Do They Speak English in Thailand? Or Do You Have To Speak Thai Language?

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If you are planning your next trip to “Land of the Smiles“, you might wonder whether the locals speak English in Thailand or not.

I also had the same question when I first visited Thailand in 2016, but now after calling this country my second home for 3 years, I finally have the answer to “do they speak English in Thailand?”

English is often spoken in tourist destinations in Thailand, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket.

But once you move outside of urban areas, you’ll find that fewer locals can speak English. Also, the younger people tend to have a much higher English proficiency level than the older generations.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the state of English in Thailand, the importance of learning basic Thai phrases, and how to overcome language barriers during your journey.


Key Takeaways

  • English proficiency in Thailand is generally Low, with higher fluency found in urban areas.
  • Major cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket are great for tourists as English is widely spoken there.
  • To make the most of your experience, learn some basic Thai phrases to greet locals and ask for directions, politeness goes a long way!

English Proficiency in Thailand: An Overview

Thai-Speaking-English-With-Tourists
Local Thai woman conversing with foreigners

Thailand ranks 101st on the EF English Proficiency Index, which is considered “very low proficiency” in English. Thai, a tonal language, is the official language of the country, making English a second language for most locals.

Statistically, only about 27% of Thais speak English, but I found that most Thai people know a few simple words to communicate with tourists. I’ve personally not had major issues communicating with the locals.

English proficiency varies across the country, with higher fluency in major cities and tourist areas, while rural regions have limited English speakers.

The Thai education system prioritizes rote memorization over practical use of the language, and many rural areas lack exposure to English outside of formal education or tourist spots.

Urban vs. Rural Areas

In major cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, as well as touristy places like Phuket, you will find more people in Thailand speaking English.

However, English proficiency in rural areas is quite limited, mainly due to a lack of exposure and practice opportunities. In these areas, locals usually communicate in their native Thai dialects.

I only encountered problems communicating with locals in off-the-beaten-path destinations, such as Koh Jum and Ko Mak.

Education and English Learning

English is a mandatory subject in Thai schools, regardless of whether they are in state or rural schools. This means that all Thai students have somewhat of a proficiency in English.

However, fluency is often limited to the wealthy and those working with international clients due to the education system’s focus on memorization over practical use and a lack of practice opportunities.


Speaking English in Major Thai Cities

In major Thai cities such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket, English is the commonly spoken language, especially in tourist areas and expat communities.

These cities cater to foreign tourists with many English speakers in hotels, restaurants, and travel services. However, proficiency may still vary, with some locals having only basic English skills.

Bangkok

The-Giant-Swing-Bangkok-Temple
Locals in Bangkok are more likely to speak English

In Bangkok, the capital city, you will find a higher number of English speakers, making it easier for tourists to communicate and navigate the city.

Thai government initiatives, such as English teaching programs in state schools and increased demand for TEFL teachers, have contributed to the growth of English proficiency in the city.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, a popular tourist destination in northern Thailand, has more English speakers in tourist areas like the Old City and Nimman. However, proficiency decreases in other parts of the city.

The willingness of Thai students to communicate in English and language learning styles contributes to the higher English proficiency in Chiang Mai.

📚 Read More: 5-Day Chiang Mai Itinerary For First Time Visitors

Phuket

Phuket, a famous island destination, caters to foreign tourists with many English speakers, particularly in popular tourist areas.

Restaurants and food establishments in Phuket typically have English-speaking staff and menus in multiple languages to accommodate international visitors.

Out of all the places I’ve been in Thailand, the locals in Phuket spoke the most English.


English Usage in the Thai Tourism Industry

Tourists-Eating-Street-Food-Chinatown-Bangkok

The Thai tourism industry employs English speakers in hotels, restaurants, and travel services, particularly in major tourist destinations and larger cities.

Most tourist attractions have staff that can communicate in English at a basic level, making it easier for tourists to navigate their travel experiences in Thailand.

Hotels and Accommodations

Hotels and accommodations in tourist areas often have at least one person on staff who can communicate in English at a basic level.

English proficiency is an important skill for career advancement in the hospitality industry in Thailand, and hotels often provide English language training programs for their staff.

Restaurants and Food Establishments

Restaurants and food establishments in tourist areas typically have English-speaking staff and menus in multiple languages, making it easier for tourists to order food and communicate their preferences.

Understanding and speaking basic Thai phrases can further enhance your dining and shopping experiences in Thailand, especially if you learn to speak Thai fluently.

📚 Read More: Do You Tip In Thailand?

Tour Guides and Travel Services

In popular tourist destinations, tour guides and travel services are more likely to speak English, as it is a widely spoken language, to cater to international travelers.

English language skills, especially for fluent English speakers, are a valuable asset for Thai tour guides, as it allows them to communicate effectively with tourists and provide excellent service.


Language Diversity in Thailand

Ethnic-Group-in-Thailand

Perhaps what surprised me when I visited Thailand was its language diversity. Though most of the country speaks Thai, there are plenty of regional dialects, such as:

  • Central
  • Southern
  • Northern Thai
  • Isaan

There are also minority languages like Karen and Hmong spoken throughout the country.

Languages from neighboring countries, such as Chinese, Lao, and Malay, are also spoken in Thailand, further enriching the country’s linguistic tapestry.

Regional Dialects and Minority Languages

Thai is the official language and a widely spoken language, but regional dialects and minority languages such as Karen and Hmong are also spoken throughout the country.

Languages from neighboring countries, such as Chinese, Lao, and Malay, have influenced Thailand’s linguistic landscape. For example, The Thai language is part of the Tai-Kadai language family, which is believed to have originated in what is now southern China.

Depending on which part of the country you are in, you’ll also find that some locals speak Lao, Chinese, Malay, and even Khmer.


Basic Thai Phrases for Travelers

Tourists-Using-Thai-Translation-App
A tourist using a translation app in Thailand

Learning basic Thai phrases can enhance your travel experience and help break down communication barriers with locals.

By familiarizing yourself with common Thai greetings, polite expressions, and phrases for asking for directions and assistance, you can navigate social interactions more effectively and make the most of your time in this beautiful country.

On my first trip to Thailand, I didn’t speak any Thai words. But on my second trip, I made the effort to learn a few words and use them as much as I could. Immediately, I noticed how much more friendly the locals were when they saw me try to immerse myself in their culture.

Greetings and Polite Expressions

Familiarize yourself with common Thai greetings and polite expressions to show respect and courtesy.

You cannot get by Thailand without learning “Sawatdee krap/ka” (สวัสดีครับ/ค่ะ), which is the typical greeting to say “hello”. For men, its “Sawatdee krap” and for women, it is “Sawatdee ka”.

Another useful phrase to know when traveling Thailand is “thank you”. In Thai, “Thank you” is said as “ขอบคุณ” which is pronounced “Khob Khun”. If you want to specify the gender, men say “Khob Khun Krap” and women say “Khob Khun Ka”.


Overcoming Language Barriers in Thailand

Because the Thai language is so different from any of the European languages or English, you are probably going to struggle with it initially. That is why I recommend you to use translation apps like Google Translate to overcome the language barrier.

If you have a long backpacking itinerary in Thailand, I would recommend you to try some of the language learning programs before your visit.

Then once you are in Thailand, you can participate in language exchange programs. Not only are they great for meeting locals, but you can learn some Thai and they can learn some English. It is a win-win situation!

Some popular language learning programs you can do online are:

Once you have a basic level of Thai, you can try language exchange programs that can be found on apps like Meetup.com.


Cultural Considerations and Communication Styles

Thai-Wai-in-Hotel
Thai Wai

A good understanding of Thai cultural considerations and communication styles can make social interactions smoother.

Thai culture values politeness, respect, and consideration for others’ feelings, which should be reflected in your communication style. In Thai communication, non-verbal cues and body language are also significant.

Politeness and Respect in Thai Culture

Thai culture values politeness, respect, and consideration for others’ feelings. When communicating with Thai people, it’s important to be polite and avoid confrontation or aggressive language.

A common traditional Thai greeting involves a gesture known as the “wai,” where you place your hands together in a prayer-like position and bow your head slightly.

The wai is often accompanied by the word “Sawasdee” and is a sign of respect. The higher the hands in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect is being shown.

Nonverbal Communication

Being aware of non-verbal communication cues is beneficial, as relationship and social rank can influence Thai communication, both verbal and nonverbal.

Paying attention to body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can help you better understand the context of a conversation and navigate social interactions more effectively.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can you visit Thailand if you Only Speak English?

Yes, you can easily visit Thailand if you only speak English. In cities like Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai, it’s quite easy to survive without speaking Thai and someone will likely help with most important things.

How English-Friendly is Bangkok?

Bangkok is English-friendly, with many Thai people studying English in school and a lot of locals being able to speak and understand the language.

What Language is Spoken in Thailand?

The national and official language of Thailand is Thai, spoken by about 88% of the country’s population. While Central Thai is the official dialect, other dialects such as Northern Thai and Isan are also spoken in the country.

Summary: Do Locals Speak English In Thailand

In summary, English proficiency in Thailand varies, with higher fluency in major cities and tourist areas. If you are someone like me that prefers to travel deeper than just the regular tourist, then learning basic Thai phrases and understanding cultural considerations can help greatly.

By utilizing translation apps, learning a bit of Thai before your trip, and being mindful of nonverbal communication cues, you can overcome language barriers and make the most of your time in the Land of Smiles.

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