From time to time, future missionaries who are preparing to come out to Thailand ask me for advice about Thai language study options. In this post, I want to give an overview of what is out there, together with links that will with help you do further research about where to study.
If you are looking for a formal Thai language school, you will most likely need to go to either Bangkok or Chiang Mai. You can find someone to try to tutor you privately anywhere in the country, but the quality will varying widely and you may not get the type of teaching you are looking for. To get a solid foundation in Thai, you need to learn the tonal and pronunciation system, as well as the writing system, all of which need concerted time and effort. Thai is not like some European languages that you can pick up as you go.
There are various regional dialects in Thailand (such as Northern Thai, Southern Thai, and Isaan) but even if you plan to work in one of those dialects, it is best to learn central (Bangkok) Thai first, since that is the standardized dialect used in government, schools, and the media. Knowing a local dialect such as Isaan will be great for working in Isaan but if it is all you know, your ability to minister will be limited in the long run (especially in bigger cities, in formal situations, and with younger people who don't speak Isaan). I would strongly recommend learning central Thai first (1-2 years) and then start learning a dialect after that (if you a dialect is what you need).
Schools in Bangkok
In Bangkok, there are several well-known Thai language schools for foreigners that are used regularly by missionaries:
Union Language School
Unity Language School
There are various other Thai language schools in Bangkok as well, such as Baan Aksorn and California language school. If you want to read some comparisons, there is a guy who visited most of them and blogged about it here.
Schools in Chiang Mai
When I asked my fellow missionaries in Chiang Mai where they study Thai language, these are the schools that came up:
Araya Langauge School
Cornerstone Language School
Chiang Mai University
This article doesn’t include Araya or Cornerstone, but covers all the other
Thai language school options in Chiang Mai: http://chiangmai.thaivisa.com/taking-a-thai-language-course-in-chiang-mai/
Schools in Isaan (Northeast)
AUA Udon Thani
KRT Thai Language Centre
Missionary Kevin Chan reports, “KRT Language School in Korat is really good! Kru Usanee speaks good English and explains the vagaries of Thai really well! Pretty busy though. Ohhh and she's a Christian, so will teach Bible vocabulary and give Missionaries a discount!”
Personally, since my wife and I are with OMF, we went to the OMF Thai language school in Lopburi (3 hours north of Bangkok). The OMF school (called Lopburi Learning Centre) is an ideal place to study because the classes are one-on-one, they emphasize conversation (vs. mere vocab memorization and busy work), and have a phonetic system and teachers that will get you saying tones correctly. I am not saying the other schools are bad, but simply that I had a really good experience at the OMF school.
Putting the necessary time into language up front seems tedious at times, but it is essential to set you up to succeed. I've talked to too many missionaries who didn't get a good foundation to start with, and have been hampered in their ministry in the long run.