Thailand’s combination of spirituality and natural beauty make it a popular tourist destination – and many foreigners make the decision to live there permanently. Learning the Thai language (or Siamese) is essential for any expat who wants to blend in.
Siamese and English are very different – they are members of different linguistic families, and any connection that may have existed between them has been lost to prehistory.
There are 20 million people who speak the language, although there are around 57 million people living in Thailand. However, the population is ethnically diverse – there are sizable minority groups who speak very similar languages, and these make up the bulk of the non-thai-speaking population.
There are many thriving populations of people from Thailand in different countries all over the world, including:
Unlike many Asian countries, Thailand does not use characters based on the Chinese system for writing. Instead, they use a phonetic alphabet.
Linguists have different theories about the origin of the script – some believe it comes from Brahmic Script. Others believe it is derived from another Southeast Asian script, called Khmer. Khmer is ultimately derived from Sanskrit script, so there is little doubt the ultimate source is India.
Interestingly, the oral Siamese language has nothing to do with Sanskrit – they’re totally different branches of the linguistic tree. In fact, English is closer to Sanskrit than Thai is.
However, you can adapt a phonetic alphabet to any language, and so it makes sense that the people of Thailand would pick adopt a written form for daily use. Given their long connection to Buddhism (the basic texts of which are Sanskrit), it actually seems inevitable that the country would adopt a Sanskrit-derived text.
For the English speaking student, this presents a challenging situation. With no common alphabet, the student must learn to read an entirely different script, in addition to learning a foreign language.
Learning the Thai language provides an insight into another culture, and brings you closer to the people of Thailand.