Important Languages Spoken in Thailand

Lahu Girls in Northern Thailand

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Thailand Ethnic Diversity


Thailand is one of the most ethnic diverse countries in the world. If you are planning travel here, you should be aware of the various ethnic groups living here and the languages they speak. Thailand's ethnic diversity is due to its long history and location in Southeast Asia. Its neighbors to the north and northeast are Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. China is also a close neighbor since Yunnan Province is only about 200 miles to the northeast of Mae Sai which is on the Thai - Burmese border. Thailand is also bordered by Cambodia to the southeast, Myanmar to the west, and Malaysia to the south.

Thailand Ethnic Groups

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Thailand Ethnic Groups

Due to its proximity to Myanmar, Laos, China, Cambodia, and Malaysia, a number of different ethnic groups have settled in the border areas and brought with them their various languages, ranging from Chinese Haw in the north to Malaysian dialects in the south. Unless you spend all of your time in the central Bangkok tourist areas, you will encounter many different non-western languages peculiar to Thailand. Some of these languages are worth-while noting to make your trip to Thailand more interesting.

A Lisu Girl

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A Shan Girl in Northern Thailand

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Standard Central Thai Recording

Northeastern Isan Recording

Northern Thai or Lanna Recording

Thai Dialects Explained

Recognizing Thailand Languages

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Phuket Southern Thai Dialect

Important Languages Spoken In Thailand

1. Central (Standard) Thai:

Central Thai is definitely the most important language to recognize and acquire some survival vocabulary. It is the official national language, and it is used by businesses and the government. All students must learn Central Thai in school. For most people, it is a second language since Central Thai is the first language only for people living in the central area of Thailand. Central Thailand includes the provinces from Sukhotai and Phitsanulok in the north to Chumphon Province in the south. All people with the possible exception of the very old should know Standard Thai because they studied it in school. Thai expressions for numbers, shopping, and asking directions should absolutely be learned by all tourists.

If you plan to visit China Town on Yaowarat Road in Bangkok, it would be a good idea to recognize that Tae Chiew, a Chinese sub-dialect of Minnan, is spoken by the majority of the Thai-Chinese people in Bangkok. It is completely different from Thai. If you are in a restaurant or a shop with Chinese writing, you'll know that the native language is Tae Chiew.

2. Northern Thai or Lanna:

Many tourists travel to Chiang Mai City and Province in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai City was the seat of the old Lanna Kingdom which existed from 1296 - 1900. For about 200 years from 1558 to the late 1700s, the Lanna Kingdom was occupied and controlled by the Burmese. Here you will begin hearing women say "jao" instead of "ka", a polite particle at the end of sentences, because Central Thai is not their native language. Their first or native language is Northern Thai or Lanna which is different from Central Thai. One notable difference is that the beginning "r" consonant in Central Thai is pronounced with a "h" consonant sound. Hence "rak" which means "love" in Central Thai would be pronounced as "hak" in Lanna. There are about six million Lanna speakers in Northern Thailand.

If you venture up to the Golden Triangle area near the converging Myanmar, Laos, and Thai borders in Chiang Rai Province, you will hear languages of numerous ethnic groups from Myanmar, Laos, and China. The important languages up here to recognize are Burmese, Chinese Haw, and Shan. Burmese is spoken along the border in towns such as Mae Sai. If a person says "mingalaba", "How are you?" or "hoday", "okay," you know they are speaking Burmese. Chinese Haw and Hakka to a lesser extent are spoken by shop keepers in the towns. Haw is also spoken by descendants of soldiers from the Nationalist Army in China which fled the Communists in 1949. Many of these Haw live in the mountains of Doi Mae Sa Long which is in Chiang Rai Province. Haw is a sub-dialect of southwestern Chinese Mandarin, and Hakka is a Chinese dialect which has characteristics of both Mandarin and Cantonese. Other languages along the Myanmar border include Lisu, Karen, and hill-tribe languages such as Akha, Lahu, and Hmong.

3. Northeastern Thai or Isan:

A traveler to Northeastern Thailand which encompasses the area east of the Phetchabun mountain range to the Laotian and Cambodian border areas will hear Northeastern Thai or Isan spoken as a native language. Isan is spoken by about 20 million people. It has characteristics of both Standard Thai and the Lao language, but it is generally unintelligible to a native Central Thai speaker. For example, "What are you doing?" would be expressed as "Hyet nyang?" in Isan, but as "Tam arai?" in Standard Thai.

Other significant languages spoken in the northeast include Lao which is spoken in the border areas from Nong Khai to Mukdahan, and Northern Khmer (Cambodian) which is spoken in Sisaket, Surin, and Buriram Provinces.

4. Southern Thai:

Southern Thai is a language spoken by approximately 5 million people in the area of Southern Thai. This area runs from Chumphon Province to the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala on the Thai-Malaysian border. Southern Thai is very hard for Standard Thai speakers to understand, because it incorporates a lot of Malaysian words into the language.

When planning your next trip to Thailand, be aware that Standard Thai is not the only language spoken in Thailand. It will make your trip much more interesting and rewarding to know at least a little about the various ethnic groups of Thailand and the languages they speak.

The videos on the right are samples of Standard Central Thai, Northeastern Thai (Isan,) Northern Thai (Lanna, and Phuket Southern Thai.


Shan Language Lesson

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn

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Comments 13 comments

PETER LUMETTA profile image

PETER LUMETTA 5 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

I live here and was not aware that there was such a plethora of languages. I mostly rely on Central Thai but my wife is from Isan so I get a lot of both. Good article and very helpful, thanks, Peter


chanroth profile image

chanroth 5 years ago from California, USA

Sovadee Ka! Great hub! I'm not from Thailand but I enjoy Thai movies and music. My husband been to Thailand and so did my mother. She taught me some few Thai language. Thailand is a great place to visit and I like Isan people. Thanks for a very great information on Thailand. :)


Prisana profile image

Prisana 5 years ago from Thailand and Colorado

Sawasdee Kah,

I learned a lot from your article. It has taken me nearly 11 years to actually have a conversation with my Thai Yai friend, that was more than a few Thai words. In the beginning his accent was so strong, I really had a hard time understanding his Thai. Over the past decade, both of our Thai has improved, so at least we can semi-converse, but my Thai is still horrible, even though it was my first language! Thanks for sharing another great hub.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Thanks for all of the comments. Khun Prisana, I can understand the problems you have had in trying to converse with your Thai Yai friend. I can understand Chinese Mandarin and a lot of accented speech well, but I have always had difficulty understanding the Chinese in Thailand who speak the Haw subdialect of Yunnanese (the Chin Haw) language.


guest 5 years ago

hi, may i know if "how are you", they say "chair sa ala".

What language is that? bcoz i want to learn this language but dunno what language it's in english.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Guest, I can't remember ever hearing the term "chair sa ala". In what part of Thailand did you hear this phrase? What part of Thailand was the speaker from? My guess is that it might come from one of the languages spoken down south near the Malaysian border, or from one of the languages on the Thai-Burmese border.


guest 5 years ago

i heard it at fang, chiang rai. after search internet i think it might be Lahu language but not sure.


guest 5 years ago

hi, anyone can teach me this language?


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

The Lahu language is also known as Muser, I think. Where do you live? If you live in the Chiang Mai area, there should be some colleges or universities in the area that teach hill tribe languages like Lahu.


guest 5 years ago

yes, it is lahu or muser. i am not living at thailand. Is there any website that teach hill tribe languages?

Bcoz like thai language, i can learn from website. but lahu i can't find any website that offer any translation or teach this language.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Guest, Right now I don't know of any websites that teach hill tribe languages like Lahu. If I find some that do, I will let you know. Good luck in your study of Lahu!


Guest 5 years ago

Hi, Paul. Thanks a lot. If got any website or any pdf document, please let me know. Thanks

Have a nice day...


Billrrrr profile image

Billrrrr 5 years ago from Cape Cod

I envy you your mastery of languages Paul. I am glad English is my first language because I don't think I could learn it! Having tried my hand at Spanish and French, I can tell you that I am good enough to converse with five year olds!!!

My favorite part of this hub is where you speak about Southern Thai. You point out that it is hard for standard Thai speakers to understand. LOL...that is just like the United States. There are some areas of the Southern tier where I need a translator just to order a coffee and a donut. I can't understand them and they don't have a clue as to what I am saying.

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