Mary Haas - Thai Language Author

When I first started learning Thai, one of the comments I consistently received from people – native speakers and farang alike – was that sentence structure didn’t matter all that much, as the person you were speaking to would get the gist of what you were saying based on the context.

The more I dig into the Thai language, however, I think this statement may have more to do with the Thai’s ไม่เป็นไร culture than us actually having to not worry about sentence structure and grammatical rules. I love the fact that Thai people are very casual about this, as it does certainly take some pressure and anxiety out of having to actually speak Thai to a real person. But, it can also be something of a detriment to serious students.

Rules are certainly made to be broken, but before you can break the rules you have to know the rules.

Now, I bring this topic up not so much to “teach” as much as to learn. I’m definitely not a grammatical expert, especially in this area, so I’m hoping for some contributions from the TLLC (Thai language-learning community) to step up and work through this with me.

Let’s take, for example, the following sentence:

kun wâai-náam dâi mǎi
Can you swim?

Seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? But let’s compare it with this sentence:

kun dâi wâai-náam mǎi
Can you swim?

No, I’m not messing with you. At first glance, even with ได้ being placed earlier in the sentence, the translation would seem to be the same. But, unfortunately, they’re not.

In the first sentence, placing ได้ at the end of the sentence implies that the speaker is asking if the subject has the ability to swim. In other words, “do you know how to swim?” In the second sentence, where ได้ is at the beginning, the speaker is asking the subject a question along the lines of “do you want to go swimming?”

There certainly is a distinct difference between the two, so simply throwing caution to the wind and speaking Thai as a mish-mash of just getting the words out may not provide the intended meaning. I’m not saying you shouldn’t “go for it” per se, but it helps to understand how the grammatical structure works in this case.

I guess you could make things easier and say something along the lines of คุณอยากไปว่ายน้ำไหม (kun yàak bpai wâai-náam mǎi – “do you want to go swim?”), but not everyone is going to speak exactly that way, certainly not native Thai speakers.

My advice? Don’t go nuts over it, but don’t completely ignore it, either. It will come with time, especially as you speak Thai with a fluent speaker on a regular basis. I also recommend the book Thai: An Essential Grammar by David Smyth. It appears to be out of print, but you can pick up a copy relatively cheap – and it’s worth it.