumwan, Bangkok) Chulalongkorn University has a good library which is mainly used by students. However, Chulalongkorn can also be accessed by non-students/non-members for a small fee of only 20 baht (around 40 pence or 70 cents) per time. Chulalongkorn Library has a mixture of both Thai and English books.
If you enjoy reading, you may also wish to consider joining one of Bangkok's reading clubs. Try Runaway Readers, the Bangkok International Book Club and Bangkok Book Club meetup for the chance to meet other expats who share your passion.