The Worst English Speakers in Thailand

“Want.. Chicken.. Same Before.. Skin Off.” said the man in the Galae Thong Bistro. Does this sound like the speech patterns of an offensive stereotype of an ESL speaker to you? It does to me. I’ve heard this kind of speech many times in Thailand though. Is that how the natives speak English? If you guessed no, pat yourself on the back. You might encounter people dropping their “the’s” and “a’s” and not everyone is going to understand your thick drawl and use of the hippest slang. Invariably though, the only people talking like cavemen stereotypes are tourists and expats.

There are many English speakers who encounter an ESL speaker and generously want to make it easier for their new friend to understand them. That is an entirely reasonable and admirable goal. What’s painful to watch, though, is how many people just miserably fail at this goal. I’ve always enjoyed the old joke of helping a non-English speaker understand you by TALKING LOUDLY. A small part of my soul died when I discovered people who actually do this. Just as bad though is altering your syntax to incorrect English in hopes of being more easily understood. This is especially true when your altered English is less a match to the actual English being spoken by the person you’re talking to and more of a match to the English spoken by the ‘savage’ in films from the 1930s. As an native English speaker you are a role model for anyone trying to improve. Don’t be a bad model.

How to be Comprehensible

  • Use complete sentences, don’t drop words, but do put extra emphasis on the important words.
    • “Where is the bathroom?”
    • “Do you want this or that?”
  • Express your ideas simply and clearly. Avoid unnecessarily complex vocabulary and informal speech.
    • Good: “Do you want to go to dinner?”
    • Bad: “Hey, we could grab some grub if, like, you’re amenable”
  • Language learners often have better listening skills than speaking skills. Try full sentences before resorting to single words and miming.
  • Slow down your speech, but not so much that it would be offensive if you spoke that way to a native speaker.
  • Saying words slowly isn’t even that helpful. Using pauses and speaking each word distinctly will really get you somewhere.
  • If you suspect that the person you’re speaking to only knows a few words of English, use simple single word sentences with lots of miming and facial expressions. Just about everyone understands the word “Okay.”
    • “Okay?” (Point at blueberry, mime eating)

Note, informal language sometimes is appropriate. It all depends on your goal. If you are simply trying to exchange information efficiently, it is likely to make things more difficult. If you’re helping someone improve their English, by all means, use slang, idioms, imaginary words, whatever.

4 thoughts on “The Worst English Speakers in Thailand

  1. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    While I agree that speaking loudly definitely isn’t going to help situations (in most cases… I speak French quite well, but it’s still not as good as my English and so it’s much more important that I hear all the words, so if we’re in a busy environment, I have found I generally need French speakers to speak more loudly than I would an English speaker), I am not sure if I agree about using broken sentences being such a bad thing. I have definitely found that when you are dealing with people who speak little English in Asia, that just saying the key words often is more effective than using whole sentences. I think this is because most Asian languages, when translated into English, tend to result in something far more rudimentary (or “native”) as you put it than we are accustomed to. For instance, here in Vietnam, we find we are far more easily understood if we say “no want” or “no have” as opposed to “don’t want” or “don’t have”. This is how you would express these concepts in Vietnamese, so I think that this is why it is easier for people to understand them. Many languages don’t involve all the modifiers and participles, etc., that English has, so while it certainly isn’t correct English, and it’s no way elegant, I have found that when communication is key, we are far better of saying “You know where bus?” (or even just “Bus?” with shoulder shrugging and helpless look) than asking “Excuse me, do you know where we can find the bus?”

    Of course, if you are speaking more in depth with someone who has said that they are studying or trying to improve their English, then by all means, speak properly! In that case, I think your tip about speaking very slowly with large gaps between the words is one of the best things you can do. It gives the person more of a chance to “translate on the fly” and you are more likely to enunciate clearly.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..That Time I Almost Died in Cagayan De OroMy Profile

    1. Jeff Post author

      I think there is a fine line that can change depending on the situation. Usually when travelling your primary goal is simply communication and it is often better to talk in sentence fragments or alter your sentence structure to be more similar to the sentence structure of the other person’s native language. I’ve observed though that is is possible to attempt this in a non-respectful manner. Like the person I mention at the beginning of this post didn’t seems to have the idea of, “how can I be most understood?” in the back of his head, but instead had, “how do dumb people talk?” guiding his actions.

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