Languages of Thailand
Thailand is home to 71 living languages, with the majority of people speaking languages of the Southwestern Tai family, and the national language being Thai. Lao is spoken along the borders with the Laos PDR, Karen languages are spoken along the border with Myanmar, Khmer is spoken near Cambodia and Malay is spoken in the south near Malaysia. Sixty-two 'domestic' languages are officially recognized, and international languages spoken in Thailand, primarily by international workers, expatriates and business people, include Burmese, Karen, English, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese, among others.
Officially recognized languages
The following table comprises all 62 ethnolinguistic groups recognized by the Royal Thai Government in the 2011 Country Report to the UN Committee responsible for the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, available from the Department of Rights and Liberties Promotion of the Thai Ministry of Justice.: 3
|24 Groups||22 Groups||11 Groups||3 Groups||2 Groups|
|Kaleung||Kasong||Guong (Ugong)||Malay (Malayu / Nayu / Yawi||Hmong (Meo)|
|Northern Thai||Kuy / Kuay||Karen (7 subfamilies)||Moken / Moklen||Mien (Yao)|
|Tai Dam||Khmu||- S'gaw Karen||Urak Lawoi'|
|Nyaw||Thailand Khmer, Northern Khmer||- Pwo Karen|
|Khün||Chong||- Kaya Karen|
|Central Thai||Sa'och||- Bwe Karen|
|Thai Korat||Kensiu||- Pa'O|
|Thai Takbai||Samre||- Padaung Karen|
|Thai Loei||Thavung||- Kayo Karen|
|Tai Lue||So||Jingpaw / Kachin|
|Tai Ya||Nyah Kur (Chaobon)||Chinese|
|Southern Thai||Bru (Kha)||Bisu|
|Phu Thai||Blang (Samtao)||Burmese|
|Phuan||Palaung (Dala-ang)||Lahu (Muzur)|
|Lao Khrang||Mlabri (Tongluang)||Mpi|
|Lao Ngaew||Lamet (Lua)|
|Lao Ti||Lavua (Lawa / Lua)|
|Lao Wiang/Lao Klang||Wa|
Regional language data is limited. The following table shows all the language families of Northeast Thailand, as recognized in the report which is the source for the national breakdown.
|Tai Language Family||Persons||Austroasiatic Language Family||Persons|
|Lao Esan / Thai Lao||13,000,000||Thailand Khmer / Northern Khmer||1,400,000|
|Central Thai||800,000||Kuy / Kuay (Suay)||400,000|
|Thai Khorat / Tai Beung / Tai Deung||600,000||So||70,000|
|Kaleung||200,000 for||Nyah Kur / Chao Bon / Khon Dong||7,000|
|Yoy||Kaleung, Yoy and Phuan||So (Thavaung)||1,500|
|Tai-dam (Song)||(not specified)|
|Cannot specify ethnicity and amount:||3,288,000|
Note that numbers of speakers are for the Northeast region only. Languages may have additional speakers outside the Northeast.
|Province||Khmer % in 1990||Khmer % in 2000|
The sole official language of Thailand is Central Thai (Siamese), a native language in Central (including the Bangkok Metropolitan Region), Southwestern, and Eastern Thailand, along with Thai Chinese ethnic enclaves in rest parts of the country such as Hatyai, Bandon, Nangrong, and Mueang Khonkaen. Central Thai is a Kra-Dai language closely related to Lao, Shan, and numerous indigenous 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 written in the Thai alphabet, an abugida that evolved from the Khmer script.
There are several Thai topolects. The Sukhothai languages consist of Central Thai and Southern Thai. Northern Thai is spoken in the northern provinces that were formerly part of the independent kingdom of Lan Na, while Isan (a Thai variant of Lao) and Phu Thai are native languages of the northeast. All languages are partially mutually intelligible with Central Thai, with the degree depending on standard sociolinguistic factors. Although every languages classified as a separate language by most linguists, the Thai government has historically treated them as dialects of one "Thai language" for political reasons of Thai national identity building.
The position of all minority languages, including the largest, i.e., the Lao-based Isan in the Northeast and Kham muang in the North, is precarious given that they are not well supported in Thailand's language education policy. In the far south, Yawi, a dialect of Malay, is the primary community language of the Malay Muslims. Khmer is spoken by older Northern Khmer. Varieties of Chinese are also spoken by the older Thai Chinese population, with the Teochew dialect being best represented. However, the younger Thai Chinese and Northern Khmer trend towards speaking Central Thai. The Peranakan in Southern Thailand speak Southern Thai at home.
Several village sign languages are reported among the mountain peoples ('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.
Endangerment status of languages
The 2014 Ethnologue country report for Thailand, which uses the EGIDS language endangerment assessment scale, lists one national language (Thai), one educational language (Isan), 27 developing languages, 18 vigorous languages, 17 threatened languages, and 7 dying languages.
Most widely spoken languages
ICERD 2011 country report data
The following table shows ethnolinguistic groups in Thailand with equal to or more than 400,000 speakers according to the Royal Thai Government's 2011 Country Report to the Committee Responsible for the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).:99 and the Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand project. Note that the degree to which language speakers will have shifted in their idiolects towards Central Thai will depend on standard sociolinguistic factors, like age, education, gender, and proximity to an urban center.
Ethnolinguistic groups of Thailand with equal to or more than 400,000 speakers:99
|Central Thai||20.0 million||Tai-Kadai|
|Kham Muang (Northern Thai)||6.0 million||Tai-Kadai|
|Pak Tai (Southern Thai)||4.5 million||Tai-Kadai|
|Northern Khmer||1.4 million||Austroasiatic|
|Phu Thai||0.5 million||Tai-Kadai|
The figures in the following table are for first language speakers, following Ethnologue. Note that Ethnologue describes 'Isan' as 'Northeastern Thai', following Thai government practice until the 2011 Country Report.
Languages by number of speakers in Thailand with more than 400,000 speakers (with Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale)
|Tai-Kadai||Central Thai||th||20.2 million||1 (National)|
|Northeastern Thai||tts||15.0 million||3 (Wider Communication)|
|Northern Thai||nod||6.0 million||4 (Educational)|
|Southern Thai||sou||4.5 million||5 (Developing)|
|Phu Thai||pht||0.5 million||6a (Vigorous)|
|Austroasiatic||Northern Khmer||kmx||1.4 million||5 (Developing)|
|Austronesian||Yawi||mfa||1.1 million||5 (Developing)|
a^ Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS) of Ethnologue:
0 (International): "The language is widely used between nations in trade, knowledge exchange, and international policy."
1 (National): "The language is used in education, work, mass media, and government at the national level."
2 (Provincial): "The language is used in education, work, mass media, and government within major administrative subdivisions of a nation."
3 (Wider Communication): "The language is used in work and mass media without official status to transcend language differences across a region."
4 (Educational): "The language is in vigorous use, with standardization and literature being sustained through a widespread system of institutionally supported education."
5 (Developing): "The language is in vigorous use, with literature in a standardized form being used by some though this is not yet widespread or sustainable."
6a (Vigorous): "The language is used for face-to-face communication by all generations and the situation is sustainable."
6b (Threatened): "The language is used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users."
7 (Shifting): "The child-bearing generation can use the language among themselves, but it is not being transmitted to children."
8a (Moribund): "The only remaining active users of the language are members of the grandparent generation and older."
8b (Nearly Extinct): "The only remaining users of the language are members of the grandparent generation or older who have little opportunity to use the language."
9 (Dormant): "The language serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency."
10 (Extinct): "The language is no longer used and no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language."
The following table employs 2000 census data and includes international languages. Caution should be exercised with Thai census data on first language. In Thai censuses, the four largest Tai-Kadai languages of Thailand (in order, Central Thai, Isan (majority Lao), Kam Mueang, Pak Tai) are not provided as options for language or ethnic group. People stating such a language as a first language, including Lao, are allocated to 'Thai'. This explains the disparity between the three tables in this section. For instance, self-reporting as Lao has been prohibited, due to the prohibition of the Lao ethnonym in the context of describing Thai citizens, for approximately one hundred years. The 2011 Country Report data is therefore more comprehensive in that it differentiates between the four largest Tai-Kadai languages of Thailand and between languages described as 'local languages' and 'dialects and others' in the census.
|Language||Language family||No. of speakers (2000)*||No. of speakers (2010)|
|Dialect and others in Thailand||33,481||318,012|
* Above the age of five
Language education policy
Thai is the language of education. The curriculum introduced by the 1999 National Education Act, which introduced 12 years of free education, emphasized Thai as being the national language. The 2008 Basic Education Core Curriculum prioritises Thai, although it also mentions 'dialects' and 'local languages', i.e., ethnic minority languages. The monolingual education system is generally seen as ineffective, with one-third of teenagers functionally illiterate. Illiteracy in Thai is particularly widespread in Thailand's three southernmost provinces as the Patani dialect of Malay is the mother tongue for the majority Malay community. International programs and schools which teach, for example, English or Chinese alongside Thai exist, as do a small number of pilot projects to teach ethnic minority languages alongside Thai in Thai schools.
- Demographics of Thailand
- Ethnic minorities of Thailand
- Kra-dai languages
- Nationality, religion, and language data for the provinces of Thailand
- Southwestern Tai languages
- Thai language
- Bradley, D. 2007. East and Southeast Asia. In C. Moseley (ed.), Encyclopedia of the world’s endangered languages, pp. 349–424. London: Routledge.
- Bradley, D. 2007. Languages of Mainland South-East Asia. In O. Miyaoka, O. Sakiyama, and M. E. Krauss (eds.), The vanishing languages of the Pacific Rim, pp. 301–336. Oxford Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand. 2004. (in Thai). Office of the National Culture Commission, Bangkok.
- Lebar, F. M., G. C. Hickey, and J. K. Musgrave. 1964. Ethnic groups of mainland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press (HRAF).
- Luangthongkum, Theraphan. 2007. The Position of Non-Thai Languages in Thailand. In Lee Hock Guan & L. Suryadinata (Eds.), Language, nation and development in Southeast Asia (pp. 181–194). Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.
- Matisoff, J. A. 1991. Endangered languages of Mainland Southeast Asia. In R. H. Robins and E. M. Uhlenbeck (eds.), Endangered languages, pp. 189–228. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
- Matisoff, J. A., S. P. Baron, and J. B. Lowe. 1996. Languages and dialects of Tibeto-Burman. Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus Monograph Series 1 and 2. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Smalley, W. 1994. Linguistic Diversity and National Unity: Language Ecology in Thailand. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- 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.
- "Thailand". Ethnologue.
- "UNdata | record view | Population by language, sex and urban/rural residence". data.un.org. Retrieved 2020-07-21.
- International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; Reports submitted by States parties under article 9 of the Convention: Thailand (PDF) (in English and Thai). United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 28 July 2011. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
- Ethnolinguistic Maps of Thailand (PDF) (in Thai). Office of the National Culture Commission. 2004. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
- "burirum.xls" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-03-08.
- http://web.nso.go.th/pop2000/finalrep/chanburifn.pdf[bare URL PDF]
- "mahakam.xls" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-03-08.
- http://web.nso.go.th/pop2000/finalrep/roietfn.pdf[bare URL PDF]
- "Sakaeo: Key indicators of the population and households, Population and Housing Census 1990 and 2000" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-03-08.
- "Si Sa Ket: Key indicators of the population and households, Population and Housing Census 1990 and 2000" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-03-08.
- "Surin: Key indicators of the population and households, Population and Housing Census 1990 and 2000" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-02-15. Retrieved 2017-03-08.
- http://web.nso.go.th/pop2000/finalrep/tratfn.pdf[bare URL PDF]
- "Ubon Ratchathani: Key indicators of the population and households, Population and Housing Census 1990 and 2000" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-03-08.
- Draper, John (2019-04-17), "Language education policy in Thailand", The Routledge International Handbook of Language Education Policy in Asia, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp. 229–242, doi:10.4324/9781315666235-16, ISBN 978-1-315-66623-5
- Lewis, M.P.; Simons, G.F. "Assessing endangerment: Expanding Fishman's GIDS" (PDF). Revue Roumaine de Linguistique. 55: 103–120.
- M.P., Lewis; Simons, G.F.; Fennog, C.D. (2014). Ethnologue: Languages of Thailand. SIL International.
- Draper, John; Kamnuansilpa, Peerasit (2016). "The Thai Lao Question: The Reappearance of Thailand's Ethnic Lao Community and Related Policy Questions". Asian Ethnicity. 19: 81–105. doi:10.1080/14631369.2016.1258300. S2CID 151587930.
- Luangthongkum, Theraphan. (2007). The Position of Non-Thai Languages in Thailand. In Lee Hock Guan & L. Suryadinata (Eds.), Language, nation and development in Southeast Asia (pp. 181-194). Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.
- Breazeale, Kennon. (1975). The integration of the Lao states. PhD. dissertation, Oxford University.
- Grabowsky, Volker. (1996). The Thai census of 1904: Translation and analysis. In Journal of the Siam Society, 84(1): 49-85.
- Population by language, sex and urban/rural residence, UNSD Demographic Statistics, United Nations Statistics Division, UNdata, last update 5 July 2013.
- National Education Act B.E. 2542(1999) (PDF). Bangkok: Ministry of Education. 1999.
- The Basic Education Core Curriculum B.E. 2551 (A.D. 2008) (PDF). Bangkok: Office of Basic Education. 2008.
- "Thailand Economic Monitor – June 2015: Quality Education for All". World Bank. Retrieved 2020-07-21.
- Languages of Thailand at Muturzikin.com
- Languages of Thailand at Ethnologue