After virtual teleportation up and across the grand globe, and finally touching down in Southeast Asia’s humongous hub of Bangkok, I was unsurprisingly bombarded with the Thai language. Bangkok is a city of around 15 million where there is no shortage of being able to eavesdrop on Thai conversations. There are seemingly endless talkative Thais in the country’s steamy mega city. Add another 55 million outside of the colossal capital and there is no shortage of tonal Thai to take in.
After spending the majority of the last year in Spanish speaking countries, the ability to function in the local tongue was taken for granted. Now, in the former Siam, since my arsenal of Thai words is close to non existent, I mindfully realize that language ability is a big benefit.
One way to elicit a genuine smile from a local is to attempt to verbalize Thai words. Imagine a foreign person in your country. You expect them to speak English or your local tongue. It is probably not any different the way locals in Thailand see foreigners. Of course in tremendous tourist zones like Chiang Mai, English is widely spoken.
I felt the need to start somewhere with the language. Every evening here in Thailand, now in Chiang Mai, I eat mostly in night markets. So I dove into some food related words that allow the ability to communicate in Thai. Any words conveyed will enhance the momentary experience by providing positive vibrations. And these new words can only multiply. The majority of locals seem to appreciate the effort. Some will go as far to help with pronunciation and give you better ways of saying things, while others might look at you in total apathy.
10 Food-Related Thai Words & How to Remember Them
food = ahan
Two syllables – a han
I imagine having too much food, so I need a hand eating it.
Now if a Thai person asks me what I am looking for. I can say: Ahan or food.
eat = gin
One syllable – gin (soft g)
I imagine a bottle of the alcohol gin which is pronounced with a hard g. We don’t eat gin, we drink it.
Now when I want to tell someone that I want to eat something. I just say: ‘gin‘. It is the same pronunciation as the g in gift.
pineapple = saparot
Three syllables – sa pa rot.
I imagine biting into a chunk of fresh, juicy tropical pineapple, and of a tree and its sap. Then a piece of pineapple with tree sap on it. Next I say to myself, this is not rote learning. Sap a rot. The last syllable in saparot is pronounced the same as rote.
Now when I order a bag of sliced pineapple from a street vendor, I can say: ‘Saparot.’ This is more enjoyable than saying: ‘pineapple‘ or only pointing. Try it. This action may cause you and the fruit hawker to smile simultaneously.
From a linguistic perspective, pineapple is an interesting word. It translates to ‘ananas’ in many languages including Arabic, French, Japanese, Norwegian and Portuguese. But in Thai, like in English and Spanish, pineapple does not translate to ananas.
banana = gluay
Two syllables – glue ay
I imagine a strange dream. I am trying to peel a banana but the peel is glued to the banana so it cannot be peeled. Glue ay. Reverse that. Ay or I can’t eat the banana because the peel is glued to it. This is so strange that it is hard to forget. Now when I want to buy bananas, I can simply say: Gluay.
Like other tonal languages in the region, Thai does not use a plural form for nouns.
In a touristy area, the vendor will probably notice your Thai language attempt because the vast majority of foreign tourists will use the English word. You may be that one-in-a-hundred individual who puts in the small effort to spew out a local word. This joyful endeavor will bring about good vibes.
spinach = pak kom
Two syllables – pak kom
I imagine my friend Paco. He is coming over to eat and is bringing a spinach dish. Pa kom.
Pahk is the word for vegetable. That is very easy to remember after learning the word for spinach, pakkom.
spicy = pedt
One syllable – pedt
I imagine cats and dogs. They are pets who do not like spicy food.
Now when I order food I often say: pet. People in Thai eateries around tourist zones will not make the food spicy for foreigners. However, saying pet will ensure that your food has more chili than it otherwise would have had. If you do not want it spicy you can say: “Mai pedt”. ‘Mai’ means ‘no’ or ‘not’.
chili = prik
One syllable – prik
I imagine a thorn in the super hot jungle that pricked my leg. I was sweating profusely from the heat, like when I eat an overabundance of prik or chili.
If you like spicy food then give this one a whirl. When in Rome.
salty = kem
One syllable – kem just like it looks
I imagine being back in chemistry class. I vaguely remember learning that salt is a chemical compound. I am usually not a big fan of salt so I sometimes say: “Mai kem” or no salt if I think salt might be added to my ahan (food).
vegan = jae
One syllable – like the letter J
I imagine a blue jay. Earthy crunchy vegans don’t eat blue jays.
Abstinence from flesh food can be more challenging while drifting the earth, so jae comes in handy in a virtually endless sea of eateries that dominate the towns and cities of this cuisine-friendly society.
Pom jae = I am vegan. Pom = I. They tend to do their best to accommodate. Vegetarianism and veganism are easier to achieve in touristy areas.
delicious = aloy
Two syllables – a loy
I imagine putting my tongue on some alloy metal. It is not delicious, but Thai food is aloy, which is the opposite of what alloy metal is if you put your tongue on it.
When you take a bite of something that you have bought on the street, it is often aloy. Say this to the hard-working hawker and you are likely to get a Thai smile, which makes having learned the word worthwhile.
I have never met a person who does not find Thai food aloy or delicious.
If you are in search of a few basic Thai food-related words, then this has probably helped. And ideally it will motivate us to learn more. And the application of applying mnemonics through imagination can be used to learn anything.
Shout out to Matteo Salvo for sharing his passion for mnemonics while helping him with his English about a decade and a half ago. My gosh. Time flies. So the time to begin studying a language, or anything, is now.
Have you used any interesting associations to enhance vocabulary building in another language? Feel free to leave a comment below.