Why I Stopped Talking to My Thai Wife As If She Were a Moron

What I’m about to say might seem offensive to some people. I’d like to say right away though, that I’m not trying to tell others how they should talk to their partners or indeed to Thai people in general – that is not my business. I also don’t mean to imply that I’m doing things the right way and others are doing things wrong. This is something that I continue to struggle with; even though I promised myself not to do it anymore years ago. I’m just going to make a few observations and explain why I decided to stop talking to my wife as if she were a moron.

How I Treated My Wife Like a Moron

Sometimes when you listen to foreigners talking to Thais it can be difficult to decide who is speaking English as a second language. Of course not all foreigners do speak English as their first language but I’m referring here to those that do. When we hear somebody use sentences like, “where you go?” and “you go me” it can be tempting to think that this is somebody who doesn’t yet have a firm grasp of the English language. While I can’t remember every using “you go me” I have used many other forms of bad English when speaking with my wife. It isn’t just here alone though, yesterday morning I said to my three year old bilingual son, “why you not wear clothes?”

I’ve had conversations in the past about this habit of speaking poor English to people who speak the language as a second tongue. The usual way to justify it is that it makes it easier for the other person to understand. I’m not convinced of this argument at all because I think it just reinforces bad English. One of the key factors in picking up a language seems to be interacting with native speakers, but if these people are speaking gibberish then what chance does the learner have? Those of us who have spent a long time trying to speak Thai would probably prefer that the native speakers of this language don’t teach us how to sound like a moron. I honestly do feel that we are doing the other person a disservice by not speaking to them in the right way.

No Need to Speak Gibberish

The thing that bugs me the most about all of this is that there is usually no need for it at all. My wife can speak excellent English and she has spent a lot of time in my home country. She understands me perfectly well without this odd way of speaking. It is just an old habit that I sometimes fall back into. When I do it always makes me feel like a bit of an idiot and it seems disrespectful to my wife. Since our son was born this is something that has become even more important as we want him to speak both languages like a native – what chance does he have with sentences like “why you not wear clothes?”

What do you think?
Is speaking this way perfectly acceptable?

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59 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Talking to My Thai Wife As If She Were a Moron

  1. I speak grammatically correct English with second-language learners about 90% of the time, I’d say, and only break out the pidgin English when I just can’t get anywhere by using all the correct articles, prepositions, and tenses (past perfect…oh lord!). I do articulate better and usually speak a little slower, though.

    That said, I understand why people break out the “why you no wear clothes” business. It’s just easier sometimes. I think, though, you’re right–if you want your son to grow up speaking correct English, he has to hear it! 🙂

    You always provide a lot of food for thought, Paul…
    Megan recently posted..WTF What THE! Friday Part 19

    1. Thanks Megan, I do often wonder if my observations might seem a bit odd. It is always a relief when the first person comments and doesn’t accuse me of being crazy 🙂

  2. Aren’t you a bit curious as to why you talked this way, and why other foreigners in the same position have done similar? The common linking factor here is that we’ve all done it at some time or another. In other words we’ve all thought alike, which points to it being a part of our subconscious make up.

    Could it be that some maternal instinct is kicking in? You know the way we talk to small children, and infants who can’t understand us? Is this just a mother nature thing?
    mark recently posted..A Pattaya addicts final retirement The misadventures of Joe farang

    1. Hi Mark, I think it could be some type of instinct to do this, but it might not always be the most helpful instict. I can’t help thinking of Basil Fawlty trying to talk to Manuel – the use of pidgin English seemed to make things worse.

  3. I agree with you Paul. Since I met my wife, I try to speak proper English with her and correct her when she makes mistakes. Same goes with little kids, I just speak to them like there were adults, and hate nothing more as when I see adults doing monkey stuff with babies. You know, like this popular Thai, ta-eeh, ta-eeh, or kind of bluberbluberbluber talk stuff. Just because a kid can’t talk back, doesn’t mean that it is not listening to your words, I guess.

    My little mate here in the village, of about two years, when he comes along, I always talk English with him, and sometimes he picks up some words and repeats them to me. Not that he knows what he is saying, but he gets a little feeling for the language at least. Often I play him cartoons in English, and he really likes them, Skipper the Dog being one of his favourites, next to the ABC song. I guess it’s much better then this ta-eeh thing all the others tell him.

    Closing, I remember in my early wild days in Thailand, going to a bar, and being asked; “what would you want some drink?” Or after a meal being asked; “you finish?” Btw, my answer to that one normally is, “no, I am Spanish!”. Believe me, that makes them quite a bit confused.

    1. Hi Paco I think it is about speaking to people like they are adults. Sure, if somebody is struggling to understand we can keep dumbing down the sentence until they understand, but I think starting off with the baby-talk is not the way to go.

  4. Hi Paul,
    Don’t worry about your son, there come’s a time that he will improve you, should you tend to speak gibberish.
    As a non-native speaker I know Thai, Asians and all non-native speakers in general usually will have more problems talking English with native speakers than with non-native speakers, as they tend to speak too fast, sometimes swallow parts of the words and frequently use words which are too difficult. For example when being asked about her profession, an Australian woman answered: I’am a flight attendant, which was not understood by the Thai person.
    I advised her to use the old word stewardess and if necesarry make flapping gestures depending on the person’s ability to talk English.
    Logically without mastering adequate Thai one will default to use pidgin English mixed with some Thai when staying here for longer time, since as you should know English just isn’t high on the priority list of Thai schools and students for that matter as well.
    With people mastering adequate or perfect English as a courtesy it will be better of course to do the same, similar like you wouldn’t talk pidgin to people of your own country.
    Actually it would be much better to speak Thai in your household, since this is the country’s language where you are living, but I know this is a very difficult thing to accomplish, since I was married to a Japanese woman and after living in Holland for nine years we still spoke English mixed with Japanese to each other. No good..
    I-nomad recently posted..One more reason to learn Thai

    1. Hi I-nomad, my wife and I decided that it would be better if I just spoke English in front of my son. I did a bit of research just after he was born and there seemed to be consensus amoung language experts that this was the best way to go about things if we wanted our son to be bilingual. He has plenty of exposure to Thai so I really don’t think eliminating his only exposure to the English language is the way to go. I do get what you are saying and this was something that we thought about seriously – when in Rome and all that. In the end though, it seemed more sensible that I should speak English to him all the time.

      1. Paul, I think you are right talking English at home with your son. It worked well with me. I grow up in the German part of Switzerland with parents, that only spoke Spanish and a little Italian. So at home it was Spanish talk mostly, listening Italian when watching telly and Swiss-German on the streets. By the time I started school, I already spoke three language.

      2. Hi Paul,

        As a fellow parent of a bilingual kid, can I ask if your wife speaks Thai to your son or English?

        After 5 years studying in London my wife’s English is top notch and, as a keen Thai student, I’m more likely to speak Thai with non-English speakers unless they specify otherwise. As this is what I’m used to – and having taught kids were pidgin is outlawed – I can’t say I’ve ever busted out the baby talk but I do understand how it can develop.

        Cheers,
        Jon
        Jon recently posted..Merry Christmas!

        1. Hi Jon, for the first couple of years my wife only spoke Thai to my son. These days we are a bit more laid back about it and will often speak English to him as well. His preference at the moment is to speak English but I suspect that this will change when he starts school in a few months.

          When I’m communicating with non-English speakers I will most often use Thai – assuming of course they are able to understand Thai 🙂 If people are trying to learn English then I’ll usually accommodate them by speaking English back to them– it seems a bit insulting to do otherwise. I remember a few years back that there was this old Thai woman who would speak to me in English and I’d reply to her in Thai. It was later pointed out to me that by doing this I was sort of implying that her English sucked.

  5. I’ve been guilty of speaking like that to Thais. Not for any reason I’m conscious of – it just happens! I look at what I just said and marvel at it. Why did that pop out of my mouth.

    I think you’re right – it’s the idea that if I speak to them at that level they’ll get it quicker. I’ve never spoken to my wife that way – she speaks really well.

    Good article Paul – keep plugging away! Cheers…
    Mike Fook recently posted..Another Amazon Kindle Book Sales Increase in February

  6. Paul, as the comments above would seem to indicate there is probably not a native English speaker among us who, at some time or another, has not reverted to pidgin English. With my first Thai girlfriend I quite often asked her ‘What you do?’ when she did something I considered strange. I was merely mimicking her way of asking me the same thing. I also used other phrases weird to a native speaker but which I hoped would facilitate conversation between us. I guess that is the main point why we do it. We want to be understood and we want to simplify communication between ourselves to best avoid misunderstanding. However, I agree with the central point of your post that we are probably not doing our Thai partners any favors when we follow that approach. My second and current Thai girlfriend speaks much better English and for the most part I have avoided the ‘Thaiglish way of speaking’, except once or twice in funny situations when it added to the humour. You ask if it is disrespectful. I think it probably is (albeit unintentionally) if your partner is a good English speaker. I do not believe it is disrespectful if the Thai partner has inadequate English skills. Clearly the most important element is to communicate, even if that is in pidgin English. How to reconcile the two elements (wanting our partner to understand our day to day thoughts versus wanting them to learn proper English) can only depend on each of us. If our language is the language of daily communication between the parties then the burden of responsibility falls upon us to reconcile those two elements.
    Peter_M recently posted..De Chai Hotel- Chiang Mai

    1. Hi Peter, you are right about finding the balance. I think the problem is that it is just easy to fall into this type of way of speaking out of laziness. I tend to do people a disservice by just automatically speaking to them as if they don’t understand well enough. When I first met my wife I’d speak this way because I thought it was funny and affectionate, but now it has just become a habit that creeps back up on me.

  7. Paul, baby talk is something I take care to avoid but I don’t always succeed.

    This week I spent a morning with a Thai friend. We come across an American tourist who attached himself to our wanderings.

    He’d talk perfectly good English to me, but then turn to my Thai friend and switch to baby talk.

    I asked her later if she’d noticed and she said no. It annoyed me at the time because my friend is fluent in English so it sounded disrespectful.

    But like others mentioned, we all fall into the bad habit sometimes.

    Great title btw…

    1. Hi Catherine, I remember a few years back I was travelling around Asia and I fell into the company of this other westerner. He spoke a type of baby talk to non-native English speakers that was so insulting that it nearly got us into arguments on a couple of occasions. He never seemed to understand how insulting he sounded.

  8. Paul an interesting topic and something that I am certainly guilty of on occasions, usually more through frustration than choice.

    Not wishing to sound defensive but I believe its partly to do with the way Thais formulate sentences in their own language too. I say this because I often inadvertently formulate Thai sentence using English language rules 😉

    I know were you are coming from with this post which immediately reminded me of the Englishman abroad raising his voice and speaking slowly to the “natives!” However I do believe that that communication is the important word here and how we achieve it to some extent is secondary.
    mike recently posted..Ants in Thailand

    1. Hi Mike, I agree that communication is key but I know in my own case it is not aiding communication because my wife can understand me perfectly well without this. I suspect this is true in a lot of cases where we might automatically speak this Pidgin English.

  9. Paul I have to admit to being guilty of the crime you mention and being well aware of it too. At the start of my last ten or so holidays I’ve said to myself that I must talk to Wilai in proper fluent English. I start off well but after a few days slip back into my old routine. Old habits die hard and it is a very bad habit too.

    Years ago me and a friend stayed in Pattaya for four months and one day towards the end of the trip we were sat chatting in a bar in Soi Buakhao. I realized we were both talking to each other in slight pidgin English. Weird. I think it was that day that I realized how bad my habit of speaking to Thais in broken English was. However I still do it now.

    Excellent post.
    Martyn recently posted..Thailand Blogs – February 2011 Review

  10. Hi Paul,

    I think there’s another issue here which you didn’t mention. I taught many years at an American school where we often found students speaking incorrect English. You can only correct so many students in a day. We had very few native speakers as students in the school, most of them being country nationals. What happened was that they developed their own “dialect.” When my own daughter (a native American speaker) spends time with the others, she comes home speaking in the same dialect and intonation. We’ve had many discussions about it. She does it “to fit in.” But it takes her a couple of days to get out of it. But everyone gets affected by what they hear.

    What made me feel really stupid was when I found MYSELF talking to students (or even my daughter) like that, and felt, “I can’t believe that slipped out of my mouth,” but I see now, after many years, that there IS an explanation for it.

    When I speak Arabic, I speak it just like you describe the English above, but at least I can communicate my meaning.

    When you put people together without a common language, they find a word they both understand, and that gets incorporated into their new, personal “dialect.” This is the same thing which happens in couples, in families, in classrooms, in ANY group. When you find yourself speaking poorly in English, it’s because you are trying to communicate a MEANING, first of all, and you know that is a more efficient way of communicating that meaning to that person (since that is the way they speak, and you hear it all day). It’s only after you say it that you suddenly hear yourself, and feel, “Wow, I can’t believe I said that!” And you feel embarrassed that what would another native speaker think if they heard you say that!

    I’m not the only teacher this happened to. I found anyone who stays in a country for several years finds that they do have this same problem occassionally.

    A very interesting post. My foreign-teacher friends and I have often discussed this same subject over the years, and it’s great to see a blog post on it.

    1. Hi Mary, I agree that it is not possible to correct all the mistakes that students make; it would also be too demoralising for students if teachers did this. I remember a when I was younger a lot of my friends went to work on the building sites in Germany. Apparently they picked up this strange pidgin German. Some of them later claimed that it made it harder to learn proper German afterwards because it is harder to unlearn how to speak then it is to learn how to speak.

  11. Mary, you said “What happened was that they developed their own dialect”… which reminded me of an English creole I used for years – Singlish.

    This wiki page says it’s discouraged but it wasn’t when I lived in the region. It was popular with kids, adults, business people even. Singlish united those that used it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singlish

    Where I lived, the common language was English (and the majority of the locals were fluent). But Malaysians, Singaporeans, and Bruneians will use Singlish with each other. Some would switch to English when talking to westerners. Others would be made fun of if they spoke in proper English instead of Singlish.

    Singlish sounds similar to Thianglish, the bastardised version of English spoken by some Thais and some westerners when they are talking to Thais.

    But Singlish goes much further, has a richer vocabulary, all with a sing-song element to it. From some speakers, it has the rhythm of Southern US blacks.

    QUOTE: The vocabulary of Singlish consists of words originating from English, Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Tamil, Bengali, Punjabi and to a lesser extent various other European, Indic and Sinitic languages, while Singlish syntax resembles southern varieties of Chinese.

    Singlish is fun so it’s easy to become addicted to. An Australian friend came to visit me in Thailand when I first moved here and she was using elements of Singlish before she left. Noticing, she was shocked (dismayed was more like it) at how fast it was to absorb without trying (she’s a bright, very proper English speaker).

    It took years before my grammar recovered (I hope it has anyway).

  12. Funny Paul, you know, this afternoon my Missus asked me what I wanted for dinner. I told her that I would fancy a cheese and bacon burger with chips. Guess what I got? A cheese and bacon burger with crisps!!!

    Now, I wonder, what is it with this Americans wanting to change a very old language, but still want to call it English. I mean, the official language in the USA is English, (yes I know, a kind of Spanish as well), so why they don’t just speak English, or start calling what they talk American?

    Just some examples;

    Lorry vs. truck
    Flat vs. apartment
    Fag vs. cigarette, (ok, fair enough, the fag can be misunderstood..!)
    Autumn vs. fall
    Underground vs. subway
    Taxi vs. cab

    And so on, and so on…

    People in England talk dialects, and some of them are quite poor English, but they have probably been there much before there was such a thing as USA. I guess that I can live with hat, but American language schools? To teach what, how to destroy a language? Sorry, but here I am a bit confused..!

    Btw Paul, I like the Irish accent same as I like the Northern English accents..!

    1. Hi Paco, isn’t English a Germanic language 🙂 I like the fact that there are different forms of English; it is what keeps it alive. To be honest, probably the only reason why English is such an important language these days is because it is spoken to the United States. Most of the students I’ve come across want to have an American accent; I can’t remember any who wanted to speak English with an English accent – or indeed an Irish one 🙂

  13. Love it. I too have had this discussion with my friends. And I whole heartedly agree with your post and just heard this “baby talk” as Cat calls it just today at a restaurant. This was followed by a conversation on how it would be hard to find a Thai woman who likes to go camping. Yeahhh.

    I think it’s important to be aware of what you say and how you say it and this topic is no different. Pidgin English is commonly spoken in Hawaii and my mom (who’s English is poor) told my brother and I that under NO circumstances were we to speak pidgin.

    So there is one Thai woman who notices the difference. . .
    Lani recently posted..Thailandcrazy

    1. Hi Lani, it is good to hear about your mother’s views on this. I think there can be something a bit patronising about Pidgin English and it does seem to reinforce bad English. Of course as others have pointed out a Pidgin language can become a sort of real language, but why keep on reinventing the wheel now that we have such great language software 🙂

  14. Paul, I’m finding myself talking like you described, more and more, but not necessarily to Thai people, usually it’s to Stray. I find as I am learning Thai, I’m using Thai grammar and omitting unnecessary words. I met a fellow countryman the other day, who has been living here on and off for a few years and he says to me ‘You go 7-eleven?’
    I said ‘Kha.’
    He asks ‘You can buy?’ holding up a packet of cigarettes. I said ‘yes,mate, I smoke that brand too’.

    It was a funny experience, but I did feel like he was speaking to me as if I were a bit of a dummy.

    1. Hi Snap, sorry to take so long to respond – I thought I already had. I’ve seen native English speakers lapse into Pidgin English with each other. I suppose the real problems start when you don’t notice anymore that you’re doing it.

  15. I agree completely about speaking proper english to Thai people or any other people for that matter. I´m Swedish & my wife is Thai. We live in the Phangnga area. I think the main issue here is to talk slowly if the person seams to struggle understanding (or asks You to speak slowly).
    Sometimes I wish most Thais would do the same as I´m not fluent in Thai yet. I find speaking with children is the best way (as grown ups doesn´t have a clue sometimes if You pronounce a word slightly wrong :))). Thanks for Your great articles on Thailand & Your fantastic book.

    Regards,

    Stefan

    1. Thanks Stefan, you are right about it being easier to talk in Thai with children. I noticed this when working as a teacher. I think the problem is that once an adult has decided that you can’t speak Thai you have a hard job convincing them otherwise. I always see my first sentence in Thai with a person as being like an audition 🙂

      1. Stefan, Paul, just a short reply here. I am no great Thai language speaker, even less Lao-Thai, so when I go places I get often asked if I speak Thai. My answer to that is; “phom phut pasa thai dai nit diao le mai geng”, or; “I speak little Thai and not so good.”

        Now, my problem is, that I can say that very well, and always Thais respond; “ooh, khun phut Thai geng mark!” or; “you speak Thai very well!” And that’s where it normally ends, because then they just speak to me like I would be a freeking native and I may understand maybe 10% of what they say.

        I found out, that’s better to respond to the language question with; “phom Thai nit noi!” and maybe, they try to talk easy Thai to you or just leave you alone…

  16. This is a great post and something I hadn’t thought about before. Now I realize that I do often speak grammatically incorrect English when speaking with Thai people. I think for me it’s because I’m sorta thinking in Thai, and the English is a direct translation. Anyway, thanks for inspiring me to speak properly. 🙂
    Josh Brown recently posted..Learn Thai Squiggles released!

  17. I find it unnecessary to go out of the way to break a habit like that. Only because I see languages as a way of communicating with each other, not as a way of sounding correct or not looking like an idiot. If they can understand me, then it’s doing it’s job, that’s all I care about because that’s what it was made for.

    1. Hi Jess, I appreciate your comment. The way I look at it is this. I don’t like it when people talk baby-Thai to me; I want to learn how to speak correctly. My wife feels the same and this is why I try to avoid talking to her in that way. My wife can understand English perfectly well and this is just something that I did out of habit. I understand that this is not something that is important for everyone.

  18. Thanks for responding to my comment, and I also understanding your point of view. I was just commenting on how I felt. Have a nice day!

  19. Hi Paul

    I’m wondering if you can help me? It’s a stab in the dark really, but I teach in Northern Ireland and have recently acquired a Thai girl in my form class. She speaks very little English and I’m trying to find the best way for her to learn English. You can imagine that we do not have much experience of this and Thai is not a common language here! Is their anything that you could recommend? I’d appreciate any help as the poor girl seems very lost.

    1. Hi Fionzy -from my own experiences learning Thai, and teaching English in Thai schools, I would say the best approach is to find out what interests her. It is much easier to pick up vocabulary for words we are going to be using a lot. So for example, if she likes movies this subject will be interesting enough to allow her to explore the English language. Song lyrics are also great for language acquisition. Many Thais have a good understanding of English, but they just feel shy when it comes to actually speaking it.

      I hope that helps.

      1. Thank you for your reply. What you say makes sense. She has been with me for 3 weeks and it was only yesterday that she talked to me! I will certainly do as you say and focus on her interests. Take care.

  20. My Thai wife specifically tells me to correct her every time.. She’s been speaking English for almost 20 years, but there is a few places where her grammar isnt the best…. I do the same thing when I speak thai, I use English sentence structures with Thai words, and I know it’s funny because it sends my wife into a fit of giggles.

  21. I really agree with your post. However, I don’t use English as first language as well, but since Swedish and English aren’t that far apart I bet I should still be able to speak better than “I no like”-language.

    However, my biggest problem isn’t about the pidgin-style English really, my gf speaks perfect English and is way better than me in the grammar. What annoys me however, is the “Thailish” or whatever people tend to call it, that has developed during the years.

    At the beginning it was just for fun, I’ve studied Thai for the last past 6 years, and I’m quite ok with both reading, listening and writing. So, we both can speak Thai and we both can speak English. Still our common language has developed around words like “na”, “lor” “rok”, “nee”, “nia”, “Mai?” etc etc.. All these endings for questions, statements and to make sentences softer. And I’ve had no problem with that, at least not until recently.
    But now I found myself speaking the same with some American friends back home. Which is just unacceptable. specially since I’m studying to be TEFL teacher. :/

    1. Hi Jens, I’m having this same problem with my 5 year old son. He keeps on using “na” and “nia” when he is speaking English. I keep on correcting him, but it has just become a habit. We are going home to Ireland for a few weeks, so hopefully the strange looks when he uses these words will break him out of the habit 🙂

    1. Thanks Lynne, I will do that. I hope people understand him because I worry that it might knock his confidence if they don’t. When I was his age I used to speak too fast (I still do sometimes), and it used to make me feel stupid when other people could not understand what I was saying.

  22. I enjoyed the article my problem is I start to talk like my thai fiance she speaks good english most the time but some times its not the correct way and I have caught myself talking to my friends and family in like broken english like her and then I start to talk to her the same way witch isn’t helping her learn better english, but I agree with the post here shouldn’t talk to kids like they don’t understand they cant talk back but they are listening to everything you say

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