According to the U.S. Foreign Services Institute, it takes 1,100 “class hours” to learn Thai. Realistically, it’ll take longer to be truly fluent. And that means, if you earned just $15 an hour, you could earn $16,500+ instead of learning Thai.
So, is it worth it to learn Thai? What are the actual benefits of speaking Thai, and will they make a big difference in your life? Is it worth 1,100+ hours of your time and effort?
I believe the four questions below will help you decide if Thai is worth learning for you. I’ll also share my personal view as someone who’s lived in Thailand for over a year but only learned simple Thai phrases so far.
1. How Much Time Will You Spend in Thailand in the Future?
If you’re only going to Thailand for a 2-week vacation, learning Thai is overkill. Just memorize “sawasdee” (hello) and “khob khun” (thank you), and call it good.
Thailand has enough English, especially in the tourist areas—you won’t need to speak Thai to survive or anything like that.
And let’s be real: Thai is not spoken much outside of Thailand. It’s not like English being used all over the world.
However, if you’re moving to Thailand for the long term—or if you’ve been there many times and you plan on visiting every year for the rest of your life… then it could really enrich your life to speak Thai on future visits.
The great thing about language learning is that, once you get really fluent, you never lose your basic foundation in the language. Even if you get “rusty” in between your visits to Thailand, your skill will come back quickly.
So, if you know you’ll definitely live in Thailand for several years—or if you’ll make dozens of visits in the future—then learning Thai could be an awesome investment.
2. Do You Have (Or Want) Close Relationships With Thai People?
Striking up conversations with strangers on the street is a fun novelty—but arguably, the best benefit of speaking a language is how it can enhance your actual relationships.
If you’ve got a Thai partner or spouse, then learning Thai will not only enhance your connection with them, but also with their family and friends.
If you’re dating a younger person in Thailand, for example, they may be fluent in English. But it’s likely their parents are not fluent in English at all.
I’ve heard about this from some expat men who are married to women in SE Asia. They said it can be awkward or boring to spend much time with her family during the holidays because the language barrier is just too big.
So, if you want to connect with your Thai partner’s family, it could be a fantastic idea to learn Thai.
Same goes for deepening any other friendships you have with Thai people. Of course, some Thai people will gladly befriend you even with a language barrier—but if you speak Thai, you can be the one to initiate connection, in their language.
3. Do You Want to Explore the Less-Touristy Parts of Thailand?
If you’re planning to stick to the touristy parts of Bangkok or Phuket, then English should be sufficient. Locals are used to accommodating foreigners in these places.
However, if you want to go to smaller towns or explore the Thai countryside, then your English will likely fail you more often.
According to Education First, Thailand has “very low proficiency” in English. Outside of tourist areas, the amount of fluent English speakers can drop off pretty fast.
So, if you want to explore “off the beaten path” places in the remote corners of Thailand, then speaking Thai will really come in handy sometimes.
4. Are You Fascinated By Language Learning?
Completely aside from the usefulness of actually speaking Thai, learning a language can be a very interesting and rewarding process in itself.
Personally, I learned Japanese to a conversational level over the past couple years. So far, I haven’t gotten a big ROI from it in practical terms. But I still loved it as an intellectual experience.
Learning languages helps you understand culture at a deeper level. The ways Asian languages use pronouns are quite different from English, for example, and it can teach you a lot about the culture.
Personally, I feel awesome when I speak in another language. If you’re hanging out with friends who don’t understand it, then it’s like you have a magic power. It’s almost like you can see something invisible to others. It’s very fun.
And if you’ve always wanted to learn a language, then in some ways, Thai might be an extra gratifying one.
That’s because Thai is pretty rare to learn. When most people consider learning an Asian language, it’s more common to choose Mandarin, Japanese, or Korean. So, there will be more of a “shock factor” when you bust out your fluent Thai.
Why I Haven’t Learned Thai Yet
I’ve lived as a digital nomad in Thailand for more than a year already (on and off), but I haven’t seriously studied Thai yet. And the reason isn’t just laziness.
It’s because I’m still unsure of my answers to Questions #1 and #2 above. That is, I’m not yet sure: (1) How much time I’ll spend in Thailand in the future; and (2) Whether I’ll have close relationships there.
I love Thailand, and I’ve been tempted to learn Thai… But sometimes, I think I love Vietnam even more. So, it’s quite possible I’ll spend a lot more time in Vietnam (or another country), not Thailand, in the future. I still need to figure that out.
A few years ago when I decided to learn Japanese, it was before I’d even visited Japan the first time. I thought I would love Japan. I thought I would visit many times. But it turns out, I liked other countries more.
So, I don’t want to make that same “mistake” twice—spending hundreds of hours learning a language before I know if I’ll actually spend a lot of time in that country.
Hopefully this helps you decide whether it’s worth it for you to learn Thai. Remember also: You can start by just dabbling a bit in Thai, learn some simple sentences, and decide later if you want to get more serious about your study.
For another interesting post on language learning, check out “What Is the Best Language to Learn for Traveling in Asia?”