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English is growing in popularity in Thailand despite low world rankings

Monday 4th December 2017 9:38pm

Thai women with no English or a foreign language can find love abroad but prospects are lower

The language barrier between Thai women dating or marrying foreigners can actually be a plus factor but poses a chronic problem for vulnerable relationships and hinders the ability of Thai women to flourish abroad.

John Mercer is now seventy years of age. He lives in a suburb of Houston in Texas and for twenty years served in the United States armed forces. He met his Thai wife Noon in 1972 while working with the American Air Force in northern Thailand during the Vietnam war. 'She was working as a maid taking care of the guest house in which we were living in the north of Thailand, it was pretty much love at first sight. It all happened over a few days,' he tells us.

Thai woman's 'pidgeon' English endeared her to US husband

Since then the couple have lived in four different countries. Now it is Noon, an elderly lady facing retirement who is the main earner in the household. She works full time in a transport company as a respected shipping clerk while John draws his pension. John describes his wife and partner of over forty years as a 'wonderful person' but also says that one of the things that still endears his Thai wife is the way she speaks English. 'When I met Noon first, she could not speak English and she was a bit slow learning it too. But looking back over the years, I think one of the things that has made the relationship so great is that we have both learned each other's cultures but most particularly it is Noon learning to speak English and the whole western way. It's been sort of a journey together and even today. I guess she can speak English pretty fluent now but she has her own unique way of saying things that just makes people love her. There are so many of the people we know together and the people she works with who can tell you that.'

Lack of English is a liability for many Thai women online

One Of the key profile requirements set out by many western men with dating profiles on international dating sites is that the Thai woman should be able to speak English or a foreign tongue depending on the country of the foreign man. It is quite understandable that foreign men from western countries should hope to meet new love partners who can speak the same language. It is often the reason why some westerners choose to seek out a few girlfriend, life partner or wife from a country such as the Philippines where English is more commonly spoken. In recent surveys out of 60 countries where English is not the mother tongue, Thailand was rated a lowly 55th, only ahead of such countries as Kazakhstan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The survey was conducted by an educational company based in Zurich, Switzerland. In recent surveys of Thai women living in western countries and married to western men, the limited ability of Thai wives married to western men to speak English has been highlighted as a key concern.

Thai women abroad: English or a foreign language is critical

Many support groups and agencies have identified the isolation of such Thai women as a key factor affecting Thai women in foreign countries. A lack of ability in English or the foreign language of the host country can subsequently lead to abuse or an inability to prosper in the adopted country. The population of Thai women in America and Australia is significant. Official studies show that many of the Thai women in these countries have limited English speaking abilities. The surveys also show that this seems to correspond with a limited ability to earn money. Thai women are shown to be paid significantly lower than average even for other migrant communities. The studies also indicate a significantly higher than average level of English speaking deficiency among the Thai women in Australia and America.

Expert researcher says lack of English can also be a plus factor

Carla Boonkong is a researcher who has spent six years researching the plight of Thai women marrying foreigners in Europe, America and recently Australia. 'I would say be careful about interpreting the statistics here in general terms. All the surveys in Europe and in Australia show that the level of abuse that Thai women suffer is really negligibly low,' she says. 'There is also lots of the anecdotal evidence and you can see qualitative interviews with the Thai women showing that the language barrier is a positive thing in the relationship between the Thai women and the foreign man.' Carla points to the recent story of Jirapon Doidge in Plymouth in the the United Kingdom. This young Thai wife was deported by the UK government for failing to achieve the prescribed English language qualification in 2014 as a good example. 'Here we saw the story of the Thai woman with very limited English, in fact she had no English at all. She meets her English partner and can even manage to make a life and successful career in the United Kingdom. I know there are many stories like this, I have met them. But what research has shown is, that when the relationships is not so suitable, the poor English language can be then the chronic factor.'

'Research in the UK also says that the relationships with a large age differential are more prone to failure. I think that this is then more so where there is a language barrier,' the researchers says.

Thailand has a low ranking regarding English

Despite its low world ranking when it comes to English, more Thai people at all levels have become engaged in learning the language. 'It is not uncommon now for even the gardener and janitor that can speak a few words of English to a passing farang (foreigner),' says Carla Boonkong. 'I think the message is coming home in Thailand that English is the language of economic progress and prosperity for the future,' she says. Her observations are confirmed by the increasing use of slang English words in the spoken Thai language now heard in everyday life in Thailand and the gradual increased use of English in advertising on Thai media particularly on broadcast media but also on print and even outdoor display advertisements.

UK nurse with a Thai wife 'shared' English project

Jim George is a forty two year old nurse living in the Islington area of Liverpool with his Thai wife and partner Arisa. Jim is a community nurse and has lived with his Thai wife for two years. He describes Arisa's English ability as 'pretty basic' although his Thai wife has managed to pass her examination ahead of time in order to renew her immigration next year. 'All in all I think it is a right good thing, it gets Arisa out of the house, she has something to be getting on with, going to courses and learning the language of the country here. It's a shared project for us, I'd say it's also good for our relationship, you know, really, you have to be positive about these things.'

Communication ability critical to Thai women in a foreign country

Carla Boonkong, a researcher into Thai women living abroad, believes that lack of English language capability or the ability to speak the language of the foreign country in which Thai women are settled is one of the crucial barrier they face. 'Many of the Thai women that marry foreigners are, you know, even already disadvantaged in Thailand. It can be economic disadvantage or the social disadvantage but yes, there is often such a factor prompting the Thai woman to seek life in a foreign country. We see that the ability to interact and even to work in the foreign destination country is really the important part in making a success of the new relationship and also the life abroad.'

Liverpool man says Thai girlfriend's voice not so romantic

Jim recalls his first telephone conversation with his then Thai girlfriend in 2012. 'I had meet Arisa online and we had gotten to know each other you know it was about six to eight months so I was ,looking forward to speaking with her really and hearing her voice. I sent her money for a Skype account so she could make phone calls to me home number here in the UK. I remember always when I first heard Arisa'a voice, that I was a bit taken aback, how can I say, it wasn't so romantic, you know.'

Thai language and tone, social status also a factor

Jim's reaction highlights, in itself, the language barrier between Thai women and foreign men. The tone and sound of speaking in Thailand is quite distinct and can sometimes sound grating to the western ear. As well as the tonal pronunciation, another factor is, as in western countries, the social status or background of the person. Many of the Thai women who marry foreigners in Thailand are from poorer social backgrounds and in particular from Thailand's Isaan region in the north east of Thailand.

It can come as quite a shock to a foreigner when he hears his Thai love for the first time. 'Yes this is true, in Thailand of course there are many accents but the Thai language has many more consonants and vowels that English. Often foreigners, when they hear the Thai people talking will often see a middle class or very well educated Thai person on the news or something like that,' says Carla Boonkong.

Jim also comes from a part of the United Kingdom where there are also accent issues. 'Being a scouser, I can understand that it can often be difficult for fellow Brits to understand us so it's just like that I suppose. Now I love Arisa's accent and her little pronunciations. We often have a good laugh and she has a go at the Liverpudlian expressions, so it's nice, you know.'

Different accents, dialects and even languages in Thailand

Carla Boonkong also points out that Thailand, like many other large countries, has many different accents and dialects. In fact, in the North of Thailand most Thai people speak three languages. That of Isaan, which is the region where many Thai women who marry foreigners, come from as well as Thai and Laotian. The language of Laos and Thai is spoken also in Bangkok and central provinces.

Jim explains his reaction to his Thai girlfriend's voice in an even cruder fashion. 'I thought she was an old woman! At first I thought it was her mother that was calling me. I have to say, in my initial reaction, I thought the sound was bit guttural, off putting,' he admits. 'Of course I didn't say this at the time but now we laugh about it, thankfully.'

Language issues can break vulnerable Foreign Thai relationships

On a more serious note, Carla Boonkong points out that that the language barrier between Thai women and foreign men, where there are already flags in the relationship, can sometimes be a breaking point.

'Many of the successful relationship partners we meet, both Thai and western, will say often that the language and cultural barrier is a big plus in the relationship. However where you see the relationships that are weak, then the the language barrier can become a big problem. In nearly all surveys of relationships between the Thai women and foreign men, the conclusion says that the relationships are really successful, you understand. But in the minority of relationships, things of course do not work out. This is often where the relationships have the large age differential and where you have relationships with the Thai women who have worked as bar girls or things like that, in the prostitution business in Thailand.'

Elderly Englishman loses temper with Thai wife

Carla Boonkong highlights the case of an elderly Englishman in a recent study. The man regularly flew into a fit of temper in what can only be described as communications problems between the UK Thai couple when discussing normal everyday matters. 'This is the elderly gentleman, he suffered from a high blood pressure and often would not understand his Thai wife, what she was telling him. This is because her pronunciation is difficult, articulating English words. When his temper was raised, the Thai woman would be really afraid. In the Thai culture and society, there is very strong emphasis on speaking quietly and soft. The couple, they still live together and he is sincere. He loves his Thai wife, she is also a good woman. This was one of the problems in the study and there have been other such cases where this situation has been altogether disastrous.'

Elderly American misses his wife's broken English

Even John Mercer, the American who has lived with his wife for nearly fifty years, identifies with this issue of English pronunciation. 'Yes, sure I remember this happening a lot at the beginning and I can tell you it still happens every so often today. But I think what makes the difference is the bond we have together now and we often joke about some misunderstanding afterwards and then there are still times when I think to myself quietly how really American my Thai wife has become.

'She sure is hell is not afraid to tell me what she thinks now. I still love the way she speaks but I used to love it more when her broken English was more pronounced. It's funny, relationships change. John suggests that being able to speak Thai would be a tremendous advantage to the foreign man in any relationship involving a Thai woman. However after nearly forty four years, his command of the Thai language only extends to a dozen or so expressions. 'We have just really not been back to Thailand as often as some American Thai couples and that's why I fall so short but never mind. And I can say when we do get to Thailand, I feel a little excluded. My wife has spent over forty years living out of Thailand, becoming an American woman but she is always Thai and when I'm back in Thailand I feel like I've let her down a bit by not learning the language. I never thought of this years ago.'

Spoken English in Thailand

In Thailand itself, the vast majority of the Thai people do not speak English. Although the figures are changing, the latest reports suggest that 27% of Thai people have some command of the English language. Many of the reports from international organisations put Thailand at the bottom of the race to learn English. Even within the Thai government, there is acknowledgment that the teaching of English needs a radical shakeup. The language is growing in popularity everywhere in Thailand. There are now more English language schools. There is a popular English language sitcom on Thai television and English is now being used in advertising on radio and television more and more.

The growth of English in Thailand can be linked to the growth in western culture which is seen throughout the Kingdom. What surprises many foreigners about Thailand is that although it is such a deep and indeed alien culture to that of the West, the Thai people have also embraced western conventions and have come to see it as a sign of progress.

English speaking, the past preserve of the Thai middle class

While English speaking initially was the preserve of middle class and more affluent Thais, in the last thirty years Thai people at the bottom of society and from the poorest regions in the country seem to have developed an extremely positive attitude towards western culture. Predictably, there are some concerned voices in Thailand and a certain proportion of the population who feel threatened by this development. It may also be said that the growing influence of western culture and western economics poses both a challenge and an opportunity to Thailand. Therefore in the coming years it would not be too surprising to see a more defensive attitude emerge.

'What surprises many foreigners when they come to Thailand and I suppose the reason why so many foreigners have made Thailand a second home is the comfortable kind of living that foreigners experience in the country. Thai people understand and welcome what you might call the western dream more so than many countries in South Eastern Asia. Although Thai culture and the Thai language are still so strong, there is, without doubt, an increasing western influence,' says Carla Boonkong.

Thai government and foreign English teachers

In response to research which shows Thailand at the bottom of the table when it comes to English language ability, the Thai government recently announced a new scheme to increase the number of native Thai speakers who can teach English in Thai schools. Over the last thirty years the demand for English has seen many foreign English teachers working in Thai schools and indeed a popular trend among younger westerners is to live in Thailand as foreign English teachers. There has, however, been a lot of concern expressed about the quality of English being taught in Thai schools at an indigenous level.

In Thailand the English language is seen as a key to personal economic success and is associated, for many in Thailand, with a higher level of affluence and capability. Many middle class and affluent Thai people send their children to more expensive schools which offer a higher standard of English language education as well as private English language schools. This is even more true for Thai Chinese families, who form an urban elite in key populations centres but especially so in Bangkok.

Thai woman in Australia: English speaking key to success

Aom Parker now lives in Australia. Today she is now a very successful businesswoman in Melbourne Australia with over 40 staff and she attributes her success to her ability to speak English and interact with foreigners when she was young. The Thai woman found that she had talent for English when she attended school in Chiang Rai in the 1970's. With the help of a rich aunt, Aom managed to obtain a job at a local hotel and took English language lessons. She later went on to work in a hotel in Bangkok and at a famous department store in the city centre. Aom's family were not very poor by Thai standards running a small shop in the city.

'I remember being pretty good at English in school, I had an instinct for it but I recall my first occasion speaking to an English customer at the local hotel and my nervousness about actually opening my mouth and speaking the language out, I will always remember the smile on this man's face and mine when I knew that he understood me, so this is what you can call making the connection,' she says. Aom's home for over forty years is Melbourne Australia where she lives with her husband and five grown up children.

English language in Thailand

While most Thai people cannot speak English and indeed many of those who can, have pronunciation difficulties, the key redeeming factor is the country's welcoming attitude towards foreigners based on the hugely successful Thai tourism industry.

However things are changing in Thailand. More poor Thai people are more determined to have their children learn English and there is a growth in the number of private English language schools in the country. Even in remote parts of Thailand, where virtually no one hitherto could speak English, there are young people learning the language and an acceptance that it is an important key to economic progress.

The Thai government has encouraged this attitude with schemes to promote English as a second language including the use of English on signage within the country. 'Most foreigners who come to Thailand on holidays do not speak Thai except for a few well known phrases. It is now becoming more common for them also to go off the beaten track. 'Often the foreigners can bring only a phrase book. However, even the way they can speak the language is so difficult for the foreigners because there are different tones in the Thai language. When the foreigner meets a person with some English ability, there is the problem with how to speak as well as the words and the conversation structure,' says Carla Boonkong.

Foreign language ability and English a key relationship issue

For those seeking relationships in Thailand of course the language is an important issue. Most Thais speak Thai and even where they do speak English, it is with a limited ability. Even those in Thailand who speak English fluently will often lapse into snippets of broken grammar.

Most foreigners searching for Thai love online will at some stage visit Thailand. The thing that cocoons them is the Thai tourist industry. Hotel staff speak passable English. It can also be said that some younger Thais, with the strengthening of a range of more prestigious schools and English language centres, are now reaching remarkable levels of proficiency. It can often be said that it is the internet and things like YouTube that are more responsible for this than formal education. The reason for this is that it is the key to economic success.

English language in business and Thai media

Thai companies in Bangkok and urban centres actively seek staff and employees with the dual ability to speak Thai and English. This demand is so strong that some Thai companies will employ English native speakers who have managed to achieve a certain command of Thai. In Bangkok there are a number of very impressive English based news publications for example the Bangkok Post newspaper and the Nation newspaper. It is also the case that there are some TV programmes which are now produced for a mainstream Thai audience in English or that use snippets of English. One such programme on Voice TV, a TV channel owned by the son of former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra is called 'The Daily Dose'. The programme, in Thailand's current political climate stays clear of domestic matters and comments on news abroad. It highlights the growing awareness among Thai people and indeed the demand to know more about not only western culture but also western news.

Foreign expats learning Thai language

There is also a growing trend among the growing number of expats in Thailand to learn the Thai language but Carla Boonkong has a word of caution. 'It is so fashionable for some foreigners to Thailand to come here as regular visitors or even those who become expats and to embrace the Thai culture including Buddhism and the Thai language. I am a bit skeptical about this, to be honest. I think that foreigners doing this must approach on quite a deep level. The Thai language, it is difficult to learn and it is even more difficult to speak properly but there are some foreigners who, most impressively, can speak Thai superbly. Yes indeed, I think language is the key to Thai culture and Thai people really like it when foreigners make the effort to embrace the language but there are some Thais who feel somewhat challenged and think that being Thai is something reserved for Thai people. Some people have even described Thai people as xenophobic but I do not see it this way. It is simply that there is the very strong sense of identity and family among Thai people and the Thai language ever represents this. In my opinion, the Thai people are very confident in their own culture that they have no problem about accepting that English is important as the route to prosperity and that western culture is something that brings many benefits. I would advise any foreigner adapting such an approach to do so diligently and carefully, even respectfully.'

Insight into the differences between the Thai language and English

We have mentioned that the Thai language has more consonants and vowels. In fact it has 44 consonants and 18 vowels making it therefore more complicated than English. It is also the case that there are certain tones associated with all the characters that can imply different meaning.

The Thai language, when written, does not have a beak in characters. To some foreigners this can be very confusing. However for those that apply themselves to the language, there are some redeeming qualities such as common used clusters of characters and the fact that many of the consonants are rarely used. It has been suggested, by some, that in learning Thai in its written form can assist in learning the spoken language. There are many legends and horror stories about foreigners becoming mixed up about pairs of words that sound similar but have very different and often offensive meanings. This has caused many foreigners to be less than confident about using the spoken language.

In recent years there have been many online and published language programs aimed at teacher foreigners the Thai language as well as an increase in the number of courses and schools offering foreigners this service. Indeed foreigners can still obtain a one year visa in Thailand to study Thai provided that they can prove that there intention is genuine and pass regular examinations to show progress in the subject.

Is the Thai language a barrier to meeting Thai women

Finally, is the Thai language a barrier or a plus? 'I believe from interviewing many of the Thai foreigner couples all over the world, that the Thai language challenge can be a problem even to say for Thais and the foreigners meeting each other. But this interaction between the love partners in learning about each other's language and culture is also an enormous blessing. This is not just my own idea. Nearly all the couples report this in interviews,' says Carla Boonkong.

Foreigners seek Thai women who can speak English online

The growing numbers of Thai women and foreigners using international Thai dating sites has now meant that this is the key method used by those seeking international love or love in Thailand. It is not uncommon on Thai dating sites to see some foreigners seek out Thai women with English ability.

Or Danish, Norwegian, German, Swedish or French

This is understandable as it is the case that these Thai women have an immeasurable advantage if moving to a foreign country both in terms of their ability to find a job and also to meet increasingly strict visa regimes in foreign countries such as England and Denmark. In the case of Denmark, it is the Danish language that has to be learned and there are many Thai women who opt to move to European countries where the foreign language is not English at all but German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish or French.

On the other hand, many of the most successful relationships involving Thai women and foreigners do acknowledge the phenomenon of the cultural and language barrier becoming an asset to the relationship. With more and more Thai women using online dating sites to seek foreign partner abroad, it is now reckoned that up to 17% of eligible Thai women have joined such sites in the last five years. In increasing numbers, this includes Thai women with limited English or foreign language capability.

Automatic language translation on TLL dating site

ThaiLovelInes, Thailand's leading dating site has announced a new online Thai English translation system which also includes German, French, Dutch and Spanish. The service allows Thai women who speak Thai to communicate with foreigners in different languages using an onboard translation service which has been tested and proved to be remarkably capable of allowing Thai users with limited foreign language and English capability and foreigners without Thai ability to communicate quite easily. The new system works in both the popular ChatLines facility and on the dating site's email centre.

US Thai couple of over 44 years - the only language is love

As John Mercer from Houston in Texas, who has lived all over the work with the Thai woman he met in northern Thailand, knows, behind the words, accents and pronunciations there is one unspoken language between him and his long standing Thai wife. It is a language built on genuine friendship, shared experiences and challenges through good and bad. It is the language of love and the one that ultimately matters. Back in a village in Kalasin province, Thailand over 40 years ago, it was a spark, a smile and an expression in Noon's eyes. Between young American man and Thai woman, there was also a physical attraction and for Noon it was also a desire to see the world. 'I say it was love at first sight, as I get older I come to believe in fate but I thinking there is some knowing instinct there that makes a couple feel good together, comfortable. Surely, Noon could speak little or no English at all, she does now but it was never a problem for us,' he recalls. is Thailand’s biggest internet dating site with over 355,000 members and growing rapidly …Begin your search for a Thai girlfriend, wife or partner here.

Thai women who can speak English have beeter prospects in foreign countries
In relationship studies of Thai Foreigner couples living in foreign countries the Thai English of foreign langauge barrier was actually found to be plus. The exception was in relationships or marriages with vulnerabilities.
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