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Thai Language Lessons | Introduction

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Contents On This Page

  • Disclaimer [more]
  • Introduction [more]
  • Finding A School Or Teacher [more]
  • Should Your Thai Teacher Be Able To Speak English? [more]
  • Reference Books [more]





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Thai Language Lessons - Introduction


These notes were typed up originally just as an exercise to try to help me remember what I had been taught in class. I then published them, thinking they may be useful to other beginners learning Thai or to give people an idea what kinds of subject are taught in a 20 hour beginner's course for students of Thai.

I began the course a little over one month after arriving in Thailand and at the time was barely able to speak a word; let alone read or write.

I am not particularly proud of these notes and now - with a grasp of written Thai and the ability to transliterate into English better than most phrase books (which isn't difficult considering how appalling most of them are) - I would do it very differently but this is now and that was then.

If anything here helps, I will be pleased, but remember that it was written by a complete novice.


On my first half-a-dozen or so trips to Thailand I, like many visitors, didn't bother learning a word of Thai apart from 'Sawatdee Krup' and 'Kop Kuun Krup'. Although there were times when it would have been useful to know a bit more it was always quite easy to get by. In tourist areas the locals have a smattering of English and elsewhere it is possible to point and use a calculator (or fingers) for numbers and prices.

Upon completing a TEFL teacher's course in August 2002 I found that it had reawakened my interest in not just the English language but other languages too. On my next couple of trips to Thailand I made an effort to learn some Thai on an informal basis just by talking to Thais and asking for their help. At the end of 2003 I moved permanently to Thailand. In February 2004 I decided that I should attend some formal classes in Thailand.

These pages are purely about the Thai language. I have put together a brief guide to Thailand if you are interested in some of my views on the country and the people.

Finding A School Or A Teacher

World Computer & Language School, Hat Yai Photo: World Computer & Language School, Hat Yai

This was more difficult than I'd imagined it would be but it depends whereabouts you are located in Thailand. If you are located somewhere that has lots of foreigners, it's not a problem. On the other hand, if you aren't it can be a problem.

The language education establishments where I live are geared up to teach Thais English. My request seemed to take a lot of schools by surprise. Their initial assumption was that I wanted to teach English at their school rather than learn Thai. I called in at quite a few but the best they could do was promise to call me back. They never did.

There happened to be a school very close to where I was staying but the initial fee quoted (Bt600 an hour) seemed a bit excessive by Thai standards, especially when you consider that many people in Thailand earn as little as 150 Baht a day.

I found another school that offered me lessons for Bt300 an hour. It was a bit out of my way though and not all that convenient for me. Using this quote I went back to the first school and negotiated with them to get the same rate (half of what they said originally). It worked out well for me as the school was just a few yards from my room.

It goes to show though that in Thailand it is not just T-shirts and fake Rolex watches you have to haggle for. Never believe the first price of anything you are interested in purchasing.

Should Your Thai Teacher Be Able To Speak English?

Goong, my Thai language teacher Photo: Goong, my Thai language teacher

My teacher, Goong, was great. She was a very bright girl, who taught computer applications and maths, and she even taught me Thai. She spoke good English (for a Thai). The fact that she spoke English was a big bonus. She was able to explain small things that otherwise would have been completely baffling.

When I did my TEFL course they tried to push the benefits of the so-called 'immersion method' where the class is conducted entirely in the target language.

I have never been convinced about this method. English language teaching is something that a lot of people wish to do and it is a big money spinner for many organisations and individuals. If opportunities were limited to those people who could speak the native language then there would only be a fraction of the current number of teachers. It is obviously not in a lot of people's interest to do this so I think everyone in the industry advocates the 'immersion method' for this reason.

My advice if you are looking for a Thai teacher is to find one that can speak English well. It will make your life a lot easier and your learning experience more productive.

Reference Books

Initially I used three pocket-sized books and between them I could find what I was looking for most of the time but there were always words cropping up that I couldn't find.

The three books were:

  1. Robertson's Practical English-Thai Dictionary compiled by Richard G. Robertson, B.S., M.S.

  2. ISBN 974-8236-38-2
    Published by Asia Books Co., Ltd.
    5 Sukhumvit Road Soi 61,
    P.O. Box 40,
    Bangkok 10110, Thailand
    Tel: (66-2) 715-9000 ext 3202 - 4
    Fax: (66-2) 714-2799
  3. English - Thai

  4. ISBN 974-272-143-2
    Published by Hot & Spicy Co., Ltd.
    Fax Thailand: (66) - 2 - 914 - 1425
    Fax USA: (1) - 209 - 671 - 7536
  5. Lonely Planet Thai Phrasebook

  6. ISBN 0 86442 658 5
    Published by Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd
    ABN 36 005 607 983
    90 Maribyrnong St., Footscray, Victoria 3011, Australia

Robertson's is old (first published in 1969) and doesn't include much modern vocabulary that has entered the language in recent years. It is also aimed at Americans providing, for example, the Thai expressions for "Sir" and "Ma'am". How quaint.

Being a dictionary, rather than a phrase book like the other two books mentioned here, it's generally quicker to find the word I'm after. The phonetics system for tones is very easy to use and the transliteration seems to be quite accurate. The Thai text which is shown with each entry is printed in a very small and unclear font. This wasn't a problem until I started taking more of an interest in the written language and wanted to know how Thai words were spelt.

Robertson's dictionary contains about 5,000 words and expressions but often I try to look up words that aren't included. To solve this I decided to buy a better dictionary and ended up with Se-Ed's Modern English-Thai/Thai-English dictionary. It's quite comprehensive but is designed for native Thai speakers. It transliterates English words into Thai but not the other way round. Thais seem to find it useful but I still find it difficult to use.

Amazon US

Lonely Planet is a lot more up to date and has a good grammar section but I don't like the symbols they use to indicate tones as I can never remember what is what and constantly have to look them up at the front of the book.

I think the section on Hill Tribe dialects is a complete waste of time for the vast majority of readers. There are other strange quirks with Lonely Planet (or perhaps they are just trying to be trendy as usual?). In a pocket-size reference book, that presumably is aimed at the masses, I see little point in having phrases specifically for rock bands on tour or TV and film crews.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Some of the material gives an indication of the typical backpacking Lonely Planet reader this book is aimed at. A 'Dope Discourse' giving the Thai phrases for various kinds of 'recreational' drugs which is hardly responsible anywhere in the world, let alone in a country where drug offences are dealt with in the severest way. Thai phrases for "I have my own syringe", and "Where can I buy some gay/lesbian magazines". Their clothes shopping section has baggy fisherman's pants at the top of the list, naturally, but amazingly their is no headgear section with the Thai word for bandana. These items are just so Lonely Planet.

These are minor annoyances but there is one thing that really irks me about Lonely Planet. In their opinion the hard 'g' sound just doesn't exist in the Thai language. This kind of interests me as I hear it a hell of a lot in Thailand. In my opinion it is very misleading. Here are some examples (I will ignore tones while describing these so as not to over-confuse).

The word for chicken (to my ears and according to most other phrase books) sounds like 'gai'. According to Lonely Planet it is 'kai' but to me that is an egg. According to LP, egg is 'khai'. Where I would use a hard 'g' and a 'k' to differentiate sounds they insist on using just aspirated and non-aspirated 'k's. I think they are wrong and it will lead to mispronunciations.

Here's a test for you. Say the word 'get' and then say the first syllable in the word 'kettle'. Do they sound different? To me they do; a hard 'g' sound is different to a 'k' with or without aspiration.

Now, let's look at the names of two popular Thai resorts which are commonly translated as Krabi and Phuket. The first syllable of Krabi and the second syllable of Phuket start with the Thai letter 'Gor Gai' ().

Ask a Thai to pronounce these two place names and listen for yourself how the consonants are pronounced. Listen particular to the second syllable in Phuket. Does it sound like 'get' or 'ket'? To me, this letter is unmistakably a hard 'g' sound but many transliteration systems insist on using a 'k'.

The Thai word for 'how many?' is transliterated to 'gii' by most books and that is also how I hear it. Lonely Planet tell their readers it is 'kii', which actually means shit. To my ears the Thai word for the number 'nine' sounds like 'gow' (like the English word 'gown' but without an 'n' at the end and with a falling tone). Lonely Planet tell their reader it is 'kao', like one of those big milk producing animals you see in fields.

What is particularly confusing about the last example is that there are already several other Thai words that sound basically like 'kao' but which use different tones and different degrees of aspiration, e.g., the words for rice, the colour white, she/he/her/him/they/them, a hill or small mountain, to enter/insert/join. Learning Thai is already confusing enough without Lonely Planet telling people that other words, such as for the number nine, also have a 'kao' sound when actually it is a 'gao' sound.

The Hot & Spicy book has easy phonetic symbols with an arrow pointing straight up for high tones, one pointing straight down for low tones, one pointing diagonally up and to the right for rising tones and one pointing down and to the right for falling tones. There is a good section on feelings that includes many of the 'Jai' (heart) phrases used in Thai. In general I've found it to be quite a useful little reference.

Amazon UK

I have used the same method used by Robertson to indicate tones in these pages as it is the only practical method using a standard keyboard. The letters h, l, r, f are used in brackets before a syllable to indicate whether the syllable is high, low, rising or falling. An exclamation mark used after a syllable indicates the syllable is pronounced quickly.

Later on I bought a more serious tome which turned out to be an excellent book:

  • Thai Reference Grammar - The Structure of Spoken Thai by James Higbie and Snea Thinsan

  • ISBN 974-8304-96-5
    Orchid Press
    P.O. Box 19,
    Yuttitham Post Office,
    Bangkok 10907, Thailand

For a more in-depth look at the grammatical structure of the modern, spoken language this book provides some very comprehensive information. For those wishing to learn Thai beyond phrase book level it is indispensable.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

On an impulse one day I purchased 'Teach Yourself Thai' which is part of one of a series of titles in the 'Teach Yourself' series. I bought the book and two CD package. I have to admit that at first I had a few reservations and wasn't keen.

I had the typical beginner's mentality where I wanted to learn to speak but had no interest in the written language. This is a common but bad mistake. Finding writing exercises at the end of chapter one wasn't what I wanted. Also, at the beginning of the CD there is an American with the most awful of accents droning on about 'Teach Yourself' and copyright.

  • Teach Yourself Thai by David Smyth

  • ISBN 0-07-142030-4
    Hodder Headline Ltd
    338 Euston Road
    London NW1 3BH

Amazon US

Amazon UK

My very first impression was that the book had just been published to fulfil the publisher's need and wasn't actually that much use. How wrong I was.

After not looking at the book for a long time, I returned to it after my basic Thai had improved and at around the time I had started to get interested in written Thai. I soon realised that the author, David Smyth, is one of the world's leading experts on the Thai language.

The book gave me invaluable pieces of information that I had not seen mentioned in any of my phrase books and the writing and reading lessons were excellent. The CD is good because it is impossible for non-Thai speakers who are just starting to learn Thai to pronounce words just from reading them.

In addition to language lessons the book also contains general information about Thailand and Thai culture which is interesting and useful. 'Teach Yourself Thai' soon became my most valued Thai language resource. The transliteration is almost faultless (as far as transliteration can be faultless) and doesn't mislead readers like Lonely Planet does.

Criticisms? The names of the Thai alphabet characters are not deemed to be important but if you don't know what letters are called how can you ask Thais to help you?

I bought another book/CD package called 'Thai for Beginners' written by the very well known Thai and Lao language author, Benjawan Poomsan Becker. The format (one book and two CDs) and course structure is virtually identical to the 'Teach Yourself' package but the content is different enough to make it worthwhile buying both books.

  • Thai for Beginners by Benjawan Poomsan Becker

  • ISBN 1-887521-00-3
    Paiboon Publishing
    PMB 192, 1442A Walnut Street
    Berkeley, California USA 94709
    Tel: +1 510 848 7086
    Fax: +1 510 848 4521

Amazon US

Amazon UK

The book contains lots of great information and the CDs provide a convenient way to listen to Thai. The CDs give lots of examples of how individual words are pronounced whereas the 'Teach Yourself Thai' CDs just concentrate on dialogues. I have found both to be useful.

Both of these packages are highly recommended and they cost about the same price which is around the Bt1,000 mark or less. The books can be bought separately without CDs but I would recommend getting the CDs as well.

I have a couple of books by Thai authors and this one isn't bad at all, especially for the paltry Bt98 that it cost. There are lots of useful phrases and vocabulary as well as facts about tourist areas in Thailand and tips on culture and etiquette. As usual with Thai authors, the English transliteration isn't perfect but it's many than many.

  • Spoken Thai by Plang Phloyphrom

  • ISBN 974-246-531-2

Amazon US

I really have to wonder about some transliteration systems sometimes. The pronunciation guide tells readers that where they see an 'a' in transliterated Thai words it should be pronounced like 'u' in cup. They're right, it should be pronounced like 'u' in cup so why not just use a 'u' instead of an 'a' and not confuse everyone?

If you have read what I've written elsewhere you will know I don't like the fact that in some transliteration systems a hard 'g' sound just doesn't exist. People insist on using a 'k' which is wrong. This book has an interesting take on the subject.

It transliterates the 'gor-gai' character () as a 'k' but in the pronunciation guide says it is like 'g' in 'gun'!! So again, why not just use a 'g' so as not to confuse everyone in the first place? Transliteration is a nightmare which is why it is best to try to get to grips with the written language as soon as possible.

At the front of the book is a fairly useful pronunciation guide (although strictly it isn't always that accurate) but there is no index or table of contents so it is not possible to find something specific quickly.

All phrases are transliterated phonetically to aid the reader and written in Thai script which is a great help for those studying the written language. Considering it cost less than Bt100 I think it is good value.

This next book is a disaster. Of all the Thai language books I have bought this was the only one that was actually recommended to me - by a Thai bookshop assistant. I think there's a moral there somewhere. It was written by two Thai authors and what is obvious is that there has been absolutely no collaboration with a native speaker before going to print.

  • Speaking Thai by Dhirapol Polsawasdi and Chanchai Boohhao

  • ISBN 974-91789-3-9

Amazon US

Amazon UK

I'm sure the authors can probably speak English adequately, have a string of Thai qualifications and know English grammar inside-out but their failings become very evident once you start reading the book.

Due to the fact the authors are Thai, the Thai phrases used are probably accurate but the English is dire on two counts. Firstly, translating phrases into meaningful English leaves a lot to be desired. Here are a few examples. "He will not have any dog?" "Had he got a dog?" "She hasn't got any cat." "You haven't got any house."

It has this type of thing on every page along with English spelling mistakes. The other problem is the awful transliteration. Thai authors just seem to transliterate letter by letter, not bothering with the fact that the sound of Thai consonants change completely depending whether they come at the beginning or end of a syllable.

An example is the Thai for 'police' which is transliterated as 'tamruaj'. Yes, the final consonant is a 'Jor Jarn' () but at the end of a syllable this letter is pronounced as a 't'. A more accurate transliteration would therefore be 'tumruat'.

Even with the best transliteration it is extremely difficult for a foreigner to be able to read and pronounce a word and be understood by a Thai. With bad transliteration it is impossible.

The book attempts to teach foreigners how to speak Thai - a tonal language - but provides no guidance on tones. The authors state in the book preface that they want readers to make mistakes which they believe will reduce the learning time.

This book cost Bt250 and when compared to the one above, which cost Bt98, it is not good value.

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