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Thai Style: The Rhythm of Thai Language

Thai Style

Sound like a native Thai speaker…

“You sound like you’re from London!” Well, I wish someone said that to me! As a native Thai speaker with English as a second language, it would be my definition of being a native English speaker.

The journey to sound like a native speaker is not an easy journey. It can take years and years of exposure and for most people they may never speak like a native. I think my journey to sound British will take me a lifetime!

When learning a second language, you can be fluent but in order to sound like a native speaker, it is not just about the pronunciation and grammar but it is also about understanding the rhythm of the language. Like me, I consider myself fluent in English. My pronunciation is pretty good but I need to practise the rhythm of speaking like a native English speaker.

The rhythm of languages are different depending on many factors; culture, personality, attitude, mood etc.

Let me explain more about the rhythm of Thai language.

Sound and Tones…

First of all, let me explain about sound. Sound is a vibration that propagates as mechanical wave of pressure and displacement, through a medium such as air or water. The frequency of the vibration creates different pitches. When the pitch of the sound moves it creates ‘Tones’ which is the combination of pitch, strength and the quality of sound.

Object(s) > Vibration > Medium > Sound > Frequency/Pitch > Tone (Movements of pitch)

There are many ways to communicate with each other, such as; sounds, facial expressions, symbols, etc. The sounds that we create in our mouth is the main method we use to communicate. The combination of sounds create words which we understand the meaning off.

As you know, to make sounds, we use different parts of our mouth to create vibrations and we use the hollow space in our mouth, including our sinuses, as an echo chamber and the sound is carried out from our mouth. Our mouth is just like a musical instrument.

Eighty percent of Thai sounds are created from the the back of the palate and the back of the tongue. Thais speak with their nose. We have many sounds that create nasal sounds (the air passing through the nose) unlike in English, where sounds are made from the front of the mouth and do not have many nasal sounds.

Watch my video about Thai sounds to help you understand in more detail:

Learn Thai Style tone graph As explained above, all sound has a pitch and a tone. To make a tone it is all about the movements in our mouth to change the pitch of the sound. The part that we use to control the frequency of the sounds is the root of our tongue.

If the root of our tongue is in natural position, it creates natural tone or in other words, a mid tone. A high position creates a high tone and a low position creates low tone.

As you probably know, there are five tones in Thai language; mid, low, falling, high and rising.

When making each tone in Thai it is not just about making one pitch or using one position of the root of your tongue. Each tone in Thai language has movement.

Watch my video about Thai tones to help you understand in more detail:

 

Take my Thai Tone Quiz here.

What are ‘Tones’ used for in Thai language?…

In Thai, tones are used for 2 purposes:

1. Indicating the meanings of sounds in which we call ‘words’.

Watch my video about Comparing Thai Tones to help you understand in more detail:

2. Indicating the forms and moods of exclamations or particles.

(Note: Particles are untranslatable words used at the end of speech to indicate moods or feelings of a speaker)

Watch my video about Tones in Particles & Exclamations to help you understand in more detail:

Note: Elisions and Contractions (Short informal words) are also part of the rhythm of Thai language. When speaking with different moods and feelings, the words we use should compliment each other as one rhythm, mood and feeling.

The Quality & Strength Of Tones…

The quality and strength of the tones depend on the air we produce. As you know, men have a deeper voice than women but it doesn’t mean a women can’t produce a deep voice like men.

The quality and strength of tones in Thai language varies in speech depending on the mood or feeling of the speakers, such as exaggeration, emphasising, etc.

In English language, the quality and strength of tones (stress) is one of many factors in creating different accents. Tones and stress are also used to indicate the rhythm of different types of sentences and the mood or feeling of the speaker. However in Thai language the ways we use tones are slightly different, which creates a different rhythm to English.

Watch my video on Quality & Strength of Tones to help you understand in more detail:

Types Of Sounds…

The rhythm of Thai language is not just about how we pronounce the tones, it is also about the sounds themselves. If you learn to read and write Thai scripts, you probably know that we have live syllables and dead syllables. Do you ever wonder, why do we call them live and dead sounds? Basically, we differentiate sounds from their characters into two types:

LIVE SOUNDS are nice to the ears, soft and gentle.

DEAD SOUNDS are harsh to the ears, hard and abrupt.

Basically, we are able to control the airflow in our mouth for soft and gentle (live) sounds. We cannot control the airflow of hard and abrupt (dead) sounds.

For example, the vowel sound -า / aa is a long sound. If you pronounce this sound, you will find that you can control the air better than the short vowel sound -ะ / a which is a dead sound. The sound is dead because we make a quick movement and stop the sound suddenly before you control it further.

Another example is the consonant sound น /n which is a nasal sound. If you pronounce this sound, you will find that you can control the air through the nose better than the hard and abrupt consonant sound ด / d, which is a dead sound. Again, it is dead because the sound is made from a quick movement and stops suddenly.

How do we use different types of sounds in speaking?…

Different types of sounds can create different feelings in words, for example:

ทาน / taan = to eat (polite word) the two soft sounds า / aa and น / n create a nicer sound than กิน / gin = to eat, to consume (common & informal) which has the hard sound ิ / i. However, กิน / gin (common and informal) sounds nicer than แดก / dàek = to eat, to devour (impolite) because of the combination of two hards sounds ด and ก.

In Thai grammar จ is a hard sound but จ้ะ / jâ or จ๊ะ / já (informal polite particle used by female) produce a slightly more gentle sound than ค่ะ/คะ (formal polite particle used by female). Therefore, จ้ะ / jâ or จ๊ะ / já are used to indicate that one speaks in a soft, gentle and sweet manner other than ค่ะ / kâ or คะ / ká which used to indicate that one is being firm and formal.

When creating a rhyme in music, this is a very important factor that we need to consider. For example, we tend to use the word เธอ / ter (used to mainly address or refer to a woman) as it sounds nicer to the ears than คุณ / kun (formal and polite addressing used to address a person one is talking to). The expressions we use for this are:

รื่นหู / Rûen~Hŏo
= feel refreshing + ear
= pleasant (sound)

ไม่รื่นหู / Mâi Rûen~Hŏo
= no/not + feel refreshing + ear
= unpleasant (sound)

Different people may use different types of words and/or make different quality and strength of a tone to indicate their personality.

This, among others, are some of the factors you need to understand in order to let your speech flow. Listen out and mimic or adapt your speech, the quality of your sounds and tones, in order to suit your own personality and sound like native speaker.

What do you think? Do you sound like you are from Bangkok? Do you sound like your Thai friends? Who do you want to sound like?

To develop fluency you need to find your own personal rhythm. It’s your identity.

โชคดีค่ะ / chôhk dee = Good Luck!

By ครูเจี๊ยบ: Kru Jiab
Thai Style

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Kruu Jiab is a Thai language teacher, an author and translator. She is known for her detailed and clear explanations that leave no questions unanswered. Jiab believes in self improvement, thinking outside the box and contemplates her students needs. She has written nine books on learning Thai language and trained over 800 Thai language teachers

2 Comments

  1. I’ve been starting learning Thai recently (read & write, and I can speak a -very- little bit of it) and your site will definitely be very helpful. Just bookmarked it.

  2. Bridget, good luck with your new adventure!

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