Learning a new language can be daunting to say the least, but learning a new language that has absolutely no Latin or Germanic foundation – like Thai - can be, for us native English-speakers, downright frustrating.
I’m going to give you a primer on the language and what, in general terms, to expect, and I’ll also provide you with some suggestions to get you going along the right path.
I want to stress that there is nothing to be afraid of. Though the Thai language may appear to be a very tall mountain to climb, with persistence and patience it can be done. There’s a lot of information here, and it’s going to seem overwhelming, but in reality the Thai language is highly structured with few exceptions to the rules.
Learn and memorize the rules and you’ll be well on your way to living the expat life happily and fluently!
It’s all about the tones
Thai is a tonal language. Unlike English where the intent of a sentence is determined by inflection (questions usually rise at the end, statements usually fall, etc…) Thai has a very specific set of tone rules. This is the single most important thing you need to understand about the language.
There are five tones in Thai: mid, low, falling, high, and rising. Every syllable has a tone associated with it based on certain rules (don’t worry about the rules for now).
A mid-tone has a monotone sound in the natural register of your voice.
A low tone is also somewhat monotone-sounding but requires you to lower the pitch of your voice/make it deeper.
A falling tone starts a little bit higher than your mid tone and lowers in pitch at the end.
A high tone gets higher in register at the end of the syllable.
A rising tone sounds like a high tone but starts lower and is a bit more dramatic.
This is, of course, an oversimplification, and I strongly suggest that you listen very closely to Thai natives to hear the distinctions.
The bottom line is that you must understand the importance of tones. If you mispronounce the tone of a syllable or word you could, for example, say the word for “horse” when you meant to say the word for “dog.”
There are many Thai language learners that will tell you not to worry about tones and to just start with vocabulary. I completely disagree with this, and my suggestion is to be aware of how important the tones are and to be sure to learn them from the onset of your Thai language education.
Consonants in the Thai language
There are 44 consonants in the Thai language. Consonants are arranged into three groups called “classes”: low, mid, and high. Each of the 44 consonants belongs to one of these groups, and is one of the determining factors for a syllable’s tone.
A few of the consonants – and this goes for some vowels, too – have sounds that we English speakers are not familiar with and may prove awkward to learn at first. For example:
DT – This sound is not something we naturally produce in English. It’s a combination of a “D” and “T” sound.
NG – Think of the word “singing.” The Thai NG sound is produced similarly to the first “ng” in singing.
Several of the consonants have the same sound but are written differently. For example, the letter “s” in Thai can be written four different ways:
ซ, ศ, ษ, ส
Consonants also have a unique feature in that their sound changes depending on whether or not they are found at the beginning or end of a syllable. Using our letter “s” example, when one of those four characters is used at the beginning of a syllable, the “s” sound is used. However, if one of those same characters is used at the end of a syllable, they are pronounced with a “t” sound. (Thai does not have an ending “s” sound for a syllable, so “t” is used instead.)
Vowels in the Thai language
Vowels, admittedly, are a bit of a pain in the butt to wrap your head around. Not only do some of the vowels have sounds that are – like some consonants – difficult to reproduce for us, but vowels can be found before, after, on top of, or below a consonant, as well as in several combinations thereof. Here are some examples:
This syllable is pronounced /nai/. The first character, ใ, is actually the vowel. Yes, that’s right; in this case the vowel “ai” comes before the consonant “n.”
This is the word for “good” and is pronounced as /dii/ (“dee”). The vowel is above the consonant in this case.
This is a fun one. /rao/ is the word for “we,” and the vowel is actually the first and third character. The “r” sound is sandwiched in between the vowel!
The word for “ear” is /hǔu/ (pronounced with a rising tone). The vowel is the small u-shaped symbol underneath the consonant “h.”
Lastly, here is a hard one:
This is the word for “alone” - /diiao/. The vowel is a combination of everything except for the ด. Yes, this vowel is to the left, above, and to the right (with two characters) of the consonant.
Have I scared you yet? Probably. They scared me at first. But as I mentioned at the beginning, persistence is the key. Just remember that there is only one vowel sound per syllable.
Tone marks in the Thai language
As if the information already provided isn’t intimidating enough to have you scouring the web for English language expat groups and media sources, the Thai language also has four symbols called tone marks, which are used to determine a syllable’s tone. The good news here is that when a tone marker is present you can ignore all of the other factors that determine a syllable’s tone. The four tones marks are:
่ mái èek
้ mái too
๊ mái dtrii
๋ mái jàt-dtà-waa
Don’t worry about the dotted circles; they are just there to represent where a consonant should be. All tone markers go above the corresponding consonant.
Any last words?
Yes, a few things, but since this is just a primer I won’t drown you in detail. There are a few more quirks like consonant clusters and other symbols that come into play, but for now I think I’ve given you enough to warrant a few mind-numbing margaritas.
As a consolation prize of sort:
Sorry to have to do this to you, but I should also mention that written Thai has no spaces in between words. Yes, that’s right, Thai looks like one huge run on sentence. There are spaces in between sentences, but not in between the words in a sentence. For example:
/kun wâai-náam dâi mǎi/
Can you swim?
Here are the individual words separated out as if it were English:
คุณ ว่าย น้ำ ได้ ไหม
Unfortunately, we don’t get the luxury of having Thai written the English way.
It’s also important to know that Thai is also, in some cases, gender specific. Men will use certain words for something and women will use certain words for the same thing. As you start to learn the language, be aware of this so you don’t walk around saying words a woman would normally use when you are a man (and vice versa). Though it’s not the end of the world, it could cause for some unexpected chuckles.
Any suggestions for tackling Thai?
Be patient – This is a marathon, not a sprint. As complex as Thai may seem, it’s really not. Just go step by step and take your time.
Make a friend – There is nothing more valuable than finding a few Thai people and becoming friends. I assume this will happen by default, but the point here is to start speaking Thai to them right away. You’ll find that a few things happen:
You make instant friends. (Thai people LOVE when they see you making the effort.)
They will start to help you with your Thai. At first you may need to nudge them a little bit, but once the friendship has been established they will most often be eager to help you.
Write, Read, Speak – Learn to do all three at once. Children’s books are a great place to start. But don’t neglect one for the other two. Just learning how to speak may seem like the thing to do, but it’s really not.
DO NOT try to learn Thai from the newspapers – One of the interesting quirks about Thai is that speakers will always try to shorten everything being said or written. Because of that, newspapers and magazines will often be very difficult to understand. Trust me; the last thing you want to do is talk like a newspaper!
Learn from the right people – If you are a 60-year old man, you probably don’t want to be learning to speak Thai exclusively from a 22-year old girl. Not only will you probably start to use woman-specific words, but you’ll also be picking up all of her slang. In essence, you’re going to sound pretty strange!
Listen, listen, listen! Get a TV and watch Thai programming, a lot. At least an hour a day if you can. Don’t worry about trying to figure out what they are saying, just listen. You’ll absorb the pronunciation the same way a child learns.
Have fun. You’re going to hear the Thai word sanuk (“fun”) a lot. Thai people are all about having fun, so you should too!