Foreigners in Thailand are notorious for their bad takes about Thai people and culture. And although it is counterintuitive, the worst takes are often by foreigners who have lived in Thailand the longest.
We were reminded of this again recently on seeing a farang teacher warn “newbies” against learning to speak Thai. The old expat said that learning the Thai language is a thankless task because Thais (according to him) resent foreigners who speak Thai, as evidenced by his own personal experience over the past two decades.
As the British say, this is utter bollocks. The Thai people greatly appreciate foreigners who make an attempt to learn their language — whether they be tourists or expats working in the Kingdom. In addition, learning the basics of the Thai language will greatly enhance your stay in Thailand, making your travel or work much more fun.
So, if Thais do like foreigners who speak Thai, how to explain the personal experience of the disgruntled old expat teacher?
Well, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault, Dear Brutus, is not in the Thai people, but in ourselves.” Farang expats in Thailand often behave boorishly. And many farangs who speak Thai are not only boorish but insufferable.
The reason for this is two-fold. First, foreigners often overestimate their ability to speak Thai well. They over-stress tones, mix up word order, and make other mistakes. When a Thai person can’t understand what they said, the foreigner often blames them rather than trying to figure out where they went wrong.
Second, farangs who speak Thai often retain all of their Western prejudices, modes of thinking, and patterns of behavior rather than assimilate into Thai culture. They steadfastly refuse to adapt themselves to the ways Thai people think and do things.
No matter how well you speak Thai, you won’t curry favor among your co-workers if you never learned the art of being greng jai, of helping others save face, of flashing a Thai smile instead of a temper, and of being respectful in Thailand. In fact, these cultural skills are (in many ways) more important than knowing how to speak Thai.
The misconception that Thais don’t appreciate it when foreigners learn to speak Thai is also due to an alleged old saying, “Farang roo maak mai dee” (ฝรั่งรู้มากไม่ดี), which means “It’s no good if a Westerner knows too much.”
The reason I say alleged is that this saying has never been widespread in Thailand. It’s something that was occasionally heard among bargirls in Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket. Then it was picked up and spread by the farang community as if it were a popular Thai saying. It’s been repeated so often by bar-hopping foreigners over the decades that it is now (incorrectly) believed to be a common Thai belief.
Rarely have we ever seen a Thai person with a “Farang roo maak mai dee” attitude in Thailand, be it among Thai girlfriends, wives, co-workers, or anyone else. The only exception has been when the foreigner is basically being a jerk.
That is, when the farang takes what they do know about a certain Thai situation and uses that knowledge to denigrate, criticize, or take advantage of someone, or demand changes that are unrealistic or problematic in the Thai context.
So, we highly recommend foreigners in Thailand learn how to speak Thai. You don’t need to become fluent, just learn enough to have simple conversations, enjoy yourself more, and keep out of trouble in Thailand. Knowing how to speak Thai is all upside with no downsides.