Languages of Thailand

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An ethnolinguistic map of Thailand.

Thailand, and its neighbor Laos, are dominated by languages of the Southwestern Tai family. Karen languages are spoken along the border with Burma, Khmer is spoken near Cambodia (and previously throughout central Thailand), and Malay in the south near Malaysia.

The Thai hill tribes speak numerous small languages, many Chinese retain varieties of Chinese, and there are half a dozen sign languages. The Ethnologue reports 73 living languages are used in Thailand.


The official language of Thailand is Thai, a Siamese language closely related to Lao, Shan in Burma, and numerous smaller languages of southern China and northern Vietnam. It is the principal language of education and government and is spoken throughout the country. The standard is based on the dialect of Bangkok, and it is written in the Thai alphabet, an abugida that evolved from the Khmer script.

Several other Tai languages exist: Southern Thai is spoken in the southern provinces, and Lanna is spoken in the provinces that were formerly part of the independent kingdom of Lanna.

Minority languages[edit]

Thailand is also host to several minority languages. The largest minority language is Lao, a dialect of Isan spoken in the northeastern provinces. The region in where it is traditionally spoken was historically part of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang.

In the far south, Yawi, a dialect of Malay, is the primary language of the Malay Muslims. Varieties of Chinese are also spoken by the large Thai Chinese population, with the Teochew dialect being best represented.

Tribal languages[edit]

Numerous tribal languages are also spoken, including those belonging to:

Sign language[edit]

Several village sign languages are reported among the hill tribes, though it is not clear whether these are independent languages, as only Ban Khor Sign Language has been described. Two related deaf-community sign languages developed in Chiangmai and Bangkok; the national Thai Sign Language developed from these under the influence of American Sign Language.

English is a mandatory school subject, but the number of fluent speakers remains very low, especially outside the cities.

See also[edit]

Further Reading[edit]

  • L-Thongkum, Theraphan. 1985. Minority Languages of Thailand. In Science of Language Papers: Languages and Dialects. vol 5. Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University.
  • Suwilai Premsrirat. 2004. "Using GIS For Displaying An Ethnolinguistic Map of Thailand." In Papers from the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, edited by Somsonge Burusphat. Tempe, Arizona, 599-617. Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies.