Sometimes Thai translations can be pretty amusing. Like the sign outside a Chiangmai travel agency which says, "Come see us when you are interesting", or the menu at a nearby restaurant which offers such delectable sounding dishes as "Prawn throb", "tightly bound with banana leaves", "three fingers in the soup" and "big crap in pot". But as funny as we find some of these, the Thais receive equally great delights from our attempts to deal with their pronunciation.
There can be no denying that Thai is a difficult language for the average Westerner. Like most other East Asian languages, Thai is monosyllabic and tonal. This means that every syllable-word can have as many as five totally separate meanings, depending entirely on the tone used. Most Westerners ignore tones when trying to communicate with Thais, and then seem surprised when they are misunderstood. You will often hear,"I know I got the word right, why can't they understand what I'm saying?" Now, in context, the perplexed Thai listener can usually cope with a word or two in a sentence pronounced with the wrong tone, but when almost every word is in the wrong tone, it becomes total confusion for them. If every syllable has five meanings, then a sentence of just three words has 125 possible (5x5x5) combinations of meanings. For example, the word "Mai" can mean silk, new, yes or "does not" depending on the tone. So the sentence, "Mai mai mai" can mean, with the correct tones, "The silk is not new".
Another perennial favorite is "Krai kheye khai gai". All these words sound the same to the western ear, but with the correct tones, it becomes "Who sells hen's eggs?" The not-so-amused Westerner who thinks he has ordered chicken and ends up with an egg should not berate the restaurant staff - he just got the tones slightly wrong - it is possible that he may even have asked for an "old man".
These problems, however, should not deter the visitor from attempting to speak Thai. Doing so shows that at least you are trying, and the Thais universally admire your efforts. Speak two words of clumsy Thai, and the listener will be pleased and impressed - "Pood Thai kgeng" they will say, "You speak Thai very well" - probably flattery, but still nice to hear. If your attempts produce laughter, this should not be taken as an insult. You are not being laughed at, chances are that what you said was actually funny, and it is nice to give amusement, however unintentional it might be.
Thai words to our ears end very suddenly, as if cut off. For example, in the word "roongrojna" meaning "prosperous", the Final "jna" is hardly pronounced, if at all. The word finally came out like "roongroad". When Thais speak English (and many do, particularly in Chiangmai), an almost universal fault is for them not to pronounce the ends of words, so that "guest house" becomes "guess how", "motorcycle" becomes "moto cye" and "wine" comes out as "wye", etc.
One of the great pleasures of being in Thailand is to explore and enjoy the differences between western and Thai culture. Language is one of the most apparent and entertaining ways in which these differences are manifested. But, above all, don't be afraid to try.
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