Thoughts on Learning the Thai Language after One Year

“Everyday, Thais see me studying Thai, reading books in Thai, writing Thai, etc. And they always ask, ‘is it fun to learn Thai?’ And I tell them, ‘NO, it ain’t fun and it hasn’t been fun even a single day of learning this language.’ In fact, early on I’d rather have teeth pulled without anesthetic any day of the week than invest more time studying Thai.”Tod Daniels

OK, that introductory quotation is a bit harsh and doesn’t reflect my personal attitude. But, I recently finished my first-year Thai language class and along the way I have been collecting some thoughts on the experience with the idea that sharing them could help others who want to learn the language. I have tried to organize my thoughts in some coherent manner, though I am not sure I have succeeded. I also don’t hold myself up as any kind of expert or exemplary student, nor do I claim any accuracy for any vocabulary, grammar or other Thai language examples I might use. So, you know, fellow learner beware…

Overview of Thai Language

A good place to start if you are considering studying Thai is a general overview of the language. A few good online sites worth a read for this are thai-language.com, Omniglot, and Wikipedia.

Whose Language Is Harder?

One thing I have noticed when studying languages is that native speakers of that language often want to compare how difficult it is compared to English. I find this a lot when speaking with Thais as well. I won’t go down the various rabbit holes this conversational topic can travel, but I will say that in my experience most people think their native language is easier than English (except the Germans, who tend to think their language is the hardest to learn). My basic opinion is that it is an unimportant distinction. Each language has its own challenges. If you want to learn a language, you learn it, whether it is easier or harder than any other. Benny at Fluent in 3 Months offers his take on Thai comparisons:

“Any list of exceptions and rules that they could give me, I could counter them with a similar list for any other language. Thai is clearly way more different to English than French is, but Thai doesn’t have noun genders, irregular plurals, definite/indefinite articles, complicated rules for use of prepositions, difficult conjugations and so much more. If I say this you can counter with more things Thai has that European languages don’t, but what’s the point? It just turns into a pissing competition for whose language is ‘harder.’”

Tones

Getting into the specifics of actually studying Thai, we might as well start with tones since that is usually the first thing people reference when discussing the challenges of learning Thai.

If you are planning to study the language, you should know that Thai has five tones, so “one” word can have four or five meanings depending on how you pronounce it. A famous illustration of this is “mái mài mâi mâi mǎi” (ไม้ ใหม่ ไม่ ไหม้ ไหม) which translates to “new wood doesn’t burn, does it?” But, note how I said “one” word can have multiple meanings. That is actually a totally incorrect statement. Why? Because, to a Thai person these are five distinct words that are not only spelled differently but are pronounced differently. It is only in the foreign learner’s mind—thanks to transliteration—that these separate words appear one and the same, with only a pronunciation difference.

The rules for determining a word’s tone are a bit complicated and can only be applied by reading the word in Thai script. That’s why Thai transliterations (a fancy way of saying conversion of a text from one script to another) always include some form of tone marker. The factors to determine a word’s tone include the type of initial consonant (consonants are divided into three classes for this purpose), the tone marker (if present), the length of the vowel, and the type of syllable ending (“open/live” – คำเป็น or “closed/dead” – คำตาย), which depends on the type of final ending sound.

If you’re interested in knowing more about Thai tones, this short overview of tone rules is my favorite resource. Thai teacher Joy also has created a useful video demonstrating the various tones, using both short and long vowel words.

The final warning I offer regarding tones is to be careful when you memorize vocabulary, especially if you are relying on transliterated Thai. I speak from experience when I say that it is easy to get “lazy” and memorize the general transliterated spelling of a word while somehow managing to not memorize the proper tone. This is, I think, why so many people recommend learning to read and write as soon as possible. Whether you choose to do so or not, make an effort to carefully memorize the proper tone for each word you memorize. It may be slower but it will save you time and frustration in the end. If you can read, try to only learn vocabulary without using any transliterations and mentally work out the proper tone in your head. This will help you learn to read faster and to write the words (a harder proposition than reading alone) while also helping you memorize the tone for each word.

Pronunciation

Directly connected to any discussion of tones is the importance of pronunciation. Of course, good pronunciation is important for any language, but even more so for tonal languages like Thai. If you come from a non-tonal language you will just have to accept that getting the tones right is a challenge, though I have read that people with strong musical backgrounds tend to do better with the tones than others. Having said that, Tod Daniels helpfully points out that “We Have ALL Five Thai Tones in English Too!” Still, tones represent a dual challenge. Pronouncing them is definitely a chore, but so too is learning to recognize them when listening to Thai.

I should also say that not all tones are created equal, with some more difficult than others. Personally, I struggle the most with low and high tones but can generally (though not always) get the flat, rising and falling tones.

While it is ideal to get the tones right, it is good to realize that the tones for some words are much more important than for others. This is because some transliterated spellings only exist with one tone (or, alternatively, only one is a popular word) so even if you get it wrong people will likely understand you. On the other hand, some distinct, high-use words appear the same to a foreigner because their transliterations differ only in tone mark. I have already illustrated this with the various forms of “mai” Another popular illustration are the words “glai” (ไกล, mid tone, meaning “far away”) and “glâi” (ใกล้, falling tone, meaning “near”). You can see more tone bloopers or this story involving Thai teacher Mia and one of her students. For any such “similar” words, you will definitely want to try harder to use the proper tones.

It has also been my experience that—at least to my ears—tones aren’t pronounced with equal clarity or attention when words occur in the middle of a sentence or phrase. That may be an incorrect observation on my part, but other learners have said the same so I suspect it is at least partially true. This means that you can sometimes stop worrying about tones except for the final word before a pause in speech or where the distinction is critical, as in the “near” vs. “far” example.

Related to this unequal attention to tones is the speed with which you speak. As a beginner it is natural to want to speak slowly and with clear tones. Paradoxically, this seems to be a bad strategy for actually communicating successfully. In fact, my personal experience has been that I can—and usually do—butcher my Thai tones, but by speaking at a normal speed and somewhat confidently, I am often understood by Thais whereas other speakers who take it slow and concentrate on the tones are often met with blank stares or an “arai ná” (อะไรนะ, “what did you say?”).

So, while I definitely don’t advocate you ignore the tones, I also don’t think it is good to obsess over them either. Try to get them right if you can do so at a normal speed. If you can’t do so, focus on the tones in the last words before natural pauses in your speaking as well as the words that you know are most likely to be misunderstood if you get the tones wrong.

Besides the challenge the tones present, there are some other pronunciation issues to consider with Thai. Here are some worth considering.

  • Short vs. long vowel. I sometimes struggle with this in Japanese, which also has a distinction between long and short vowels. So, for example “kâo” (เข้า, “enter”) and “kâao” (ข้าว, “rice”) should have completely different pronunciations. And, what’s worse is that while getting pronunciation correct for the tones is always a challenge, for me at least (and I think I am typical), getting tones correct for short vowels is more challenging than for long vowel words.
  • Certain vowel sounds tend to cause problems. The main ones are “ʉ̀” or “ʉʉ” (อึ, อื). These are quite distinct from most variants of “u” in English. Some people have trouble with vowels “ɛɛ” (แอ), “ɔɔ” (ออ) and “əə” (เออ), though all these do have pretty solid equivalents in English so I don’t think they are really that hard.
  • Certain consonant sounds also tend to cause problems, notably the difference between “dt” (ต) and “t” (ถ, ท, or ธ) when starting a word. For example, “dtam” (ตำ, “beat; pound an object”) vs. “tam” (ทำ, “to do”). I also have troubles with the difference between “k” and “t” when ending a word. For example, bprà-yòok (ประโยค, “sentence”) vs. bprà yòot (ประโยชน์, “useful”). Finally, beware of the “ng” consonant (ง), which is actually not difficult at all when it comes at the end of a word, but is a real challenge when it starts a word
  • Word order can change the difficulty of pronunciation since certain tones that might not be a challenge individually can sometimes become challenging when used in combination.
  • Ending “s” sound. As far as I can tell, there is no consonant in Thai that has a final “s” sound. The Thai consonant “sɔ̌ɔ sʉ̌a” (ส = สอ เสือ) is an “s” sound when it comes at the beginning of a word, but when it comes at the end it is a “t” sound. So, Thai words borrowed from English, like “tennis,” become “ten nít” (เท็นนิส).

Grammar

I can’t really discuss many specifics of Thai grammar, even after more than a year of studying the language. That is because we don’t formally study it in my class—or most classes, from what I have heard. Rather, our learning is based on situations and phrase/sentence patterns. There are a couple of well-regarded Thai grammar books, which I include in my list of free Thai learning resources, but for a decent general overviews of the unique attributes of Thai grammar, read the Into Asia page.

One thing I can say about Thai grammar is that people often say it isn’t difficult. I must say that isn’t true. I think people say this because the basic structure is subject + verb + object, like in English. This claim is also made because “words are not modified or conjugated for tense, person, possession, number (singular/plural), gender, or subject-verb agreement” and “determiners such as a, an, or the are not used, so linguistic definiteness is expressed in other ways, but most often left underspecified.” [thai-language.com]

But, after that, things get complicated quickly. I am not saying it is awful, just that if you try and translate directly from English you will definitely have problems. Some problem areas I have noticed include the use of sentence ending (and other) particles, the need for classifiers (see below), adjectives that are also verbs, knowing whether an adverb (and sometimes adjectives) comes before or after the word it relates to, using multiple adjectives in a sentence, general word order, and inconsistency of placing question words (sometimes at the beginning, often at the end and not needed at all if you use rʉ̌ʉ (หรือ, “or”)).

Here is a random collection of other things I have noticed about Thai grammar. I don’t list them to serve as any kind of reference but rather to illustrate a few of the grammatical aspects that can make Thai not nearly as “easy” as some claim.

  • “Thai words are assembled into larger forms by compounding; particles and other markers—such as for aspect (how to express the manner in which events progress or unfold over time)—are added to fine-tune the meaning. In this way, tense, politeness, verb-to-noun conversion, and other linguistic objectives are accomplished with the addition of modifying words to the basic subject-verb-object word order.” [thai-language.com]
  • There are two words in Thai that can be translated as the copula (“to be”) verb in English: “bpen” (เป็น) and “kʉʉ” (คือ). Note, however, that quite often where you would absolutely need to use the copula in English you don’t in Thai. Partly that is because a great many adjectives already imply “to be.” Even though I have studied the difference between these two words, when you do need to use one I often can’t really figure out which, though when in doubt I always go with “bpen” (เป็น).
  • Like Japanese and some other languages, Thai makes extensive use of classifiers (noun counters). If you’ve never studied such a language, the idea is that you can’t just say “4 car(s)” or even “car(s) 4” but rather you should say “car(s) 4 + [classifier].” The real tricky part is that different nouns have different classifiers so you have to memorize them all. In Japanese there is a sort of default way to specify quantity that will work fine if you don’t know the proper classifier, but in Thai there isn’t—though “an” (อัน) does cover a lot of ground. My study tip is to use a dictionary that includes the classifiers for all noun entries.
  • Placement of the word “mâi” (ไม่, “no, not”) is confusing. For example, “mii mâi pɔɔ” (มีไม่พอ) vs. “mâi mii pɔɔ” (ไม่มีพอ). The first is the correct way to say there isn’t enough and the second is incorrect. Likewise, we say “pûut mâi geng” (พูดไม่เก่ง) NOT “mâi pûut geng” (ไม่พูดเก่ง) if we want to say we don’t speak well. The placement of “mâi dâi” (ไม่ได้, “cannot”) is also problematic. Sometimes using this phrase both before and after a verb is correct grammatically, but the meaning changes. For example, I learned that “jam mâi dâi” (จำไม่ได้) means “cannot remember,” with an implication that you want to, whereas “mâi dâi jam” (ไม่ได้จำ) also means “cannot remember” but with the implication that you have no interest in doing so either. Similarly “mâi dâi fang” (ไม่ได้ฟัง) means you weren’t listening whereas “fang mâi dâi” (ฟังไม่ได้) means you were listening but were unable to hear for some reason. Of course, to complicate things further, with some verbs you only use “mâi” while with others you use “mâi dâi.” I am not sure if it is a grammatical rule or not, but in the cases where you can only use “mâi” it seems to always come before the verb never after, so to say you couldn’t understand is “mâi kâo jai” (ไม่เข้าใจ) not “kâo jai mâi dâi” (เข้าใจไม่ได้).
  • Sometimes there are many ways to form a Thai adjective, especially if referring to feelings. For example, you can use a basic adjective, like “dii jai” (ดีใจ); you can use the structure “to have” + noun, like “mii kwaam sùk” (มีความสุข, “to have happiness”); you can use the structure “to be” + adjective, like “bpen sùk” (เป็นสุข); or you can use the structure “to feel” + adjective, like “rúu sʉ̀k sà nùk” (รู้สึกสนุก). This isn’t necessarily difficult or even that different than English but it takes some work to figure out which to use when.
  • There are a lot of word choice situations that give me headaches. I am not sure if these are really grammar issues, but I think in some cases they are, especially when there are multiple ways to say the same thing, but the structure varies. Two examples that come to mind are how to say “the same” in Thai (following the link takes you to online teacher Mia explaining how to use “kláai” (คล้าย) and “mʉ̌an” (เหมือน), though there are actually other ways to say “similar” or “same” that she doesn’t cover) and how to say “only” (“diao” (เดียว), “tâo nán” (เท่านั้น), “kɛ̂ɛ” (แค่), “piang” (เพียง), etc.)
  • Mastering the tenses is a bit tricky. A good overview can be found in Hugh Leong’s article “Thai Language Thai Culture: Speaking Thai in Tenses.”

Vocabulary

I can’t claim that learning Thai vocabulary is any easier or harder than any other language. Obviously, unless you already know a language with some Sanskrit origins, most of the words will seem unfamiliar, though I should note there are a lot of words which have entered the Thai lexicon from English, albeit with a slightly changed pronunciation. One thing I think worth mentioning is that many common words—especially verbs—are combinations of two short words which are either easy to learn or common enough that you have possibly learned them already. The popular example is “to understand,” which is “kâo jai” (เข้าใจ), where “kâo” means “to enter” and “jai” means “heart/mind.” Another example is “to bring,” which is “ao maa” (เอาม), where “ao” means “to get, take, bring” and “maa” means “to come.” Similarly “ao bpai” (เอาไป) means “to take” since “bpai” means “to go.” “To be curious” is “yàak rúu yàak hěn” (อยากรู้อยากเห็น), which translates as “want to know, want to see.” A non-verb example is “student” or “nák rian” (นักเรียน), where “nák” is a word used before a verb or noun to describe a profession and “rian” means “to study at the elementary school level.” Another noun example is “ambulance” or “rót pá yaa baan” (รถพยาบาล), where “rót” means “car/vehicle” and “pá yaa baan” means “to administer medical treatment.” Not surprisingly, hospital is “roong pá yaa baan” (โรงพยาบาล), where roong means “building.”

Over time, I have come to have an opinion about the best way to study vocabulary. My initial study habits included using the Anki electronic flashcard program and reviewing new vocabulary with Thai transliterated words on the front and the Thai script and English meaning on the back. After I started to learn to read, I switched to reviewing words written in Thai script on the front. Finally, I am now reviewing all vocabulary with English meaning on the front. My suggestion is to start with English meaning from day one. Why? First, this is how we actually try to communicate, isn’t it? Think of a word in English and try to remember the Thai equivalent. Second, reviewing the transliterated words made it too easy to become lazy and not pay careful attention to the associated tones. Finally, while I admit that studying Thai script words on the front did help my reading and my ability to apply the tone rules, it did not help me memorize the spelling. Now, by seeing only the English meaning, I mentally try to recall the tone and spell the word before I read the back of the flashcard.

Formality

After a year of studying Thai all I can really say about the role of formality in the language is that it is important. How to master it is still far beyond my grasp, though I suspect the when/where to use it isn’t so different from most languages. Use more polite language with your elders, with those in elevated positions (especially monks in Thailand), with your bosses or clients, etc. Use informal language with your friends, family, those significantly younger than yourself, etc.

As for the mechanics of sounding more polite, it seems that for the same object or action there may be more than one word based on the level of politeness. For instance, the common word for “to eat” is “gin” (กิน) and the more formal equivalent is “taan” (ทาน), though I have no idea just how much of the vocabulary in Thai have these common versus formal distinctions. Another way to vary the level of politeness in speech is via the choice of sentence-ending particles. The most common are “kráp” (ครับ) for men and “ká” or “kà” (คะ, ค่ะ) for women and I add a personal warning regarding these: don’t develop the bad habit of not using them. My Thai class has a quite informal atmosphere, which makes it more enjoyable but has the downside of not really enforcing the use of these polite sentence-ending particles. Perhaps others will say that it’s not such a big deal and maybe you will even sound more natural with your Thai friends if you drop them, but my attitude is that there really is no downside to using them too much and, moreover, it is easier to stop using them with friends than to remember to use them with strangers.

I don’t know a lot of good resources on this topic, but one is Into Asia’s Speaking Polite Thai page, where I read the following:

“When first learning Thai, it can seem as if the Thais don’t care for much politeness. The words a Thai dictionary would translate as ‘please’ (such as ‘ga-ru-nah’ and ‘bproht’) are rarely heard in normal speech, while the ‘softer’ phrasing sometimes used in English to be polite is also normally dispensed with (e.g. where an English speaker might say ‘I would like to have…please,’ a Thai would simply say ‘ao,’ meaning ‘I want,’ instead). This is somewhat deceptive though. Thai uses a complex system which ensures that just the right amount of politeness can be used in any situation, mainly done through a variety of ‘particles’ that are added on to the end of sentences.”

Reading and Writing

“If you are at all serious about learning more than a few phrases then you must learn the Thai letter system (alphabet) NOW. Don’t put it off until later. This and the tone rules will make it much easier to learn new words and their tone. Furthermore you will be able to read books, signs and maps and continue learning much faster. Don’t waste any time with books that use novel transliteration schemes when you could be reading the original text without any unambiguous pronunciation.” Lyndon Hill

To read or not to read, that is the question. Not surprisingly, people have strong opinions both for and against it. Personally, I think it is essential and I don’t really understand why so many people decide not to do so. I am also surprised by how many language schools don’t bother to teach it, teach it as a separate course, or introduce it many months after the course begins. I suppose students consider it too difficult and schools worry about scaring off paying customers.

So, just how hard is it to read and write in Thai? It is challenging, but not excessively so and certainly less so than languages like Chinese or Japanese. Writing is more difficult than reading, mostly because, of Thai’s 44 consonants, 6 have a “T” sound, 5 have a “K” sound and 4 have an “S” sound (mostly due to the historical development of the language and its relationship with Sanskrit and Pali words). Vowels present fewer problems in comparison, but there are some vowels that can be written in multiple ways or even exist without being explicitly written at all, especially the short “a” and “o” vowels. Thus, until you have memorized the spelling of any word using these sounds (which are a great many words) you are basically just guessing which to use when writing. Of course, it isn’t really fair to complain about this since English presents a similar problem. For example, the “k” sound can also be represented by a “c” (“cake”) and “ch” (“chaos”). An “f” sound can also be represented with a “gh” (tough). Then there are silent letters a plenty in English. You get the idea.

Writing in Thai is also complicated by the fact that you can’t just use your existing Romanized keyboard. Instead, you will need to either install the Thai keyboard on your computer or use a virtual keyboard (especially on a phone or tablet). Naturally, you will require some time to memorize the locations of the various Thai letters. You’ll also be challenged by the fact that very few (any?) applications you might use will offer a Thai auto-correct for your misspellings.

While I maintain that writing is harder than reading, I don’t mean to imply that there are no challenges associated with reading. There certainly are. Some reading challenges (in no particular order) include:

  • The names of the Thai consonants are acrophonic, which is intended to help with learning them and also is useful if you have to ask someone for help with spelling, but it does add a bit to the overall learning curve.
  • Some consonants have different sounds when used at the beginning of a syllable as opposed to at the end. For example, ก (“กอ ไก่,” “gɔɔ gài”) is pronounced as a “g” at the beginning and more of a “k” at the end. Even more distinct is ร (“รอ เรือ,” “rɔɔ rʉa”), which has an “r” sound when used as an initial consonant and an “n” sound when used as a final consonant. For example, “restaurant” is “ráan aa hǎan” (ร้านอาหาร). Note also that some consonants can only be used at the beginning of a syllable.
  • I have already discussed some of the speaking challenges of tones. Well, the tones create even more headaches when reading and writing. First, the rules are complicated. Not rocket science complicated, but definitely not straightforward. I already talked about what factors determine a word’s tone. One of these is whether the initial consonant is low (เสียงต่ำ, “sǐang dtàm”), mid (เสียงกลาง, “sǐang glaang”) or high (เสียงสูง, “sǐang sǔung”). Each consonant is classified as one of these three so you will absolutely need to memorize not just the consonant but its class as well.
  • Vowels are created by using diacritical marks (special symbols) which appear in front of, above, below, after, or both before and after the consonants they modify. To the beginner this seems insanely complicated, but it really isn’t as awful as it sounds as each vowel is constant so part of memorizing the vowels is just memorizing where they occur in relation to the consonant they modify. The bigger problems are the short “a” and “o” vowels that go unwritten. Essentially, you have to memorize these, though with more experience you can usually guess that one or the other exists and you can start to see some patterns that will help you guess which is being used with an unfamiliar word.
  • There are some irregular situations that just need to be memorized. For example, the word “jing” is spelled “จริง” where the “i” sound is made using the consonant ร (“rɔɔ rʉa,” “รอ เรือ”) when it could more easily and logically be written with just the first and last consonants and an associated vowel (e.g., “จิง”).
  • There are some “cluster” words that form using a compound of two consonants. These aren’t especially difficult, but do often cause problems when first learning to read. The three consonants most likely to be the second consonant in such a compound or are ร, ล, ว. For example, the word for “far” is “glai” (ไกล) which combines ก (“กอ ไก่,” “gɔɔ gài”) and ล (“lɔɔ ling,” “ลอ ลิง”). It is also useful to remember that if a tone marker is used it is placed on the last initial consonant, so for example the word “near/close” is “glâi” (ใกล้), which you will note has a diacritical mark above the second consonant.
  • Besides cluster syllables, there are irregular combinations like “ทร,” which has an “s” sound at the beginning of a syllable and “รร,” which has a short “a” sound when located between two consonants and an “n” sound when found at the end of a syllable.
  • The ์ symbol is used to indicate a silent letter. At first this seems confusing, but actually it ends up being helpful because most times it is used with words that come from another language, often English. For example, “film” is written “ฟิล์ม” (“fim”), where the “l” is silent (Thai has the “l” sound, but it is only used at the beginning of a syllable or as part of a cluster, never at the end of a syllable). Thus, when you see this symbol, you can often stop trying to figure out what Thai word you are reading and consider a foreign loan word alternative.
  • There are some other special symbols like ็ (“mái dtài kúu,” “ไม้ไต่คู้”), which shortens the vowel; ฯ (“bpai yaan nɔ́ɔi,” “ไปยาลน้อย”), which means the previous word is abbreviated; and ๆ (“mái yá mók,” “ไม้ยมก”), which means the previous word is repeated. These aren’t necessarily a challenge, but it is good to learn them early.
  • Silent consonant. There are actually three silent consonant situations. The main one to consider is ห (“hɔ̌ɔ hìip,” “หอ หีบ”), which is a high-class consonant that is used to change the tone for the syllable it precedes. Another is อ (“ɔɔ àang,” “ออ อ่าง”) which is silent when used at the beginning of syllables that start with a vowel, since all vowels are written relative to a consonant. The same consonant อ is used before only four words to change the tone from a low-class rule to a mid-class rule. The four are อย่า (“yàa,” “don’t”) อยาก (“yàak,” “want”) อย่าง (“yàang,” “kind, sort, type”) and อยู่ (“yùu,” “stay”).
  • If you find yourself reading much informal conversation, say while chatting online, there are some words that are spelled with one tone but pronounced with another, notably the pronouns “chǎn” (ฉัน) and “kǎo” (เขา), which are both pronounced with a high tone rather than the rising tone indicated by the script.
  • Besides exceptions for informal conversation, there are some words that are just plain irregular. In other words, you can apply the tone rules you worked so hard to master and will still end up with the wrong tone. These exceptions will just have to be memorized.
  • One common struggle when beginning to learn to read is the fact that Thai words are generally not separated with spaces or other punctuation as in many languages. To be more accurate, minor pauses in sentences may in fact be marked by a comma (จุลภาค or ลูกน้ำ, “jun-lá-pâak” or “lûuk náam”). Likewise, major pauses can be marked by a period (มหัพภาค or จุด, “má hàp pâak” or “jùt”) but most often they are marked simply by a blank space (วรรค, “wák”). So, the real challenge is more one of separating words within a core phrase or sentence. As with most things that seem really difficult at first, this task naturally becomes easier with general experience and is also aided by some basic rules. For example, a vowel that includes a symbol to the left of the consonant it pairs with is a good indicator of the start of a word. Likewise, a symbol that goes to the right of a consonant is an indicator of the end of a word. Even vowels that go above or below a consonant indicate either the end of a word or that the following consonant will mark the end of the word. Finally, if you see one of the consonants that can’t be used to end a syllable (ฉ, ฌ, ผ, ฝ, ห, etc.) then you know to keep reading.
  • An ongoing difficulty I face when trying to read Thai concerns font style and size. There are several popular font styles in regular use and some are difficult to read since they bear very little resemblance to the standard, classical font you see and learn in textbooks. Font size is a challenge because Thai always seems to be printed in a smaller font than you would expect to see if printing a different language (indeed, many times the transliteration is written with the original Thai and is significantly larger). Part of the problem is inherent in the way Thai is written since the letters can be one of two different heights. Likewise, since vowels are indicated by diacritical marks that can be placed both below and above a letter (and tone marks above as well), things tend to get vertical compressed. The end result is that the same size font that would be quite readable in English is difficult to read in Thai. One practical frustration I would note is the use of the mobile chat app called LINE. This app is very popular in Thailand so if you make Thai friends eventually you will end up using it to communicate. Unfortunately, the font-size LINE uses is very small and, even worse, there is no way to pinch and expand to make the text larger.

If you’re interested in more details of the Thai writing system, Omniglot offers a good overview and Wikipedia has a very good look at the Thai alphabet as well. For now, I will end with a few arbitrary examples of words I have recently come across that aren’t completely straightforward to read.

  • ควร (“kuan,” “should”)
    The initial consonant ค (“คอ ควาย,” “kɔɔ kwaai”) is straightforward but then we see it is a cluster syllable with ว (“วอ แหวน,” “wɔɔ wɛ̌ɛn”). Further, there is an implicit “ua” vowel sound and the final consonant ร is one whose ending sound “n” is different than its starting sound “r.”
  • I have found that quite often when a compound consonant occurs at the beginning of a word two things occur. First, the initial consonant takes an unwritten vowel (often a short “a”) and second, the second syllable will often apply the tone rule using the class of the first consonant not the second. Here are just a couple of quick examples:
    ตลาด (“dtà làat”) – market
    สนาม (“sà nǎam”) – field
    ฉลอง (“chà lɔ̌ɔng”) – to celebrate
  • สร้าง (“sâang,” “to build, construct, create, establish”)
    This word is confusing because the second letter (ร) is not pronounced. Why? I have no idea, though it turns out that this is a repeat offender in terms of being silent when paired with certain other consonants. Figuring out the tone for this word is also confusing because you must remember the rule that if a tone mark is used it is placed on the last initial consonant, though as a beginner it isn’t clear why this silent consonant is part of the initial consonant.
  • ถนน (“tà nǒn,” “road, street”)
    One of the very many words that have an unwritten short “a” vowel, this one adds an unwritten short “o” vowel as well. What is also worth noting about this word is how both syllables derive their tone from the first letter (ถ) whereas it is easier to think the “nǒn” syllable tone should be based off the letter (น) which would produce a high tone.
  • อ้วก (“ùak,” “to vomit”) is another word with an unwritten short “a” vowel, this one also adding the อ consonant to produce a low tone.
  • A few more examples involving the wily consonant ร: จริง (“jing,” “true”), สระ (“sà,” “pool”), ศรี (“sǐi,” “glory”), and finally there is ทราย (“saai,” “sand”) which actually changes the “t” (ท) “r” (ร) consonant combination into an “s” sound.
  • เจริญ (“jà rəən,” “to progress; grow; prosper; thrive”) is all kinds of confusing. There is no written short “a” vowel and the complex “əə” vowel includes the จ letter. Considering the previous discussion of the wily consonant ร, I didn’t really know how this should be properly said at first.
  • แมลง (“má lɛɛng,” “bug, insect”) is a bit like เจริญ above in that the vowel for the second syllable is also wrapped around the consonant needed for the first syllable. There’s probably a rule here that I haven’t learned yet.
  • จราจร (“jà raa jɔɔn,” “traffic”), besides having an unwritten short “à” vowel, is an example of a special spelling rule whereby any consonant followed (and ended) by the consonant ร is read with the vowel “ɔɔ” and the consonant ending “n.”
  • หกล้ม (“hòk lóm,” “to fall down”) has two silent “o” vowel sounds, but it is also confusing because it looks like the กล consonants together could be a cluster syllable making a “gl” sound, thus possibly reading as “glóm” with the ห consonant dictating tone.

Transliteration

I have already mentioned the passionate opinions for and against learning to read and write Thai. Regardless of which side you take, you will almost certainly end up spending at least some time at the beginning of your studies using transliterated Thai so you should be aware of the issues doing so presents.

The first and biggest issue is that there are at least 12 different transliteration systems! This is mostly because there are some sounds that don’t have a corresponding letter in the Roman alphabet so it isn’t obvious how to write them and thus many different ways have developed. Another reason is simply that different systems interpret Thai pronunciation differently. For example, some systems say ก (“กอ ไก่,” “gɔɔ gài”) should be spelled with a “g” while others write it with a “k” and some use both (usually a “g” if used as an initial consonant and a “k” if used as a final consonant). Similar discrepancies exist for the distinction between a “b” and a “p” sound and some classify ต (“ตอ เต่า,” “dtɔɔ dtào”) as a “t” sound while others represent it with a “dt” spelling. The Pronunciation Guide Systems for Thai page on the Slice-of-Thai.com site offers a very detailed look at the different systems commonly used with Thai as well as some other useful information about transliteration in general.

Here are a few observations regarding transliterated Thai:

  • Since it is hard to completely avoid transliteration, my suggestion is to choose one of the systems and try to stick with it as much as possible. If you take a formal class that uses one system, that’s the one to choose. Likewise if you self-study with a book that heavily uses transliteration, use that system. In fact, if you are planning to purchase more than one book that uses transliteration, it might be good to make sure the two systems are the same or close. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to do this.
  • If you choose one of the transliteration systems—including my personal preference Paiboon+—that have added new letters to represent the sounds, you will likely find reading is easier but typing more difficult since these characters don’t exist on a standard keyboard.
  • The Royal Thai General System of Transcription (RTGS) is the official standard for the Romanization of Thai and, in my opinion, probably the worst of all of them. I haven’t personally seen any learning materials that use it, but unfortunately it is what you will see used on government signs (like on the metro in Bangkok).
  • One of the reasons I love thai-language.com is because you can choose which transliteration system it displays. Likewise with my dictionary of choice, Talking Thai-English-Thai.

Learning Traps and Tips

Here are a few random observations that may hopefully be of some value:

  • Beware Half-Literacy. In the early days I learned transliterated vocabulary and was lazy about memorizing the associated tones (you might be surprised at how strong the temptation is when you are trying to read a full sentence quickly). Now I can generally read and figure out the tones of a word but I realize this has been one-way learning. If I take an English word and want to write it in Thai, I often never memorized the Thai writing for that word. Sometimes I can guess the proper letters to use but even if I guess correctly, if I don’t recall the tone for the word, I am likely to still get the spelling wrong. So, I am now well on my way to being what I consider half-literate.
  • Asking Questions. Tod Daniels wrote an interesting article, “Breaking Down the Wall ‘O Whyz When Learning Thai.” In it, he talks about how asking why questions tends to diminish language learning. I don’t agree completely as I think certain why questions lead to useful broader insights but I do agree that many—perhaps most—do indeed delay and sometimes interfere with learning. Interestingly, in the comments to the article, Catherine Wentworth mentions these stern instructions from the first AUA book:
    “Don’t ask questions. Students’ questions are the main enemy of the focus-practice approach. Ninety percent of them don’t have answers and it takes time for the teacher to politely dodge meaningless questions. And it is not only the time of the asking and dodging that is wasted, for completely unrelated discussions often result as well. Remember that language is one of the things that is better learned by practice than by explanation. If less than ninety percent of the class time is being spent on practice, something is wrong.”

    Again, I think certain questions are indeed helpful (e.g., asking for word-order clarification, getting help with tone pronunciation, asking if a word can be used in a certain way, etc.), but many of these are not actually “why” questions. I also am certain that I and all students can benefit from first asking the most fundamental question: “will the question I want to ask really provide any benefit to myself or my fellow students?”
  • As a tonal language, the comingling of reading and listening practice is perhaps more useful than in non-tonal languages because when listening you may not be sure what tone you just heard and being able to see it written as you read along will let you verify. Likewise, when reading, though you may know what the tone is, you may not have an accurate idea of how it should sound when properly pronounced.
  • Tod Daniels offer this cheeky but interesting advice:
    “You can get Thais to slow down by saying พูดช้า ๆ หน่อย [“pûut cháa cháa nɔ̀ɔi”] or พูดช้า ๆ สิ [“pûut cháa cháa sì”]. But, sometimes it takes a couple of times for it to sink into their heads. Conversely, you can always do what I do and say in Thai, “either slow down or we’re gonna speak in English.” I’ve never had that not work in getting a Thai to slow down their staccato or warp speed Thai EVER! Given that many Thais fear speaking English, it’s effective. And better yet, to have them dial their speed back it only needs to be said once.”
  • Try to study every day. It’s better to study 15 minutes a day instead of two hours once a week (of course, I recommend more than 15 minute study sessions).
  • Set some achievable and measurable goals. For example, learn three new words each day, practice writing 10 words each day, read 100 words a day, etc.
  • If you need to read Thai online, Google translate and other translation tools are generally awful. Instead, I recommend copying and pasting the text into the thai-language.com multi-word lookup feature or the thai2english site. Both of these will take your Thai script input and output each individual word with its transliterated reading and English meaning as well as providing quick links to the full dictionary entry for each word. The thai-language.com site is my personal choice since I can choose the transliteration system and the dictionary entries have sample sentences.
  • Many people think learning a language from songs is a great idea. John Boegehold‎ wrote the following in the Farang Can Learn Thai Language (รักภาษาไทย) Facebook group about doing so with Thai songs:“Many posts on this board about learning Thai from songs. Seems to me that if you’re listening to Thai songs specifically to learn vocabulary, there are better and less confusing ways to do so. Obviously no problem if you like listening to Thai music, hear a word or phrase you don’t know then look it up, but there are some definite things to remember: 1. Melodies and phrasing in Thai songs don’t necessarily follow the tone or vowel length of a word. 2. As from songs in any language, Thai lyrics are often put together not because they mean anything but because the words may sound good strung together, they rhyme or are poetic. 3. English karaoke phonetic subtitles are as unreliable as any phonetics. 4. Thai subtitles. If you can already read and follow Thai subtitles without hitting pause, you probably already know the words. 5. A high percentage of Thai song videos on YouTube are ลูกทุ่ง (Thai country music) and the lyrics are ภาษาอีสาน (Isaan dialect). Even though many of the words are the same as in central Thai, the ones that aren’t won’t show up in any standard dictionary. This used to drive me crazy before I realized the differences. I’m sure a lot of these points are obvious but to me they fall under the category of ‘I wish someone would’ve told me these things” when I started learning.’”

    In another post in the same group, I read that “Tone rules actually apply on spoken speech but not songs. In the songs’ case, knowing the words pronounced in different tones while being sung is a kind of common sense for Thais. While for foreigners, it’s just more confusion.” Though another commenter did note “many of the older Thai songs articulate the embedded tones very well within the melody.”

On Getting Discouraged

Everyone learns differently, at a different pace, with different motivation, different access to opportunities to practice, etc. Some naturally have a better ear, better pronunciation, and better memory. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. For some people with a competitive nature, this can produce good motivation to study and improve. For others it can lead to discouragement, especially if you focus on the areas where others seem to be better at the language than you. Another frustration often encountered by students that take a formal class is the phenomenon where you can generally understand when your teacher speaks but are lost at sea when interacting with Thais speaking everyday Thai. I don’t have any magical advice for avoiding or overcoming these or other sources of discouragement, but if you don’t have much experience studying other languages, at least being aware that they will occur might help you deal with them a bit better when they do.

Measuring Your Progress

“I always reply to foreigners who ask if I can speak Thai the exact same way: ‘I speak Thai well enough to know that I suck at it.’”Tod Daniels

At the language exchange I attend I am occasionally asked how many languages I speak. I struggle to answer this question, because I don’t think there is a common understanding of what it means to speak a language. The short answer is “parts of five” but really I only feel very comfortable in two and I still wouldn’t even consider myself fluent in the second (based on my personal idea of fluency).

Personally, I am much more interested in steadily improving my ability to speak and understand Thai so I don’t worry much about any formal measurement of my progress. As there is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) for mostly European languages and various proficiency tests for other languages, there is a Test of Thai as a Foreign Language as well as the Chulalongkorn University Proficiency Test of Thai as a Foreign Language (CU-TFL). I actually don’t know much about these but if you are really serious about your Thai studies they might be worth looking into.

Of course, absent a formal evaluation, you can generally tell how your Thai is progressing based on how the people you speak with react to your Thai. In the beginning don’t be surprised if you are met with pure and utter incomprehension. As you start to get slightly better, polite Thais will heap lavish praise on your abilities, usually tossing around the word “gèng” (เก่ง, “skillful”). That’s where I am right now, though I still get pure incomprehension from time to time. Be warned, however, I believe this is similar to Japanese where the ever-polite Japanese will also tell you how “jōzu” (上手, “skillful”) you are. What this really means is that your effort to learn the language is appreciated and yes, you have reached some level of communicative ability. But, it does NOT generally mean that you are, in fact, skillful. If and when you really reach good proficiency (so I hear since I haven’t yet) Thais will either not say anything or make a comment more along the lines of “you speak Thai clearly” (“พูดภาษาไทยชัด,” “pûut paa-sǎa Thai chát”).

Next Steps

If you are ready to tackle the challenge of learning Thai, you might want to read my very detailed article, “Foreign Language Study: A Language Learning System.” If you are looking for a Thai language school in Chiang Mai, check out “Studying Thai in Chiang Mai: Advice from a Long-Term Chiang Mai Resident.” For other study options check out the thai-language.com or ThaiVisa forums and don’t forget my personal collection of the best free Thai language learning resources.

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3 Comments

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I have an iPhone. I see that app does exist for iOS, but the reviews aren't very good (2.5 stars) so I wonder if it is worth the effort…

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