While the official Thai language is widely spoken throughout Thailand, many Thais also speak and understand English, though more so in Bangkok and the major tourist areas. As visitors to Thailand also include many Europeans and other Asians, Thai people’s language skills often also include these other languages to varying degrees. The Thai language itself is challenging to master, but Thai people are happy to help foreigners learn a few words to help them get around. However, English is typically the common currency for cross-cultural conversation as Thailand hosts visitors from around the world.
With so many visitors, the Thailand communications system has many features that make it very accessible to foreigners. In regards to telephone use, it is possible to get a Thai SIM card at most international airports and both rental mobile phones and SIM cards are readily available in destinations including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. Workers in post offices generally speak some English, and there are internet cafes throughout Thailand that feature Skype headsets specifically to cater to visitors wishing to communicate with friends and family back home. The Thailand communications system is both modern and convenient for visitors to use.
While the Thai language is the official language of Thailand, one could say English is its unofficial second language. As tourist and business visitors from around the world have traveled to Thailand, English naturally has become the common linguistic “currency” even while many of those visitors learned how to speak Thai. Consequently, population centers that host many foreigners, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the islands have many people who can speak both Thai and English quite well.
That said, visitors may experience difficulty picking up the Thai language as it is considerably different from many foreign languages. The Thai language features five tones: high, mid, low, rising, and falling, each of which changes the meaning of particular ‘words’. Visitors unfamiliar with tonal languages often have difficulty pronouncing even the most basic terms when learning to speak Thai, but with some practice visitors find that Thai people enjoy helping them with their pronunciation of the Thai language.
Written Thai is based on an alphabet adopted from the Khmers of Cambodia and is said to have become standardized during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng during the Sukhothai period. The Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants, 18 vowels, and 4 diphthong (tonal) notations. Learning to read Thai can be more complicated than learning to speak it as the pronunciation of written words does not follow a straightforward progression of letters and written Thai does not place spaces in between words. Fortunately, road signs are written in both Thai and English, and many tourist areas provide maps, menus, and other literature in both Thai and various other foreign languages.
One problem that does occur for foreigners trying to pronounce Thai words correctly is caused by the transliteration of Thai words into Romanized characters. An obvious example would be the island of Phuket, pronounced “poo-ket” rather than “foo-ket” as it would be pronounced in English. Furthermore, there is no official standard for the transliteration of words and thus many Thai words are spelled differently on different maps or street signs (i.e. Even the BTS Skytrain features both Chitlom and Chidlom stations).
In addition, while most Thai’s speak and understand the central Thai dialect, there are various regional dialects, including those of Southern Thailand and Northeastern Thailand, the latter of which is essentially just the Lao language (as most of the population is of Lao descent). In northern Thailand, which had been the independent kingdoms of Lan Na and Chiang Mai from 1259-1939, a distinctive form of Thai is still spoken by the local inhabitants, all of whom can also speak central Thai. All variants of Thai use the same alphabet.