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Living in Thailand

Discussion forum for expats moving to or living in Thailand.

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Re: Living in Thailand

Post Posted: Mon Feb 12, 2007 5:37 pm

- Lancashirelad

Peter, if you really consider its not necessary to speak Thai to live in Thailand, the thought occurs to me that maybe you never leave the city & have not been "up country"? See how you'd get on in Isaan with no Thai.

Lancashirelad had good intentions, but bad advice for any foreigner wanting to follow in his footsteps.

For those who are new to Thailand, "Isaan" is the Northeastern quarter of the country.
It is dirt poor and primitive, outside of a few, modest, cities.
There is little opportunity in Isaan.
Most people who are born in Isaan are eager to leave there as soon as possible, and emigrate to one of the cities to get an education and/or a decent job.
The population consists mostly -- not entirely, of course -- of old women, taking care of young children, and the dregs of men who can't find or hold a job.
There are a lot of alcoholics in Isaan.
But don't take my word for it.
You will find an entire music genre in Thailand, "luuk-tueng", devoted to this topic of the many problems of growing up and trying to live in Isaan, and moving from there to the big city.

The only reason foreign men find themselves in Isaan is because they met and married a Thai woman from there, and she wants to go back to her family and her village -- with his money.
That is a "business plan" for many Isaan women.
The mark of success in that business is when the foreign man builds a house for them in their home village.
Usually these women are much younger than their foreign husbands.
When the husband dies, or if there is a divorce, the woman gets the house.
For the vast majority of women coming from Isaan, it's the only way they will ever be able to get a nice house.
So, yes, its a business.

As far as language, Lancashirelad should know better:
In Isaan the people do not speak Thai, they speak a very different dialect, known as "Lao/Isaan".
The writing uses the same script, but many of the words and sounds certainly are different than Central Thai.
All the language schools for foreigners teach Central Thai.
None teach Lao/Isaan.
Because Lao/Isaan is the language of the poorest, least-educated, least-sophisticated people in Thailand.
They may be "salt of the earth", but their language is not socially desirable outside of that quarter of the country.

Well i don't speak much Thai (pood Thai nitnoi) but it seems like i've picked up more than you with all your expensive classes, on just a few extended holidays.

How i learn is when i'm often coming accross a phrase i need i will ask an English speaking Thai to tell me how to say it. I then write it down phonetically. No good for learning to read/write Thai i know, but hey, one step at a time.

Lancashirelad implies that "picking up" Thai language can be done on a few extended holidays.
I very much doubt that.
In fact, I'll say it is impossible.
What is possible is to memorize a few words and phrases.
And those in such a poor "accent" than few people outside of his wife or immediate family will understand him.

I can read and write Thai script.
My vocabulary consists of only 800 words (as of this week), so I still, often, must use a dictionary.
But if someone spells any word in Thai, I can accurately write that word, and speak that word with the correct tones.

Lansachirelad says he writes down words phonetically.
Bad mistake, and that is exactly my main complaint about the language schools: they start teaching phonetically.
That's a terrible way to learn Thai, or, for that matter, Lao/Isaan.
Thai not only has the five tones, but it also has glottal stop final consonants, five different variations in stress, and three different lengths of vowel sounds.
If you invent your own phoentic system to write Thai, well, why reinvent the wheel?
It's already been done in Thai script.

I see this so often here:
Some expat claims he can speak Thai, because his wife/girl friend will bring him a beer or some food when he asks.
She understands him, but nobody else does.
And everywhere he goes, she is his translator and his "handler".
However, in this thread, the OP is a woman.
She will not have a Thai wife/girl friend to handle the details of everyday life for her.
Before making any serious decisions about living in Thailand, it is important to consider that.

I'm mentioning all this not to brag about myself.
Learning Thai has been a frustrating and costly endeavor for me.
After 2-1/2 years, I am reading Thai at only the second grade level.
That's a reasonable pace for learning a totally new language, but it's not much.
I sometimes feel foolish to be seen reading children's books with large type and cartoon pictures.
Learning Thai takes a lot of dedication.
But without knowing some Thai language, life here will be difficult, and, anywhere "up-country", far more difficult.

My reason for going into this detail is to answer the concerns of the original post.
Adopting to living in Thailand is not easy, especially not easy because of the language barrier.
Anyone planning to stay here long time (other than just as a tourist or casual visitor) who does not carefully consider that, will be in for severe culture shock.


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Re: Living in Thailand

Post Posted: Mon Feb 12, 2007 5:52 pm

- Songkran

In Thailand teachers certainly DO command a lot of respect - their social caste is third down in the pecking order. But yes, they are poor. However, Thais are extremely careful not to injure one's dignity.

Well said, Songkran.
And that fits everything I've observed about teachers here.

Now if the Op were to get herself a job in a university, that would be a completely different ball game, just like academia is anywhere else.

Again, I agree with Songkran's comments.
But that's hardly likely for the OP who bills herself as a former secretary.

For those with academic qualifications, who want to live/work in Thailand, yes, certainly, much higher level of prestige to work at a university, especially if one also brings in enough extra money to live with some style.
Style (based on wealth) counts very much in Thai society.
Education, degrees, skill, accomplishment in one's profession, are all very nice, but what really matters is style.

But, even with a lot of style, in Thailand, power always trumps style.
And no foreigner here has any power at all.

The OP should realize that one of the first questions Thais will ask her is what was her job before she came to Thailand.
If she answers honestly, secretary, she will always and forever be considered at that social level by the Thais.
Nothing wrong with that, just don't be expecting to be invited to any society dinners.

This thread is getting interesting.
I hope to see more thoughtful comments.


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Re: Living in Thailand

Post Posted: Tue Feb 13, 2007 1:14 am

- Songkran

I usually agree with you on most things Peter.
Your statements about Isaan and its culture may have been true ten years ago. It's really time for you to go there and see for yourself. It's home to Thailand's third, fourth and fifth largest cities, all of which are very modern and lacking in no home comforts for the resident farang. There is a new wealth and a veritable building boom in ALL the villages you so disparagingly describe.

Songkran -

I always appreciate thoughtful critique.
Please keep that coming.

In the spirit of getting at the facts, can you help me understand why so many Isaan natives are so eager to go to Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiangmai, and Phuket to live and work?
If Isaan is indeed, thriving, why are so many people so eager to leave there?
Is there something I'm missing?

- Songkran

Lao and standard Thai are all so closely related that they are as mutually understandable as Spanish and Portuguese - perhaps more so.

I wish I could believe that, I really do.
It it were true, it would make living here so much easier.
But, for a foreigner in Thailand, I have observed that many of the words are not just a little bit different, they are not even close.
Try, "ah-roy-maak" (Central Thai) compared to "Sep-ee-lee-deuuh" in Lao.
Meaning, "Very delicious".
They are certainly not mutually understandable.
Not even close.

I, too, have studied a little of both Portuguese and Spanish.
Spanish in a class, and I lived and worked briefly in Brazil where I took Portuguese lessons.
The Brazileros could understand some of the Spanish of their neighbors from Argentina or Uruguay, but the neighbors were totally lost with the Portuguese.
I think it is the same here in Thailand with Central Thai and Lao dialects.
My intention is not to argue languages with you, but to point out to anyone who is reading this thread, with an interest in living in Thailand, that the language problem (two major dialects), is a big problem.

- Songkran

I speak both with reasonable fluency (and of course take care not to use Lao in Bangkok) and found both scripts exceptionally easy to learn.

I am impressed that you found Thai script exceptionally easy to learn.
Please allow me to be more than a little dubious.
You are the first and only foreigner I have ever come across here who said Thai script is anything like easy to learn.
44 consonants and 78 vowels, dipthongs and tripthongs, and you found that "exceptionally easy".
Please, what do you eat for breakfast?
I will start eating that if it will make learning Thai even "slightly" easy.

As for being careful to not speak Lao in Bangkok, I must take issue with you on that.
Of the Thais I encounter on a daily basis -- in shops, restaurants, taxis, hotel maid, etc., -- the vast majority speak Lao as their first language.
Speaking Lao in Bangkok would confer a distinct advantage amongst the working class with whom we foreigners have the most frequent contact.
On the other hand, I only hear Central Thai from the doctor, the dentist, the pharmacist, the hotel lobby staff, and a small percentage of taxi drivers.
If a foreigner is thinking of living in Central Thailand I think becoming fluent in Lao would have more practical use for his everyday life, than learning Central Thai.

- Songkran

Chomsky and a few who have succeeded him, have proven that the human brain has a built in language processor that can adapt (by applying the right frame of mind) to learning any number of languages.

Chomsky (of M.I.T. in Boston), was so wrong about so many things in the world, that maybe he was right about a "language processor".
I'm not qualified to judge that.
However, I did attend a Chomsky lecture -- in Cambridge around 1971 or so.
I couldn't follow anything he said, and I still wonder at the adulation he receives.
Maybe my own language processor is faulty?

On the other hand, I am qualified to judge the level of fluency I observe among the foreigners I meet who are living in Thailand.
Virtually none of them have "the right frame of mind" or they all have faulty language processors, too.
The percentage who can speak even passable Thai is miniscule.

- Songkran

Pronunciation may be slightly more difficult to emulate accurately by the onset of adulthood, but it is by no means a barrier to communication. Six months of relative immersion is all it takes to reach conversational level in any language.

Six months, you say!
I wish I could believe that.
I really, really, wish I could believe that.

- Songkran

Because the Thais are not capable of lateral or critical thinking, (they have not been encouraged to develop this skill) they are not able to guess what you mean from context if you just get one tone slightly wrong on one word in a sentence.

So true, and that is a very important problem for any foreigner living in Thailand who wants to learn the language.
It is our problem, not theirs, because they can not interpolate for context.
So, our pronunciation must be very clear, or our meaning will be lost.
I am very dubious that can be accomplished by any Westerner in only six months.

- Songkran

Although you admit, Peter, to not being all that successful at languages, it is probably not very encouraging to suggest that it would be as difficult for everyone.

That doesn't fit what I've written.
I've said learning Thai has been difficult, frustrating and expensive, but I am learning.
I have been successful at learning some of a variety of languages -- as I've mentioned before on this forum.
But Thai is very difficult.
Not just to me, but to most every other foreigner I've met since I've been living in Thailand.
I've met many foreigners here who can produce a few words of Thai.
And I see the confused looks on the faces of the Thais to whom they are speaking, so that is a good indication of the quality of their speech.
So far, I have met only one foreigner here who sounded at all close to managing the correct sounds that I hear all around me every day.
He's been here eight years already, studied Thai for four years before he came here, and is married to a Thai woman.
But you accomplished something similar in six months.
That is truly impressive.

- Songkran

And your comments about Isaan are unfortunate.

Most of what I know about Isaan is from listening to Thais where were born and raised in Isaan, but are now living in Bangkok.
If Isaan is so wonderful, why do so many leave their villages and their families, to suffer in the cities amongst the thieves and the vice?
Maybe they are all feeding me only a one-sided view.

I hear Isaan Thais saying to me, "If you go to Isaan, please be very careful. Some Isaan people very tricky. Always smile, but they are thinking of your wallet."
What purpose would Isaan people have for talking that way about their own neighbors?

I hear Isaan Thais saying to me, "Isaan people friendly, but very dirty. Food not clean. House not clean. I think you not like so much."
What's the purpose in saying that to me?

Sometimes Isaan people tell me their province, "I come from Korat, in Isaan. Do you ever go Isaan?"
When I say that, no, I have never been to Isaan, they nod their heads in agreement and say something like, "No reason to go. Not much to see. Not much to do. Very poor people. No education. Very boring. I think you not like go Isaan."

A few months ago, here in Bangkok, there was an exhibition of paintings about Isaan.
The poster advertising the exhibition displayed one of the paintings.
It was a montage of Isaan life.
It showed young adults getting on the bus to leave family behind and go to Bangkok ("kreung-thep").
It showed old women (wrinkled faces, stopped shoulders) taking care of the young children of those who'd left for the big city.
The only men in the picture were shown laying about under a tree or propped up against a garden fence, obviously in a drunken stupor, complete with whiskey bottles in hand.
That is the way Isaan people portrayed their own for public exhibition.
I wonder why.
I hope you can explain more about this idyllic paradise, because, obviously there is some essential element I must be missing.

But before you do, I must say I have observed one thing very often.
And this will have relevance for foreigners thinking about living in Thailand.
Whenever I hear any praise about Isaan, it is always from foreigners, primarily foreigners who favour a leftist outlook on other matters.
Those foreigners praise anything poor and primitive, and decry anything "Western", including SUVs, DDT, and concrete.
In order for such people to approve of anything, it must be primitive.

But, I have never, ever, heard any Isaan-Thais praise Isaan.
Yes, they miss their families, desperately, as emigrants anywhere would.
But they have little positive to say about life in Isaan.
Something to think about for anyone planning on living in Thailand.

I hope to learn more about the other side of this question.
Probably other readers of this topic would, too.


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Re: Living in Thailand

Post Posted: Tue Feb 13, 2007 4:31 pm

- Songkran

Peter, there is no reason to be impressed I'm probably just the first (of many) professional linguists that you have met in the region.

Thanks, Songkran, for that detailed followup.
I appreciate the additional information, and, I'm certain, other readers of this thread do, too.
I hope we can keep the conversation going.

I don't wish to sound uncharitable, but there is a trend in Songkran's writing here:
At first he makes some assertion, and only later -- when challenged -- does he reveal the relevant facts behind his assertions.
In this case, and related to the thread topic of "Living in Thailand", he is only now revealing that he is a professional linguist.
Songkran has devoted a professional career to learning languages.
Few, if any, other readers of this forum have that background.

So, now I can say with more certainly:
Learn Thai in 6 months?

- Songkran

I do not have much contact[/b] with the working class in Bangkok. In my social and professional circles I would receive some strange glances if I were to hold my conversations, or conduct meetings in the Isaan dialect. Exceptions are the occasional chat with a taxi driver or a waiter from Isaan.

Fair enough -- for you and other professionals working here.
But the vast majority of Westerns who are living in Thailand will, indeed, have most of their contact with the working class.
The people we talk with every day are waiters and waitresses, maids, taxi drivers, hotel or apartment staff, shop clerks.
We don't conduct meetings with them, but we do order our meals, buy toothpaste, pick up our laundry, and get a haircut.
The majority of working class in Bangkok, and in other areas where Westerners live -- but not all of them -- are from Isaan and speak Lao as their first language.

Yes, sometimes I have dinner with a professor friend and his physician wife.
At other times, I have lunch with my Thai lawyer and some of his staff.
Now and then, I'll chat with the Chinese-Thai owner of a restaurant or shop.
But, most of the conversations are with Thai-Lao working class as the routine part of my daily coming and going.

- Songkran

I do not frequent places of the kind of hospitality that abound in Patpong, Pattaya or Phuket.

Songkran keeps repeating that point over and over in his posts.
Please forgive me if I wonder why he is so adamant about that.

The premise under the comment above is that Thai-Isaan people only work in the brothel/bars of Patpong, Pattaya or Phuket.
That's a false premise and misleading to anyone considering living in Thailand.

- Songkran

All natives of Isaan are completely and perfectly biligual in Isaan and Thai,

Now I am in a delicate position.
Songkran is a professional linguist who has many months of experience in Isaan.
I am merely a careful observer who stays in Bangkok.
However, for the benefit of other people, who are considering living in Thailand, I am going to challenge him on this.
I'll do so with a vignette:

In my neighborhood (in Bangkok), I frequently go into various restaurants: a combination of Western and local restaurants.
I am a student of Central Thai language.
While I am waiting for my food, I often pull out one of my children's books in Thai, and practice reading.
As you would expect, that attracts some attention from the staff.
I've been doing this in the same group of local restaurants for over two years now.
Everybody in this Soi who knows me, knows I am an avid student.
Sometimes -- nay, often -- I have trouble with the correct pronunciation of a word.
At first, I thought it reasonable to ask an idle waiter to help me.
Some did.
But many -- perhaps one in four -- just looked confused when I showed them the word that was giving me problems.
Then they would call over their co-workers for a "consultation".
That started me wondering.
These are simple words, like "house", "field", "schoolyard" and "garden".
What was so difficult that one waiter would need the advice of another on how to pronounce the word in Thai?

Eventually one waiter, the "consultant", said to me, "When you have question, not to ask him. He not speak Thai. Only speak Lao. Better you ask me. I help you."

How can this be?
A Thai who can not speak Thai?
And the job of a waiter in a restaurant of that price range, in that area of Bangkok, is a highly-coveted job which offers a respectable income from wages and tips.
Yet, he can not pronounce a simple Thai word like "garden"? ("su-ahn")

This same scenario repeated itself again and again, with different people in different restaurants and shops.
Based on dozens of observations, I must disagree with a professional linguist.
I maintain that a significant number of Thai citizens, of Isaan descent, are certainly not, "completely and perfectly biligual in Isaan and Thai."
The purpose of this forum is not to argue linguistics.
But for a Westerner -- such as the OP -- thinking of living in Thailand, the confusion of two different dialects presents a significant difficulty.

- Songkran

if a linguist can learn the IPA ... in two days, it might take you four to master Thai.

Songkran is referring to the International Phonetic Alphabet.
That is a system using English letters, plus some special symbols, to attempt to represent sounds of other languages.
I am hardly qualified to comment on other languages, but I have learned the IPA for Thai language.
There are many books for learning Thai which use the IPA.
There are also several other systems -- besides the IPA -- which are used by various teaching methods.
None of them, none, is nearly as effective as learning Thai script.
In a previous post, I mentioned the 78 vowels, dipthongs and tripthongs.
Why bother to learn 78 symbols in some artificial system, when you can, just as easily, learn the exact Thai script for those sounds?

Again, I'm not trying to argue linguistic details.
I do maintain that for anyone wanting to live in Thailand -- as the OP desires -- learning the language is the biggest problem here.
I am searching for the best way for a Westerner to learn Thai.

- Songkran

The picture you have received about Isaan is about as accurate as the reports from modern fascists that the Holocast did not take place.

Songkran claims to be an academic.
Yet he just used a spurious method of argument.
And it's not the first time he's tried that.

I am sad to write this, because I am always looking for sources of accurate information about Thailand, but after that remark, I must, in all sincerity, doubt Songkran's academic qualifications.

- Songkran

A visit to Isaan would also leave you impressed with the number of Issan folk who have worked in Central Thailand for a while and returned. Mosty do after a while. Many have actually worked as unsklilled or semi-skilled workers in Singapore and various Arab states. There, they have learned a craft on the job. My aluminium windows and doors were built and fitted by a company whose owner learned it all in Dubai. He has had a large workshop here now for 15 years.

Now, that is very helpful information.
And, thank you, no one has described Isaan to me in quite that way, before.
However, I'm still not eager to live there, even with good windows and doors on the house.

Okay, back over to you, Songkran.
I'm looking forward to any information helpful to Westerners living in Thailand.


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Re: Living in Thailand

Post Posted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 6:34 pm

As a hitherto passive but close observer, Peter, it would appear to me that you have succeeded in killing your much cherished thread stone dead.



Re: Living in Thailand

Post Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 10:46 pm

Having only just revisited this thread, i am astounded to see that Peter has me a) married and b) to an Isaan girl.

Wrong on both counts Peter.


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Re: Living in Thailand

Post Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 11:36 pm

- jason06

As a hitherto passive but close observer, Peter, it would appear to me that you have succeeded in killing your much cherished thread stone dead.

What a silly thing to say.
The topic of this thread is "Living in Thailand".
You show your location as Thailand.
Did you have something to say about expat living in Thailand?

One of the recent, active, posters here, "Songkran", has deleted all his posts and run away.
Much of what he had to say was wrong-headed, but it was all on topic and worth some thought and comment here.

- Lancashirelad

Having only just revisited this thread, i am astounded to see that Peter has me a) married and b) to an Isaan girl.
Wrong on both counts Peter.

Lad has set up a "straw man" -- a false diversion -- and now complains that I am wrong on his false diversion.
More silliness.
The thread is about expat living in Thailand, not guessing Lad's marital status.

I'm always happy to discuss -- or answer questions about -- the forum topic of expat living in Thailand, either on this forum or in private email.

-- Peter


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