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Thai 101 Learners Series: When in Rome, Thai Doesn’t Sound the Same

Thai 101 Learners Series

The importance of learning the Thai script…

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big believer in learning the Thai script as a tool for learning the spoken language. Be warned, though, that there’s a major side effect of this learning method: it will improve your accent. Shocking, I know.

Why will this improve your accent?

The answer has to do with the multiplicity of ways to write Thai words with English letters. There is no single standard, so it’s hard to know which system is being used in a given sign, menu, or name. The odds are stacked against your guessing it right on the first, or even fifth, try.

The best away around this problem is learn the Thai script.

There are so many romanization systems because different things make sense to different people. If you buy three Thai phrase books, you can rest assured they’ll each use a different spelling for the same word.

The only thing certain about it is the uncertainty – until you delve into learning the Thai writing system. While it looks intimidating, Thai is much more systematic than English. It is an obnoxious historical accident that in my American dialect, “sew” rhymes with no, while “dew” rhymes with too, while “few” is pronounced fyoo (not foo). And it’s different in a hundred other accents.

Regional accents exist in Thai, too, of course, but the written language is very well standardized and will act as a sanity check against the quixotic quest to represent Thai with roman letters.

Take the name of the new airport, Suvarnabhumi. In reality, Thais pronounce this, roughly, soo-wunna-poom. The bizarre English spelling has to do with the word’s origin. Suvarnabhumi is borrowed from Sanskrit, and means “Land of gold”. On a historical note, this appellation has long been used to refer to all of mainland Southeast Asia, not just the damp patch of land formerly known as nong ngoo haow, or “cobra swamp”.

The spelling in Thai retains features of the original language, helping Thai people recognize it as a borrowed word. So, when they spell it with English letters, they write it as if it were Sanskrit – even though the Thai pronunciation is very different. In fact, most proper names in Thai are from Sanskrit, so we end up with this situation all the time.

Retrain that mouth…

If you want to learn Thai, one of the unavoidable facts that you must accept is that you have to learn how to make new sounds. You must retrain your mouth. This is where romanization can be particularly misleading. It gives you the impression that you can just read it off the page and get it approximately right. Take a simple enough word like wan nii, which means “today”, or technically “this day”.

You might see this written wan nii, wan nee, wun ni, wun nee, and for all I know, “one knee”. There is, by contrast, just one way to write and read the word in Thai script, which was designed some 700 years ago specifically to write the Thai language, so it makes sense to use it.

In the meantime, though, there are other pitfalls for reading romanized Thai that you can easily avoid. Whenever you see th- or ph-, forget about how they’re pronounced in English. Just like in the name Thailand, thalways represents the sound in the English word “tie”. In the same vein, ph- is always the sound in the English word “pie”. Denizens of Phuket know this issue well, of course.

The recent Oscar-winning film Juno has a line where a character uses “Phuket, Thailand” as an exclamation, intended for comic effect. She pronounces it foo-ket, which is, of course, supposed to sound like the English expletive. This isn’t the first or last time we’ve heard this joke, but it’s based on a misunderstanding.

These sounds are written with the letter “h” in order to distinguish them from two other similar sounds that English doesn’t differentiate, but which are critically important for speaking understandable Thai.

For example, you may know that pai means “go”, but phai means “danger”. The nitty-gritty of how to make these different sounds is a topic for another column.

For now, get started with the writing system. Go to your local bookstore and get one of those primary school books with the dotted lines you can trace out to practice spelling letters. There’s also a nice set of free printable flashcards at slice-of-thai.com.

The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll begin to enjoy that side effect.

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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15 Comments

  1. I can totally understand why using the roman alphabet is a bad way to learn Thai. But I fail to see how learning to read the Thai script will improve your accent or pronunciation. Pronunciation can only be learned through the ear. So wouldn’t it be better to do lots of listening first and after you have acquired the pronunciation then learn to read the script?

  2. The whole ‘retraining the mouth’ is something that I have come to realise is very important for myself…. The Essex accent which I have is inherently lazy, morphing one word into the next, missing ‘T’s, and generally lazy pronouciation, quite the opposite to the ‘Queen’s English’ which my lot are all supposed to use. I’ve even found myself becoming a little lazy in the Thai words I already know, changing them into my own lazy ‘Essex’ version.

    Retraining the mouth…. Retraining the brain as well I think :)

  3. ooh The printable flash cards are something I have been looking for cat. Excellence advice as always but again just more for me to soak in. I really need to buckle down and start learning one aspect instead of jumping back and forth in my adventure.

    With so many great resources and you bringing everything to the table I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed.

  4. Ben – when I stopped feeling silly pronouncing Thai drills, I started to ‘feel’ the language. I could feel how my mouth IS being retrained.

    These days, I open my mouth wide when I need to, without a hint of a blush across my fair cheeks. I’m shy that way.

    When I was preteen, my father had a well-known voice trainer put me through my paces. This guy flew down from the North Island (New Zealand) so my father did have a lot riding on it. My poor father.

    I remember the embarrassment like it was yesterday. All of those drills… Mooo mooo mooo mooo mooo…

    I guess I could ring him up now to say that I’m finally ready? :-D

    Talen – Chris put a lot of work into those flashcards. And they really are works of art.

    You and me both on the resources. I now know that there is a great deal out there to choose from. So I guess the trick is to decide what to focus on, and just go for it (easy for me to say, right? Hah!)

  5. Keith, apologies for your comment being posted late. The first comment has to be approved, then after you are home free…

    ‘Pronunciation can only be learned through the ear. So wouldn’t it be better to do lots of listening first and after you have acquired the pronunciation then learn to read the script?’

    There are several schools of thought on this. AUAs new method of teaching does just that.

    And when I asked my Thai teacher about her preference for a student, she admitted that it was easier if they’ve been listening to Thai for awhile. An obvious conclusion, really. I know how much my Thai improves just by watching tv.

    ‘But I fail to see how learning to read the Thai script will improve your accent or pronunciation.’

    This is just my experience – and please note that I’m not in any way fluent – but it wasn’t until I started reading the Thai script that the pronunciation stuck. Sure, previously I could parrot back what my teacher said, but nothing really became mine until I ditched the transliteration and put my time into learning the Thai script.

    I’m sure Rikker will have a much better explanation than mine…

  6. “I remember the embarrassment like it was yesterday. All of those drills… Mooo mooo mooo mooo mooo…”

    Cat, was your father preparing you for the part of a cow in the school play? Sorry…had to do it. :)

  7. Keith: I agree, accurate pronunciation can only be learned through the ear.

    Note that I called it a *side effect*. It would be foolish to think that reading without speaking will result in proper pronunciation. Don’t try that at home.

    I can think of a few reasons why learning the script can help improve your pronunciation:

    The Thai script is phonetic, with a few exceptions. (Some might contend that the exceptions are not few, but compared to English, Thai is very, very systematic and regular). Once you properly map the correspondence between written character on the page and sound in your mind — and mouth — you can correctly pronounce 99% of all words you come across based on their Thai spelling.

    This is the theory behind using romanization too, of course. But the problem is that there is no single system, so you can never be sure which system someone is using. Romanization also gives you that false sense of familiarity I talked about. “My book says the word for ‘chicken’ is ‘gai’ — it must sound like an English g,” the learner says to himself. The very fact that it’s in roman script *forces* you to make that assumption.

    When in fact, the sound often written ‘g’ (the letter ก) is not precisely like an English ‘g’. I won’t go into the technical explanation of that. And such is true for many Thai sounds. Again, I agree that you have to learn the proper sounds through lots of listening and speaking.

    But once you begin to get those correspondences down between the Thai written letter and the proper sound, the world is open to you. You will not find systematic romanization outside a textbook. You will find Thai script everywhere. You can never be sure what system of romanization a particular sign is using — and internal inconsistencies in the same sign or even name are quite common. The Thai children’s movie “Khan Kluay” is an egregious example. The ‘k’ sound is the same in both words, ก้านกล้วย, but for some perverse reason the filmmakers chose to use two different spellings. Don’t trust romanization.

    If you can read the script, however, then you’re golden. You will be able to sound out the new words accurately (unless it’s one of the relatively few spelling exceptions). How accurately you are able to sound it out depends on how well you’ve got the Thai-letter-to-sound correspondences down.

    Another big benefit of learning the script is that it enables you to ask people how things are spelled. This is a huge benefit when you’re still working on training your ear.

    I’ve met a lot of folks with decent pronunciation, but who miss a lot of what is said, often because they have trouble distinguishing between pairs of similar sounds. But if you can ask them “how is that spelled — with ป ปลา or บ ใบไม้?” then the mystery should be solved. You simply can’t do that with romanization.

    In short, it helps you leave the comfort of your textbook and get out there in the real world, where your opportunities to expand your vocabulary and improve your pronunciation are much greater.

    Can anyone else think of any other reasons?

  8. “Cat, was your father preparing you for the part of a cow in the school play?” – No, it was in New Zealand [insert gratuitous sheep joke here…] ;-)

    The flashcards are excellent. I had started looking at Chris’s site, but hadn’t realised how good these are.

    Ricker’s points about asking about spelling or reading public signs are good ones. It gives us consistency in a sea of changing transcriptions. Plus, travelling in Thailand, there are so many places where there are only Thai characters, so we have to learn it at some stage.

    The idea of retraining the mouth is interesting. I guess if the tongue, lips and other parts of vocal system are doing subtly different things to accurately speak Thai, then the mouth shape is as much a part of it.

    This is so complex & fascinating. Getting all these parts right will take good quality training…

  9. ‘Once you properly map the correspondence between written character on the page and sound in your mind — and mouth — you can correctly pronounce 99% of all words you come across based on their Thai spelling.’

    This is what I’m coming across. I did not find it when I tried transliteration. But… I did bounce around between transliteration styles before giving up, so there is that.

    ‘Can anyone else think of any other reasons?’

    While there are sure to be some out there, I have never personally known a Thai person to depend on transliteration when posting on twitter, email, forum posts, or blog posts. So unless your aim is to only chat with other expats using transliteration, you are out of luck.

    Jeff – running around Thailand while being able to read what’s going on around you (even a little bit) does open up a different world. Just today I had a blast in heavy traffic with a Thai taxi driver. We read everything in sight – signs, banners, bumper stickers, licence plates. Well, I read and he corrected me. And I know this is a small thing, but just knowing where all the vehicles are from is interesting. Do you do that when you are in the west? It has the same feeling here. It takes you to other places.

    Talen and Jeff, on the subject of moooo’s… you both are soooo bad :-)

  10. Sorry, I forgot to say that I totally agree using a Romanization system is bad.

  11. Thanks Keith. I like your idea of learning via the TV method. My Thai ear improves when I sit myself down in from of Thai TV on a regular basis. My ear tunes into colloquial Thai, which is needed as the spoken Thai found in courses is often too pristine.

    Btw – your interview on the TV method will go live after next week. Apologies for it taking so long, I got sidetracked!

  12. Lot’s of interesting opinions here, but nothing based on statistical evidence. Therefore, I’ll feel free to contribute the following speculation.

    The overwhelming majority of foreigners who learn to speak Thai, do so with transliteration, not with Thai script.

    I do think it’s useful to learn Thai script, but if one learns to speak with only Thai script, they must learn the tone rules (16 by some counts) and must know the sound of inherent, unwritten vowels, and some consonants that don’t sound like they look (ทร sounds like ‘s’ not like ‘t’ and ‘r’). This is a pretty tall order, particularly when there is no immediate ‘speech reward’. Very few people are willing to put in the time and effort. It could take months or even years. For many, it may be impossible. It’s so much easier and faster to start with transliteration.

    For those who are “going Thai only,” if it works for you, by all means, carry on!

  13. For the record, I did not learn Thai using the “Thai script only” method. I was taught using the AUA-style transliteration (but not the actual AUA course books). AUA is essentially simplified IPA (and relatively close to the Haas system).

    I relied on that exclusively for two months, because I had not yet arrived in Thailand, and my teacher forbid even thinking about learning the Thai script, because the main goal was basic conversational ability, and he considered the script was a distraction. This was during a two-month intensive crash course.

    Once I arrived in Thailand, though, I never entered another classroom, and I moved away from the romanization within about 6 weeks of arriving. I taught myself to read starting right away, and contrary to what my teacher had led me to believe, I found that learning the script not only opened up Thailand in a huge way, but it actually did help my pronunciation. I had already ensconced some bad pronunciation habits that reading forced me to correct. “Oh, that’s a ป, I’ve been saying that as บ. Whoops, better stop that.” And so forth.

    The chances that I would ever pick up my original text books again were slim, so without reading it may have taken years, instead of days or weeks, to realize my mistakes.

    I think for a short introductory period, romanization can be good. But the second it starts to feel like a burden or like it’s detracting from your progress, kick it out the door. Start with the Thai script as soon as you feel comfortable with.

    It’s even okay to learn them together, if that happens to help you. Each person learns differently, but I think that those who discount the Thai script (and I realize that you’re not, Aaron, but many do) are cutting themselves off from real progress with the language.

    For me, the tone rules only took a few weeks to internalize, because the written word surrounded me. It was on signs, and since much of the time I knew which tone word X was *supposed* to be pronounced with, it was all the easier to reinforce those spelling and pronunciation rules in my head.

    The implicit vowels, the irregular tone rules, the tones carried over to the next syllable.. all that comes with practice. You will puzzle over a word the first several times you see it. You will have to look twice at it before recognizing it after several more times. And before long, you begin to recognize it as a unit, instead of something you have to sound out.

    That’s the key to fluid reading, after all, since Thai is not written with spaces between words. Recognizing the words as units. The spelling becomes second nature. And your pronunciation of it becomes rock solid. That’s how it worked for me, anyhow.

  14. Rikker you make it all sound easy but with your common sense application hopefully it will be. I am going to start by writing out the Thai consonants and vowels into a book and then start learning them. I have a few Thai language books already so I can refer to them for a little more training in the writing skills. I am determined to give this a go and learning to read and write in Thai seems the obvious place to start. I must admit moo moo moo moo and moo all sound the same to me, being tone death and a touch mutton does not help learning a language.

  15. Rikker: You do make a convincing case. Thanks.

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