One Simple Fact to Help You Learn Thai
Probably the most important thing to understand when visiting Thailand, learning to speak Thai or trying to understand what a Thai person means, is that the Thai language is what is known as a HIGH context language, as oppose to LOW context.
What this essentially means is that you need to read the body language of a Thai person, read between the lines, and listen to what is NOT being said, in order to really understand what a Thai person is communicating. If you simply listen to the words, and don’t put them into context, you could find you’ve got hold of the completely wrong end of the stick.
“Mai pen rai” (literally translated to mean “no worries”) is a Thai phrase commonly used, and is possibly the BIGGEST example of how these misunderstandings can develop. Despite its literal meaning, “mai pen rai” can mean a multitude of things. It can mean, “that’s okay, it doesn’t matter”, “no problem”, “no worries”, or, it can mean “I’m not happy about this, I don’t want to do business with you ever again, but I don’t want to lose face to anger!”. If you take the meaning literally, you could think that everything is fine when actually, it’s far from it. Later when the reality of the situation surfaces and the Thai person is obviously angry, you could find yourself frustrated, and bewildered as you say something along the lines of, “but you said it was okay”.
Most western languages are of LOW context, so westerners tend to say what they really mean, and express how they feel with words, which is quite different to languages of HIGH context where feelings and emotions are communicated at a much more subtle level, if at all.
You can see how easily misunderstandings can occur, even though both people are correct according to their own cultures.
So, why is Thai a HIGH context language? Why don’t they just say what they mean like westerners? To understand this you need to look deeper into the Thai culture. Losing face is a BIG no no in the Thai culture. Traditionally, if a Thai displayed intense emotions, such as anger, peers would have considered the person as weak, because they lost control of themselves to the emotion. As a result the HIGH context language evolved where emotions and feelings were expressed and communicated in more subtle, and less obvious ways.
By understanding this simple fact from the outset, you can avoid common misunderstandings, and when you start to consider the context of situations you will find that it is much easier to interpret what a Thai really person means.
This article was produced by Paula Westberg, Managing Director of Lanta International Language School. Lanta International Language School is a Thai language school offering fast, fun and effective Thai language courses. Based on the latest findings in educational science, their new methods of teaching combine activity learning, e-learning and brain-friendly reading lessons to create a unique blend of Thai language courses for beginners, intermediate and advanced students.