Thailand - Language

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Language

During your travels in Thailand, meeting and getting to know Thai people can be a very rewarding experience. I would particularly urge travellers, young and old, to make the effort to meet Thai college and university students. Thai students are, by and large, eager to meet their peers from other countries. They will often know some English, so communication is not as difficult as it may be with merchants, civil servants, etc., plus they are generally willing to teach you useful Thai words and phrases.

Learning some Thai is indispensable for travelling in the kingdom; naturally, the more language you pick up, the closer you get to Thailand's culture and people. Foreigners who speak Thai are so rare in Thailand that it doesn't take much to impress most Thais with a few words in their own language. Don't let laughter at your linguistic attempts discourage you; this amusement is an expression of their appreciation.

Thai is one of the oldest languages in East and South-East Asia; according to linguist/anthropologist Paul Benedict it may even pre-date Chinese, at least in its prototypical form. Many of the so-called 'loan words' thought to be borrowed from Chinese by the Thais actually have an Austro-Thai origin. At any rate, Chinese and Thai have many similarities, since both are monosyllabic tonal languages.

In Thai the meaning of a single syllable may be altered by means of five different tones (in standard central Thai): level or mid tone, low tone, falling tone, high tone and rising tone. Consequently, the syllable mai, for example, can mean, depending on the tone, 'new', 'burn', 'wood', 'not?' or 'not'.

This makes it rather tricky to learn at first, for those of us who come from more or less non-tonal-language traditions. Even when we 'know' what the correct tone in Thai should be, our tendency to denote emotion, verbal stress, the interrogative, etc, through tone modulation, often interferes with speaking the correct tone. So the first rule in learning to speak Thai is to divorce emotions from your speech, at least until you have learned the Thai way to express them without changing essential tone value.

The Thai script, a fairly recent development in comparison with the spoken language (King Ram Khamheng introduced the script in 1283), consists of 44 consonants (but only 21 separate sounds) and 48 vowels and diphthong possibilities (32 separate signs) and is of Sanskrit origin. Written Thai proceeds from left to right, though vowel signs may be written before, above, below, 'around' (before, above and after), or after consonants, depending on the sign. Though learning the alphabet is not difficult, the writing system itself is fairly complex, so unless you are planning a lengthy stay in Thailand it should perhaps be foregone in favour of learning to actually speak the language. Where possible, place names occurring in headings are given in Thai script as well as in Roman script, so that you can at least 'read' the names of destinations at a pinch, or point to them if necessary.

The following is a brief attempt to explain the tones. The only way to really understand the differences is by listening to a native or fluent non-native speaker. The range of all five tones is relative to each speaker's vocal range so there is no fixed 'pitch' intrinsic to the language.

The level or mid tone is pronounced 'flat', at the relative middle of the speaker's vocal range. Example: dii means good.

The low tone is 'flat' like the mid tone, but pronounced at the relative bottom of one's vocal range. It is low, level and with no inflection. Example: baat means Baht (the Thai currency).

The falling tone is pronounced as if you were emphasizing a word, or calling someone's name from afar. Example: mai means 'no' or 'not'.

The high tone is usually the most difficult for westerners. It is pronounced near the relative top of the vocal range, as level as possible. Example: nii means 'this'.

The rising tone sounds like the inflection English speakers generally give to a question - 'You like soup?' Example: saam means 'three'.

Words in Thai that appear to have more than one syllable are usually compounds made up of two or more word units, each with its own tone. They may be words taken directly from Sanskrit or Pali, in which case each syllable must still have its own tone. Sometimes the tone of the first syllable is not as important as that of the last, so for these I am omitting the tone mark.

Here is a guide to the phonetic system that has been used in this website when transcribing directly from Thai. It is based on the Royal Thai General System of transcription (RTGS), except that it distinguishes between vowels of short and long duration (e.g. 'i' and 'ii'; 'a' and 'an'; 'e' and 'eh'; 'o' and 'oh'), between 'o' and 'aw' (both would be 'o' in the RTGS) and between 'ch' and 'j' (both 'ch' in the RTGS).

Consonants
th as the 't' in 'tea'
ph as the 'p' in 'put' (never as the 'ph' in 'phone')
kh as the 'k' in 'kite'
k similar to 'g' in 'good', or k in 'cuckoo' but un-aspirated and unvoiced
t as the 't' in 'forty' - un-aspirated (no accompanying puff of air); similar to 'd' but unvoiced
p as the 'p' in 'stopper', unvoiced, un-aspirated (not like the 'p' in 'put')
ng as the 'ng' in 'sing'; used as an initial consonant in Thai - practice by saying 'sing' without the 'si'
r similar to the 'r' in 'run' but flapped (tongue touches palate) - in everyday speech often pronounced like 'l'
All the remaining consonants correspond closely to their English counterparts.
Vowels
i as the 'i' in 'it'
ii as the 'ee' in 'feet'
ai as the 'i' in 'pipe'
aa as the 'a' in 'father'
a half as long as aa
ae as the 'a' in 'bat' or 'tab'
e as the 'e' in 'hen'
eh as the 'a' in 'hate'
oe as the 'u' in 'hut' but more closed
u as the 'u' in 'flute'
nu as the 'oo' in 'food', longer than u
eu as the 'eu' in French 'deux', or the 'i'm sir'
ao as the 'ow' in 'now'
aw as the 'aw' in 'jaw'
o as the 'o' in 'bone'; exception ko, pronounced 'kaw'
oh as the 'o' in 'toe'
eua diphthong, or combination, of eu and a
ia as 'ee-ya', or as the 'ie' in French rien
ua as the 'ou' in 'tour'
uay as the 'ewy' in 'Dewey'
iu as the 'ew' in 'yew'
law as the 'io' in 'Rio' or Italian mio or dio
There are several other vowel combinations that are relatively rare.

Words & Phrases

When being polite the speaker ends their sentence with khrap (for men) or kha (for women). It is the gender of the speaker that is being expressed here; it is also the common way to answer 'yes' to a question or show agreement.

Your first attempts to speak the language will probably meet with mixed success, but keep trying. When learning new words/phrases, listen closely to the way the Thais themselves use the various tones - you'll catch on quickly.

For expanding your travel vocabulary, recommended is Robertson's Practical English-Thai Dictionary since it has a phonetic guide to pronunciation, with tones and is compact in size. Published by Charles E Tuttle Co, Suido 1-chome, 2-6, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, it may be difficult to find.

For more serious language-learners there is Mary Haas' Thai-English Student's Dictionary and George McFarland's Thai-English Dictionary (the cream of the crop), both published by Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

Thai Language Study

Several language schools in Bangkok and Chiang Mai offer courses for foreigners in Thai language. Tuition fees average around 250 Baht per hour. Some places will let you trade English lessons for Thai lessons, or if not you can usually teach English on the side to offset tuition costs. There are three recommended schools in Bangkok:

Other Courses

Chulalongkorn University, the most prestigious university in Thailand, has recently begun offering an intensive Thai studies course called 'Perspectives on Thailand'. The programme runs four weeks and includes classes in Thai language, culture, history, politics, and economics. Classes meet six hours a day, six days a week (Saturday is usually a field trip) and are offered twice a year, January to February and July to August. Students who have taken the course say they have found the quality of instruction excellent. Tuition is US$1000.

Room and board on campus is available though it's much less expensive to live off campus. For further information write to Perspectives on Thailand, 7th floor, Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

The YMCA's Sin Pattana Thai Language School (tel. 0 2286 1936), 13 Sathon Tai Road, Bangkok, gives Thai language lessons as well as preparation for the Baw Hok exam.


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