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Thai Vs. Cambodian: How Similar Are These 2 Incredible Languages?

September 2, 2022

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Today we're looking at Thai vs. Cambodian (Khmer) to see how similar they are and, if you learn one, whether you can be a master of the other. The truth is that Thai and Khmer are from different language families but share quite a large amount of vocabulary.

Before we go any further, I want to share a tip for mastery- Ling. Ling is an app specifically designed for learning lesser-spoken languages like Thai and Khmer. Developed in 2017, the app is now the go-to place for over 10 million language learners.

What sets Ling apart? Well, as already mentioned, it offers access to languages previously overlooked by app giants like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone. Most of you have probably at least experimented with these apps, so I won't go into too much detail about what they do but be assured Ling has all basics covered like SRS flashcards, native audio, and fun mini-games and quizzes.

Thai Vs. Cambodian. How Similar Are The Two Languages?

As mentioned in the intro, the languages are from different language families. Specifically, Thai belongs to the Kra-Dai group, and Khmer belongs to the Austroasiatic group. A good analogy would be the difference between English and French.

  • Thai and Khmer share about 30% of the same words.
  • The syntax of Thai and Khmer is roughly the same
  • The 2 languages share many of the same idioms and are just direct translations from one language to the next.

Reading what native speakers of each language say online, I'd estimate that if you're an expert in either of the languages, it will take about 20 hours to get to a beginner level in the opposite.

What Are The Differences Between The Two Languages?

  • The vowels are very different. Thai vowels tend to be a lot more based on tone. Khmer has more sounds that don't exist in Thai.
Thai vs. Khmer

Thai Vs. Cambodian Vs. Lao. Are These Three Languages Similar?

Comparing Thai and Lao is much easier than comparing Thai with Cambodian because Thai and Lao both come from the Kra-dai family. Amazingly if you go to Northeast Thailand, you'll find a language called Isan, which is a Lao dialect but can also be understood by Thai speakers.

A good way to conceptualize the difference is to think of Thai and Lao as the difference between British English and American English, whereas Khmer would be more like French.

If you go far enough back, you'll find a common ancestor for all these languages; in this case, it's Sanskrit and Pali.

Why Are Thai And Khmer Similar?

The most obvious reason for this is geographical proximity. Thai shares an extensive land border with Cambodia. During the Angkor period, when the amazing Angkor wat was built (a UNESCO world heritage site), Khmer had a vast influence on the region, and one of these ways was in language. Think how fast English spread worldwide when Great Britain was at the height of its powers. That meant many words made the jump from Khmer to Thai.

After the kingdom of Angkor fell, the language had much less impact on Thai history. And then, in the 20th century, as Thailand began to dominate the region, the Thai language became much more powerful. It is incredible to think the power mass media has on language dispersal.

How Similar Are The Cultures Of Thailand And Cambodia?

Again, a good analogy to use here is England and France. For a start, they have the same religion, a passion for the same foods, and the people tend to be extremely friendly towards foreigners.

One key difference would be that France colonized Cambodia (and the rest of French Indochina); for example, you see a certain amount of French architecture in Cambodia, and some older people still speak the language.

An even more significant impact was the devastation wrought on Cambodia by the Khmer rouge in the 1970s and 80s- the communist government wanted to return to year 0 and completely remodel the country along agrarian communist lines. 25% of the population were murdered, which, as well as leaving a massive psychological scar, also means that the population demographics are much different. There are far more younger people in Cambodia.

This man-made disaster also destroyed Cambodia's economy, and we can see the disparity in GDP per person. Thailand's economy is much stronger. Thailand- $7100 and Cambodia- $1500.

Because the people of Cambodia are much poorer, there is more of a darker underbelly to the society. The country is generally more lawless with more guns etc. Cambodia also has more prostitution as desperate women do anything to survive.

Although the Khmer rouge is no longer in power, the Cambodian government is still communist in name. The prime minister (Hun sen) is essentially in a job for life, whereas Thailand officially has term limits. Also not forgetting Thailand has a much revered royal family who is de facto in charge of the Royal Thai army and has significant sway over the Thai government.

Although nowhere near as advanced as Singapore, Bangkok is generally trending in that direction, whereas Phnom Penh is more like the Bangkok of 30 years ago.

It is also interesting to note that along the Thai border with Cambodia, there is much more similarity than there would be in the east of Cambodia, where there is more of a Vietnamese influence. The same is true of Northern Thailand And Southern Cambodia.

Regarding travel, I'd say visiting Thailand is much safer than Visiting Cambodia. The infrastructure is much better, and although both are renowned for their full moon parties, Southern Thailand is much more established again. Siem Reap is probably the best place to go if you are a new traveler desperate to see Cambodia but want to be guaranteed a more western experience.

Cambodia: Thai vs. Cambodian

Learn Thai And Khmer With Ling

As we've learned, both Thailand and Cambodia have much in common regarding culture and language. Also, Thai food is much more similar to Cambodian food than Cambodian is to Vietnamese food.

In terms of Southeast Asian countries and their languages, Ling has a lot to offer, including Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Lao. Come on over and see for yourself.

Nb: If you enjoyed this blog, think about some other blogs you should check out, such as music in Khmer and utensils in Thai.

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