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Thai Time: Relearn Thai Tense the Thai Way (Part 2)

Bingo Lingo

Relearn Thai tense the Thai way (Part 2)…

In the previous post, we’ve talked about some of the most common time markers in Thai. Actually, I forgot the experience particle เคย /koei/ which is also a VERY important time marker! So before we move on to the next step of our advanced time manipulation like I promised, let’s take a look at this word for a second…

เคย /koei/ – experience particle…

เคย /koei/ is used to describe past experience. This past experience can be a one-off thing that you’ve ‘ever’ done, or it can be something you used to do habitually. Just like มา /maa/, /koei/ is another true tense marker because it only describes events of the past. Experience can only be a thing of the past, right?

ฉันเคยไปเกาหลี
chán koei bpai gaolĭi
I’ve been to Korea.


The speaker has been to Korea; she has the experience of travelling there. In this case /koei/ refers to the speaker’s one-off experience that she has ‘EVER’ been to Korea (unless she adds “twice”, “three times”, etc.)

ฉันเคยอยู่เกาหลี
chán koei yùu gaolĭi
I used to live in Korea.


The speaker in this sentence has an experience in Korea too, but in her case she has the experience of living there. Notice how /koei/ translates to different tenses in English depending on the context of the event. In this case, it is not a one-off experience. She used to live there for an extended period of time. It was constant.

ผมเคยซื้อของที่ร้านนั้นบ่อย
pǒm koei súe kǒrng tîi ráan nán bòi
I used to buy stuff from that shop all the time.


The /koei/ in this case doesn’t describe a one-off experience, nor a continual state of being, but the habituality of the speaker.

If you speak any Romance language, the last 2 usages are an equivalent of the “imperfect tense” like the Italian “Io parlavo”, Spanish “Yo hablaba”, or Portuguese “Eu falava”.

It’s about time – putting the building blocks of time together…

We have learnt what these 8 time markers actually mean and how to use them individually, now it’s time for more complex stuff. By combining these time markers you can create a multitude of expressions of time. Imagine that these time markers are like building blocks. Each individual word has its own primary attribute, and when you put them together they create compound references of time.

However, I am not going to spoon-feed you. As a believer in active learning, I am going to present you with sentences containing multiple time markers. You’re going to read each sentence, consult translation for the words you don’t know, going over the meaning of the particles in part one if necessary. Guess what the sentence might mean in terms of temporal reference, then you can read my explanation. It’s important you try to do it yourself, as long-term knowledge sticks better if you rattle your brain trying to come up with your own answer first. You may forget what you remember, but you will never forget what you understand.

Ready? Scroll carefully or you might accidentally see the answer!

เค้ากำลังไปแล้ว
káo gamlang bpai láeo


เค้า /káo/ – he/she, ไป /bpai/ – to go

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Answer: “He’s on the way now.”

/gamlang/ and /láeo/ create the meaning of ‘an ongoing action that has already been set in motion’. He has fulfilled the requirement for ‘going’ by perhaps actually having already left the place, or packing up and getting ready to leave. Either way something is being done in order to go to the destination, but that something is still in process so you won’t be seeing him at point B just yet because he’s still actively working on getting there.

พ่อยังนอนอยู่
pôr yang norn yùu


พ่อ /pôr/ – father, นอน /norn/ – to sleep

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Answer: “Dad’s still sleeping.”

/yang/ and /yùu/ create the meaning of ‘an ongoing state that is still unfinished or pending’. The father’s state of ‘sleeping’ is not complete because he hasn’t woken up yet. The sleeping state /norn yùu/ will be complete once the father wakes up or is woken up by someone.

ทุกคนกำลังจะไป
túkkon gamlang jà bpai


ทุกคน /túkkon/ – everyone

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Answer: “Everyone’s about to leave.”

/gamlang/ and /jà/ create a meaning of ‘an ongoing action intended to happen’, i.e. “to be about to”. Everyone is still not ready to leave yet, but they are now planning to do so. This is different from #1 กำลัง…แล้ว /gamlang…láeo/ because in #1 the subject is already ‘in the process’ of doing the action, whilst in #3 the subject is only planning to do the action in the near future.

ลูกค้ายังไม่ได้จ่ายเงิน
lûukkáa yang mâi dâi jàai ngern


ลูกค้า /lûukkáa/ – customer, จ่ายเงิน /jàai ngern/ – to pay (money)

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Answer: The customer still hasn’t paid yet.

/yang/ and /mâi dâi/ create the meaning of ‘an action that has not been achieved yet and is incomplete’. You can just say ลูกค้ายังไม่จ่ายเงิน /lûukkáa yang mâi jàai ngern/ without the word /dâi/ as well, but keeping the word /dâi/ there makes it seem less deliberate and may imply that the customer ‘hasn’t got around to doing it yet, not because he’s not going to’.

ผมจะกลับบ้านแล้ว
pǒm jà glàp bâan láeo


ผม /pǒm/ – I (male), กลับบ้าน /glàp bâan/ – to go home

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Answer: I’m going home right now.

/jà/ and /láeo/, going back to the initial question I posed in part 1, create the meaning of ‘an action intended to be set in motion any time soon’. In this example, the speaker hasn’t started going home yet, but he is so close to doing that, perhaps in a matter of minutes or even seconds. This structure shows how imminent the action is.

ชั้นจะยังไม่ซื้อรถ
chán jà yang mâi súe rót


ชั้น /chán/ – I (mostly female), ซื้อ /súe/ – to buy, รถ /rót/ – car

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Answer: I won’t buy a car just yet.

/jà/ and /yang mâi/ create the meaning of ‘an action that is intentionally prevented from being fulfilled’. You can just say ชั้นยังไม่ซื้อรถ /chán yang mâi súe rót/ without the word /jà/ as well, but keeping the word /jà/ there makes it clear that the speaker has made a conscious decision NOT to buy a car. That conscious decision or intention is implied just by the word /jà/.

นักเรียนเคยได้เรียนบทนี้แล้ว
nákrian koei dâi rian bòt níi láeo


นักเรียน /nákrian/ – student, เรียน /rian/ – to study, บท /bòt/ – lesson, นี้ /níi/ – this

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Answer: The students have already studied this lesson.

Here comes a combination of 3 particles! /koei/, /dâi/ and /láeo/ create the meaning of ‘an experience that the subject has achieved and has already completed’. The students, in this case, have been taught this lesson and have completed it in its entirety. The past experience has been completely achieved.

จอห์นได้เป็นหัวหน้ามาสามเดือนแล้ว
John dâi bpen hǔanâa maa sǎam duean láeo


เป็น /bpen/ – to be, หัวหน้า /hǔanâa/ – boss, สาม /sǎam/ – three, เดือน /duean/ – month

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Answer: John has been the boss for 3 months already.

/dâi/, /maa/ and /láeo/ create a meaning of ‘an achievement that has been continuing from the past up until the present and has completed a certain milestone’. John has been promoted in the past (which is an achievement). That achievement has been in effect up until now (past progressive), and he has just completed a period of 3 months as the boss.

How did you do? Don’t fret if your answers are not quite the same as mine. The accuracy in deeper meaning comes from getting a lot of input from native speakers and repeated use. I hope you take away something from my posts and use it to improve your understanding of Thai. Remember, the most important thing is stop comparing Thai time to your native language and try to construct your understanding from the ground up. Good luck and happy learning!

(Bingo) Arthit Juyaso
Principal of Duke Language School
My book on reading Thai fast: Read Thai in 10 Days

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Arthit (Bingo-Lingo) is the Principal of Duke Language school in Bangkok and the author of the successful Learn to Read Thai Ten Days course.

6 Comments

  1. stanley jenkins

    April 24, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    ขอบคุณครับ

  2. Another interesting thing is that in many situations เคย needs มาก่อน
    But I can’t exactly point out when – maybe when something is unprecedented?
    ผมไม่เคยรู้เรื่องนี้มาก่อน
    I had never heard knew this (story).
    I noticed that we (farang) almost always leave the มาก่อน out.
    ผมไม่เคยรู้เรื่องนี้
    Which changes the meaning.

  3. These were not to difficult for me to grasp. Khmer uses similar particles, but not in the order Thai uses them in. So, that mean, I’ll have to practice a bit more with the Thai ones. This was comprehensive and helpful.

  4. @Kris:

    I think the difference is ไม่เคยรู้เรื่องนี้ just sounds somewhat incomplete and unnatural. If you end the sentence with เลย like ไม่เคยรู้เรื่องนี้เลย “I hadn’t known this at all” then it sounds okay. ไม่เคยรู้เรื่องนี้มาก่อน means “I hadn’t known this before” which sounds sort of similar to the previous sentence but as you can guess they’re slightly different. That’s all.

    @Vanna:

    Thank you. I am actually intrigued by Khmer particles now. Will do my research :-)

  5. @Kris: Then again, that’s from the top of my head. There might be situations where ไม่เคยรู้เรื่องนี้ might sound appropriate. Thai is a very contextually-oriented language and often certain sentences work only under the right environment.

  6. Haha! Have fun with those then.

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