Photo by tourismhuahin.com

“Excuse, please. Where see go Liberty Bell?”

Working in Olde City Philadelphia, three blocks from the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Ben Franklin’s grave, you hear this kind of question a lot. Needless to say, not a day goes by (especially in the summer) that I don’t see at least a handful of people walking around with maps in hand, trying to figure out which historical landmark to see next. This area gets a lot of foreign tourists, and quite often I am asked things like “Excuse, please. Where see go Liberty Bell?”

I know exactly what they are trying to ask me, and I am always more than happy to show them where they need to go. But one thing I do not do is correct their English. It would almost seem rude, wouldn’t it? I don’t know these people, and all they want is some help with directions. So why then is it so important for us Thai language learners to learn the tones? I mean, in all likelihood we’re not going to be corrected by a complete stranger, are we? And even if we are, who cares if they understood what we were asking and helped us?

In the Sunday Thai language at my local Thai temple we’ve been having a lot of discussions about the value of learning a syllable’s tone. A few members of the student body — admittedly much better at conversational Thai than I am — feel it’s more important to get the vocabulary down, and the tones will come later as a result of having friends/family correct them later down the line. They are of the first group; if they can be understood enough to get what they need and survive, why worry about it? (And trust me when I tell you they aren’t speaking from a point of arrogance or Ugly Americanism at all.)

I, on the other hand, feel the exact opposite: that learning the tones right away is the way to go. It’s not just a case of my wife correcting me when I say the wrong tone, it’s really about what your goals are in learning the language. To the casual Thai vacationer it may not seem important, but to someone (like myself) who wants to be a true student of the language and become fluent, dare I say it’s probably the most important thing you can learn! I should also mention that literally every Thai person I have asked about this subject say learning the tones is absolutely essential.

And so I was pleasantly surprised to read the following comment made by Peter Montalbano (who has commented here on this blog – thanks, Peter!) in an interview on womenlearnthai.com:

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

I think different people have different misconceptions. Some think the tones aren’t important, and that’s about as wrong as could be. Some don’t notice the difference between long and short vowels. Some don’t get the difference between aspirated and unaspirated unvoiced stops (p, t, k, ph, th, kh).

(The bold highlight was put in by me to emphasize the point.)

Not learning the tones for a tonal language such as Thai (and Thai certainly is not the only one) is akin to working out for an hour a day and then immediately going home and eating a gallon of Chunky Monkey ice cream — what’s the point? You’re defeating the purpose. Sure, you can say you’re working out, but are you really reaping the benefits? Sure, you can say you went to Thailand on vacation, but are you really getting the full experience?

When I started learning to play guitar I learned the notes and their names. I almost laugh out loud nowadays when someone I’m jamming with who has been playing for 20 years asks me what chord I’m playing and yet they can’t reproduce it because they don’t know where the note is on the fingerboard.

Why would you not want to immerse yourself in the culture, even if just for a few days? Speak with the native population, meet new people and make friends, not get charged the farang rate for tourist attractions, order a beer with pride and talk up the local ladies… whatever your proclivity may be.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and mandate that all Thai language learners should be forced to learn the tones. (Man, I really wish I had superpowers!) Seriously, it’s not that hard. There are some rules to learn and memorize, surely, but you can learn them in a month of concentrated study and then you’ll never have to worry about them again. There will be no going back over everything you’ve already learned and struggling to relearn it all. Take the time and it will be well worth it. You can start by reading my articles on consonants, vowels, tone markers, live and dead syllables, and how to determine a syllable’s tone. (While you’re at it, why not just read all of my blog posts and make me feel special?)

I also highly recommend you purchase the book/CD “Improving Your Thai Pronunciation” by Paiboon Publishing. Of course, there is nothing better than being able to speak with a Thai person and having them correct you. I will venture to say that they will be more than happy to help you if you make the effort; such is the nature of Thai people!