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How to Gain Insight into the Thai Language from How Thais Learn English

How to Gain Insight into the Thai Language

Just how DO Thais learn English?…

Tenses for ThaisHaving recently written a book (Tenses for Thais) designed to help native English speakers and Thais who wish to teach English to Thais, I received a friendship invitation from Ms Wentworth, whose roving eyes had detected my work. At her suggestion, I will try to ‘turn the tables’ and offer the readers of www.womenlearnthai.com a few insights into learning Thai based on how Thais learn English.

Three separate issues leap to mind:

  1. Thais unwittingly impose many of their own rules of pronunciation on English. By listening to how Thais pronounce English, insights into how Thai is pronounced can be gained.
  2. Thais generally impose their own language structure on English. The student of Thai must forsake the structures of his/her native language. Likewise, we must forsake the structures natural to native English speakers.
  3. The importance of culture in learning language is greater than many presume. I believe it was Hegel who hypothesized that a language is more than just different words and structure; it is the reflection of a culture. If you merely translate the words of your own language into the new one, regardless of grammatical correctness, your alien status will become quickly apparent. In order to speak another language perfectly, you need to understand the culture it represents.


Inserting Unwritten Sounds:
To Thais, many consonant combinations that seem simple to native English speakers are very difficult to pronounce. Just like they insert extra vowels into ‘simple’ words like STOP (sa-top), we need to insert vowel sounds between certain Thai consonants even when none are written.

Changing Pronunciation of Final Consonants:
Final consonant sounds in Thai are often not fully pronounced. This is also common in English to a varying degree based on regional dialects. Please think of words like ‘stop’ or ‘it’, where we don’t finish the consonant sound, but rather ‘swallow’ the end of it. Still, we can easily hear which consonant sound is used. I have in my classes referred to such sounds as ‘silent’ final consonants, though technically they ought to be referred to as unreleased. In Thai, many ending consonants will not only be unreleased, but will change consonant sound altogether. Final -s or -j in Thai becomes an unreleased -t (as in the English word ‘it’), final -g becomes an unreleased -k, final -l becomes a sounding -n etc. The lack of certain ending sounds in Thai leads Thais to mispronounce seemingly simple words like ‘yes’ and ‘hotel’ (yet, hoten) and is once again a useful hint as to details we need to observe when learning Thai.

Using ‘Thai English Pronunciation’ to Improve Your Thai:
Knowing these rules will not only help you understand the mispronunciation of English by Thais but will also help you with your own pronunciation of Thai. The pronunciation of Thai vowels is, though difficult, not an issue since Thai vowels have only one sound (albeit with varying tones). This is the opposite of English, where vowels have very inconsistent pronunciation but consonants are relatively consistent. I often contrast English to Thai in my classes since speaking and writing are direct opposites in several ways. In English, we separate words in writing but often pull them together in speech; In Thai, they do not separate words in writing, but they do separate them in speech. Since the commonly used systems for writing Thai words with our alphabet are sometimes misleading, I have even created a small chart for Thais wishing to learn English in my book. That chart is certainly useful for Westerners wishing to pronounce Thai words as well.

Tones in Thai are notoriously difficult for native English speakers. When listening very carefully to examples of ‘tones’, it occurred to me that Thais do not always change the pitch of their voice. Instead, tonality is a combination of tone and relative vowel length or ‘tone contour’. When studying Thai, I graphically drew the pitch and vowel length for the 5 different tones, which helped me greatly. If you truly wish to master the tones, please consider listening with a different focus than mere tone of voice. Hopefully, it will make tonality less difficult for you as it did for me.


Question Words:
The first thing I teach my Thai students (provided they have a working vocabulary) is how to use question words. In Thai, these tend to be placed at the end of sentences. In English, they are placed at the beginning. Not paying enough attention to the question word can lead to answering the wrong question. If you ask a Thai person “How are you doing?”, you will more often than not get an answer to the question “What are you doing?” Anyone learning Thai should learn all the common question structures in Thai. Also learn where to insert the much appreciated polite words or phrases. Please also remember that question words are sometimes used differently; the question “Bpen arai?” does not mean “What are you?” or “What is it?” but “HOW are you?” even though ‘arai’ is usually translated as ‘what’ and ‘how’ is usually translated into ‘yang rai’.

In Thai, it is not necessary to use verbs in every sentence as we do in English. My early teaching of questions for Thais focuses greatly on the use ‘to be’ or ‘to do’ in questions and answers. All present simple and past simple questions in English use these verbs, directly and by implication, as do correct answers to the questions. In Thai, questions such as “Car color red or plain (or not)?” or “Married or not yet?” are perfectly acceptable. No added verbs are needed.

Another aspect of verbs in Thai is that they do not change form to reflect time; instead, words determining time (such as ‘will’ or ‘already’) are added. Learning the words for future (dja), past (laew), ongoing (gamlang … yoo) and just done (pung dja) and where they are placed in relation to the verbs is a a good start to referring to time in Thai. To the surprise of many though, all the English tenses can be explained in Thai. Thais just don’t bother to go into the complexities of time as much as we do in English. When learning to understand Future Perfect and Future Perfect Continuous, Thais have to change their usual way of thinking quite significantly.

Singular & Plural, Classifiers:
The absence of pronounced final s’s (under Pronunciation) in Thai leads into the topic of countable and uncountable nouns since Thais rarely pronounce plurals correctly. Many mistake this for ignorance and explain it by saying that Thai nouns have no plural form. This is true – sort of … Though no one seems to realize or teach this, all Thai nouns are uncountable in structure. In Thai, “two glasses of water” and “two cars” are structured “water two glass” and “car two unit” – exactly the same. Uncountable nouns in English are treated much the same in Thai, with similar units of measure that can be translated. However, ALL Thai nouns have units of measure. For countable nouns, the grammatical term for these units is ‘classifiers’. Unfortunately, many classifiers are devoid of meaning on their own and have to be learned by memorization. For any student of the Thai language, this means that every single noun must be accompanied by a unit of measure or classifier in order to be used correctly in conversation.

The Thai teacher who assisted with translations into Thai in my book, Mrs. Nampeung Khonseuh de Escobar, is currently writing her Master’s thesis on ‘The Thai Classifier’, which I am looking forward to reading.

Many say that Thai lacks articles. This is of course not true since ‘a’ and ‘an’ mean ‘one’ and Thai has numbers just like we do. However, as with uncountable nouns in English (and nouns are ALL treated as uncountable in Thai), the quantity need not always be specified. The definite article ‘the’ is indeed not a part of the Thai language. If you wish to refer to a specific object, a self-explanatory context or proper explanation is needed.

Thai Culture…

When in Rome, do as the Romans!:
Thais have a different way of thinking than we do in The West. Even in different Western countries and indeed parts of countries, cultural thinking differs significantly. Sometimes, the difference is so great that Thais do not understand us even though we have done a pretty good job selecting the right words and grammar to express ourselves. We all tend to use our subjective references when having conversations and the fact that we think and express ourselves differently may cause communication to fail, even when using the same language. Therefore, try to adopt the mindset of a Thai, sensitive to overt expressions of disagreement, relaxed about time, and using the most polite language you are able to. If languages are truly an expression of culture, consider the lack of tenses and disinclination to say NO directly as clues to how one should communicate with Thais. Please note however, that there are many punctual Thais and that all generalizations can backfire if applied automatically to everyone. Just as native speakers of English are all unique individuals, so are Thais of course.


As in my book, what I write is based on personal experience. Though fluent in several languages, I have not studied linguistics and sometimes find grammatical terminology cumbersome. Therefore, I usually opt for explanations that help the learner understand rather than focusing on linguistic terminology. One major part of my book is actually recommending a simple change to terminology in traditional English verb conjugation in order to simplify the English tenses dramatically.

In this text, I used the word ‘classifier’ at the suggestion of Catherine Wentworth and the terms ‘unreleased’ (consonant pronunciation) and ‘tone contour’ after feedback from Rikker Dockum, who stated that tone pitch and tone contour are the two aspects of tones in Thai. Previously, I had never heard any reference to tone contour or even vowel length, but I am happy to see that this method of explaining tones is already known. Mr. Dockum also pointed out a few areas where I had not made myself completely clear, after which I expanded a few of my explanations and added examples.

Thank you Ms. Wentworth and Mr. Dockum for your feedback and suggestions.

Nils Bastedo
Facebook: Tenses for Thais

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  1. Excellent information – it makes sense that listening to the mistakes that Thais make with English can tell us a lot about Thai. I would often be amused by the mistakes that Thai students would make in class, but it would make perfect sense when I considered the structure in Thai. My son is being brought up bilingual and it is fascinating the mistakes he makes while negotiating both languages. I agree that there is a lot more to a language than just words – culture has a huge impact.

  2. Stu Jay covered this in his workshop (the one I attended anyway). I’ll have to ask him for more details (it’s been awhile).

  3. I used to be fluent in French (but it kind of fell out while I started learning Thai), and agree completely that a language is as much about culture as it is about sentence structure. I feel that this is because the culture of the people speaking the language provide the initial context for everything they say – without it, it’s just a collection of words.

    For example, in English when we say “I am sorry”, we are actually saying “I feel bad” for doing something wrong, whereas in Thai you say “ขอโทษ”, and are “requesting punishment” for doing something wrong.

    By learning the actual meanings behind simple phrases such as these, you can learn a lot about the people who speak a language – and conversely, by learning about the people who speak the language, you will find learning the language a whole lot easier. And suddenly it will all start to make lots more sense! :)

  4. Very good piece. I’ve always picked up on the Thai’s pronounce English words but I never really thought about it in terms of the Thai language. This has definitely opened my eyes.

  5. Scott, I get a tickle out of many Thai word combos as they seem softer than our own. Except for the apologising bit. Begging for punishment is going too far :-)

    Talen, it’s been fun learning to say Centen for Central, and Tetgo instead of Tesco. If I have a clued in taxi driver it doesn’t matter (clued in to westerners) but newbies get confused until I switch over (and the light comes on).

  6. Catherine and Nils, a very interesting article. The hotel and ‘hoten’ explanation makes a lot of sense when put over as it is here, “What hoten your fliend Lob stay” won’t bring such a wry smile from me if I ever hear it again.

    A good post and well written, let’s have a little bit more of it please. Don’t satop it there.

  7. Catherine, Nils has highlighted some interesting points and even though I’m not a level to appreciate them all…yet, they’ve given me food for thought. Practicing a new language can give cause to smile to yourself on many an occasion.

    The other day someone asked me where I was from. Understanding that some English consonant groups are hard to pronounce for Thais, I said ‘ออสเตรเลีย’ (aawt dtraeh liia), to which they replied ‘Oh, AuSTRalia’…I almost felt I was being corrected ;)

  8. Ear Mr Garrigan, Mr Earle, Talen, Martyn and Snap

    Thank you very much for the posiive feedback. This was written rather quickly, and I can assure you that there is plenty more where that came from. If you have specific ideas, please let me know. Even though I am pretty busy these days, I dream of returning to Thailand and enjoy thinking about (not to mention using) languages immensely.

    Thank you once again for your kind words,


  9. Hope I’m not too late to join the discussion. I’ve started to read this and then had to go back several times. Taking Thai class and teaching English has made me a very busy person!

    I think this is a brilliant article because it makes perfect sense to clue in on how Thais learn English. And the mistakes we both make trying to learn each others language.

    And I really do enjoy learning Thai. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again ~ Thai is so poetic and metaphoric.

  10. Hi Lani, never too late here (on some of my sites I close the comments after 30 days, but not this one). I imagine that teaching English side by side with learning Thai gives you an insight into your studies.

  11. Dear Catherine

    Reading all the positive responses (thank you Lani), I wonder if I should write another post. Let me know if you come up with another topic.

    By the way, your site is very very good.

  12. Dear Nils, I’d love to have another article from you so I’ll do my best to come up with another subject. And ta for the kudos (always nice to hear!)

  13. Where can I buy this book in Bangkok outside the online website?
    Like which bookstore?
    Thanks in advance.

  14. Hi Daniel, Tenses for Thais can be found at Bangkok Books. In the post above, just click on the link and it’ll take you there. Or, click on the link in the comments here.

  15. Dear Daniel

    I am currently considering hardcopy publishing after a number of inquiries. Unfortunately, I have to arrange distribution myself. Not being in Thailand and not having any connections with potential distributors, I have to date sent mails to Kinokuniya, Bookazine and Asia Books, but have not elicited much response.

    I hope to return to Thailand within the next 2 years to work and settle down, but would love for the book to be distributed well before then. Any helpful suggestions would be very welcome.

  16. Very late here, but good article.
    Regarding the listening to Thais speak English, this helps right from the start because it tells you how to pronounce the many English loan words in Thai (or so I have observed so far).

    Learning a new culture takes time but one thing you can do as soon as you start to learn a language is “be prepared to put your own culture to the background”. This is key I find you have to be prepared to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time and accept that what may seem odd or wrong to you is just another way of looking at something, a way that you may come to understand as you know the language better. If you oppose these thoughts you are resisting learning the language.

  17. Chris, I agree totally. Getting around Bangkok can be difficult without a knowledge of Thinglish. Because if you use the English version, unless they are versed in our ways taxi drivers will vacantly stare back and shake their heads.

    “be prepared to put your own culture to the background”

    Good advice, but I am still finding it difficult to follow. I’m learning the reasons behind what makes Thailand what it is, but my western mindset fights putting it into practice. I’m a ‘this women will bow to no man’ kind of gal, so don’t ask me to crawl on my belly, nose to the ground.

  18. Hi Catherine,

    Being a (thoughtless) guy that never occurred to me (doh). There will be many cultures where it is considerably easier to take the male role for sure. Karma will undoubtedly ensure I am re-incarnated a women next time around to teach me this lesson. Food for thought, my plans at some point to travel in Asia and try out some of these language I am learning will certainly include my wife (she is a bow to no man kind of gal also), I had better start thinking a bit more (she has already voiced concerns about toilets ;)).

    Actually I am really glad you planted that seed of thought in my head.

  19. Please tell your wife that I am of the opinion that the toilets are fine in Thailand. Some of the other parts of SE Asia are a bit dodgy though. Thailand, in comparison, is very clean. The roadside petrol stations especially make the effort. If you take her elsewhere first she’ll see what I mean.

    Being re-incarnated a women wouldn’t be so bad. The pain is always having to say no and stand your ground. It can be quite tedious – I’m sure to all – but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant and is often hilarious. To me anyway. The Thais aren’t the only ones capable of big smiles :-)

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