Forty years ago, it was a mind-bending novelty – worthy of TV shows and concerts. Now, the ability for non-Thais to speak the local language fluently is thankfully appreciated for much more than quirk value – it’s a sign of increasing international appreciation of the economic, social and cultural importance of crossing the language barrier.
Ambassador Mark Kent (British Ambassador to Thailand) is a confirmed polyglot, having learned Vietnamese, Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese as well as fluent Thai.
What are your absolute favourite Thai words, jokes or even idioms – to speak, to read, or to write? Why?
My favourite Thai word is rieb roi. I like the sound of it and also its meaning. Whenever I come back to the embassy and I ask my Thai colleagues if everything is rieb roi while I am away and they reply so, meaning everything is taken care of, problem solved!
Bangkok is such a cosmopolitan city, and you can live here quite comfortably without learning the local language. What inspired you to hone your skills and invest time in the language?
I think it is possible to do my job without speaking Thai, but being able to understand and speak the language, even if not perfectly, enables you to understand Thai culture and society. With my ability to speak Thai, it means I don’t need an interpreter in meetings, though often my Thai counterparts do speak English better than I do Thai!
What was your journey to this point – how long did it take, what strategies did you use, and what’s your study routine?
I started learning Thai in late 2010 and began lessons in London. My learning has at various stages combined mixture of one-on-one lessons, using internet resources, books, CDs/DVDs – although I find the most useful strategy is interacting with Thai people. Speaking Thai with local people can be great fun.
What is your best advice for anyone setting out to learn the language?
I think it is important to have patience and persistence. After six months of learning Thai, I felt I had made little progress but gradually developed a better understanding. I would recommend to learn to read and write Thai script as it will help with developing all aspects of language, including speaking. It is also good to get in the habit of speaking Thai with colleagues and friends who have patience and can help correct your errors.
Photography: Kaan Suchanin