Thai is the official language of the Kingdom of Thailand and is spoken by over 60 million native speakers. Majority of the population speak Standard Thai which is based on the Bangkok register much like Received Pronunciation (RP) is considered the standard in the United Kingdom.
Thai is mutually interchangeable with Laotian, the official language of neighbouring Laos. Thai is a tonal language with 5 tones – low, mid, high, falling and rise. The five tones are tricky for learners to overcome but fortunately words are written as they are pronounced making Thai a monosyllabic language (unlike English). However, Thai does have the same word order as English making it easy to construct sentences.
Outside of Thailand, the largest group of Thai speakers are in Los Angeles – where there are over 80,000 speakers. A language which is becoming prominent in Asian business due to Thailand’s booming tourism industry, the number of people studying for professional and personal reasons grow year on year. Also, to put one argument to rest Phuket is pronounced ‘Poo-get’ not ‘Foo-get’!
Bahasa Melayu (Malay)
Bahasa is a language family and originates from Malaysia. Bahasa Melayu formerly known as Malay is the common language spoken in Malaysia across both sides of the Strait of Malacca and became the official language of Malaysia in 1968. The language is spoken in Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor and is one of the four official languages of Singapore. Due to its regional reach Bahasa Melayu is considered the de facto business languages of South East Asia.
Due to trading routes and historic colonialism of the region, Bahasa Malay adopted the Roman alphabet making the language easier to learn for non-native speakers in the 19th Century. However, the language is still complex despite its heavy import of European words. A language that is rich with pronouns and formality makes it difficult to learn if you are a native speaker of a language where social hierarchy is not imbedded linguistically.
Bahasa Indonesian became the official language of Indonesia after the Second World War. The government decided in 1945 to make Bahasa (a language at the time only spoken by 5% of the Indonesian population) the official language with the aim the new lingua franca would encourage national identity and unification, as it is linguistically less difficult to learn compared to regional native languages like Javanese and Sundanese. Today, there are 42 million native speakers of Bahasa Indonesian and 148 million non-native speakers.
The main difference between the Indonesian version of Bahasa and Melayu is spelling, grammar, pronunciation and loanwords. However, the languages are still largely mutually intelligible. Bahasa Indonesia has heavily imported over 10,000 words from Dutch and follows the Dutch version of the Roman alphabet as a consequence of its colonial past.
Speaking either Bahasa Melayu or Indonesian would allow you to converse with over 215 million people worldwide.
Alongside English, Hindi is the official language of business and the government of India. A language that originates from Northern and Central India, today Hindi is the 4th most spoken language in the world by native speakers after Mandarin, Spanish and English.
Hindi like main Asian languages is written in a non-roman script. Hindi is written in a Sanskrit script which a learner will need considerable time to master. Luckily words are written as they are pronounced as each character has a different sound. All nouns, adjectives and verbs change depending on the gender of the speaker. Grammar is probably the hardest aspect of learning Hindi.
Surprisingly the only other country where Hindi is an official language is thousands of miles away in the south Pacific nation of Fiji. A shared colonial history resulted in Indian nationals moving to Fiji during the reign of the British Empire. Today Fijian Hindi is spoken by over 400,000 citizens. Hindi is also spoken by Indian communities across the Western world especially in the United Kingdom.
The English language has adopted several Hindi words which are regularly used in daily life and business – Guru, Karma and even Bungalow to name a few!
Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and the Jammu and Kashmir regions of India. Today, there are over 100 million native speakers of Urdu. It is also spoken as a second language in Bangladesh and many countries in the middle East.
Urdu and Hindi are largely mutually intelligible when spoken. The difference between the two languages is how they are written. Over 90% of Urdu’s script comes from Persian and Arabic. Therefore, if you can read Urdu you can also read the Arabic and Persian alphabets. In addition, Urdu borrows a significant amount of words from Arabic and Persian.
Like Hindi the English language has incorporated many words from Urdu. For example: cummerbund, jungle and chutney all have Urdu origins.