“There is an inverse relationship between income and fluency,” he continues, “that cuts across almost all age groups, education levels and nationalities.”
According to the study, the best Thai speakers were found in the lowest paid jobs such as teaching, tourism and small-scale NGO work, whereas the least proficient Thai speakers were found in the high paying professions such as business, finance and regional marketing.
“Learning Thai is both a time-consuming hobby as well as a socially compensatory skill,” says Weng-min Huang, a sociologist who co-authored the report. “Low-paid expats have both the time to devote to Thai studies as well as the motivation. Their poverty of lifestyle and material possessions makes them unable to attract mates, so they have the motivation to adopt a non-material mating skill – speaking Thai.”
Like Meets Like
To back up his claims, Huang takes the example of Will and James, two of the study’s in-depth participants.
James, a corporate expat, lives in a serviced apartment, has an English-speaking driver, shops at the top-end stores, eats well and parties hard. Among his staff are a trilingual secretary and two full time translators, and his girlfriend is a light-skinned Chinese-Thai model who speaks perfect English. James hardly ever meets someone who can’t speak English and with an income of BT350,000 (US$9,849) a month, he only needs a Thai vocabulary consisting of 50 words.
“Compare that to Will,” says Huang, “who teaches English and makes BT30,000 a month. He shops at Tesco, eats street noodles and spends his evenings in internet cafes, posting self-righteous opinions on ajarn.com about how much he hates people like James.”
According to Huang, Will’s only hope of getting laid without paying for it is to “speak lots of Thai, crack jokes with his students and hope one of them introduces him to their older sister.”
Not So Fast, My Friend
No surveys are without exceptions, and in this case they came at the extremes. As the survey discovered, some of the highest paid subjects such as diplomats, consultants and specialised UN and development workers spoke fluent Thai.
Another anomaly was female expats, who showed superior Thai language skills at all income levels. However, this was dismissed by the researchers as insignificant, since women make up less than 2 percent of the expatriate population.