Thailand remains one of the most popular travel destinations worldwide. Every year, millions of visitors from around the world enter Thailand to enjoy the amazing landscapes, beautiful architecture and, perhaps most importantly, the fantastic food. However, many visitors only scratch the surface of what the country has to offer, mainly due to the language barrier. Even just learning a few words or phrases could help open up a world of opportunities and experiences.
Thai is the official language of Thailand and, just like with any other language, it comes with its own set of quirks. However, outside of these, Thai is actually quite a fun language to learn. Whether you plan to just travel in the kingdom or to stay and work long term, we have put together 5 tips to help you on your way to learning the Thai language.
Learn The Script
To the untrained eye, the Thai script may just look like a bunch of squiggles but it is in fact the native language of over 20 million people and has a heritage going back centuries. By taking the time to learn the script, you will put yourself in the best position to jumpstart mastering Thai.
The Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants and 28 vowel combinations, in addition to several tonal markers. Meanwhile, sentences do not contain spaces between words, capital or lower case letters, or even punctuation the majority of the time, adding to the confusion.
While it certainly appears daunting, it is well worth your time as it helps tremendously with speaking and so should be your first step in your Thai learning journey. As not all signs are translated into English, learning to read the Thai language can be your ticket to discovering something new.
Mind Your Manners
Nobody wants to be that person when they travel abroad. It is important to mind your manners when interacting with others, and this applies to the language too. As you learn Thai, you’ll find that there are a number of words, particles and pronouns that are used for politeness. Perhaps the most important of these are the ending particles of kha (ค่ะ) and khrap (ครับ), used by females and males respectively.
Somewhat untranslatable, these words are used to make the sentence sound polite and show respect to whoever you are speaking with. It can be used after most sentences, though how often you should use it depends on who you are talking with.
If talking to someone of authority or during a short interaction with a stranger, it is better to use it more often. When talking with close friends however, it is fine to use it sparingly like when you are being sincere (e.g. saying thank you when receiving a gift). Be sure to make use of these in your everyday conversations so you can be sure not to cause offense or appear insensitive. Nobody likes talking to a rude person.
Watch Your Tone
Ever noticed how sometimes when you overhear Thai people speaking together it sounds like their words are bouncing up and down? That’s because they are (in a way). Thai is a tonal language, meaning that individual words can be differentiated based on how they are spoken. There are 5 different tones used in the Thai language, including:
While you may be able to get away with ignoring the tones to an extent, you will likely at times be faced with a blank expression – or worse if you are unfortunate enough to use the wrong tone on the wrong word. If you are really looking to impress your Thai friends or master the Thai language, it is worth putting in the time to learn the 5 different tones and doing your best to clearly differentiate them in conversation.
Control Your Breath
Tones are not the only problem you will face when it comes to learning Thai pronunciation. The Thai language makes use of aspirated and unaspirated consonants, meaning that words are distinguished by whether they are pronounced with or without a ‘puff of air’.
For example, an aspirated consonant can be the difference between ordering fried rice with egg or fried rice with chicken. The word for egg uses an aspirated ‘k’ sound, while chicken uses an unaspirated ‘k’ sound, sounding closer to a ‘g’. It is worth noting that there are a number of different transliterations that are used for Thai and so some guide books may use slightly different spellings for their pronunciation guide. Some may write the transliteration for chicken as ‘kai’ while others will write ‘gai’ as a means to show the difference.
Learning to differentiate these pronunciations can take some getting used to, but in the long run will definitely help you converse with the locals and, in this case, order food.
The best thing you can do to kickstart your Thai learning is to immerse yourself in the language. What is the best way to do that? Go to Thailand!
When surrounded by the language, you can listen, practice and soak in the language in everyday situations with native speakers. Listening to Thai music and watching Thai tv also helps absorb the language.
Try to get away from the main tourists spot to get a better insight into the culture of the country and expose yourself to different accents and dialects. Doing this is the optimum way to perfect your pronunciation and learn new vocabulary. Most importantly, don’t be shy. Even if you make mistakes, people will be happy that you try and may even help correct you.
It is fair to say that the Thai language is not the easiest language to learn. Between the range of tones and the seemingly undecipherable script, it can feel like an upwards battle, especially for English natives. However, with time and practice, it is possible to develop a good understanding of the language, and doing so will greatly improve your experience when in Thailand.