Communicating in a foreign country

There is an old joke about English people communicating in a foreign country: the joke goes that they don’t use any foreign words, they simply talk slowly and shout. There is a certain amount of truth in this piece of observational humor. The British are poor at learning different languages. Indeed all English speaking countries (with the possible exception of Canada) have the same reputation.

Local people on Phangan Island in Thailand have been used to dealing with foreigners for many years now. Many of the people working in the resorts, bars and hotels know a little English. The trick to communicating is to get a feel for the keywords that they are likely to know. It is no use speaking in colloquialisms or a strong idiomatic language. Moreover, it is worth speaking clearly and enuciating in a Thai way. People with strong Scottish accents can have a hard time being understood. Their brogue and the fact that they will say ’wee’ instead of ’small’ confuses Thai people.

Communicating in Koh Phangan, and in Thailand generally, can be made difficult by the fact that people are apt to say ’yes’ when they are confused. It is rude to say ’no’ in Thai. To get round this problem it is often a good idea to avoid yes/no questions as you are liable to get a ’yes’ when the real answer is ’I don’t understand’.

Another useful tip – no matter where you go in the World – is to learn numbers, please, thankyou, how much and hello. Just these few basic words and phrases put people more at rest and make you feel less like a cultural philistine. And who knows you might get into a conversation with a local who really doesn’t speak much English. The desire to communicate and the imagination to overcome the language barrier is a big step in the right direction.