I’m all for the easy way out…
Learning how to read Thai is often a stumbling block for students of the Thai language. Some students have opted to forgo the pleasure. Others have stops and starts. Then there are those who soar through all with ease (and those, we admire through clinched teeth).
I’m of the stops and starts variety. I also go for the easiest way possible, which is what you’ll get here.
Note: In this post I won’t be taking you through the Thai alphabet letter by letter. I’ll be sharing methods and available resources for beginners learning to read and write Thai. And while my way may not be your way, you’ll still find decent resources.
Reading Thai the easy way…
Before you begin reading, you’ll need to know what each letter sounds like, their class, and if they have different sounds at the beginning or end of a word.
And if you’ve started to panic at the thought of learning 44 Thai consonants (along with their initial and final sounds), 32 different vowel configurations, numbers, and all those extra symbols, then head over to 60 Minutes to Learn the Thai Alphabet.
How it works… as you can see from the graphic, the letter is represented with an easy to remember object association. In this case, a swan.
The graphic also includes a setting (beach, town, mountains) to denote the class (low, medium and high). And as the swan is on the beach, it’s a low class consonant (class determines tone).
Consonants gifted with different sounds at the beginning and end have two word descriptions, as in Swan Tail.
Note: With 60 Minutes, you don’t learn the full Thai name for each (in this case it would be ซ = so so = chain). What you learn is the approximate English sound. And when attempting to learn a confusing language such as Thai, a close English equivalent gets you to the next step with ease.
Getting the Thai sounds down…
Your next move is to get the actual sounds and full names into your head. IMHO, the best Thai alphabet sources available on the Internet are:
- e-learning at Sriwittayapaknam
Thai reading, Thai alphabet, Thai alphabet test, Lesson one, Lesson two, Lesson three, and Lesson four.
Consonants, Three Consonants Classes, Vowels and Numbers With Thai Script.
- Learn Thai Podcast
Alphabet & Transliteration System, Alphabet, Vowels, Complex vowels, and Numbers.
You’d think that learning to read Thai with 60 Minutes would interfere with learning the individual names, but it didn’t for me.
The Thai I learned at ashoka10’s Channel and Learn Thai Podcast slid to the front. What I learned at 60 Minutes stayed in the background until I needed to remember which letter had two sounds, and what class they were. Then visual linking clicked in.
Testing your alphabet skills via flashcards…
If you are in Thailand, you can purchase flash cards at most Thai bookstores with a children’s section (all in Thai).
To my knowledge, there are no Thai flashcards that include everything – alphabet, graphic, English explanation and examples – so if it’s important to you, you’ll need an additional resource.
Suggestion: Buy two sets of flashcards with complimenting elements (I used the colour Thai version, with the English / Thai black and white).
Testing your alphabet skills via flashcards (SRS)…
SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems) are basically digital flash cards. Some are online, other SRS programs can be downloaded to your computer. Some, like the Cram have Thai sets created by other users. Others are a clean slate (no Thai available).
- Anki (download)
A program designed to help you remember words and phrases (Mac, Windows, Linux and Debian).
- ProVoc (download)
Easy-to-use vocabulary trainer (Mac).
- SuperMemo (download, online, as well as without computer)
A learning method that makes it possible to learn fast and retain memories for years (Windows).
- The Mnemosyne Project (download)
A flash-card program to help you memorise question/answer pairs, but with an important twist: it uses a sophisticated algorithm to schedule the best time for a card to come up for review (Mac, Linux and Windows).
You’ll also find a growing list of SRS products in Searching for a Thai Language Learning Style: SRS and More.
Writing Thai the easy way…
When I started writing Thai, I felt forced into an uncomfortable scrunch when using the course books from AUA. It was definitely not for me. You might not feel the pinch so go ahead and try them. But I did. Beware. The books are poorly reproduced so they are also difficult to read. Eye strain. Hand strain. That’s all the excuse I needed to bail.
Knowing there just had to be a better way, I started hounding the different bookstores in Bangkok.
For those living in Thailand, kindergarten books for practicing the Thai alphabet are not difficult to find. Again, just drop by that Thai bookstore with the childrens’ section.
And just like their counterpart in the West, they have ample space to practice your new alphabet. Over and over.
If you prefer a grown up approach, then Reading Thai is Fun by James Neal might just be the one for you.
In Reading Thai is Fun, James shows you how to feel the natural flow of writing Thai by using the cursive style of an adult. Not the formal boxy style taught to children.
To understand what I mean, grab a stack of scrap paper.
Then, as big as you like (I used a 1/4 page for each), fluidly write the Thai letter ม in the graphic to the left.
Each letter has a start and finish, so be sure to note the drawing direction at learningthai.com/writing_09 (site offline for now).
Keep tracing over that letter until you own it. Until you are in the alphabet zone if you like. I like.
Putting it all together…
- To get a general feel, flip through 60 Minutes to Learn the Thai Alphabet.
- With paper and pen, work through each letter at Reading Thai is Fun while…
- …intermittently clicking on relevant sounds found at learningthai.com/writing, Practice Writing Thai Letters (site offline for now). If tech savvy, record each into a loop for hands-free ease.
Soon you’ll have the shapes, sounds, tones and class down solid. You’ll also be ready for Thai / English readers found at Thai publishers such as Nanmeebooks. Right?
More reading and writing tips…
- Practice writing the Thai script for at least 15 minutes a day.
- Listen to spoken Thai often, no matter how bored, frustrated, or confused.
- Load down an iPod for short walks around town.
- Grab a stack of flash cards when headed out the door.
What you might not know…
- Spoken Thai and written Thai are not always the same.
- You are not going blind, there really are missing letters in Thai words.
- Yes, some Thai words are read from middle to left then top to bottom.
- If the lack of spaces between words frustrates you, hark back to Illuminated Manuscripts.
More reading and writing resources…
- Consonant shape learning aids
Scroll down to find his notes on useful patterns.
- Learn Thai with Maanii Books
Learn to Read Thai with Manee and Friends.
- Thai Alphabet
Wikipedia resource on the Thai alphabet.
- Thai Font Comparison.
If you’ve ever been confused at trying to read Thai around town, here’s a good round up of available Thai fonts to defog your brain.
Shortly after taking on the Thai alphabet, I found myself sitting in a taxi at a long light on Paholyothin in Bangkok. Looking out the window to my left, I was thrilled to be able to read a street sign in Thai.
I wish you the same joy.