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What Makes the Thai Language Easy to Learn?

Lanta International Language School

Is the Thai language easy to learn. Or not…

The Thai language is immensely different to most western languages. As a high context tonal language, with its own alphabet consisting of 44 consonants and 36 vowels, studying Thai can be enough to make your head spin to the point of explosion. Add the fact that the language differs quite considerably from place to place, and indeed social circumstances, i.e. street versus formal or even Royal Thai, then it’s no wonder that many people consider whether it is actually even worth it, especially as you could probably get by with English in the majority of popular Thai destinations. Right?

I’m not so sure, and I sometimes think that this perception of difficulty can be a hindrance to our learning. The more difficult we perceive it to be, the more difficult it becomes. The more difficult we “think” it is, the more stressed we get, and again, the more difficult learning becomes. I certainly know this is the case for me. If I view something to be difficult or challenging it can go one of two ways – I can either launch myself into the challenge, or hit a complete block of what I refer to as “learning fright”.

When I was considering what to write for this entry on WLT, I thought it might be refreshing to take a look at what makes the Thai language easy to learn. If we change our tact slightly, and think of learning the language as easy – then maybe, just maybe, the task will actually become a whole lot easier?!

When I was first introduced to the Thai language, people kept telling me how difficult it was. “It’s got five tones you know! So the same word can mean five completely different things depending on how it is said!” Repeatedly, people kept informing me of how complicated this made the Thai language. Now, I haven’t successfully learned a second language before so I could only compare it to the English language – but when I did, I thought, “Crikes, I’m glad I don’t have to learn English all over again!”

In the English language we have a good amount of vocabulary which when spoken can only be understood in the context of the entire sentence. We’re, where and wear are three that I can think of off the top of my head. Of and off are also amazingly similar, as are to and too (not to mention two). Then there’s by, bye and buy, lie (as in not true) and lie (as in lie down), read (as in the present tense of read), read (as in the past tense of read) and red (as in the colour), and so the list goes on. And you can’t even apply a tonal rule to these in order to understand their meaning. You need to understand the entire sentence and put them into context. At least in the Thai language you know there are five tones, and you can learn to identify and hopefully pronounce them too.

When you learn Thai, you also get help from the fact that many words compound to form new words. This makes it possible to understand unknown words just by looking at the separate parts. For example, you may know that the Thai word for fish is “pla”, and you may know that the Thai word for water is “naam”. “naam pla” a compound of the two words is fish water, or if you like – fish sauce. The vocabulary of the Thai language is not as extensive as the English language, there are not so many completely different words to remember, and you can get by reasonably well, by learning basics and watching them compound to form new meanings.

Then there’s this whole issue of Thai being a high context language. “Thai people don’t always say what they actually mean you know!” Well that’s true too. But what about the sarcasm of the English, the dry sense of humour and so on? What about the stiff upper lip, and what’s “PC” and what’s not “PC”? And even in the English language, people view the meanings of the same word quite differently depending on their background and upbringing – regardless of what the dictionary says. I know my partner has a completely different opinion of what “tidy” means than I do. What’s polite to one person may be rude to another and so on.

Now – let’s take a look at grammar! Phew! Sharp intake of breathe (or is it breath?)! He smiles, she smiles, they smile, we smile, you smile, you smiled, you are smiling, you have smiled, you did smile, you used to smile, you will smile, you’ve never smiled, arrrgghhhh…. One life, two lives, three wives, one wife – okay we can apply the rule of change the f to a v and add an s, but then what about sheep (singular) and sheep (plural), or child and children? So many exceptions that you need to remember. There’s no rule you can apply, you just have to pick it up and remember! I have a cow, but I have an elephant. I didn’t just go to a school, I went to the school. etc.

The grammar of the Thai language on the other hand, is extremely easy. There are no conjugations, declensions, inflections etc. Thai words do not change form with gender, person, number, or even tense. Yesterday, tomorrow, already and will, are added to sentence structures to indicate tense. When learning Thai, you don’t need to learn if a word is masculine or feminine (one commonality with the English language), and there are no articles. There are no words for “a”, “an” or “the”, and generally, if a word is not needed to communicate meaning, then it’s omitted, keeping sentences very simplistic in structure.

So, what about changing dialects and different vocabulary for different social circumstances? Well, again – the English language isn’t so different. “Oright mate!”, “Hello, how are you?” and “Pleased to meet you!” could all be regarded as meaning the same thing. Yet you would never dream of using the first expression when introducing yourself to a potential employer in a professional environment, in fact many English would never dream of using it all… but many English do use it and on a regular basis too. Add that to the fact that the “youth of today” are continuously coming up with their own language – and well, all I can say is I’m glad I’m not a Thai person learning English! I’m even more grateful I’m not a Thai person learning English from a Chav!

Okay – now we’re starting to see just how complicated learning the English language can be, and that’s just the beginning. Yet we all manage to learn English well enough. Judging by the fact that you’ve reached this point in the blog post, you must have a good grasp of the English language. I would say, that if you’ve reached this point AND understood, AND have a good idea of the other complications to the English language that I’ve not even touched on here (such as all the areas within this blog post that got flagged on my Microsoft grammar check), then you probably stand a VERY good chance of learning the Thai language too!

Is it really that difficult a language? Or, is it just different?

Could it be made easier by dropping the mindset of our native language, adopting different techniques to learning, and changing our perception from considering it to be difficult to believing it to be easy?

What do you think?

Tina Gibbons
Lanta International Language School

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8 Comments

  1. I think you hit on some wonderful points here Cat. I do think my native language mindset does hold me back in many ways because when I think about something in Thai my mind keeps trying to tie it to English.

    Even better you made me smile and think maybe I still stand a chance. Without realizing it I have been looking at certain words and deconstructing them to get to the root words that I know…you’re fish sauce point brought that home for me.

    I’m still taking it in in small chunks but there are some signs that I’m learning a little more.

  2. Catherine Wentworth

    August 25, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    ‘when I think about something in Thai my mind keeps trying to tie it to English’

    I guess it’s sort of like trying to fit square pegs into round holes. It sometimes does not fit.

    Btw – Aaron’s Thai Language Course makes a go of matching Thai to English.

    ‘I have been looking at certain words and deconstructing them to get to the root words that I know…you’re fish sauce point brought that home for me.’

    This is the part I love about learning Thai – finding new words created from words I already know.

    Here’s another water word = แม่น้ำ.

    แม่ น้ำ = mâe náam = mother water = river.

    Now, how great is that?

    ‘I’m still taking it in in small chunks but there are some signs that I’m learning a little more.’

    Chunking is good! I’m looking forward to reading how you’ve gone about it.

    I go in stops, starts and rushes. Right now I’m on a Thai learning spree. As you can imagine, my Thai teacher is totally chuffed. Yesterday, she even giggled at the thought of me buckling down with a month’s worth of Thai lessons.

  3. Catherine putting it the way you have does actually make the challenge seem a little easier.

    I think a major help in learning Thai is the sentence construction and I use the following as an example which may not be 100% right.

    If in English we said ‘I am going to the market to buy some pork, that is if they have got any’….the translated Thai would read something like this…

    ‘I go market buy pork, if have’

    So effectively you have learned the missing words…am,to the,to,some,that is,they,got any….before you even learn your first word.

    I hope I explained that okay.

  4. Martyn, ‘So effectively you have learned the missing words…am,to the,to,some,that is,they,got any….before you even learn your first word.’

    That’s a great way of looking at it… And if anyone asks you how many Thai words do you know, you can top up the tally to include the assumed words too :-)

    When Tina first suggested an article about how easy Thai is to learn, I quickly shot her back a reply full of smilies. But she’s right. Thai sentence structure is amazingly easy.

    And, like you pointed out, learners do need to get it into their heads that Thai does not need to use all the words we do.

    What a nightmare it must be for Thais, who have to learn the use of all those extra words!

  5. Hi guys

    Glad you liked the blog post.. I must say – I enjoyed writing it… and felt quite clever at the end of it for actually being fluent in English!!

    I’m also a firm believer in how our perception of whether things are difficult or not, can actually influence how difficult (or not) these things are.. (does that makes sense?)..

    I found that just by learning a few words in Thai – like “have”, “want”, “no”.. then combining it with a few subjects – like “water”.. I could communicate loads… “have water, no?” etc etc…

    I hope viewing things slightly different makes your learning easier…

  6. Tina, that was a good story for me to read.
    I am a dutchman, living in Thailand for more than three years.
    Adopting foreign languages I do very quickly and specially speaking it quite easily. I made my own vocabulary with the help of Glenn’s website thai-language.com which is great. But when trying to learn to read and write I had something like OMG, all these symbols and in my opinion Thai language was a broken item put together again but with all funny symbols used to do that. After reading your blog I feel a bit better about it and will pick it up these days again. Only these classes……
    Cheers,
    Hugo

  7. Thank you for all of this, makes me want to give it a shot!

  8. Interesting article. Native English speakers tend to take for granted how difficult the English language could be to learn. Many foreign English speakers do say it’s relatively easy to learn but maybe they are just being smug? Not having to learn different tenses, gender and endings is absolutely brilliant – that’s one thing that I’ve always hated about learning languages. On the other hand I feel like i’m learning the same language twice over – once in English for the pronunciation and once in Thai for the script. Unless you can really get the Thai alphabet down early you’re going to have to learn the phonetic english Thai and then convert it to symbols and then back again. That’s why I’m starting with the alphabet.

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