Disasters in Learning: Thai Language Edition

thailand language learning

Short interlude from my Laos posts. I’ve always advocated learning as much of the local language as possible, and at a minimum words beyond the usual “hello” and “thank you” and “where’s the bathroom”. Even if it’s how to say “no problem”, it tends to go a long way in a strange and chaotic new place. But part to what makes learning Thai so story-worthy is how inherently difficult it is to learn the language’s many tones.

I grew up learning French, and I taught myself Spanish as I travelled. In the case of Spanish I made many mistakes, most of them extremely embarrassing. There are some similarities between French and Spanish of course, since they are both Latin languages. But the differences were, uh, noticeable. For example, I learned that in Spanish embarazada is not actually embarrassed, but the word for pregnant. I figured this out when I made a different language mistake and then said I was embarrassed about it. Except I didn’t say that — I said I was pregnant. Talk about compounding errors.

With respect to Thai, unlike the simple melodiousness of Latin languages, there are 5 different tones, and to a Western ear they are subtle enough that parsing through the auditory fog to truly grasp how they are meant to sound is difficult. For example, “mai” can mean 5 different words, depending on emphasis.

I recently learned how awkward these tones can be when I was informed that my polite attempts to say “excuse me / I’m sorry” while walking or apologize if I knocked into them was a huge fail. Instead of saying sorry, I was, in fact, asking permission to fart.

My Embarrassing Language Mistake

Yes for the last few weeks I making the Thai language mistake of asking people “May I please fart?” instead of simply saying excuse me.

I think I need to bring back ‘confused girl from Laos, because her face expresses how I felt when I was informed of my mistake:

thai language mistakes

Thanks to Kaewmala from Thai Talk, I can see exactly how I made this mistake:

ขอตด /khǑO dtòt/ – khor (rising tone) dtot (initial consonant  dt, low tone) – aka asking permission to fart.


ขอโทษ /khǑO thôot/ – khor (rising tone) thot (initial consonant  th, falling tone) – aka I’m sorry / excuse me.

Oh, now I get it! (Not so much). On the plus side, at least everyone moved out of the way even with my mistake? Back to the learning board, I go!


61 thoughts on “Disasters in Learning: Thai Language Edition”

  1. In Spanish class, the false cognitives were the ones that usually got people. The best one was when people would say they were embarrassed, only to find out there were apparently pregnant (aka embarazada).

    1. Ah yes, I made this mistake too when I was learning Spanish, only to have people look closely at my stomach and then at me and say, confused, ‘pienso que no?’. Thanks for the comment!

  2. In Spain, I once asked for grilled polla (cock, and I don’t mean rooster) instead of pollo (chicken). It was at a dinner table with spaniards to make things worse.

  3. Hilarious! I don’t have a particularly embarrassing one (at least that I know of) but I probably did the same thing as you in Thailand.

  4. Tonal languages completely confound me – haven’t really tried learning one seriously, but think I’d be saying rude/inappropriate stuff all the time.

    When I studied in Toulouse for a semester in college I lived with a lovely, adoring French family. Each night after being fed a multi-course dinner, I’d say, “Je suis pleine” and smile to say that I really can’t eat any more of your delicious food. It was only about 2 months later that my instructor informed me that I was essentially saying “I’m a pregnant animal.” When I asked my family why they didn’t correct me, they said they just thought it was too cute. Not.

    1. This was my comment from the get-go, that I’d be insulting someone’s mother by mistake just about every day. But no, instead I just talked about flatulence. French is difficult because of the etre/avoir distinction, and your mistake is also common with being hot or cold (with etre, turned on or frigid). Whoops! Funny that they didn’t tell you. Reminds me of a friend who visited Oz wearing a Roots Girls tshirt (Roots being a national clothing chain in Canada), not knowing that it is Aussie slang for ‘to shpoff’. So at her first night dinner with her host family, her tshirt wasn’t quite g-rated…..

  5. I don’t have any disaster stories to share but this made me laugh out loud–literally! Gotta love the nuances of language. Great story!

    1. It’s true. Some of my Thai friends have been regaling me with stories of other foreigners’ mistakes and mine is tame in comparison. Definitely makes for easy remembering once you figure out what you’ve done (very) wrong!

  6. One of my friends once asked a man for besos (kisses) instead of vasos (glasses). Because of the soft b/v pronunciation in Spanish that’s an easier mistake than one might think.

    1. At least giving everyone besos (men included) isn’t a social anomaly in many countries! Where was your friend when this happened, South America or Spain? I’m loving all these contributions :)

  7. So funny. Yeah, I can totally picture myself making a faux pas like this. If you’ve ever had a foreign language teacher grill you over your pronunciation and been frustrated because they keep telling you you’re mispronouncing something, even though to your ears it sounds exactly the same as when they say it….let’s just say it’s hard enough learning a new word for something but then to be told that if you just pronounce the word slightly differently it has a totally different meaning? Ugh.

    1. It’s tough as a Westerner because our ears just aren’t accustomed to the staggering subtleties inherent in tonal languages. I remember sitting across from the smoothie lady in Chiang Mai and she told me the name of a fruit. And I just looked at her, gaping. My brain could not communicate to my mouth how to make the sound she made. It’s a slow process :)

  8. Great story–great sense of humor. My wife & I (who do not speak Spanish) just got back from a week doing wine touring & tasting in Mendoza, Argentina. I recognize “confused girl’s” look. Wonder what we said to cause that?

    Really, our hosts at Posada de Rozas were helpful in getting us started, and lots of people were really helpful with the language as we gave it a try. We are going back, and planning stretching our horizons with more travel.

    1. Ah yes, it’s even more fun when you don’t know why you’re getting the ‘I just grew a second head’ looks. It’s true that people are often quite lovely in getting you the basics. Part of what makes tonal languages so funny to learn is the musical subtleties in the tones – one small sound can change the entire meaning of what you tried to say. Ruh roh!

  9. Oh, yikes. But at least it had the desired effect of getting you through a crowd! My first semester in college, my French professor shook her head and started laughing halfway through class about two months into the term and stopped the guy who was talking. Apparently the way about half the class had been pronouncing “beaucoup” overemphasized the ‘ou’ dipthong, making it sound like “beau cul,” which doesn’t mean “a lot/much/many,” but rather “nice a**.” Oops.

  10. Yep! I ordered fried piss in a restaurant in Bahasa, and once presented a landlady with an AWOL key announcing “here’s your cat”. Mercifully the reactions corrected me.

    Tonal languages are really, really tough to get started in.

    1. That’s terrific. I eat my pigeon’s blog was born out of a similar mistake at a Japanese restaurant. Makes for good comments, though some particularly cringeworthy moments as you get going ;)

  11. I have messed up a lot speaking English. My native language is Spanish. During the couple of first trips to the United States, I said a lot of weird things. For example, once I wanted to say something about an stuffed frog (animal toy). I didn’t know how to call the toy so I though about teddy bears. I told to one of my English speaking friends: “Look at that teddy frog”. He laughed like crazy and told me the correct way to say it.

    1. That’s funny. I’d love to compile a list of English mistakes like my mishap in Thai to compare. English isn’t the most intuitive at times either, it’s true. I kind of like the expression Teddy Frog though – we can start a new brand of stuffed toys!

  12. After spending a month learning as much Bahasa Indonesia as possible I visited Malaysia and was eager to speak more Bahasa. The languages are nearly identical and I had no trouble getting around and only noticed a few minor pronunciation differences. I met a great group of Malaysian college kids out at dinner and after a few minutes of basic pleasantries (where are you going, where are you from, what do you do) and then they asked why I learned Indonesian instead of Malaysian. I replied “I am teaching myself indonesian, it is very fun. I have not yet learned Malaysian words but bahasa is easy” (I would have said something more sophisticated but I’ve only been speaking for a month).

    They went from friendly to furious in half a second. It turns out “mudah” (easy) in Bahasa Indonesia means “easy” but it means “low class” or”pedestrian” in Bahasa Melayu. Malaysia takes pride in NOT being Indonesia and words hard to maintain its own language and considers its language to be much higher class than spoken Indonesian. My indonesian friend who lived in Malaysia for 3 years said she couldn’t think of a bigger insult to a proud Malaysian. Oooops.

  13. Permission to fart, captain? Oh, Jodi! I feel your pain, although I admit asking permission to fart is in a different league of embarrassment than declaring to a restaurant staff that you eat your pigeon. I’m glad you were able to correct yourself – hooray for being brave and learning new languages!

  14. When working in Spain, my then girlfriend decided to impress me with her Spanish at a restaurant in Palma, Mallorca.

    She wanted to order Chicken and chips which is “Pollo y Patatas Fritas por favor”.

    Only she ordered penis and chips “Polla y Patatas Fritas por favor”.

    Funnily enough we didn’t go back to that restaurant after that.

    1. No awkwardness there! She wasn’t referring to you and the chips? Kidding! I think these kinds of innuendo mistakes are the most common, and definitely make for some fun stories. Thanks for reading Oliver!

  15. Anthony - Motojournalism.com

    I’d meant to ask a Colombian friend if she would like to come to my house to eat together, but I managed to flub the conjugation into “eat each other” :p
    Hilarity ensued.

  16. I claim to speak fluent German and still make tons of mistakes. Accidentally slipping into the informal forms of verbs with clients on the phone. “Attack” and “Access” are quite similar in German and the first day of my new job I asked how to attack my computer. “to fill out” and “to touch” are also similar, so asking someone how to touch forms is again strange.
    It is all in good fun. At least with a horrible accent, I can claim ignorance.

    1. It’s true – you get quite a bit of leeway as a foreigner! I love all of these comments because despite the mistakes and the stories, everyone is still trying to learn. Thanks for chiming in!

  17. That’s hilarious! But like you mentioned, you got results- people probably moved! The only language faux-pas I know of is the one that Audrey mentioned. As a former French student I knew never to say “I am full” unless I wanted to tell people I was a knocked-up teenager. Bravo to you for trying a tonal language- sounds tough!

    1. It’s certainly not simple, I’ll give you that! But neither are the etre/avoir or ser/tener distinctions in Latin languages. Yours and Audrey’s mistake is one I hear often; funny to hear it repeated for French speakers talking English who say ‘i have had too much food’ as they don’t want to say they’re full, unaware that the mistake doesn’t raise eyebrows in English.

  18. If you translate ‘I am hot’ directly into German you get ‘I am hot’ as in turned-on or horny. So the first time I went to Germany knowing some of the language I ran around saying I was horny. Funny for others, embarrassing for me.

    1. Ha! I didn’t know this. It’s the same in French (“je suis chaud” means turned on, j’ai chaud means I’m warm, temperaturewise). I’m sure everyone got quite the kick out of your error :)

  19. This is brilliant, I really don’t get tonal languages, I think Moo in thai can be anything from pork to rat! Always a little worried when I am ordering food – but I guess it’s all about the context with that one. If I am at a pork leg stand, they know I want pork not rat, well I hope they do!!!

  20. Oh, I do this all the time. I have the pleasure of learning both a tonal language (chinese) and a language with over 80 distinct syllables (malayalam). In Malayalam I have a lot of trouble with ‘6’ and ‘half’ (both of which sound a lot like ‘ara’ – the R is different and the A is a bit longer in ‘6’). So I often end up with 6 of something when I only wanted half!

    But the most memorable one was my classmate, who was trying to say that his roommate had walked into a room (praveshichu) but switched a couple of syllables and said that his roommate had given birth into the room (prasavichu)! Oops.

    1. Just a minor difference, right? ;) Thanks for sharing. Malayalam sounds like it’s ripe for misunderstandings like this one. Do post others that you come across as you learn!

  21. Jodi,

    I’ve been your passive readers for so long. By far this is the funniest written post I’ve read in a long long time.

    I am still stuck at the 2nd paragraph at the point (I know some of us had this before) where I can’t stop laughing. I laughed so hard I’m out of my breath and need to calm down.

    And for that, I thank you.

    Keep ’em coming!

    1. Okay I finally made through the 2nd paragraph, only to find out that it’s even funniestest-er than earlier.

      “On the plus side, at least everyone moved out of the way even with my mistake?”

      And when I thought I’ve calm down, it comes back again like the first time I’ve read it -_____- Oh God this is the longest laugh I’ve had so far in my life.

      Please do something to make me stop laughing.

  22. I was playing frisbee in the rain a couple of months after I moved to Cebu, and was feeling pretty proud of my freshly-acquired Cebuano. We were all sliding around on the field, and after a particularly spectacular wipeout-slash-layout I said to one of my friends what I thought was “now my butt is wet.” I realized I was wrong, and corrected myself, and corrected myself again as he continued laughing at me – I’d told him “my butt is flooded” followed by “my butt stinks” followed by what ACTUALLY meant “my butt is wet”.

    Another classic from Cebu was the phrase “I don’t understand” which translated to “I am a pubic hair” in the dialect that was spoken on the next island over….you can imagine how far that got me.

  23. My best story is not a patch on all these but here it is anyway.

    In a small town in Indonesia I was very lost. I managed to find one guesthouse but it was quite a bit more than I’d like to pay so I thanked them, then thought to ask if they had a map. Only instead of ‘peta’ (map) I said ‘pedas’ (spicy), and when they looked confused I started to mime a map and repeat ‘spicy spicy’… I realised my mistake once I got a couple of blocks away.

    I don’t get embarrassed easily but that one still makes me cringe. The following confusion just amuses me.

    Later that day, still lost, I’m asking where is the ‘museum’ as I’d heard there was a guesthouse next door to it. Again I’m met with a blank look until the market stall owner’s eyes lit up and gladly pointed down the road for ‘mie ayam’ (chicken noodles). In my defence there was no museum in the town centre so that may have been part of the confusion.

    1. Thanks for sharing Ruth. These mistakes are the best way to learn – you’ll never make them again, right? I find that they also give you a connection to locals when you realize your mistake – it’s a mutual point of laughter that can often lead to a good meal. Safe travels!

  24. Haha, awesome. I’m attempting to learn Chinese and I don’t even know where to start on this. It just so happens Horse and Mom have different tones. Another easy mistake is Lighter and Chicken. They usually have a good laugh at me but I can never understand why. I just laugh along.

    1. My friend Joel has lived in Beijing for over 5 years and his ‘disasters in learning’ stories for Mandarin are epic. He ended up carpeting his room in post-it notes with the radicals so that he could learn at all times of the day. If you haven’t yet Swallowing Clouds, I’d pick it up if you find an Eng language bookstore. Really fascinating read. Good luck with the teaching & learning!

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  26. Hilarious post! My best friend and I read this post together and we have not laughed this hard in so long. It was the out loud, can’t breathe, and tears rolling down our cheeks kind of laugh. Thanks for a great laugh!

    I speak fluent Lao and a little Thai and can see how you can get the tone wrong on that word. In Lao, the number 5, if pronounce in the wrong tone can translate to vomit. I give that as an example to my american friends and they say that can’t hear the difference.

    1. Thanks Alyssa! I’m glad you enjoyed. I didn’t know about the number 5 in Lao – is it not pronounced ‘Haaaaa’ as well? As a side note, I have how 555 for Thais means “hahaha” – one of the more fun little quirks, and one I tend to use quite often. Thanks for reading!

  27. Learning Chinese is equally frustrating and ripe with misunderstandings. One classic example is “Gan bei,” which literally means “dry glass” and is equivalent of “Cheers!” If said incorrectly, though, it means “Fuck duck!”

    Fun times!

  28. Jodi- Yes, the number 5 is pronounce the same in Lao & Thai. Most of the numbers are pronounce the same in both languages. 555 is a good one, never thought of it in that way :-)

  29. Ah, that’s the best language faux pas story ever! Mine pale in comparison, but for almost a year whenever I used Korean to tell someone I thought she was pretty, I was actually announcing that *I* was pretty. Imagine someone coming up to you and saying, “You have a new dress! I am pretty!”

  30. Ha ha, love it! I’m sure I’ve embarrassed myself plenty of times with my basic Spanish but recently I’ve started learning Arabic and in class once told everyone I was “easy”, thinking I was telling them something completely different!! I can’t imagine the challenges with learning a tonal language!

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