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Learning Thai

Paul is a retired American expat living in Thailand. Besides being an English teacher and translator, Paul likes languages and most sports.

Front Cover of a Thai to English Dictionary


Learning Thai

Thai has turned out to be the most difficult language I have ever tried to acquire. I started learning the Thai language in 2003 as preparation for a job assignment in Thailand. After being assigned a native language tutor, I began my study in a one-on-one environment at a Berlitz School in the United States. My instructor, Khun Vanitha, was a plump and jolly middle-aged woman from central Thailand where standard Thai is spoken. Using the Berlitz direct approach, I learned a lot of useful daily vocabulary and expressions by looking at pictures and watching and imitating my teacher's actions. About a week or so after these listening and speaking exercises, Khun Vanitha threw the Thai alphabet and reading and writing at me. I was overwhelmed, but I made it through the next seven months of daily tutorials. In the end, I could use enough spoken Thai to satisfy basic needs, and I could read enough to make out road signs. I couldn't do much more than that because my brain had been overloaded with too much Thai in such a short period. Now after a few other tutorials, I am still not very good at Thai, because I never had a good foundation that was reinforced. This article will point out my challenges in learning Thai.

Listening and Speaking Challenges

1. Thai Pronunciation:

The Thai language has 44 consonants and 32 vowels. For the novice foreigner, challenges are presented with the pronunciation of initial and final consonants in words. One of the biggest headaches for me was the production of unvoiced, unaspirated sounds like "p" in "spin" at the beginning of words. Another problem existing until now is the pronunciation of the "ng" sound in "sing" at the beginning of words. For example, many times I pronounce the word "ngu" for a snake as "nu" which means mouse or rat.

The Thai language also has vowel sounds different from English. For example, there is an "oen" sound in Thai as in the word "choen" meaning please which doesn't exist in English. There are also triphthongs such as "iao" in the word "liao" which means finished not found in English. When I first started with the language, I had difficulty hearing many sounds that weren't present in English. Now that I can finally hear all of the sounds, there are still often difficulties in making all of the sounds.

2. Thai Tones:

Thai is a tonal language compared to English which makes use of intonation for different meanings. The Thai language has five tones - mid, low, falling, high, and rising - which I still haven't completely mastered. The use of the correct tone is so necessary for conveying meaning. For example, dog, horse, come, and mother all have the same sound "ma" but different tones.

3. Hearing and Speaking Words:

Just as in English, Thai words are made by joining consonants and vowels together. When I first started with Thai, all I could hear was a few daily used words and mostly noise when listening to broadcasts or soap operas. One of my biggest problems has been hearing and saying long words like "ra-tha-tha-ma-num" which means constitution and "sa-ha-bpra-chaa-chat" which is Thai for United Nations. I also have had problems hearing words slurred together in such sentences as, "gin khao liao ru yang?" meaning, "Have you eaten?", and "sa wat dee khrap" which is often heard as "di khrap." In both cases, syllables were either run together or swallowed. Finally, there is a recurrent problem of hearing English words pronounced in Thai such as "shobp-bpeng-sen-dto" which is a shopping center. Today I can hear most words spoken, but I have a problem pronouncing many of them so people can readily understand.

4. Hearing and Speaking Sentences:

This has been more challenging than hearing and speaking words. If I am tuned into a topic I am familiar with and have heard many conversations about, I can usually get the meaning if the speakers speak slowly and clearly. The problem is comprehending sentences in broadcasts and soap operas where the speakers are conversing more rapidly and using a lot of idioms and colloquial expressions which I don't know. Because I can't hear clearly and understand all of the sentences, I many times don't grasp the details of broadcasts and soaps.

Thai Listening and Speaking Lesson

How to Read Thai Tones

Reading and Writing Challenges

1. Recognizing Thai Consonants and Vowels:

The initial challenge in reading and writing was learning how to recognize, read, and write a non-Latin alphabet. There are 44 different consonant letters and 32 different vowel letters. According to Wikipedia, the Thai alphabet comes from the old Khmer script which is a southern Brahmic style of writing called Vatteluttu.

2. Joining Consonants and Vowels to Make Words:

The next challenge was learning how to read and write words by putting consonants and vowels together. According to Wikipedia, the Thai letters are not a true alphabet, but an abugida, a writing system in which each consonant may invoke a vowel sound such as "a" or "o". When writing Thai, consonants go horizontally from left to right with vowel letters or symbols arranged above, below, to the left or right, or in combinations. This is quite different from English which has a true alphabet.

3. Thai Punctuation:

There are no periods, question marks, or commas in Thai writing. For this reason, it is hard sometimes to know where sentences end unless you have a good knowledge of Thai grammar and sentence structure.

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4. Thai Abbreviations:

The Thai use a lot of abbreviations in their writing. In addition to businesses and government organizations, common words like hospital and school are abbreviated when they are preceded by a proper noun. For example, when doing this, the Thai use the first letters of the common word. School is "rong rian" in Thai; therefore, the abbreviation will be the first letter of "rong" and the first letter of "rian". Needless to say, if you don't know the word, you won't know the abbreviation.

5. Recognizing English Words Written in Thai:

A lot of English words are borrowed into Thai, but they don't appear in Thai as they do in English. This is because they are pronounced and written differently. For example, the word supermarket will be written "subp-bpo-maa-gedt" in Thai. The letter for "r" appears after "bpo" and "maa" in the word; however, there is a symbol over the "r" telling the reader not to pronounce the "r" in Thai.

Perhaps I would be better in Thai today if I would have learned it at a slower pace and more thoroughly when I was a beginning student of the language. Challenges in listening, speaking, reading, and writing will exist until I get to the point where I can think in Thai. I was challenged to think in both Thai and Chinese when I interpreted for my wife and mother-in-law at the end of November 2014, during our trip to Taiwan.

The Thai Alphabet

How to Read Thai

Difficult Languages to Learn

Challenges in Learning Thai

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on December 09, 2013:

Ben, Thanks for commenting on this hub. I haven't looked at a lot of business Thai lately, but I know that Thai borrows a lot of English for science and technology. Even at the school in Bangkok where I am teaching, the Thais will use such expressions as "summer study" and "i-study" (international study) instead of expressing it in Thai. They even say "singing contest" instead of using the Thai for this. Good luck on your written Thai. I always found that and the tones especially difficult to get good at.

Ben on December 09, 2013:

Thai is one of the more difficult (but not impossible) languages out there to learn and I'm always pleasantly surprised to hear somebody make a good effort at learning it.

I speak Thai fairly fluently as I'm a heritage speaker but these days since I have been using Thai as a business language/tool, I've come to the dreaded realization I don't know a lot of business terminology. Now I'm trying to catch up my vocabularly and written Thai at the same time.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 20, 2013:


I can't believe that I have waited this long to acknowledge your comment on this hub. Please excuse my negligence. I'm glad you liked the hub and I thank you for your good words.

masmasika on November 27, 2011:

Learning a different language is really difficult but you did it great and greater still because you are now teaching us how. Thanks for a job well done. voted up

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