Important Languages Spoken in Thailand
A Thai Countryside Woman
Thailand Ethnic Diversity
Thailand is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. If you are planning to 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
Due to its proximity to Myanmar, Laos, China, Cambodia, and Malaysia, several 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.
Important Languages Spoken In Thailand
1. Central (Standard) Thai:
Central Thai is 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 Sukhothai 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 be learned by all tourists.
If you plan to visit Chinatown 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 an "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 shopkeepers 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 subdialect of southwestern Chinese Mandarin, and Hakka is a Chinese dialect that 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:
Travelers 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 Isaan, 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. Yawi or Kelantan-Pattani Malay is the lingua franca of Southern Thai in rural areas according to Wikipedia.
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.
Standard Central Thai Recording
Northern Thai or Lanna Recording
Shan Language Lesson
Northeastern Isan Recording
Thai Dialects Explained
Phuket Southern Thai Dialect
Recognizing Thailand Languages
Which Thailand language can you speak or recognize?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn