A Woman Learning Thai...and some men too ;)

Learn Thai Language & Thai Culture

Memorize Thai Tones With Five Simple Rules

Memorize Tones With Five Simple Rules

The five simple rules of Thai tones…

I just made big strides with reading tones/ tone markers and would like to share my findings with anyone interested. I’ve been a successful Piano and Music teacher and pride myself on finding how humans learn, and unveiling easier ways to understand concepts. The parallels of learning music and languages are staggering, so I’ve been reworking my approach of learning Thai from my musical practices.

I would first like to say that, initially, I tried to just memorize tone rules from the gate. I found that it got me nowhere fast. What works for me is reading Manee books (which thanks to Kruu Mia – Learn2SpeakThai – she has provided them WITH slow and fast audio… yes, amazing) and just jumped right in. After a few times recognizing a certain consonant with a tone marker (or lacking), it starts becoming ingrained without having to “memorize” any rules. It just becomes intuitive (which seems more along the natural path of how Thais learn it, and quite frankly, being a Piano teacher, is how most students of all ages learn).

So now that I’m revisiting “memorizing” a few of the rules, something really obvious stands out to me. I’m having flashbacks of resentment that I had when I grew up classically trained playing piano, and then found Jazz and Jazz theory. “Why were these extremely simple concepts left out of classical curriculum?” In other words, now that I see tone rules are easy, I am wondering why no one has explained it in any simple manner in all the teachings I find. So here is my attempt at making it easy!

Out of 15 possible scenarios of tone rules, you really only need to memorize only a handful.

High and Rising tone markers will always produce high and rising tones, respectively. So you do NOT need to worry about them, or memorize anything. If you see them, you know the tone no matter what.

So now that leaves only Low and Falling tone markers to worry about. Low and Falling tone markers will always create Low and Falling tones respectively, except when they appear with… LOW CLASS.

I will count this as the first two tone rules you have to memorize, even though you only need to memorize only low class consonants.

[So Low Class with Low Tone Marker creates Falling tone, and Low Class with Falling Marker creates High tone]

Now that we’ve covered the tone markers, it leaves us with what to do in the absence of tone markers.

Live Syllables and Dead Syllables are easy to distinguish. If you assume all dead syllables with no tone markers create a low tone, you then only need to worry about dead syllables with short or long vowels when they’re….You guessed it: LOW CLASS.

[Low Class Dead Short Vowel is high and Low Class Long Vowel is Falling]

So now, with only memorizing LOW CLASS consonants, you have already learned 12 of the 15 tone scenarios.

That leaves us with only Live Syllables with no tone markers. If you assume all Live Syllables with no tone markers create a Mid tone, you’ll probably be correct most of the time. The only rule you need to remember is that High Class Live Syllables create a rising tone.

So with only memorizing Low Class Consonants, and realizing their rules change with Low Tone and Falling Tone Markers, you’ve almost mastered all the rules. Then you just realize that a High Class Live Syllable creates a rising tone, you’ve finished all the rules.

It’s worthy to point out that you never need to memorize Mid Class consonants, as when live, they’re mid, when dead, they’re low and with markers, follow the rules of the names of tone markers.

And you only need to memorize High Class for the purpose of the absence of tone markers.

It’s really the Low Class you need to memorize as Low Tone Marker changes it’s sound to Falling, and Falling Tone Marker changes it to High Tone. And of course with no Tone Marker, Dead Short Vowels are High Tones and Dead Long Vowels are Falling Tones. That’s a total of what? Five rules you need!?

That’s basically only memorizing five things, and (providing you can create the correct tones, with the correct vowel/consonant sounds) you’re on your way to mastering reading/speaking Thai!

With all that said, I encourage reading (especially the Manee books with audio method) and just trying to assimilate these “rules” in actual situations. Then use these simple five rules for reminders and verification.

As you can see, I’m very encouraged and inspired and hope that anything I provided can give you similar inspiration.

Note: My five tone rules were introduced and refined at the Farang Can Learn Thai Facebook Group.

โชคดี,
Ryan Hickey
Ryan Hickey Live Music

Share Button

5 Comments

  1. I’m sorry to be a balloon pricker but Thai children don’t learn the tone rules of the Thai language in order to learn Thai. They learn the language aurally in the same way as the children of any other language. As long as you have the capacity to listen to a lot of Thai and practice the same sounds you don’t have to worry about learning a silly system that is complicated and will slow you down.
    Yes there are some situations where you need to be careful with the pronunciation (e.g. ‘horse’, ‘come’, dog etc.) but, in the main, it is simply a case of listening to sentences in a meaningful context and learning to read Thai script that is far important in mastering the language. After all most Australians can understand a Scottish accent. Most Americans can understand an Irish accent. Why – because context usually determines the meaning of the sentence. Cheers.

  2. Hey Bill,
    You’re totally correct. In fact, if you re-read my second paragraph, I say just exactly that. I even mention that with the help of Kru Mia (Learn2SpeakThai) she has recorded the whole Mannee book series with audio so we can learn exactly how Thai children learn to internalize the Thai tones, with out ever learning “rules”.

    My third paragraph explains that since I am going back to “learning tone rules” (after a good bit of internalizing the tones), I found a few easy tricks to help.

    The fact that all non-native learners of Thai have to learn tone rules, is an indication that it is an important process (even though I agree with just internalizing). I think it’s important because we are not surrounded by these sounds 24/7, so we need different memorization methods and approaches. Is it less effective than living in Thailand? Absolutely.
    however, not everyone prior had access to audio versions of Mannee books, thus prompting the methods of learning tones in contrary to how Thais do it.

    Thanks for the reply and chok dee krap!

  3. I hafta concur with Bill Stanfield, and glad that Ryan pointed out he agreed too..

    Thai kids NEVER learn the tone rules like they’re taught to non-native foreign speakers. In fact, if you ask any Thai the tone sound of a particular word see how much difficulty they have telling us off the top of their heads. Watch them closely, invariably they’ll conjugate the 5 tones by counting off on their fingers (mid-low-falling-high-rising) and then stop on the appropriate tone before telling you.

    Thais have the correct pronunciation beaten into their heads as kids. They’d never confuse the tones of what I call the “6-cow-words” in Thai (ขาว ข่าว ข้าว – เขา เข่า เข้า) because to Thaiz those words aren’t even remotely close in their pronunciation, no matter how close they seem to foreign ears!

    When I learned the tones I learned them backwards, kind of by process of elimination;
    *Mid class consonants can carry all the 5 tonez, but with no tone mark they can NEVER be falling, high or rising)
    *High class consonants can NEVER be mid or high toned
    *Low class consonants can NEVER be low or rising tones ever.

    I am of the mind that what ever makes the tone rules “click” for you is the way you need to learn them. There is no best way, no super secret easy-peasy method.

    Honestly, some of the convoluted charts I’ve seen at Thai language schools make me just cringe. No wonder students of Thai seem to struggle with learning them.

    Wanna see how good you are at toning single syllable thai words?

    Go to thai-langauge dot com, under “Lessons” then under “Quizzes” and select the “Listening for the Tone of One-Syllable Words” quiz. You can do it with or without sound.

    See how many you can get out of 100.. When you start getting in the high 90’s all the time, you’re almost there.

    Good Luck.

  4. Great article, certainly helped me to comprehend and reiterate the material I’m currently learning. At the end of the day, we are not children, and we are not enrolled in primary/high schools in Thailand, hence why different teaching and learning methods are available and work differently for every individual. Not one person will learn the same, but we are lucky in having this information available for us to seek what works efficiently. I mash up all bits and pieces from various sources to fully process and comprehend the thai language. Thanks for putting the effort into writing this, appreciate it (Y)

  5. I would like to share you some explanations about Thai tonal conjugation. They can answer your question: “I am wondering why no one has explained it in any simple manner in all the teachings I find.” The explanations in this paper about Thai tonal conjugation may not be simple but logical to understand. Please see http://sydney.edu.au/southeast-asia-centre/documents/pdf/menyam-somchai.pdf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*