A lot of people are attempting to learn Thai these days.
But do they really know what they are letting themselves in for. Be it the tonal natural of the Thai language or how the script at first glance looks indecipherable. People need to approach the language with both patience and respect.
With that in mind, a lot of you will be wondering how hard is Thai to learn?
Well let me tell you, it’s pretty hard.
- Vocabulary – Thai has a lot of loan words and the compounding nature of a lot of the vocabulary makes learning new words both fun and fast.
- Grammar – The grammar is subject-verb-object and tenses, negatives and auxiliaries in Thai are easy to get your head around.
- Speaking/Listening – The language has 5 tones and a lot of the sounds not found in English. The tonal nature of Thai can cause a lot of problems for people starting out.
- Writing/Reading – The script is tricky and if you don’t have experience with abugida alphabets they can take a lot of time to get used to.
But, keep your chin up, there is hope yet!
So, how hard is Thai to learn really?
Thai vocabulary is usually monosyllabic. Words are often formed by repeating the same word or compounding together existing simpler words. The romanisation of the Thai script below is using the Royal Thai General System of Transcription (RTGS).
- Honey – น้ำผึ้ง – nam-phueng – water + bee
- Train – รถไฟ – rot-fai – car + fire
- Purse – กระเป๋าตังค์ – krapao-tang – bag + money.
Thai loans words historically came from Chinese then later from Sanskrit, Khmer and Pali. In the era of colonialism Thai took words from French, Portuguese and English. In the recent age of globalism English loans words have been increasingly used in the context of culture, commerce and technology.
Basic English Loan Words
- Captain – กัปตัน – kap-tan
- Computer – คอมพิวเตอร์ – khom-phio-toe
- Dinosaur – ไดโนเสาร์ – dai-no-sao
- Plastic – พลาสติก – phlat-tik
- Shampoo – แชมพู – chaem-phu
- Technology – เทคโนโลยี – thek-no-lo-yi
- Visa – วีซ่า – wi-sa
In order to understand the grammar of a language it is necessary to deconstruct the basic sentences to observe how the language functions.
- The apple is red — aeppoen see daeng — no definite or indefinite articles
- It is John’s apple — nee kue aeppoen kong John — possession uses kong, be verb is denoted a few different ways
- I give John the apple — chan hai aeppoen kae John — subject-verb-object word order, subject + verb + direct object + indirect object
- We give him the apple — puak rao hai aeppoen kae kao
- He gives it to John — kao hai man kae John
- He doesn’t give it to John — kao mai hai man kae John — negated with mai
- She gives it to him — lon hai man kae kao — he and she are different words
- I gave John the apple — chan dai hai aeppoen kae John — past tense denoted with dai
- I must give it to him — chan tong hai man kae kao — simple auxilliary + main verb word order
- I want to give it to her — chan yak hai man kae lon
The language deconstruction method is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good base for understanding Thai. It operates under the 80:20 Pareto principle, in that 80% of your languages needs are covered by 20% of the functional language.
- Word Order – Thai grammar has a subject-verb-object word order.
- Pronouns – There are many many more pronouns in Thai than there are in English. The options range for male/female, very informal though to very informal, the age difference of the person you are talking to and there are even special pronouns when speaking to a monk.
- Nouns – In Thai the nouns don’t change for gender or whether they are singular or plural.
- Counters/Classifiers – For every noun there is a specific classifier. Some have an English translation, others do not.
- Adjectives – the adjective comes after the noun which it describes.
- Verbs – Verbs don’t change with the subject or tense. Instead these features are shown through even context or specific time markers in front of or after the verb.
- Auxiliary verbs – are expressed together with main verb.
- Be – the word bpen is used to mean be in thai, but it cannot be used with adjectives.
- Have – In thai you can use the word mee to mean have possession.
- Negatives – Negatives are expressed with prefix word mai in front of the verb.
- Questions – To form a question you only need place the word mái at the end of a statement.
- Direct and Indirect Objects – The order is direct obj. + indirect object.
Thai has 39 phonemes made up of 21 consonant sounds and 18 vowel sounds. Thai is also a tonal language.
- Consonants – m, k, j, p, w, n, t, l, s, b, ŋ, h, d, f, ʔ, ɾ, kʰ, pʰ. tʰ, cç, cçʰ.
- Of the 21 consonants the following 14 are shared with RP English but 7 are not.
- m, j, w, n, l, s, b, ŋ, h, d, f, kʰ, pʰ. tʰ,
- Vowels – a, o, ɛ, ɔ, iː, aː, uː, eː, oː, ɨ, ɪ, ʊ, ɔː, æ, ɨː, æː, ɘ, ɘː
- Of the 18 vowels the following 5 is shared with RP English but 20 are not.
- iː, uː, ɪ, ʊ, ɔː
- Low – starting at a low pitch, you fall slightly to a lower pitch – khai – ไข่ – egg
- Mid – start at a mid pitch continuing at the same level until the end – bpai – ไป – to go
- High – start at a high pitch and continuing slightly higher and stressed – khrap – ครับ – grammar particle
- Rising – start at a low/mid pitch and increase, much like a question – nang – หนัง – film
- Falling – start at a high pitch, continue up a little then drop down – chai – ใช่ – yes
Tones in Thai involve a combination of pitch, duration, stress, and clarity/quality.
The Thai script is originally believed to have come from the Khmer script and is very closely related to the Lao script. The alphabet is made up of 44 consonants and 18 vowels and 6 diphthongs.
My hovercraft is full of eels – โฮเวอร์คราฟท์ของผมเต็มไปด้วยปลาไหล
The red symbols are the vowels , the blue symbols are the consonants and the green symbol is the tone marker.
- The script is written from left to right.
- There are no spaces between words, rather spaces occur at the end of a sentence.
- The script is formed with a main consonant shape around which vowels and tones are denoted.
Why Learn Thai?
There are three key reasons to learn Thai.
- Thailand is one of the most beautiful countries to travel through and while the locals are pleasant with most tourist, if you can can speak the local language you will enjoy the experience infinitely more.
- The language itself is a significant challenge and taking on the tricky script and being able to read the language is a highly worthwhile way to spend your time.
- It isn’t one of the major world languages so you gain some credibility as a polyglot for taking on this language.
But let’s not stop there. We are only just scratching the surface.
Thai is a Kra-Dai language. It is the official language of Thailand and the primary language of the Thai people. It is spoken by 20 million people as a 1st language and, interestingly double that around 40 million speak it as a 2nd language.
Travel, Culture, History and Economy
Thailand is located in Southeast Asia, with coastlines on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. It shares its borders with Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast and Malaysia to the south.
It is a very popular tourist destination, probably the most popular in Southeast Asia. There are thick jungles, beautiful coastal waters and islands, world renowned cuisine and much more. The people are famous for being very welcoming and it is both easy and cheap to get around the country.
The country has a long and proud history and in the latter part of the 20th century had one of the fastest growing economies. Thailand has the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, relying heavily on exports. The main hub is the capital Bangkok and is by far the biggest city. In recent years the military has taken control of the government but the country remains a popular destination to travel.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has put together a relative comparison of world languages including Thai.
They rate Thai as a category 4 language along with languages like Georgian, Mongolian and Vietnamese. They believe it would 44 weeks (1100 hours) to achieve a L3 proficiency in speaking and reading.
In attempting to learn anything it is best to first deconstruct the problem and then break down the learning task into manageable chunks. It is with this in mind that I recommend the following resources to help you in learning Thai.
- Fluent Forever or Anki – The Fluent Forever method details exactly how to use spaced repetition to quickly build functional vocabulary and learn common grammar rules.
- italki.com – Italki gives you access to very cheap video chat lesson with teachers from around the world, dive straight in.
- lang-8.com – Lang 8 allows you to input writing and have it corrected for free in a matter of hours. This community is very helpful and is a great way to practice online.