While the official language of Thailand is Thai, many other languages are also spoken there. Thailand shares borders with Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Malaysia, influencing the many tongues heard across the country.
Languages spoken in Thailand include Thai, Chinese, English, Khmer, Lao, Burmese, and Malay. The official language spoken by most of the population is Thai, yet English is common in many tourist areas. Around 13% of Thailanders are fluent in Chinese, the second most spoken language.
In this article, I will cover the many languages that are spoken in Thailand. I will also discuss the similarities between Thai and Chinese, the difficulty many people have learning Thai, and whether or not people living in Thailand also speak fluent English.
What Languages Are Spoken in Thailand?
Thailand’s official language is Thai, yet many people in Thailand speak Chinese, and in cities and tourist areas of Thailand, many speak English.
In addition, people living in areas sharing borders with other countries may speak the bordering country’s language. These include:
You may also hear the following languages:
- Isan–spoken by over 15 million people
- Kham Muang–spoken by some six million people
- Pak Thai–spoken by nearly five million people
What Are the Top 3 Languages Spoken in Thailand?
The top three languages spoken in Thailand are Thai, Chinese, and English. The sole official language of Thailand is central Thai. Over 90 percent of people living in Thailand speak Thai. However, many larger tourist areas, such as Phuket and Bangkok, have a high population of English speakers.
According to the Academy of Cultural Diplomacy, the overseas population in Thailand is approximately 13 percent of the entire population. In fact, Thailand has the largest Chinese population outside China, with the largest Chinatown in the capital city of Bangkok.
English is a language on the rise in Thailand. The most recent Thailand census numbers show a sharp increase in the number of English speakers, from under 50,000 to over 322,000 in less than five years. This is due in part to Thai universities’ requirement that students learn English before they are eligible to graduate. Indeed, increasing the number of Thai people who can speak English is critical for Thailand to engage and compete on the global stage.
Is Thai Similar to Chinese?
Chinese is one of the most common languages spoken in Thailand. The reasons for this can be traced back to the early cultural influences of China over East Asia.
Thai is similar to Chinese in several ways, including sentence structure, vocabulary, and grammar. This is due to China’s strong influence over and expansion into Thailand. Historically, Chinese culture dominated East Asia, with many countries adopting Chinese vocabulary, grammar, and writing.
Check out this YouTube video that teaches some basic phrases In Thai.
Is Thai Hard To Learn?
The Thai language is hard to learn for those unfamiliar with tonal languages, especially native English speakers. Yet, for those familiar with Chinese or other tonal languages, learning Thai should not be too difficult. Thai is also hard to learn because its alphabet has 32 vowels and 44 consonants.
Additionally, the regional variations in the Thai language can make learning and understanding central Thai extremely daunting.
Ultimately, the difficulty of learning Thai depends on your native tongue.
For instance, the 1.4 billion people worldwide who are native Chinese speakers will find picking up Thai fairly easy. So, you likely have an advantage when learning to speak Thai if you have lived in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, Singapore, or any of the other 20 countries where Chinese is an official language.
However, the same cannot be said for native English speakers. The United States Department of State classifies Thai as a Category III language, meaning that it is considered a “hard” language for English speakers. This is due to the significant linguistic and cultural differences between the Thai and English languages.
Mainly, Thai can be a hard language for native English speakers to learn because it is a tonal language. This means that the pitch–or tones–determine the meaning of the word. The Thai alphabet also has significantly more letters than English speakers are accustomed to using.
The good news for travelers is that learning to speak Thai is not critical for getting around in Thailand. Both Chinese and English are spoken there as well.
Do People in Thailand Speak English?
Some people in Thailand do speak English, yet it is more commonly spoken in tourist areas such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. Most hotels, restaurants, and business centers in these regions have English speakers. Road signs, maps, and other official notifications are in English in many areas.
Thailand also has several English-language periodicals, newspapers, and other publications, and automatic ticket booths and vending machines often feature English as a language option. In addition, airports use English signage, which greatly benefits travelers looking for ground transportation to hotels and tourist attractions.
For the more remote or less-traveled areas in the countryside, finding Thais who speak any English will be more challenging. If you plan to visit these areas while in Thailand, it is best to learn some basic Thai phrases or consider traveling with a guide who is fluent in Thai and English.
Notably, visitors traveling to populated areas like Bangkok have the best chance of being able to communicate in English. English is expected to become more commonplace in Thailand as schools require students to take English classes as a condition of graduation.
Thailand is a country with a wealth of different languages and dialects. Many Thai people speak Thai and Chinese – two languages similar to one another in vocabulary, grammar, and writing.
In addition, English is on the rise in Thailand, but travelers should note that it will be challenging to find English speakers in the country’s more remote areas. Since the language is notoriously hard for English speakers to learn, traveling with a Thai-to-English translation is certainly something to consider.
Check out other articles about languages spoken worldwide, including China, Dubai, and Paris.