Do They Speak English in Thailand?

Women tourists walking through a Thai market street Do they speak English in Thailand? For tourists, the language barrier can be a bit tricky to navigate.

Thailand is a major tourist destination, reaching nearly 40 million visitors in 2019. It wasn’t always this way, but that changed in the 1960s.

The country became a popular destination for American soldiers on leave during the Vietnam war due to its proximity.

Since then, Thailand has steadily grown as a star in the hospitality industry.

If you plan on traveling to Thailand, one of your primary concerns may the language barrier.

Do they speak English in Thailand? How are you going to be able to get around? What happens if there’s an emergency and you need to find help quickly? Not being able to communicate with the locals is a serious roadblock when people travel.

This can be especially problematic for American travelers who, by and large, are monolingual and can only speak English. Some – particularly immigrants and their children – may be able to speak another language, but Thai is a challenging language to learn. This is going to make it difficult for them to get around in a place like Thailand.

Or will it?

Speaking English in Thailand

The short answer is no, they don’t really speak all that much English in Thailand. According to official statistics, only a little more than a quarter of the population (27%) can speak English and even then, they aren’t going to be fluent in it.

As such, you’re going to get a lot of broken English at the best of times. This means that you’re going to have to get really good charades because you’ll be miming a lot to communicate.

But surely, for such a popular tourist destination, there has to be a way to get around. Here are some ways the language barrier is managed.

A woman near some potted plants. Communication is key, but language barriers can make that difficult.

Tourist Areas

If you’re in a large urban center or an area that gets a lot of tourists - such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Phuket - then you’re more likely to find someone who is able to speak English.

Malls and other shopping centers in these urban centers should also be a good bet to find people who can speak English. This is because they have to deal with a lot of foreign shoppers thanks to government efforts to turn Thailand into an international shopping destination.

Your hotel should also be a good bet if you want to find English-speaking Thais. Street vendors in such areas may also be able to converse in English because, like retail workers in malls, they deal with tourists a lot. Though, a lot of the English you encounter may be broken and mixed with Thai. Even in the areas that attract a lot of foreign visitors, overall English proficiency is still rather low.

Public Transportation

If you’re purchasing tickets for public transportation like the metro or the Skytrain, then you’ll be able to switch the kiosk’s language settings to English. Agents at ticketing booths may also be able to understand English. The bus might be a different story.

That’s not to say that English-speaking travelers can get by everywhere, however. Rural areas are going to be a different story entirely. In rural areas, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who can speak or even understand English. In places like those, you’ll be gesturing so as to get whatever point you want or need to make across.

Broken English

The thing is that even if you do find someone who can speak fluent or at least passable English, you may have a tough time understanding them through their accent. If you can take a few days before your trip, then maybe watch some Thai videos online to start training yourself to understand their accent.

Despite the lack of fluent English speakers in the country, many of the street signs in Thailand will be in English or have English translations. English is also widely taught in schools. However, the curriculum seems to be more focused on grammatical rules as opposed to practical application. There are also a few English TV channels in Thailand, so not everything will be in Thai.

A woman on the phone. There are areas in Bangkok where you can find English speakers, particularly in areas with many tourists.

There’s also a lack of practice in general. There aren’t many Thais who speak fluent English, so the ones that want to learn don’t get enough practice. As such, they never develop their skill level to the point of being fluent.

What They Speak in Thailand

So, if it’s not English, what language do they speak in Thailand? Well, Thailand has 60 extant languages. The top 3 spoken languages in Thailand are Central Thai, Isan, and Kham Muang.

Central Thai

The most widely spoken is Central Thai, sometimes just called Thai and historically referred to as Siamese. Over 20 million people in Thailand speak it natively, with up to 44 million speaking it as a second language.

Northeastern Thai

The second most widely-spoken language is Isan, or northeastern Thai. Much like the above, it’s part of the Tai-Kadai language family. It’s not as widely spoken in Thailand, with the combined number of native and second language speakers at around 22 million.

Northern Thai

The third most widely spoken language is Kam Muang (sometimes spelled Mueang), or northern Thai. It’s spoken by an estimated 6 million people. It’s part of the same Tai-Kadai family tree as Thai and Isan.

The reality is that you’re going to be somewhat out of linguistic luck in Thailand. You will run into people who speak fluent English, but for most others, it’s best to know a bit of Thai to hold a decent conversation. So try to learn a few phrases before heading there. If not, download some kind of translator app to translate what you want to say and what is said to you.

Thailand is an incredibly popular tourist destination with a lot to see and do and it’s an incredibly linguistically diverse country. While English-only speakers can get by in some areas, their language is going to sound like incoherent gibberish in most places.

But don’t let the language barrier deter you if you want to go to Thailand. A smile is universal and isn’t something that needs to be translated.

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