Expressing politeness in Thai

To be polite when speaking to Thai people can be quite tricky because in Thailand the word ‘please’ (‘กรุณา’) is hardly heard in normal day life. Normally in English we would say ‘Can I have…..please?’ but in Thai we would just say ‘เอา (ao)’ which means ‘I want’ instead.

But even though the word ‘please’ is not used very much, Thai is actually a very polite language and we have other ways of expressing politeness, for example by adding extra words (called particles) that have a special meaning.

The most important word to know is ‘ค่ะ(Ka)’ (for women) or ‘ครับ(Krub)’ (for men), which should be said at the end of almost every sentence to be polite. For example, when you bump into someone on the street you wouldn’t just say ‘ขอโทษ (kor tod)’ which means (sorry/excuse me) on its own, you have to say the word ‘ค่ะ(Ka)’ or ‘ครับ(Krub)’ at the end of your apology to be very polite. The same happens when you say ‘สวัสดี(Sa-wad-dee)’ (Hello), ‘ขอบคุณ(Kob-Khun)’ (Thank you), ‘ไม่เป็นรัย(Mai-pen-rai)’ (never mind/you’re welcome) and pretty much anything else.

In everyday speech, the ‘r’ sound in ‘ครับ(Krub)’ is dropped so it sounds more like ‘Kub’. And sometimes the short ‘a’ sound in ‘Ka’ is dragged out to be a longer ‘ah’. Both ‘Ka/Krub’ can also be used on their own as a polite way to say ‘yes’.

‘ค่ะ(Ka)’ and ‘ครับ(Krub)’ are really important things to remember, but there are many more complexities when it comes to being polite. For example, there are pronouns that have to be used appropriately. In English there might be just one word for something but Thai will have a significant array of words with varying politeness. For example, if you want to translate the word ‘eat’ into Thai, you would have a choice of using:

  • กิน Kin (everyday word, slightly informal)
  • ทาน Tahn (everyday word, slightly formal)
  • รับประทาน Rap-pa-tahn (very formal)
  • แดก Dairk (very informal, often offensive)
  • ฉัน Chan (when talking about monks)
  • เสวย Savoey (when talking about the King and the royal family)

Which pronoun you use depends on who you speak to. For example when you want to tell someone ‘I like to eat Thai food’, you might say ‘ฉันชอบกินอาหารไทย (Chan-chob-kin-ahan-tai)’ to your friends because it is informal, but you would say ‘ฉันชอบทานอาหารไทย (Chan-chob-tahn-ahan-tai)’ when you are at work.

So even though the word ‘please’ isn’t used much in everyday Thai, politeness is expressed through particles and pronouns and expressing politeness plays an important role in Thai culture.

About the author: Poi Tongchai is a 15 year old student at Richard Lander School in Truro  where she currently studies English, French and Chinese for her GCSEs. She loves the city and the beach and hopes to work as a translator or teacher in the future.

10 common Thai proverbs … and what they mean in English

Just like any other language, Thai has many proverbs and sayings. Here are my top 10 favourite proverbs and what they mean in English:

  1. สีซอให้ควายฟัง (see sor hai kwai fang)
    Translation: To play the violin for the buffalo to listen to.
    Meaning: Talking to a brick wall. (The person you are speaking to does not listen.)
  2. หนีเสื่อประจระเข้ (nee seua pa jo ra kay)
    Translation: To escape from the tiger to the crocodile.
    Meaning: Out of the frying pan into the fire. (When you get out of one problem, but find yourself in a worse situation.)
  3. ปิดทองหลังพระ (pid tong lang pra)
    Translation: Putting a gold leaf on the back of the Buddha image.
    Meaning: Doing something good without seeking for attention.
  4. ได้อย่างเสียอย่าง (dai yang sia yang)
    Translation: You have to lose something to get another thing.
    Meaning: You can’t make an omelette without breaking any eggs (Something that you say which means it is difficult to achieve something important without causing any unpleasant effects.)
  5. ชั่วเจ็ดทีดีเจ็ดหน (chua jet tee dee jet hon)
    Translation: Bad seven times, good seven times.
    Meaning: Every cloud has a silver lining. (There is something good even in a bad situation.)
  6. น้ำขึ้นให้รีบตัก (nam keun hai reep tak)
    Translation: When the water rises, hurry to get some
    Meaning: Make hay while the sun shines. (If you have an opportunity to do something, do it before the opportunity expires.)
  7. จับปลาสองมือ (jab pla song meu)
    Translation: Catch a fish with two hands.
    Meaning: You can’t have your cake and eat it. (To spend or used something up but still have it; to have two things when you must choose one.)
  8. ขวานผ่าซาก ( kwan par sak)
    Translation: Splitting a hard wood with an axe.
    Meaning: Calling a spade a spade. (To speak frankly about something, even if it is unpleasant.)
  9. แมวไม่อยู่หนูร่าเริง ( meaw mai yoo noo ra reng)
    Translation: When the cat is not there, the mice are happy.
    Meaning: When the cat’s away, the mice will play. (When no one in authority is present, the subordinates can do as they please.)
  10. รำไมดีโทษปี่โทษกลอง ( rum mai dee tod pee tod glong)
    Translation: Those who can’t dance blame it on the flute and the drum.
    Meaning: A bad workman blames his tools. (Something that you say when someone blames the objects they are using for their own mistakes.)

About the author: Poi Tongchai is a 15 year old student at Richard Lander School in Truro  where she currently studies English, French and Chinese for her GCSEs. She loves the city and the beach and hopes to work as a translator or teacher in the future.

Learning English as a Thai native speaker

My name is Poi, I am from Thailand. I used to live in Bangkok but I was born in Trat, the east of Thailand. I moved to Cornwall 2 years ago. I moved here with my mum and my step dad to study in England, we have chosen to be in Cornwall because my step dad is originally from here. We think that schools in Cornwall are good and it is a very nice place to live. Now I am studying in Richard Lander School, I am in year 10. I have chosen French, Chinese, geography, triple science and photography for my GCSEs options. In the future when I finish university I would like to be an interpreter or a translator.

How do I find learning English?

Learning English is quite easy but grammar is tricky. Thai grammar is much simpler than many European languages because there is no verb inflection and tenses can often be shown just using the words “will” or “already”. English is a very important and useful language to study, I really enjoy learning English and to speak English. I learn new words or English every day from talking to my friends and people that are around me.

What do I like about both languages?

The things that I like about English are that it is very useful, it is really straight forward, plus it is fun to study English. When I go back to visit Thailand I tend to use more English because not many Thai people could understand what my family and I were talking about. When I’m in England I tend to speak more Thai with my mum outside, we can pretty much talk about anything, no one would understand us and this is what I like about Thai.

The differences

There are many differences between Thai and English. Thai is a tonal language, which means that each syllable or words can have different meaning depending on what tone it is pronounced with. However, Thai people can still understand foreigners trying to pronounce Thai. Thai has an alphabet with 44 characters and Thai sentences are written without any spaces between the words and there is no full stop or a comma either. If you want to try to learn Thai, do not think it would be hard because it is actually easier than it sounds to learn Thai alphabet and grammar. It would worth it if you go to live in Thailand for a while, it would help a lot to learn Thai.

There are other interesting differences in Thai, there is no question mark unlike English, we usually use the word ‘mai’ ‘ไหม and other question particles. Also there is no ‘R’ sound in Thai, so I have to practice my ‘R’ sound while I’m learning English.

In my opinion, languages are very important to learn, if you know as many languages as possible and it will be very useful. In the future I would like to travel around the world and use my language knowledge to go to help people, I also would like to go to teach young children languages.

About the author: Poi Tongchai is a 15 year old student at Richard Lander School in Truro  where she currently studies English, French and Chinese for her GCSEs. She loves the city and the beach and hopes to work as a translator or teacher in the future.

The beauty and inevitability of language change

Language is a creation whose very nature it is to change – it bends from the impact of interaction with other cultures; it grows through the need or desire for new words. Sometimes a language melts quietly into oblivion, but other times it is partially absorbed into another – no language is just one language, and neither is it just words (as many people know, it’s so incorporated into Italian that a native speaker might find it very frustrating to convey their meaning with no hands). English is extant proof of a language made by many others: our words themselves are influenced by German, Latin and French (to name a few) largely due to invasion; our numbers are Arabic due to Babylonian numerical prowess. It is more than just a language, and never the same one either.

The changing meanings of words

It is not just the touch of a foreigner which can send ripples through a language, but once words have sunk into it, often both they and their meanings change at the hand of the speaker. But even without the influence of foreign languages, the meaning of words and their emotional connotation changes throughout time. One word which has caused a relatively recent stir in the English language is ‘literally’.

‘Literally’ traces its roots back to Old French, and then even further back to the Latin ‘litera’ meaning ‘letter, alphabetic sign; literature’. Nowadays, people use it both to mean ‘in a literal or exact sense’ and to add emphasis to what they’re saying. “I was literally about to explode with anger when he told me the news” – well quite clearly the narrator wasn’t ‘literally’ about to explode but rather ‘metaphorically’. It is this second meaning which has caused such uproar from English-speakers around the world, with some even claiming that ‘we killed English’ as if this is some recent thing – actually, ‘literally’ has been defined this way by the Oxford Dictionary since 1903, and even the first meaning I stated has only existed since the 16th century.

The dictionary and real words

At the end of last year, with the rise of the word ‘selfie’ and its acceptance into the dictionary, I remember some people I know being flabbergasted and even outraged at this slack-jawed degradation hacking away at our once mighty language. How dare they make ‘selfie’ an official word by adding it to the dictionary! Well, they didn’t dare, because the dictionary does not dictate what a word is and what it isn’t, and people seem to forget that it isn’t a small autonomous group of people which creates our language, but us. A dictionary is a record of how we, the public, currently use words, and how we used them previously – it is a guide, not a rule book, and it is beautifully democratic.

There always seems to be a stigma attached to new words, perhaps an extension of the attitude towards the youth which inspires them. Some words possess what can seem like a lack of sophistication like the word, well, ‘like’, but others could be words that you’ve simply never heard before, like ‘sonder’ – a newly-invented word which you may have stumbled across if you’re on Tumblr. What they both have in common is their potential ability to reflect the society we live in: ‘like’ implies hesitation and an unwillingness to be completely direct, or on the flipside a desire to both cushion the blow of your statement and enhance its meaning; ‘sonder’, the realisation that every passerby has their own intricate story, hints at an insight into the vast and unknowable world surrounding us, and a sad curiosity. Whether they truly reveal the evolving heart of our society, I do not know, but I think it’s interesting that there is the possibility.

Neologisms and problems with translation

Rather than being like energy which cannot be created nor destroyed, language seems to be more of a living organism with a circle of life just like the rest of us. As languages and words fall out of existence, new words are created concurrently and have been for a long time. The way neologisms come into being appears to come out of a mass cultural need for their existence. I have to admit that some make more sense than others, for example in Albania, a country famous for its moustaches, they have 27 different terms for the word ‘moustache’ which seems quite logical; but then there’s the word ‘tingo’ from the language spoken on Easter Island which means ‘the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them’. Did people really gradually steal all of their friends’ things on Easter Island? Was it in fact so common in their culture that they invented a specific separate word for it? Well, that’s what the situation implies.

But living in the technology-laden 21st century, we are very familiar with neologisms, and since the majority of technological and social media inventions are associated with the Anglophonic world, it’s no surprise that many of these new words are English and, with their huge relevance in today’s society, that are infiltrating other languages. Some are more willing to accept this than others, with one of the least receptive being the French with “L’Académie Française” – an institution now dedicated to preserving the French language and creating French words to replace English ones like ‘e-mail’ and ‘hashtag’. But since “L’Académie Française” only advises people on what to use, the question is whether people actually listen to them, and therein lies the translation problem. If you have to translate a passage with the word ‘hashtag’ in it, do you use the Anglicism or actual French word ‘mot-dièse’? Does it count as slang is you use the Anglicism? Will the majority of people actually have seen ‘mot-dièse’ before you write it? In the end, it’s a question of using your own judgement: maybe in a more professional setting you would use the French word, and maybe if you’re translating for a more relaxed, youth-orientated company then you should go for the English word. Or, if you want, use their judgement and ask them which they would prefer.

I think it’s safe to say that language is shifting all the time, and not just through changes in the hazy and distant past but right now, as we live and breathe. You can fight it or you can embrace it: either way it is inevitable. My love for English is just as great as it is for any of the other languages I have studied, and I don’t think the influence of other cultures has damaged it in any way: it is truly an amalgamation of foreign consciousness and communication, and an absolutely fascinating one too. Literally.

About the author: Heather Rothney is a 17 year old student at Truro High School for Girls where she currently studies French, Spanish, Latin and Classical Civilisation for AS Level. She is also learning Ancient Greek in her free time and is planning to apply at Oxford to study Classics and a Modern Language.

App translation: Designing user interfaces that are fit for localisation

When developing a new app, it is vital to design it in a way that is future-proof, whether that’s in terms of adding new features, monetisation functionality or new languages. Even if localising your app is quite far down on your product road map, many of the design decisions you make in the early stages will have a real impact on how easy it will be to localise your app into other languages.

One of the most common problems we come across in app translation is space – or lack thereof. Developers produce beautiful interfaces which look picture-perfect in English, but in German for example, which generally tends to be 20 to 30% longer than English, text is spilling beyond the confines of button borders left, right and centre.

If you have a button like ‘Close’, be aware that in German it will be something like ‘Schließen’ – that’s 5 English characters compared to 9 German characters. Worse still, the word ‘Add’ translates into ‘Hinzufügen’ – that’s 3 characters compared to 10. You can see how translation could easily ‘butcher’ the look of your app. What ends up happening in most cases is that the developers set character limits which are so small that an accurate, let alone beautiful translation is no longer possible. Abbreviations are used and words are swapped for shorter words that don’t quite hit the nail on the head, giving the translated version of your app an unpolished feel. Imagine using an English app where the Close button has been abbreviated to Cl. or the Contact button has been shortened to Cont. – you’d probably still be able to guess what the button is for, but it immediately feels less intuitive.

Possible solutions

  • The Microsoft Developer Network suggests to ‘size the UI to accommodate the largest localised version of the content’.
  • Establishing standard minimum heights and setting dynamic heights for button boxes and text boxes can be a good option, too, but it will depend to some extent on the overall space you have available (which doesn’t tend to be much if you’re developing smartphone apps).
  • Wherever possible, use universally recognised icons like a + for ‘Add’ and an X for ‘Close’ – it’s a great way to avoid character length issues altogether.

Additional things to take into consideration are line height, the meaning of symbols and colours in different cultures and writing direction (left to right vs. right to left). Beyond the pure space issue, you should also think about using a font that supports character sets like Arabic or Greek, depending on your localisation plans. There are plenty more best practices for user interface design, here is an article from Creativ Bloq with 10 tips for designing localised interfaces.

Designing your user interface to allow for longer translations is simply a must and will save and greatly reduce your time spent fixing space issue during QA. If you’re also interested in writing great code that’s fit for localisation, then our blog Successful app translation: It all starts with great code is a good place to start.