The primary language spoken in Thailand is Thai or “Phasa Thai” meaning “language of the free”. Over 80% of Thailand’s population speaks Thai as their primary language and almost everyone else speaks it as a second language. But Thai is not the only language spoken in Thailand where at least 62 local languages from 5 language families exist.
These language families are Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, Austroasiatic Hmong-Mien, and Kra-Dei (Where the Thai language belongs).
Thailand also has important immigrant communities who speak a variety of languages like Burmese which is spoken by over 1,4 million immigrants in Thailand.
In the following, I’m going to briefly introduce the major languages spoken in Thailand as a first and second language and as immigrant languages.
- 1 Thai, The Official Language of Thailand
- 2 Languages In Thailand Of The Kra-Dei Language Family
- 3 Austroasiatic Languages Of Thailand
- 4 Sino-Tibetan Languages Of Thailand
- 5 Austronesian Languages In Thailand
- 6 Hmong-Mien Languages Of Thailand
- 7 Second Languages And Immigration Languages Of Thailand
Thai, The Official Language of Thailand
The Thai language is a language from the Kra-Dai family of languages and the Tai subbranch. It’s spoken by close to 35 million people as a first language and more than 45 million as a second language.
The Thai language has close to 20 different dialects. Some of these are so different that linguists characterize them as separate languages on the Tai language branch whereas, in Thailand, they’re most often referred to as “other forms of Thai”.
The most commonly spoken Thai dialect is what is normally referred to as “Central Thai” which is the Thai variant spoken in Bangkok and used in the educational system.
For an example of spoken Thai, go and have a listen to my Thai dialogues and recordings that I had made for learners of Thai.
Languages In Thailand Of The Kra-Dei Language Family
Other than the Thai language itself (Central Thai), there are at least 24 languages and dialects of the Kra-Dei language family in Thailand.
They are Kaleung, Northern Thai, Tai Dam, Nyaw, Khün, Thai Korat, Thai Takbai, Thai Loei, Thai Lue, Thai Ya, Shan, Southern Thai, Phu Thai, Phuan, Yong, Yoy, Lao Khrang, Lao Ngaew, Lao Ti, Lao Wiang, Lao Lom, Lao Isan, and Saek.
In the following, I’ll list the major Kra-Dei languages along with some details on each and some video examples.
The Isan language is sometimes referred to as a dialect of the Lao language of Laos. It has some important differences though, especially in terms of grammar and vocabulary, where it shows clear influence from Thai. Isan is written with the Lao script.
Isan is spoken by over 21 million people in Thailand, especially in the Northern, Eastern, and Bangkok regions.
For an example of spoken Isan watch the video below:
Northern Thai is spoken by 6 million people, mostly in Northern Thailand.
Southern Thai, also known as Pak Thai or Dambro is a language spoken by around 4,5 million people in the southern regions of Thailand as well as Northern Malaysia. Southern Thai is written with the Thai script.
The Tai Dam language is spoken in Vietnam, Thailand, China, and Laos. The total number of Tai Dam speakers is well over 800.000, but I haven’t been able to find any data on how widespread it is in Thailand.
Tai Dam has its own writing system, the Tai Viet. The language is closely related to Thai and Lao, but it hasn’t got the Pali and Sanskrit loanwords that are common in the other languages. This might be due to the Tai Dam people’s historical rejection of Buddhism.
I haven’t been able to find a short example of Tai Dam online, but a whole film about Jesus is dubbed in Tai Dam here.
The Shan language is a language spoken in Myanmar by millions. In Thailand, around 100.000 people speak this language. It is sometimes referred to as Phasa Thai Yai in Central and Southern Thai or Kam Tal in Northern Thai.
Shan is written with the Burmese alphabet.
The Tai Lue language is spoken in Myanmar, China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Thailand, over 80.000 people speak the language. It is relatively close to the Northern Thai language and has multiple writing systems.
The Phu Thai language is spoken by over 800.000 people in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Among the characteristics of Phu Thai is its close relationship with various Austroasiatic languages. This bond has lead to influences that aren’t as pronounced in other Kra-Dai languages in Thailand.
Austroasiatic Languages Of Thailand
Like the Kra-Dai language family, the Austroasiatic family of languages is equally well represented in Thailand with at least 22 local languages spoken.
These are Kasong, Kuy, Khmu, Thailand Khmer, Chong, Sa’och, Kensiu, Samre, Thavung, So, Nyah Kur, Nyeu, Bru, Blang, Palaung, Mon, Lawa, Mlabri, Lamet, Lawua, Wa, and Vietnamese.
While many are spoken by vast communities in Thailand, a few of these languages are either spoken by very small groups or are directly endangered. These are the Nuah Kur, Thavung, Chong, Kensiu, Mlabri, Kasong, and Sa’och languages. While Nuah Kur has 1500 native speakers in Thailand, Sa’och is recorded to only have 10 people speaking the language in the country.
In the following, I’ll try going through some of the major Austroasiatic languages in Thailand.
Vietnamese is obviously the language of Vietnam, but it is spoken in Thailand as well. It would appear that around 25.000 people in Thailand speak Vietnamese as a first language. In addition to that, Vietnamese is becoming increasingly popular as a language to study in Thai schools.
Northern Khmer is spoken by 1,4 million people in North-Eastern Thailand. It is closely related to the Khmer language and considered a dialect of Khmer by many.
To hear what Norther Khmer sounds like, go listen to the Jesus movie in Northern Khmer.
The Mon language is related to Khmer. It is a language spoken in Myanmar and Thailand by close to 1 million. It is written by the Burmese script.
The Kuy language is spoken by around 300.000 people in North-Eastern Thailand. The language is written with a variety of different scripts, but in Thailand, the Thai script is the most common.
The Lawa language is spoken by around 15.000 people in Northern Thailand. There’s a Western and an Eastern variant of the Lawa language which are considered independent languages by some.
The Lawa language is written in both the Thai and the Latin Script.
Here’s a short animated video about the prodigal son in Lawa.
The Wa language is most commonly spoken in Myanmar, but it has 10.000 speakers in Thailand as well.
Here’s a link to the Jesus-movie in the Wa language.
Sino-Tibetan Languages Of Thailand
The Sino-Tibetan language family is present in Thailand with 17 languages. Some of these are spoken by very small minorities whereas others are commonly grouped together in the “Karen” branch of Sino-Tibetan languages.
The Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Thailand are Guong, S’gaw Karen, Pwo Karen, Kaya Karen, Bwe Karen, Pa’O, Padaung Karen, Kayo Karen, Jingpaw, Chinese, Yunnanese Chinese, Bisu, Burmese, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, and Mpi.
The Bisu, Mpi, and Guong languages are spoken by very small groups of people and are considered endangered.
In the following, I’ll go through the major Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in Thailand.
The Burmese language is spoken by more than 1,4 million Burmese immigrants in Thailand. Most of these have migrated to Thailand to seek employment. There is an important number of Burmese refugees in the Borders between Thailand and Myanmar.
While more than 10 million people in Thailand identify as Chinese, only about 230.000 people speak a form of the Chinese language. The Chinese language is, however, becoming increasingly popular in Thailand, and many, not only of Chinese origin encourage their children to study Mandarin because this is considered a valuable asset in today’s world.
For an example of the S’gaw Karen langauge, here’s a link to the Jesus film in S’gaw Karen.
Austronesian Languages In Thailand
The Austronesian language family is also present in Thailand albeit with fewer languages than the previously mentioned language families.
These are Malay, Moken, and Urak Lawoi’.
The Malay Language, or Yawi In Thailand
Kelantan-Pattani Malay, also known as Yawi, is a language spoken in the southernmost parts of Thailand by 3 million people. While the language is closely related to Malay, the language of Malaysia, the two languages aren’t mutually intelligible. Yawi has a lot of loan-words from Southern Thai and the pronunciation is different from standard Malay.
For an example, here’s yet another version of the Jesus movie, this time in Yawi.
The Moken language is spoken in Southern Thailand and Myanmar by some 8.000 people.
Urak Lawoi’ is an Austronesian language spoken by 5.000 people in Southern Thailand.
Here’s an example of the Urak Lawoi’ language spoken.
Hmong-Mien Languages Of Thailand
The Mmong-Mien language family is represented in Thailand with two languages. Hmong and Mien.
Different sources state that there are between 125.000 and 250.000 members of the Hmong people in Northern Thailand. Most of them arrived there through migration at the beginning of the 20th century. I haven’t been able to find any data stating how many of the Hmong people speak the language of their origins.
There are around 30.000 Mien people in the North of Thailand.
Several variants of their language exist.
Second Languages And Immigration Languages Of Thailand
Other than the major languages and minority languages that are spoken in Thailand that I’ve just gone through, a number of other languages exist either as second languages that Thai people study in school or as immigration languages that foreigners who settle down in Thailand speak.
When it comes to second languages, English is the most prevalent with around 27% of the Thai population being fluent. The people of Thailand also study languages such as Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese, but in a much smaller degree.
As for immigration languages, we’ve already touched on Burmese which is spoken by over 1,4 million in Thailand.
Close to 200.000 Indians equally reside in Thailand, but the migration from India has a long history and it’s hard to say how many completely assimilated to the Thai language and culture, and how many speak Tamil, Punjabi, and Hindi.
Finally, Thailand has American, English, French and German immigrants as well as people coming to settle down in the country from a wide range of origin countries.
If you’re interested in learning the Thai language, go read my article called “How To Learn The Thai Language By Yourself“