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Thai 101 Learners Series: A Breath of Fresh Air

Thai 101 Learners Series

Tackling the nitty gritty of Thai…

In the previous installment of this column, I observed that learning to speak Thai means learning to make some new sounds. Today we’ll start to tackle the nitty gritty.

From here on, I’ll be using Thai script in addition to the phonetic system used by the AUA language school, which is based closely on the International Phonetic Alphabet.

For the moment, don’t worry if you are unfamiliar with the AUA system. I will talk about it more later. In fact, I don’t want to rely on it any more than necessary. The key is to get you reading the Thai script as soon as possible.

To put it simply, sounds we make can be divided into two groups: Those we’re conscious of and those we’re not.

The sounds we’re most conscious of or attuned to are the ones that play key roles in the language we speak. Two sounds that are similar but distinct to the attuned ear are called contrasting sounds. If you mix them up, it can change the meaning of the word – sometimes with a humorous or embarrassing result.

In English, B and P are contrasting. Take the words bat and pat. These are the same in every way except the initial consonant, but have completely different meanings. To the speaker of a language where B and P are not contrasting, however, they would probably sound the same.

Every language has its own set of contrasting and non-contrasting sounds. The contrasting sounds of English are different from the contrasting sounds of Thai. This is why Thais and many other Asians mix up R and L. It is also why when we’re just beginning to learn Thai we receive such quizzical looks – it’s not just the tones we tend to get wrong.

Take the English letter P. It is only one letter, but it is actually pronounced two different ways. At the beginning of a word, such as pat, pin, or pay, the P has a puff of air. This is called an aspirated P. In the AUA system, it is invariably written as ph.

Compare this with P in words like spin, spit or spy – listen closely and the puff of air is gone. In this case, it’s an unaspirated P. Sure there’s still some air coming out, because we’re always exhaling when we’re speaking, but it’s significantly less. If you’re not convinced, try holding your hand up to your mouth as you say these words.

In English, an unaspirated P is found only when it follows S as part of a consonant cluster, as in spin, spot or spy.

To be understood in Thai, however, you must produce the unaspirated P sound on its own at the beginning of many words. Thus, in Thai, pai means “go” and phai means “danger”. Don’t forget, that letter H represents the puff of air.

There are other unaspirated and aspirated pairs in Thai, too: t/ th and k/kh. So the same is true for tai (kidney) versus thai (Thai) and kai (chicken) versus khai (egg). The table gives you a few examples and shows you which Thai letters correspond to which sounds.

Remember that in Thai, often more than one letter of the alphabet makes the same sound. And finally, here are a couple of classic Thai tongue twisters that you can use to test your new skills:

ใคร ขาย ไข่ ไก่
khrai khǎay khài kài
“Who sells chicken eggs?”

ตา ตี๋ ตก ต้น ตาล ตาย
taa tǐi tòk tôn taan taai
“Old man Tii fell from the palm tree and died”

You can even use the first one next time you’re at the market.

If you get a quizzical look, well, keep practicing.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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4 Comments

  1. Rikker I got quite engrossed in that and even covered my mouth for the P and Ph puff test, though the old man falling out the tree and dying did upset me a little. You have made a lot of sense to me by setting apart the p & ph and t & th sounds in a way that is easy to understand and easy to apply, that is a giant step in the right direction although I have to remember which one is which. Must go I’m off to chop down the trees in my father’s back garden, he is getting on a bit you know.

  2. Thanks, Martyn. The newspaper column format is not exactly idea for this sort of explanation, but I hope it proves helpful to some folks.

    It was perhaps a bit mean to introduce the tongue twisters at the end, but they’re too fun to resist. >:)

  3. Another to ask your Thai friends who speak English (preferably after a couple of Singha) is ‘how do you say nine mountains of white rice’.

    It gets them every time (either that, or they are really good at humouring farang :-)

  4. what gets my back up sometime is when the wife understands me but refuses to just because the sound was not correct
    i know this to be true as she repeats back to me
    if i was not going bald i would be pulling my hair out

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