The Thai language is highly-organized (unlike English) and very easy to understand once you have a grasp of a few fundamental rules. I am by no means an expert on the Thai language, and also not the best book learner, but after a few months of study I was able to understand most of the structural rules.
What I present to you now is a very general overview of some things to keep in mind as you start to learn Thai. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and as this blog develops I will provide more in-depth information on the different aspects of the Thai language.
Thai is a Tonal Language
The concept of a tonal language seems to be the hardest for new students, especially those of us whose native tongue is Latin-based, where tone and inflection is indicative of mood and expression rather than actual vocabulary. Tone is fundamental to Thai, however. There are five tones used in Thai:
- Mid Tone
- Low Tone
- Falling Tone
- High Tone
- Rising Tone
Each Thai word has tones associated with each syllable. This is perhaps – to me at least – the most important thing to understand early on, as saying a word while using the wrong tone can be both embarrasing and confusing at the same time. Take, for example, the Thai word for “good”:
This word, which sounds like “dee”, is spoken with a mid tone.
There is another word in Thai which sounds almost exactly the same, but is pronounced with a falling tone:
This word, when spoken with the falling tone, means “lesbian.” I’m sure you can see how mispronouncing the tone might potentially cause some problems when your in-laws ask you how you are doing.
Needless to say at this point, when learning new words it is absolutely essential that you also learn the tone of each syllable.
Vowels in Thai can either be short or long. Vowel length is one of the factors used to determine what tone a syllable should be spoken with. (We will get into much greater detail about tone rules in another post.)
A quick example would be the difference between the English words “to” and “glue.” The both have the same sounding vowel, but the word glue clearly has a longer length when spoken.
Unaspirated Final Consonants
I sound so intelligent when I use the word “unaspirated,” don’t I? In the grand scheme of things it’s probably nothing special, but it’s not often that I get to roll that word out. Anyway, Thai words that end with consonants do not aspirate. To use English as an example again, when you say the word “but” the ‘t’ produces a very small expiration of air that sounds more like “tuh.” In Thai, you stop the aspiration of the final consonant, so in essence you are killing the “uh” sound and just pronouncing the ‘t’. This takes a little bit of time to wrap your head around, but once you get it right you can be assured that you will never accidentally spit on the person you are talking to.
Thai Has Sounds We Don’t (and you will have trouble with them!)
There are a few sounds in the Thai language that English just doesn’t have:
(bp) – This sound is very hard to convey correctly in written form. The best way I can think of is that it sounds something in between the letters ‘b’ and ‘p’. I will get some sound samples up eventually to help out.
(dt) – Say the word “stop” without the ‘s’ or ‘p’. I have found that this sound is most easily created by placing your tongue behind your top front teeth. My wife often tells me that my pronunciation of this and ด – which has more of a straight “d” sound – aren’t clear enough, so I’m ever in search of a way to make this sound more distinct.
(ng) – Think of the word “singing.” In this case, we want to use the first ‘ng’ in the word as our example; that’s how you will pronounce this sound. The rub isn’t necessarily that this sound doesn’t exist in English, but in Thai this sound frequently occurs at the beginning of the word, not just in the middle or end.
All of the characters above except for the middle consonant make up a single Thai vowel (yes, all three symbols make up one vowel; don’t worry, we’ll get to it later). This vowel sounds similar to “ooh ahh” but is pronounced while you form your mouth into a shape resembling a smile.
That’s all I can think of for now, at least to get you started. As I mentioned several times, we will go into much greater detail in upcoming posts, but this should give you a good idea of the main things to keep in mind. Good luck!