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

Learn Thai Language & Thai Culture

You Want to Speak Like a Thai?

Say it Like a Thai Would

Say it like a Thai would…

Now before you even begin reading this be forewarned that it might ruffle your feathers some. Truth be told, it’s kinda-sorta meant to. At the same time, what I want to do is get the readers’ heads around a concept about learning Thai as well.

Not surprisingly, as I make the rounds at the Thai language schools in Bangkok, I run into plenty of foreigners wanting to learn Thai. Almost to a person, everyone I meet says to me, “I want to speak Thai with a Thai accent.” First off, I laugh out loud (really more of a guffaw, which could possibly be off-putting) but then I ask “exactly which ‘Thai accent do you want to learn?” They invariably get that dazed expression, hem-n-haw saying something like, “you know a Thai accent.” I go on with as much sincerity as I can muster (which after seven+ years studying this language and touring more Thai language schools than I remember is marginal at best).

Do you want to speak Thai with that over-the-top Bankokian accent which hi-so’s use? Most of the younger Bangkokians use this accent so other Thais don’t confuse them with country Thais in Bangkok. This is known as พูดดัดจริต. Or do you wanna speak Thai with a Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai accent like the north-western Thais? Wait, I know! You want to speak with that singsong choppy southern accented Thai like from Hat Yai or Songkhla? No? Okay, I got it now. You wanna speak with that พูดเหน่อ บ้านนอก accent like the people from Kanchanaburi, Suphanburi or Ratchaburi, right? Or maybe you want one of the many Isaan accents like from Buriram, Ubon, Udon, Nongkhai, or the dog eating province, Sakhon Nakhon? It could even be that you want the edgier, slightly almost Cambodian accent like the Thais from Sa Kaeo or Surin. Or is it the Chantaburi eastern sea side accent, or the one that pegs a Thai speaker as coming from Korat? I dunno. Really.

One thing I do know with 100% certainty is this: there is no such animal as a “Thai accent” because they’re ALL Thai accents! It’s just like I can tell someone from New York, California, Tennessee or Texas from the accent they have when they speak American English or like a Brit can tell immediately where another Brit was born in the UK because of the accent when they speak the Queens English.

Here’s something for foreigners learning Thai to ponder, especially ones who say that they wanna speak with a Thai accent. It is highly unlikely that is EVER gonna happen! I don’t care how much you think you or someone you know sounds Thai, or how much the over praising people around you say that you sound “just like a Thai”, believe you me, to them you really don’t. Full stop, period, end of story. You should just throw the idea into the circular file and not waste another second on it. You’ll learn Thai about a gazillion times faster than either A) – pretending you sound like a native speaker or B) – agonising over the fact you don’t sound like a native speaker. Believe me, to native Thai speakers listening to you, you sound like a non-native speaker!

There are a handful of gifted non-native speakers of Thai doing the ‘Westerner speaks Thai’ circuit. And in no way would I put myself in that illustrious group of people. Yet, they’re never mistaken for native speakers by real honest to goodness born and bred speakers of Thai. The fact that they’re non-native speakers ALWAYS comes out within a few sentences. Maybe it’s that they speak with the wrong cadence or rhythm, or maybe the structure is a little too forced or un-natural, or maybe their pronunciation is slightly squirrelly. But whatever it is, no Thais would confuse them as being native speakers. Honestly, Todd Lavelle is possibly the closest thing I’ve heard to a native speaker when he isn’t speaking in that over accented Thai he uses on his tv program.

Now, don’t mis-read or mis-remember what I’m saying. I’m saying that there’s no doubt in every native Thai speakers mind that those people are foreign speakers of Thai. What I’m NOT saying about those foreign speakers is their Thai isn’t clear, isn’t concise, isn’t understood 100% outta the gate or isn’t responded to by the Thais. I’m just saying that ANY native Thai speaker knows those people aren’t… <-native speakers. I've said time and again you should take ANY compliment thrown you way about your Thai with a grain of salt. There is a Thai idiom for something so insignificant, so trivial that it means less than nothing and that idiom is เท่าขี้ตามด or "equal to the sleep in the eye of an ant”. In all my world travels (and I’ve been to a fair few countries) I've never ran into a demographic of people who were more over complimentary to foreigners speaking their language than the Thais. If a foreigner can manage to spit out "Sweaty Crap" <-(you read that right) for สวัสดีครับ, these people are piling on the accolades. In fact, I’ve found the exact opposite is true where foreigners speaking Thai is concerned. When a Thai doesn't say anything, as in not one word about the fact that you're a foreigner speaking Thai to them, that's when you know your Thai language chops are getting there. Now don’t get confused and start thinking you’re sounding like a native Thai speaker, because you don’t. What you are doing is "saying it like a Thai would”. That is the key to success in speaking this language so that Thais understand what you’re saying to them. I'm not telling you that you shouldn’t learn how to pronounce Thai words to the best of your ability, because you need to pretty much nail the words. I mean if it's a short vowel you can't draw it out, if it's a long vowel you can't shorten it and the same goes with the tones. You can’t add emotion into your spoken Thai by varying the intonation like we do when speaking English. That’s what the myriad of Thai particles are for. You also need to hit the tones pretty darned close (for the most part). What I am telling you, is to invest the time learning how to "say it like a Thai". Don't take an English sentence and translate it into Thai, re-sequence the words, and think these people are gonna understand you, because they won’t (most won’t anyway). Instead, LISTEN to how Thais say things in regards to sentence structure, cadence and rhythm when they speak. Pay close attention to where they pause <- (very important!) when they are speaking, what words they routinely leave out or drop because they’re understood in the context of a conversation and start speaking your version of Thai that way. Benjawan Poomsan Becker has a series of c/d’s and booklets out called Speak Like a Thai. They are plain and simple worth twice their weight in gold. Well, most of them are, some are just fluff, but still, they’re good. The vocab is fairly contemporary, the example sentences are good, and you can get the feel of how a native speaker says things She also has one out called Improve Your Thai Pronunciation and it’s good too.

You will improve your spoken Thai by leaps and bounds if you just forget about trying to sound Thai. I know, every one of you will say, “I have a friend who’s fluent in Thai”. My question to you is this, “how would you know the person you’re referring to is fluent in Thai when you aren’t?” Did you consult your crystal balls? Is it because the Thai they’re talking to understands them or the fact that they didn’t hafta repeat what they said three times? Or is it because your Thai is so poor you only imagine your friend is fluent because they don’t have the problems conversing with Thais that you experience?

I say all the time my Thai is nothing to brag about, not at all. It’s totally un-Thai insofar as it’s coarse, blunt and I don’t ครับ, ขอ or หน่อย much when I talk. As far as the conversational rules of engagement in Thai it’s right on the borderline of being rude and sometimes it’s more than a little over that line. It’s also poorly pronounced, off cadence and not surprising, it has a definite Midwestern American (Ohio in fact) hillbilly accent to it. What is surprising is, nearly 100% of the time, once a Thai knows I can speak something close to Thai, I can get ‘em to understand me and answer in kind on the first go round. I guess by some imaginary criteria, I’m fluent too, even though I always tell people when it comes to speaking Thai I’m effluent.

For non-native speakers’ structure, pronunciation and cadence/rhythm are the linchpins of this language. You got to get them all or you’re out in left field with Thais scratching their heads wondering what you’re trying to say. The only way to say things like a Thai is by investing the time it takes trying to nail the sentence structure and getting as close to the real pronunciation as possible. You can get some of the cadence down by reading aloud. Be forewarned, just sitting in a room and stumbling over reading Thai out loud isn’t going to help your spoken Thai one bit. You got to have a live Thai sitting around carefully listening to you AND correcting you while you read. It is my personal experience that few if any Thais are up for this, mostly because it’s about as exciting for them as watching paint dry. It takes a rare breed ‘o Thai indeed to sit there and endure you mangling Thai out loud and also having them man up to correct you time and again when you mangle words or sentences. They just lose the will to live after a while and go watch Thai soap operas, chat with their friends on Line or play Cookie Run.

The next thing you need to do is listen, listen and LISTEN to Thais talking. It doesn’t matter if it’s the radio, the t/v, you-tube or what. There are TONZ of Thai audio out there in internet land, USE them! The only caveat is you need to make sure whatever you’re listening to is close to your comprehension level in Thai. It doesn’t work if you can only understand one out of five words spoken; you gotta pretty much get what’s being said. Another thing is pick topics you have an interest in to listen to. Nothing will suck the life outta you faster than listening to a sound file in Thai about something you don’t have an interest in. Some people find those Thai ละครน้ำเน่า’s palatable, but I don’t. The acting is campy, the mood music sound track is as bad as the mind-numbing theme song and their production values are not all that good. Still, I know several really competent foreign speakers of Thai who data mine incredibly good sentences and phrases out of them. Another plus for this learning is, as fast as a ละคร comes out it’s on You Tube so you can watch it at your leisure.
The last part of the equation is talking in Thai to Thais almost all the time. Stop falling back on English, mime, hand signals, stick figure drawings, sock puppets or whatever you resort to when Thais can’t understand you. I know most of you aren’t gonna like this one bit, BUT here’s another news flash – there’s no short cut, no magic pill, no secret formula, no best way which will get your Thai to the point it needs to be other than speaking to these people, day in day out, all the time. For most of us (or at least early on for me) that was a bummer. I was so put off by them not understanding something I said (which at the time I was saying to the best of my ability) that I plain and simple stopped talking. Instead I went thru a prolonged “silent phase” of listening.

When we first start speaking Thai to Thais, we’re afraid, in fact we’re scared witless. We’re afraid that the Thai we’re talking to won’t understand what we say. We’re also afraid that if the Thai understands us they’ll answer off script or not use the spoon-fed dialog we were taught in our Thai language classes. That is indeed vexing. But what is even sadder still, is the fact that we aren’t able to receive the information coming back to us from a Thai IF it’s off script. In schools we are not taught alternate answers to those rote dialogs pounded into our heads. Despite the fact that there’re usually a myriad of ways a Thai can answer a question we ask which doesn’t follow the script we were taught in school.

One BIG point I want to touch on to make you sound more Thai is to STOP using first person pronouns when making statements. Especially statements where everyone listening understands it’s you saying something. Nothing makes you sound more un-Thai or tips Thais off faster that you’re a newbie Thai speaker than ผม‘ing or ดิฉัน‘ing every time you open your mouth to say something in the first person. Listen to these people when they talk. They just don’t do it, as in, hardly ever! Younger Thais will sometimes use their nicknames, but most of the time no one says anything and it’s understood in context that they’re making a first person statement, unless they designate in the sentence they’re talking about another person.

As I said in the beginning of this piece this isn’t about you speaking Thai with a Thai accent, because you ain’t ever gonna sound Thai enough to fool a native Thai speaker. This is about you saying things like Thais do. If you do that their ears will auto-correct the off-toned words and the long/short, short/long vowel swaps we all make when we speak Thai. I’ve found if you say things the way a Thai says them you’re universally understood. They just get it.

And thus ends the lesson for today. This may sound like a rant from a nobody who writes about learning Thai and you’re free to throw out the ideas I mentioned if you want to, but, I’m telling you it is my personal experience after adopting some of the techniques I’ve outlined that Thais understand me far better now than they ever did.

Good Luck,
Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

Share Button
The following two tabs change content below.
Tod’s specialty is reviewing Thai language schools in Bangkok. And in his years studying Thai he’s also collected a few language learning tips to share with you.

Latest posts by Tod Daniels (see all)

15 Comments

  1. Read some of the research Maliwan Buranapatana from KKU has done, it might add some new things to your perspective. Also, you contradict yourself by naming all these different “Thai accents” ( really, per definition it should be dialects here) and then stating that the Thai you are speaking is “un-thai” because it’s “coarse” and “blunt”. I’d say that most of everyday Thai you hear in the streets of Bangkok, the villages of North or whereever has almost nothing to do with the conventional, polite Thai they teach at language schools. It’s more often than not very “coarse” and “blunt”. And a last thing, as my family is from Sakhon Nakhon I take issue with you calling it “the dog eating” province. It’s a very chauvinistic, Bangkokian middle-class thing to say.

  2. When people say that they want to speak with an x accent, they just mean that they want to sound like people do on TV. In America, this accent is called General American and in Britain it’s called Modern Received Pronunciation. Pick up any English pronunciation book and it will teach you one or the other of these. So when people say that they want to speak Thai with a Thai accent, they just want to sound somewhat like, I don’t know, กาละแมร์ or สรยุทธ rather than the awful ‘Aoowww beer Sing-a, innit’ of the average foreigner in Thailand so that seems like a perfectly reasonable goal. Perhaps a (very) few people think that they really are going to sound like them but in my experience, essentially everybody who says that they want an x accent just wants to sound more like a native speaker and less like a foreigner.

    As for whether working on your own on pronunciation can help you, it can. Shadowing recordings, making your own recordings and replaying them (for example the Glossika stuff) and, for advanced students, using tools such as Praat can all help enormously. Having someone correct you can obviously also be useful but unless that person knows something about phonetics, it can be a little hard for him/her to explain where you are going wrong.

  3. Dan, what is Praat?

  4. “Having someone correct you can obviously also be useful but unless that person knows something about phonetics, it can be a little hard for him/her to explain where you are going wrong.”

    Getting a Thai accent corrected (not the mangled western version of Thai) is a curious thing. I have heard comments on the vein of expats sounding Northern Thai and such but no help was offered. Only comments and jokes.

    Back in the day Brits would go to elucation lessons to get better jobs. Do Thais do the same to get TV roles, like the accents we hear on the news?

  5. I agree with every word on your WLT post. It wasn’t your intention and you may well disagree with something I take away from your excellent opinion. Spend the time, make the effort to speak Thai and, here it comes, are you ready?, ignore all those “fluent” falang who say: Learn to read first. The more I live here, the more I think that’s the worst possible priority. Your admonition: LISTEN is common sense. and thanks for urging us to drop the”Moi, moi, moi” as the first word of many sentences.

  6. Andrej: Praat is a program for doing phonetic analysis. It can be downloaded (for free) from http://www.praat.org/ You can do various things with it, but one obvious use is comparing the pitch contours of your own speech with that of native speakers.

    Catherine: A friend of my wife runs one of the Bangkok language schools (teaching Thai to foreigners) and I know she has done voice coaching for various people (Thais) who spoke a little too provincially for national TV.

  7. Thanks Dan. I wonder if it’s going to become popular with regular people in Thailand. Not to speak with the national TV accent, but what’s considered a higher class accent here.

  8. Dan, thanks, that looks interesting. Pretty serious, but interesting.

    On a related note, I once had a two-hour session with a speech therapist at a hospital in Bangkok. She would normally treat Thai children with speech development problems but was open for anybody to make an appointment. We went through all the sounds of Thai one by one to identify issues (which took some time). Where I thought I might have an issue, I didn’t have one once she made the difference clear to me, but she identified two vowels to work on (อือ versus เออ), then showed me clearly how to produce those sounds (exact position of lips, tongue etc.) and made me practice the sounds. It was extremely helpful and I saw immediate, and permanent, improvement. The session was in Thai, and I had to read lots of nonsense syllables, so it’s probably not suitable for total beginners, but for learners who are conversant and literate in Thai I can highly recommend a visit to a professional speech therapist.

  9. “It’s a very chauvinistic, Bangkokian middle-class thing to say.”

    Jit, I took Tod’s article as portraying how Thais see each other’s accents. What they discuss amongst each other isn’t always polite but … It’s the way it is here.

  10. First off thanx to everyone who commented so far.. I would have weighed in sooner but had a serious case of intermittent internet.

    Let’s try to answer some of the comments in order (Apologies in advance for the lengthy response);

    “Jit” – now now, dial your indignation meter back a notch or two. If you google in thai จังหวัดอะไรที่กินหมาเยอะที่สุด.. The responses are close to 100%; สกลนคร. If thaiz answer that way I’m gonna hafta go with it. I will agree that dog is probably not สกลนคร’s OTOP product, but the province is known by that moniker by every thai I’ve talked to. Believe me, I’m NOT looking down on them, not one little bit! Sheesh, I’m a dumb hillbilly from Ohio! I have far more affinity with the rank-n-file up-country thaiz than I do with those “thai-nese'(thai/chinese), or ‘hi-so’ varietiez.

    OFF TOPIC; when I was up in สกลนคร I ate dog a couple times. It’s actually not bad. I mean it’s not something I’d go track down because I was hankering for it here in Bangkok, but I didn’t have a problem eating it either. I did draw the line on using a bamboo straw to suck the brains out of a boiled dog’s skull. No matter how tasty the thaiz I was with said it was! But that’s another story

    BACK-ON-TOPIC; Sorry Jit, I wasn’t talking about dialects either! I meant when thai people are speaking Central Thai (the government approved version of the language) you can tell where they came from by the different accents different areas of this country have. I guess I forgot to say, “when thaiz speak central thai”… But, now I did, so I guess that cleared up the crossed wires. It is my experience that thaiz are expertz in accent identification, often times after a short interaction (in central thai), both people know immediately where the other grew up, sometimes right down to the Amphur!

    “Dan’ – I wrote this with my tongue firmly in my cheek about what foreigners always want to speak like. and just FWIW; I’ve never heard a single foreigner say they wanted to speak like either; กาละแมร์ OR สรยุทธ (possibly two of the most pretentious bangkokian thai speakers in the entire country!).. It makes me sad that they actually have “accent reduction classes” for native thai speakers.. If anything it shows just how much a Bangkok thai accent has become the “standard” for what people “think” spoken thai should sound like. I find that slightly strange, because born-bred-rice fed bangkokianz make up a very small percentage of the thaiz in this country and of the thaiz in living/working in Bangkok too!

    Hands down, of all the emails I receive, I get more asking where to go to “learn thai with a native accent” than any others I receive. That’s what prompted me to write this. Almost every time I talk to a perspective student of thai or every email I get, this factor seems to be the focal point of their objectives. I feel that students are getting off on the wrong foot or have their priorities slightly skewed as far as the objective. Then again, what do I really know.. They’re just my observations of what has worked and what hasn’t worked for me in my oh-so long quest to speak something which sounds like thai.

    That “Praat” program looks seriously good. Do you think someone who isn’t super p/c savvy could get the hang of it? I remember Rosetta Stone Thai had a similar if simplistic feature similar to that. It would say a thai word and you’d repeat it and there’d be a graph which showed how close to the mark your spoken version was to the original.

    I’m all for using ANY resource which gets foreigners closer to to a native speaker, but it shouldn’t be such an all consuming factor that it gets in the way with you actually learning to speak thai with what ever accent you have.

    I remember a guy from Tennessee who spoke thai really well (but couldn’t tell a chicken กอ-ไก่ from an owl ฮอ-นกฮูก). He spoke thai with such a thick Tennessean accent (southern drawl), yet was understood by every thai he interacted with even over the phone! He wasn’t caught up in the fact that he needed to “sound thai” to speak thai.. He’s the guy who first told me to “say things like thaiz do”, rather than try to “sound like thaiz sound”.

    Thanx again for reading!

  11. Michel Boismard

    December 6, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    It’s a worthwhile endeavour as well as a fun challenge to try to speak like a resident in a broader aim of”turning native”.It tests our ability to reinvent ourselves and demands a specially alert and malleable mind.We strive to morph into a whole new persona and life experiencer,no limits to the number.I personnally have gone that road with many cultures,to the perhaps silly extreme of dressing,eating,acting and perchance feeling and thinking like a native(in the days when those were more distinctly colorful!).Contrary to you,Tod,I have not tried to retain any fiber of the person I thought I was from birth and culture,believing that change by itself was enriching and enlighting,that person merely a convenient adapted and non-absolute entity.And imitation is,as every child knows,the main factor of success.
    But intelligibility depends on diverse causes,apart from trying to “sound like”,such as whether your audience knows you and your ways of expression beforehand or its receptibility and will to understand you at the moment.The walls of miscommunications lie on both sides of speech:the active and the passive.We should just try to be the best,open-minded talker and listener we can be…

  12. Tod: Knowing your way around Praat is not difficult in terms of computer skills. It’s no more difficult than using Word in that regard but you do need to know a little about phonology/phonetics to make sense of what you are looking at, though nothing that wouldn’t take more than a day or two of reading to learn.

    “He wasn’t caught up in the fact that he needed to “sound thai” to speak thai.” Perhaps he didn’t but that doesn’t mean that wanting to sound Thai is some kind of inferior goal.

    Michel: “I personnally have gone that road with many cultures,to the perhaps silly extreme of dressing,eating,acting and perchance feeling and thinking like a native(in the days when those were more distinctly colorful!).Contrary to you,Tod,I have not tried to retain any fiber of the person I thought I was from birth and culture,believing that change by itself was enriching and enlighting,that person merely a convenient adapted and non-absolute entity.And imitation is,as every child knows,the main factor of success.”

    I think that’s very cool. From the language learning perspective, I think there’s probably a lot to said for a kind of imaginative re-creation of yourself as a member of the target community, even if that involves fancy dress and the like! But I also think that to successfully do what you described, to allow yourself to wash away into someone new, also requires that you have a a very stable sense of yourself and I’m not sure how people have that. I know that I certainly don’t.

  13. Catherine: I took Tod’s article as portraying how Thais see each other’s accents. What they discuss amongst each other isn’t always polite but … It’s the way it is here.

    It was Tod’s way of identifying the province and it’s not hard to see why someone would find it offensive. The fact that more people eat dogs there than elsewhere (at least according to that well known tool of modern science, a Google search), doesn’t justify calling it ‘the dog eating province’. This plays to a whole host of stereotypes and, even if this reflects how many Thais think, there is no need to reproduce those stereotypes here.

  14. I’m not saying that it’s not offensive. It is. And seriously, Tod didn’t come up with it all by his lonesome, the Thais did.

    Just reading the title, “Say it Like a Thai Would”, says it all.

    “This plays to a whole host of stereotypes and, even if this reflects how many Thais think, there is no need to reproduce those stereotypes here.”

    Stereotyping is endemic in this country, so why are you demanding that we ignore it? I do realise that Thais want to wish it away when it comes to light (mostly because it makes them uncomfortable – guilty?) but I don’t buy into this idea of browbeating it away. It is what it is.

  15. Well, before this entire post gets side tracked by my evidently poor choice of comparatives as far as pointing out regional accents (which BTW: no disrespect was intended or implied), I just want to touch one more time on the topic “Say it Like a Thai”. However, I will add one final comparative; the term พูดสำเนียงสุพรรณ is so synonymous with a hillbilly accent here that it’s often used more than พูดเหน่อ. And that ends my parsing out of regional accents (not dialects!)..

    Despite posters thinking I was somehow saying don’t try to speak thai as clearly as you can possibly enunciate it, I was mostly saying DON’T let the fixation on speaking thai with a thai native speaker accent (an admirable if, IMHO futile goal) get in the way of you just doin’ the best you can in any given situation.

    The entire premise of this post was based on the fact that the structure of colloquial spoken thai is so dissimilar to both written thai and even spoken english that it’s nearly useless to try for “word by word” translations. As I pointed out, it’s even more a lesson in futility to think of an english sentence, translate the words into thai and then re-sequence them into thai structure. The thai you’re talking to most likely has never heard what you’re trying to say in that fashion and you’ll get that “disconnect” or “safe mode” which thaiz go into when they can’t understand us.

    It’s far better to take a thai phrase or a sentence in its entirety; use the standard definition as far as how it’s used or understood in thai, and leave it at that. This is only accomplished by listening to thaiz talk to each other and then using the way they say things when we speak thai.

    There are endless opportunities for foreigners here to eavesdrop on thaiz talkin’ thai. Often times if you approach and sit down next to a group of thaiz, they continue conversing with each other without varying their register of spoken thai a bit. This wouldn’t happen if an older thai sat within ear shot, because due to the rules of engagement in spoken thai, you must vary your register to be appropriate to the oldest person who might overhear what you’re saying.

    Because most thaiz think foreigners can’t understand thai (and they’d be correct 9 outta 10 times with that broad-brush assumption), when you as a foreign sits near a group of thaiz they don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to us. This can work in your favor most of the time as it lets you hear the way thaiz talk to each other colloquially versus the way thai is taught to foreigners in schools. You can and will pick up a myriad of phrases not taught in schools, but commonly used by every demographic of thai society in casual conversation.

    About the only caveat I have to give is, if you’re a middle aged adult, don’t start speaking ภาษาวัยรุ่น! That จุงเบย (จังเลย), มะรุ (ไม่รู้), บ่องตง (บอกตรง), ฝุดๆ (สุดๆ) is clearly age restrictive and just plain ไม่เวิร์ค (don’t work) comin’ outta the mouths of old(er) foreigners..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*