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Thai Language Thai Culture: Ten Steps to Learning Thai

Thai Language

Ten steps to learning Thai…

Note: This is dedicated to people like Catherine Wentworth who are working their patooties off trying to grasp this outlandishly difficult language. Good luck to you all.

When I started learning Thai I was told that it was one of the hardest for an English speaker to learn. That was 40 years ago and you know what? Thai hasn’t gotten any easier. But I didn’t give up, and neither should you. New worlds will open to you the more Thai you know. The Thai culture is especially difficult to navigate through unless you can understand all of the cues and signals available to the person who understands the language. The following are 10 steps to learning Thai that have helped me along the way.

  1. Get a good textbook. I avoid books with the words like “simple”, “easy”, and “quick”, in the title. Thai is not simple, easy, or quick to learn. All those people who say, “Learning a language is easy.”, “Learning to read and write came to me with no problem.”, “I have no trouble hearing and saying Thai tones.”, are either making it all up or they have a special language-learning lobe in their brain that is missing from mine.
  2. Get a good dictionary. I own seven. And I use them all. Make sure it shows the Thai tones. There are also lots of good on-line dictionaries as well. It is probably best to do a test run before buying one. Think of a word or phrase that you want to say, or one that you have heard. Then go to a book store or library, or go on line, and look the word up. See which dictionary gives you the clearest meaning; which one shows you best how to pronounce the word; which one describes the word’s tone the best; which uses the word in context. Do that for both Thai and English words. Then choose the one that works best for you.
  3. Find out what kind of learner you are. Some people are audio-types. They can hear something and repeat it like a myna bird. Others are more visual. They need to see something written down. Audio-types can put off learning to read and write for a while. Visual-types will probably benefit from learning to read earlier. For 25 years I only spoke Thai. I am an audio-type, but at that time I was also illiterate. Reading and writing were just too intimidating. I communicated OK though. But when I decided to buckle down and learn how to read, my Thai ability took a quantum leap forward. I still can’t write because I can’t spell. But I can’t spell in English either (thank god for spell checkers). I think I am also missing the spelling lobe of my brain. So, you can get by without reading, but if you have the ability and aren’t intimidated, try it.
  4. Carry a notebook with you at all times. Write down all the new Thai words you hear or words you wish you knew in Thai and look them up later. You can write thai words down phonetically. Some dictionaries let you look up a word by its sound. The really ambitious can carry a pocket sized dictionary with them. The notebooks that I have been using since the beginning of last year are almost full with more than 2,000 new entries.
  5. The three most important things needed to speak Thai comprehensibly are “tones”, “tones”, and “tones”. If you don’t get the tones right no one will understand a word you say. Don’t believe the people who say that they get by just fine without tones. They are probably speaking with their spouses or paramours who are constantly working hard to decipher their “Tinglish”. Get them in front of an audience of strangers and see how they do without correct tones. Reading will help you know a word’s tone. It won’t help you say it though. You just have to listen to how a Thai says a word, and then say it the same way.
  6. Get a good teacher. Believe me, you cannot learn good Thai through osmosis. Teachers who stress correct tones are the best. Some people do best with an individual teacher while others prefer classes. It is probably best that your teacher is not also romantically involved with you. You are going to want someone who will be relentless in not allowing you to get by with incorrect tones or bad pronunciation. The tougher the teacher the better it will be for you.
  7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The more mistakes you make the better. There is no better way to remember how to say something correctly than to have said it wrong to begin with. I should know. I may have the all-time record for making mistakes, screwing up tones, and committing language faux pas. Just the other day, when I wanted to say that a friend who is far sighted might have trouble reading, I called him “illiterate” (อ่านไม่เป็น /àan mâi bpen/). Just one more faux pas for my list. But at least I finally learn the right word to use (อ่านไม่เห็น /àan mâi hĕn/).
  8. Learn to listen. We sometimes think we are listening to how people are saying something but quite often, because of preconceptions, we are “hearing” something different. This happens a lot with people who have spent most of their time working on reading. They already have it in their head how something sounds without ever having heard it. One rule that I try to keep is to not say a word or a phrase until I have already heard a native Thai speaker say it first. The latest phrase in my lexicon is คุณเสียหนึ่งแต้ม /kun pôot paa-săa tai gèng mâak/. It means, “You lose one stroke.” I first heard my golf caddie say it after I hit my ball in the water. Since then, I have had the benefit of many repetitions of this phrase. I don’t think I will ever forget it.
  9. Never stop studying. Too many times one hears, “I tried studying Thai for a while but found it too difficult and gave up.” I myself study all the time. But I’m retired. What else do I have to do with my time? If you plan on living here for a while, any time you put into studying will be well worth it.
  10. As long as someone tells you คุณพูดภาษาไทยเก่งมาก /kun pôot paa-săa tai gèng mâak/ (You speak Thai very well) then you know you don’t really speak Thai well at all, and your Thai still needs lots of work. Thais love to ปากหวาน /bpàak wăan/ (sweet talk, flatter) people. When you speak Thai really well then no one will compliment you anymore; they’ll just talk with you as if you were a real person. And that should be our goal.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog

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Hugh Leong loves explaining things. And during his 40 plus years of trying to learn Thai and its culture, he learned to love the cross-cultural aspect of living in a foreign country and speaking its language. His series, Thai Language Thai Culture, covers various aspects of learning Thai, and how the Thai culture influences how we say things.

16 Comments

  1. Very well written Hugh and I would definitely agree with everything you’ve written but I do have to say that most Thai’s have generally understood what I’ve meant to say when I start butchering the language in front of them. So, even when you get the tones wrong there is a good chance the Thai’s you are speaking with will get the idea…hell if they didn’t we would all be too embarrassed to even try. and trying is a huge step in learning the language.

  2. Talen – what I love about learning Thai is that (unlike in other countries) the Thais genuinely try to understand what we are trying to say. And they do it with a smile.

    When I tried the same in France, many of my attempts were met with resistance.

    One time when trying to buy a kilo of something at the grocer… the lass behind the counter threw up her hands and ran screaming off to find someone else to interpret.

    And what is kilo in French? Kilo.

    Hugh – thank you for your kindness to all of us who have not given up on learning Thai!

  3. Interesting article Hugh.

    Regarding your faux-pas with your friend and following your advice “don’t be afraid to make mistakes” : in your example, i would have been tempted to say อ่านไม่ออก or maybe อ่านไม่ได้ rather than อ่านไม่เห็น

    If a more advanced Thai language speaker could enlighten me as to the most proper form in that case (if any)

    Thanks

  4. Yeh. Me too. And I tried them both until the supreme arbiter, my wife, corrected me.

    Here’s the difference as best as I can make out:

    อ่านไม่เป็น, อ่านไม่ออก, อ่านไม่ได้ – Although there may be some subtle differences all basically mean that you can’t read.

    อ่านไม่เห็น – You can’t see well enough to read (too dark, too far away, eyes no good, don’t have your glasses, etc.)

    If there is a native speaker reading this I would love any corrections. Remember, I am the king of faux pas so one more mistake would be no biggie.

    What I really would like to see is the differences between the first three if there are any. I have my ideas but the supreme arbiter says “Don’t ask why. It just is.” Which is what I always tell her when she asks me “why” about something in English. What goes around, I guess.

  5. Thanks Hugh,

    i’m still not sure of the difference between อ่านไม่เห็น and อ่านไม่ออก. Maybe อ่านไม่ออก would be used to say that what you are trying to read is too difficult to comprehend or that you’re mind is not focused enough on the reading?

    Regarding the difference between the first three (i also added a fourth for good measure), here’s the explanation i got from one of my books :
    V + (ไม่)+ ไหว : used to indicate whether someone has the physical ability to do something
    V + (ไม่)+ เป็น : used to indicate whether someone has the skills (or the knowledge on how) to do something
    V + (ไม่)+ ได้ : used to indicate whether someone has the ability / capacity to do something in most other cases (can also used to indicate whether someone has the permission to do something)
    อ่าน+ (ไม่) + ออก : is mentionned separately in the book. It is apparently equivalent to V + (ไม่)+ ได้ but used only with some specific verbs all related to mental activities such as : คิด, พูด, ดู, เขียน, อ่าน

    Hope it helps a bit.

  6. Thanks rem,

    Here’s another one for V + ไม่ + ออก

    นึกไม่ออก which sort of means “I can’t figure it out.” or “I can’t determine the answer.” or “I have no idea.”

    Your explanation for V + ไม่ + ไหว is correct. It usually means that you are physically unable or incapable of doing the action.

    All these are called “negating verbs” and Rikker, a contributor here, sent me a list of quite a few that I am thinking of putting together for a future column. You’ve given me a couple more ideas.

    Thanks

  7. Hi, Hugh’s tips are very good. I realize that Thai is not among the easy languages and the tones are really the stickler for most. But many, if not most, languages are difficult to master. (I tried Arabic, which in many ways similar to Thais in its cultural dimension.) But hey, at least Thai doesn’t have genders, verb conjugation rules and tenses.

    Anyhow, let me try to add some clarifications on these negative phrases you’ve been wrestling with.

    V + (ไม่)+ เป็น : used to indicate whether someone has the skills (or the knowledge on how) to do something

    IMO, this is a precise definition – ไม่เป็น does indicate _lack of skills or knowledge_ (that can be learned) to do something. Therefore, อ่านไม่เป็น means one “does not know how to read”, which does not necessary mean being illiterate however. For example, you may be able to read many Thai words, but there are particular words you don’t know how to read or pronounce because they are difficult or unfamiliar. It is slightly different from being illiterate, I think.

    Now อ่านไม่ออก (as a verb) is often used to mean someone is “illiterate”. For example, an illiterate person says she or he อ่านหนังสือไม่ออก (literally, “cannot read” or “be unlettered, illiterate”). So, ไม่ออก often suggests lack of conceptual or intellectual capacity. On the other hand, อ่านไม่ออก (used as an adjective) can also mean hard to decipher, e.g. the handwriting is so bad like a chicken scratch ลายมือเหมือนไก่เขี่ย, as Thais would say, อ่านไม่ออก: unreadable, or hard to make out.

    อ่านไม่เห็น – Personally I feel this is an awkward construction of phrase, though it is understandable for Thais. I think a better expression is มองไม่เห็น (use the verb มอง instead of อ่าน – because มอง means “to see” but อ่าน means “to read” – how can you “read” if you can’t “see” in the first place?)

    อ่านไม่ได้ – V + ไม่ได้ can be a bit tricky. Here I believe it means either, “can’t read,” or “unreadable.” For example, there’s not enough light in the room, or the electricity is out, resulting in you not being able to read (because you can’t see) anything. Or, in another usage, this writer is so terrible, he can’t string words together to make any sense, the book is unreadable.

    Like in English you have simple expressions that also double as slang. Another example, ดูไม่ได้. It can be used in the literal sense “cannot look at/watch” but often it is used as a slang which means somebody’s or something’s appearance is “unsightly.”

  8. Thanks Kaewmala,

    มองไม่เห็น makes more sense to me, probably because i am more familiar with the expression. I never heard อ่านไม่เห็น before.

    As Hugh mentioned, it shows once again that learning Thai is often a hit and miss process and it is particularly true with these highly contextual negative phrases.

    Hugh – I look forward to your column.

  9. Khun Kaewmala,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Here was the situation.

    We were out bird watching with the Doi Intanon Annual Bird Census. These people were really good and could spot birds way off in the distance. They would see one and point it out to me but with my ancient eyes I couldn’t see it. I think this is the time to use มองไม่เห็น.

    When it got around to looking up the bird in the handbook, one of the eagle-people there couldn’t read it because he didn’t have his reading glasses. I used อ่านไม่เป็น which was the faux pas I mentioned, calling him illiterate. Luckily I was the older respected Ajaan there and no one got angry, except for one person that is.

    I was figuratively slapped upside my head my my wife, and was told พูด “อ่านไม่เห็น” ดีกว่า. She could have been making that up to get me out of my embarrassing situation but it seemed to work OK as everyone laughed, which is always the best conclusion to a language and cultural faux pas.

    Thanks for the help.

  10. Hugh, if I were in that situation I probably would say that I “can’t read” อ่านไม่ได้ because เพราะ I “can’t see” มองไม่เห็น without my glasses.

    As for อ่านไม่เห็น, like rem, I have never heard that phrase spoken before. As I said it seems an awkward construction – understandable but not used, or if used, perhaps not elegant IMO.

    Speaking of illiterate, there’s a more precise expression (spoken term) ไม่รู้หนังสือ. This one is unequivocal–someone is definitely does not know how to read because s/he is “unlettered.”

  11. Khun Kaewmala,

    Maybe my wife was making up a word to help me save face. That is something she has had to do about a thousand times since we have been married.

    Thanks for ไม่รู้หนังสือ. That is a new one for me and has now been added to my lexicon.

  12. Khun Hugh,

    It’s quite possible that your wife was just playing by ear. I sometimes speak funny Thai – I think that happens a lot in a cross-cultural environment.

    I’m happy to share a few satangs worth of my knowledge of Thai. I’m not always right, but I do try. I keep a blog (click on my name) where you can ask Thai language related questions (as well as those related to romance and sexuality). Please feel free to stop by and drop your questions there.

    And success to your learning Thai. :-)

  13. Khun Kaewmala,

    Romance and sexuality? Hmm. I’ve been married to the same woman for 39 years. I just hope you haven’t come around too late. I did drop by your site. Very interesting.

    As for ducks,I have 5 of them and get 4 eggs every morning (there is one male). Anyone in the Chiang Mai area who likes duck eggs please drop by and I’ll gladly share the eggs with you. My cholesterol is going through the roof.

    If anyone wants to know what ducks have to do with sexuality you’ll just have to visit Khun Kaewmmala’s blog.

  14. Great post Hugh! I wish I would have found this article (and this site if truth be told) before I started to learn Thai. (*sigh*) Now the next question is: Where do you all get those sexy tone mark fonts?

  15. Lani,

    There are a number of ways to produce special characters in Word by using a combination of the ctrl key with other keys or going to the Insert/Symbol menu, but here is the trade secret. Log on to Thai2English.com and look up the Thai or English word(s) you want to transcribe. Thai2English will then give you the word in Thai script, the English translation, and the phonetic transcription. All you need to do is cut and paste and voila, sexy tone marks.

    For instance, you titled your latest blog at tellthaiheart.blogspot.com

    “pood pasa thai die nitnoi”

    Using Thai2English you come up with

    “pôot paa-săa tai dâi nít nòi”

    Quite sexy.

    Lots of luck

  16. Awesomeness! (what the kids are saying these days ;)

    kòp kun ka!

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