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Thai Culture Guide >> Learn Thai

Learn to Speak Thai

The main problem with learning Thai is that the basis of the language is not European-based. English and the other Euro languages have Latin, Greek, Viking, etc., roots; Thai does not, so you have to memorize hundreds, if not thousands, of strange and unrelated sounds. This is difficult, unless you use some sort of memory trigger.

Speak Easy Thai is a low-cost (about US$25) CD-ROM that helps solve this problem by presenting a picture and a sound file; all words are spoken by a native Thai speaker, so you hear the correct tone.

If you see a Thai word printed in a book, such as a travel guide, chances are you will not remember the word because there is nothing to hang your hat on.

But when you see a picture of something and hear it spoken properly in Thai, your brain will find it much easier to remember the word because it seems to set up more associations (hypertext links, if you will) in your brain.

It's a fact that most people learn better visually and aurally than they do by simply reading and trying to memorize. This is, in fact, how children learn. They hear the words spoken by adults and other children, and repeat them. Young children learn to speak a language well before they can read.

Thai uses its own alphabet, rather than pictograms like Chinese, which makes it much easier to learn than Chinese. You just have to get over the hump of reading the Thai characters. The alphabet contains the same letters as English, but they are drawn differently. For example, all the common consonants and vowels exist in Thai, but a Thai G (or P or M) does not look like an English G (or P or M).

But the best part of learning Thai is the grammar, believe it or not, because there is very little to learn. There are no, absolutely NO verb conjugations, which will please anyone who has ever tried to learn one of the Latin-based languages like French, Italian, and Spanish. Future tense is handled with "ja", meaning "will", or by adding an adverb of time, like "tomorrow". Past tense is handled by putting "already" at the end, or by adding an adverb of time, like "yesterday". For example, instead of saying, "I went to the market", you use the present tense ("go") but add "already" at the end, as in "I go market already". Easy peasy.

Also, adjectives do not change form, you don't have to worry about the sex of a noun because all nouns are neuter. Adjectives always follow the noun, without exception; you say "house big" rather than "big house".

General plurals are done by doubling the noun: "house house" instead of "houses". Specific plurals use the same construction we use in English for groups, as in "The farmer has three head of cattle". You can't say "I have three children" in Thai, you must say "I have child three person"; "child" is the noun, "person" is the group word, also known as a "classifier".

Adverbs are easy too, no variations. You can add emphasis by doubling the adverb: "He runs quickly quickly".

The most difficult part of learning Thai is that it is a tonal language. English uses tones on sentences. Compare these three statements:

"You're going to the party."
"You're going to the party?"
"You're going to the party!"

They all use the same English words, but the tone (flat, rising, falling, respectively) gives an entirely different meaning to each sentence.

Thai uses tones on words, but not on sentences. For example, "seu-ah" spoken with a flat (mid-range) tone means "clothing"; "seu-ah" spoken with a rising tone means "tiger". So you must be careful to learn the correct tone for each word, otherwise you might be saying "my tiger is dirty" when what you meant is "my clothing is dirty". There is no doubt that this is the hardest part of learning Thai, and the only way to learn the correct tone is to listen to a native Thai speaker saying the word.

About the Author:

Doug Anderson is a retired Canadian programmer who first visited Thailand in 1988 and has been back many times since.