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Thai Language Thai Culture: A System of Learning Thai Tones

Thai Language

The Do-Be-Do-Be-Do system of learning Thai tones…

(Apologies to Frank Sinatra)

If language were like a song, then the vocabulary and grammar of the language would be the words. The vowels, consonants, syllable stress and sentence intonation in English, and the tones in Thai would be the music. You really have to sing both the words and the music to get the song across.

The Thai tones (the music of the language) are some of the most difficult things an Expat language learner has to tackle. But although our cultures and languages may be different, every human being, who’s born with normal body parts, can make all the sounds of all the languages of the world. From the mouth torturing French vowel sounds, to the German gutturals, to the Arab and Hebrew throat clearing noises, to the African click sounds, to the sing-song Asian languages, to the rather ridiculous “th” sounds of English, our tongue, mouth, lips, nose, and throat, can make every sound of every language. Our speech apparatuses are all the same. Therefore, we really can produce all the Thai tones correctly. If we can’t produce them then it is not because we can’t physically make them.

What about simply hearing the Thai tones? I have often heard the excuse, “I’m tone deaf. I just can’t hear the tones in Thai.” Well, almost every human being in the world will recognize the tune of “Happy Birthday”. It is the most widely played song in the world. In fact, if someone were to sing Happy Birthday to you with different notes, you would know it immediately. If we can identify the notes of Happy Birthday, then we CAN hear all the sounds of a tonal language like Thai. If we are not hearing the tones, then there is something else getting in the way.

Here is an example of someone who can produce a perfectly good falling tone. The problem is, he should be using a rising tone. I tried to help a long-time Expat when I heard him use the wrong tone for the word meaning “to see”. His Thai listener was having trouble understanding him since he had gotten the tone wrong. He said “hên”, using a falling tone. I corrected him, “no, the word for “see” in Thai is “hĕn”, with a raising tone.” “Oh, I get it”, he said, “hên”. “Try again”, I said, “hĕn.” “Yes, yes, hên”, he said. I knew when I was beat. I said, “not bad.”, and left it at that. Looked like he could produce tones correctly, he just wasn’t listening. I developed a lot of empathy for our Thai teachers.

I think I have found a way to help us to hear, as well as produce Thai tones. It uses our ability to hum. Now different cultures have different ways to hum. In my favorite movie is Casablanca, the one where no one ever said “play it again Sam” even though everyone thinks that is a quote from the movie. Even Woody Allen named a movie of his own after the misquote. It seems that non-listening is not isolated to language learners. In the movie, Ingrid Bergman shows us the way Scandinavians hum.

This is how the dialog really went:

Ingrid BergmanIngrid Bergman (as Ilsa): Play it, Sam. Play “As Time Goes By.”

Dooley Smith (as Sam): Oh, I can’t remember it, Miss Ilsa. I’m a little rusty on it.

Ingrid Bergman: I’ll hum it for you. Da-dy-da-dy-da-dum, da-dy-da-dee-da-dum…

Dooley Smith: You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss…

Miss Iisa hums differently than I do, but no matter how you hum, “da-dy-da-dy-da-dum” or “do-be-do-be-do”, humming is something that can help you, 1. Identify a tone in Thai, and 2. Learn how to produce it.

Here is how the Do-be-do-be-do system of learning Thai tones works:

Note on the do-be-do-be-do transcriptions below. This is just for illustrative purposes. Each tone, mid, high, low, falling and rising has its own note to hum. I have used upper case for falling tones just as an example. BTW, hum out loud, not in your head. It will give your voice producing organs practice. Don’t worry about which tone it is, just think of what note you are humming.

No matter what level of Thai you are at currently, you will be hearing Thai often. If the words or phrases are new to you, instead of trying to decipher the meaning first, simply hum (or sing) back what you just heard. This works even better if you are working with a teacher. She says something like คุณชื่ออะไร /kun chêu à~rai/, and whether you understand the words or not, you can hum or sing the words right back at her, something like “daaa DA da-da” (please use your own humming system). You can see that the second word has a big stress on it (the falling tone). You can do this first for single words. Later use it for phrases, and then for complete sentences.

By the way, for those of you who are English teachers here in Thailand, you can use this method to teach English word stress (“beautiful” is DA da-da) or English sentence intonation (“you speak Thai very well” is “da da da DA-da da”).

Now you know the music. After you have hummed back the target word or phrase and feel that you have the rhythm and notes correct, just add the consonants and vowels (problems in their own right I am afraid) and you will have both the words and the music. If you speak the words just as you hummed them, then the tones will come out correctly.

คุณพูดภาษาไทยเก่งมาก
kun pôot paa-săa tai gèng mâak
Da DA da-da-da da DA

Hugh’s fun Thai word for the month…

The fun Thai word for this month is ซ่า /sâa/

Normally ซ่า means “tingling” but it has morphed its meaning to describe the bubbles in a carbonated drink. For instance, if you open a bottle of Coke and there are no bubbles and you want to return it to the waitress, you can say ไม่มีซ่า /mâi mee sâa/. It is a fun word to say because with its aspirated “s” and the long “aa” and the falling tone, it is onomatopoetic. It sounds just like what it is. When you pop open a soft drink can or bottle it goes ซ่า /sâa/.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand

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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.

17 Comments

  1. That’s a great idea Hugh. It also makes sense when say you can focus on the humming first of all and the meaning later. I think you may have invented a new way of learning Thai; you better go patent it quickly :-)

  2. Hugh, this sounds like an interesting idea and one that looks like it will work for me…I may become the humming farang. My problem though with listening to a native Thai speaker most times is the speed at which they are going so now I just have to find the slow button on them :)

  3. Talan,

    When you want people to speak more slowly try:

    ช่วยพูดช้าฯ น่อย /chûay pôot cháa cháa nòi/

    If you are in the north then they will already be speaking slowly. In the south, forgetaboutit.

  4. Hugh, My girls family does tend to speak slower sometimes but often I feel like I am being assaulted …except for Auntie who likes to look at me and say real slowly kee niow :)

    I have used that sentence before though and it does come in handy.

  5. Hugh and Catherine – I read this in the morning and ever since I’ve been wondering what tune Hugh hummed whilst composing his post. “Singing in the Rain” was my guess.

    I like the idea of learning Thai tones by humming them and I also like the statement that everybody can make the sounds of every language in the world. That’s encouraging.

    If they speak slowly in the north then I’ll give Southern Thailand a miss.

    Do bee doobee do, do bee doobee do…”I’m singing in the rain.”

  6. Catherine this is a great idea! I had actually started to sing Thai phrases, just as I was hearing them/learning them. It’s really hard for me NOT use tones as a way of expressing myself and to remember it actaully changes the meaning of the words.

  7. Forgive me Hugh…I skipped the all important Aurthor information!

  8. Snap – Yeah! You made it! Welcome :-) I am dying to find out about your fresh and artistic experiences with Thailand.

  9. Catherine….sorry for the very late reply. I have been here before ;) but can’t find a way to receive follow up comments. Is it staring right at me?

  10. No problem :-) when commenting, if you look under the submit button you’ll see a box with ‘Notify me of followup comments via e-mail’ next to it. Click on that.

  11. Catherine, I just saw that on your newest post, but I can’t see it on this one…not to worry!

  12. How very odd… but then… the internet is odd. Sometimes people get Commentluv back, and sometimes not. It could be browser specific (but not many switch back and forth). Fingers crossed you’ll be given the option next time!

  13. Not too sure about this one but I do find it hard to follow the right notes. Right now I tend to learn a bit Thai from our daughter, who’s 7 and a half and half the time she rolls over the floor when I pronounce something wrong!
    We’re having a good time!

  14. Camille, I can almost see you doing just that :-) Learning with children has got to be fun.

    And thinking… in a way it gives them added confidence.

    My son was learning both Spanish and French in school (it was at an international boarding school in Bordeau). I was studying French independently, so had loads of questions. He’d come home on the weekends and give me tips from what he’d studied in school. It ended up being a nice morale booster for him.

  15. And just when one gets a decent handle on the Thai language, he moves to Khon Kaen where the Isaan dialect is spoken and it is like another foreign language. Fortunately, most of the people up here understand my Bangkok Thai.

  16. Khon Kaen,

    Here is a little story that might help.

    When I first came to Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer I was stationed in Chiang Mai. For the first year I worked really hard at learning the language but always felt that I wasn’t getting too far. In fact, when people around me were talking I could never understand a word they were saying.

    Then I had to go to Bangkok for a yearly physical and I was shocked by the revelation that I could understand everyone around me. You see, I had been studying Central Thai but everyone here in Chiang Mai was speaking Lanna Thai or “Kham Muang”, the northern Thai dialect. When I finally was around people who spoke Central Thai I felt at home.

    My advice, learn some words and phrases of the dialect where you live, but, unless you are a language genius, only enough so that people around you will smile and congratulate you for giving it the effort. Then put all your resources into learning Thai. Nowadays, unlike when I first came, almost everyone in the country knows the Central Thai dialect.

    BTW, my wife is one of the few Central Thai people I know who has taken the effort to learn Kham Muang (even Thais themselves have trouble with the dialects) and she is much appreciated for it.

  17. My wife is from Chiang Mai and she tells me she does not like it when non-northerners speak Kham Muang. Maybe people are being polite to your Mrs. As a foreigner I can get away with using Kham Muang, but God help you if you are from Bangkok and do so. :-0

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