Every Anglophone visitor to Phuket will have chuckled at public translations and transliterations into English so wide of the mark one wonders whom is responsible for the howlers.
Why is this? A number of factors can be blamed. At root is poor language provision in schools and linguistic instruction that is predominantly rote-based.
A Thai teacher might typically begin the lesson with: “Good morning, class. How are you today? It is time for our English lesson.” The pupils dutifully reply: “Good morning, teacher. How are you?” The rest of the “English” lesson is mostly conducted in Thai.
There is another educational anomaly – most English teachers in Phuket’s schools get the job because they speak the lingo.
But sadly, they rarely have any prior teaching experience and often only the most rudimentary knowledge of Thai.
Teachers need to be taught how to teach – they are not born but made – it’s little wonder then that so few Thai school-leavers possess more than the most basic English vocabulary.
And yet, paradoxically, Thailand spends almost twice the amount from its national budget (20.7%) on education than Asian countries such as Cambodia and Mongolia.
It is not just the system. Ingrained attitudes don’t help. A couple of facts: Thailand ranks 56th in terms of English competence out of 72 nations – the fifth worst in Asia, above only Mongolia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Cambodia – according to the English First (EF) English Proficiency Index 2016.
That is despite Thailand, and especially Phuket, having one of the most flourishing tourist industries in the world – 28 million or so visitors per year.
There ought to be some carry-over. And indeed there is. But perhaps not where you expect it – from school and university graduates. Instead it falls to your average “go-go” girl to garner enough working knowledge of English to run rings round your “farang” bar-fly. There is no substitute for the acid bath of experience, for hands-on learning.
Thais are, in any case, a pretty insular lot. The fact that Thailand has never been subjugated by a colonial power has meant its people have retained a powerful and sometimes inhibiting sense of independence.
They have never had – as say, Filipinos have – an alien but more dominant language, first Spanish and then American English, imposed on their own.
Similarly, more than a century of British rule over India and Myanmar means that most educated natives of those countries have a working knowledge of English.
Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram may have attempted to foist Western dress codes on Thais after World War II, but he seems to have done little to promote the use of the English language.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the Thai alphabet, derived from Old Khmer script, is totally different from Indo-European languages – with its 44 consonants and 15 vowels – or that it is essentially a tonal affair (like many of its neighbours) whose subtleties are difficult for Westerners to grasp – or for Thais to shake off themselves when learning a new language.
Whatever the reason, the English version of almost any Thai document you encounter – from the humblest menu to the most elaborate five-star resort brochure – even Gen Prayut’s sub-titled, Friday address to the nation – often contains anomalies of expression.
In part, and especially with menus, this is because the transliterated versions of a few key Thai words sound funny, even rude in English.
Thus the Thai word for “crab” is phoneticised as “poo”, so the prospect of “poo” on your dinner plate, and especially “cow pat poo” (crab fried rice), appears distinctly uninviting.
One eatery, apparently unaware of the irony, announced itself as “Pee and Poo: Food and Drink”. Today, some high end restaurants are circumventing this knotty problem by substituting “puu”.
Girl’s names, especially fashionably shortened forms, likewise can carry unfortunate associations for Anglophones. “Porn”, though it might have a certain ironic appropriateness where bar girls are concerned, is a very common moniker, and there are more than a few “Supaporns” out there.
So too “Sin”, meaning money. “Anurak” means “angel” in Thai – but is a word for an unglamorous item of clothing in English. “Pee” (with a distinctive rising tone), a mildly indelicate word to our ears, is a much used epithet in Thai for “ghost”.
All of these are pretty much unavoidable. Others are simply the result of sloppy thinking, of a deep-seated desire to muddle by without any concern for exactitude.
Take Thai translations on Facebook or English explanations at public amenities. It is as though the translator searched each word in the dictionary and chose the first meaning.
A placard in a Chiang Rai tea plantation read: “Prohibit pluck the top feels numb”. The original Thai injunction should have been decoded as “Don’t pick the tea leaf tops!” For the record, the Thai word for “tea” also means “feel numb”. The translator had not bothered to check.
Nearer to home is a newly installed outdoor gym in Nai Harn for public use. A laudable initiative. But the English instructions on each piece of apparatus leaves one wondering how it actually works.
I even once came across a sign saying “No! Give food monkeys”. A simple error of punctuation had neatly inverted the sense.
Signs are notorious. One warned of an “Accident ahead”. Fine, except that the injunction was a permanent one.
Down the road was another, proclaiming “Massage by the Blinds People”. Talk about multi-tasking.
Some errors are simply the result of different pronunciation habits. To take just one of many examples: Thais make little or no distinction between “l” and “r”.
So “farang” (Westerner) becomes “falang”, Henry sounds more like Henley. One handpainted sign, presumably unintentionally, requested a venue where “I can plastice my English”.
And most Thai words tend to emphasize the final syllable. I used to say Ka-ta. Nobody understood. Now I know better. I say Ka-ta. It’s a bit more complicated than Gershwin’s “You say either and I say eyether…”
Given these amusing examples, it would seem paradoxical to learn that native speakers are decidedly picky about how foreigners express themselves in Thai.
Many Thai words have up to five distinctive tones, and thus meanings. So when a “farang” mispronounces a word such as “mai”, making it sound like “new” instead of “silk”, most Thais will be thrown into a state of linguistic confusion.
Similarly, a foreigner may declare: “I’m putting on my tiger (suuaaa) instead of “I’m putting on my shirt (sua)”.
In such cases, the context of the spoken word[s] is everything: it invariably helps to clarify meaning. Both Thais and Anglophones please take note.
A note: Thanks to my good friend Sam Wilkinson for a number of helpful suggestions.
The author, Dr Patrick Campbell, is an author and a retired professor of English who has resided in Thailand since 2004.