When people talk about the best foreign language to learn, you’ll often hear suggestions like Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, or Japanese. What you rarely, if ever, hear suggested is the Thai language, as it is spoken only in Thailand — which has a population of about 70 million, and is still considered a developing country.
However, I believe the Thai language is the best foreign language to learn for adults who want to acquire a second language for personal development and cognitive health. Researchers have discovered that learning a foreign language is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
The benefits of second language acquisition include increased brain connectivity and neural networks; enhanced cognitive executive functions such as problem-solving, working memory, and attention; improved brain plasticity (which enables the brain to reorganize itself in response to new challenges); and delaying the cognitive decline associated with aging.
Delaying the onset of age-related cognitive decline is especially important today as women and men continue to live longer. Too many retired people mistakenly believe they can ward off cognitive decline simply by reading novels and doing puzzles like Wordle, Sudoku, and The NY Times Crossword. But that is not nearly enough.
As Gandhi once said, we must live like we will die tomorrow and learn like we are going to live forever. To maintain cognitive health throughout our lives, we must continually acquire new skills and knowledge, and learning a foreign language (such as Thai) should be near the top of your to-do list.
For starters, Thai has a unique script that will challenge you mentally. However, it is not so challenging a script to learn as Mandarin (which many people find too daunting), and while there are 77 characters in the Thai alphabet, only a portion of them are used in most Thai language for daily life.
The placement of Thai letters will challenge your language preconceptions, as written vowels can appear before, after, above, or below other letters, and certain vowel sounds can sometimes be hidden between two written consonants. While strange at first, it is amazing to watch your brain quickly become accustomed to reading these vowel sounds naturally.
In addition, Thai is a tonal language, characterized by five distinct tones that alter the meaning of words. Research has indicates that learning tonal languages sharpens the brain’s ability to distinguish subtle acoustic differences, which translates into improved cognitive flexibility and adaptability.
Both sides of the brain also are used when learning tonal languages, instead of just the left side when learning non-tonal languages like English, Italian, and Hindi. This means you are using both logic and analytical thinking (left side), as well as emotional intelligence and creative thinking (right side).
Because Thai is a tonal language, some people think it will be too hard to learn. But with hundreds of YouTube videos teaching basic Thai language, it is really easy to quickly pick up the tones and musicality of the Thai language.
You’ll also find that the simple grammar of Thai, which is very compact and has no verb tenses makes the language easier to learn than languages such as Japanese, Russian, or Arabic, which are non-tonal languages with a very complex grammar.
1. Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, filled with people who have a charming personality. The unique, carefree, Thai character is indelibly tied to their language. When learning any foreign language, you take on the spirit of the people that speak that language, and the Thai spirit (with its emphasis on politeness, harmony, and heart-talk) is a healthy addition to your own.
2. A Thailand holiday is on the bucket list for many people, and learning the Thai language will turn a lovely Thai holiday into an unforgettable one — as it will enable you to truly explore undiscovered Thailand, while going off the beaten tourist path to engage with rural Thai people and village culture.
3. A college student looking to learn a foreign language to increase their career opportunities abroad would do well to learn Thai, because not many English speakers have mastered the language. There thus is less competition, and many doors will open if you arrive in Thailand as a native English speaker who also is fluent in Thai.
So, to sum up, the decision to learn Thai transcends mere foreign language acquisition. It is a commitment to a cognitive odyssey marked by tonal intricacies, script challenges, and new perspectives on life. The Thai language offers a unique blend of linguistic complexity and cultural richness, providing a multifaceted stimulus for cognitive growth.
By embracing the specific cognitive challenges embedded in the Thai language, you’ll not only learn a foreign language but also cultivate a cognitive landscape marked by adaptability, resilience, and enriched cultural understanding.