Learn to read Thai - Tutorial 1
You can learn to read Thai
Yes, YOU. And you can learn to read to a basic level fairly quickly.
Not many things surprise me about Thailand these days, but one thing I can't work is why so few foreigners learn to read Thai.
The Tourist Authority of Thailand tell us that around 20 million tourists visit the country each year. In addition, there are large, permanent expat communities in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Phuket, Samui, etc. The vast majority don't have a clue how to read Thai and apparently have no interest in learning.
Very few people visit this page, even though it is on the first page when you Google, "Learn to read Thai" and of the few people who arrive here, a very tiny minority bother to look at any of my other tutorials.
Why is this? What is the reason for this complete lack of interest? Being able to read some basic Thai is one of the most useful skills you can have if visiting, or especially if living, in Thailand.
On the surface it is entirely different from English, and therefore completely unfamiliar. However, there are also similarities.
If I were teaching English to a complete beginner I would explain the sounds that the letters make and how they go together to make basic words. For example, F-A-T.
Then I would explain the rules of the language. For example, if the word has an E at the end, it changes the sound of the first vowel, F-A-T-E.
Then I would explain some exceptions and anomalies. The 'u' in 'but' sounds different to the 'u' in 'put', etc etc.
This is exactly how I would teach someone to read Thai. In many ways, Thai is easier to learn than English because there are far fewer anomalies. Thai has a lot more vowels than English and phonetically it is a much more accurate written language.
As in my example above for 'but' and 'put', English uses the same vowel or vowel combination for many different sounds. Thai tends to have one vowel or vowel combination per sound. This makes life a lot easier. Instead of being reluctant to learn how to read Thai, you should pity the poor Thai students who have to learn English.
You can do it. If I can and millions of three year-old Thai kids can, you can too. It takes some effort at first, but once you understand the basics this should give you the inspiration to learn more.
Set aside a few hours and give it a try. It is an invaluable skill if you live in Thailand or visit the country often.
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It's not fun
One of the things that really got me down trying to teach English to Thai students was that everything had to be fun. If they didn't think something was fun they would switch off.
Not everything can be fun. English is a tough language to learn and sometimes learning it definitely isn't fun. As a teacher, you start asking yourself why you paid to attend a TEFL course and why you came to teach in Thailand. Do they actually want a teacher or do they want a kids' entertainer? Who needs an understanding of the present perfect? I would be far better equipped if I could perform a few simple magic tricks.
Thai students don't seem to understand that for anything to be fun you have to be good at it first. Unless you are reasonably good it is no fun at all.
In order to become reasonably good in the first place it is necessary to study hard. Once that stage has been reached studying becomes fun and after that increasing your knowledge becomes easier.
However, many kids who want learning to be fun aren't prepared to put in the initial hard work it takes to get to a level where learning is fun. They simply expect their teacher to make learning fun without them having to do anything.
I enjoy learning Thai and think that it is fun. At the time of writing I have lived in Thailand for almost 10 years and have been studying Thai for the same length of time. At first it was hard work and not particularly enjoyable, but I persevered.
If you have taken the first steps on the road to learning Thai, don't think it will be easy or very enjoyable for a while. Don't make the same mistake as Thai kids. There are no resources for learning Thai that are all fun without any of the hard work. But at the same time, don't give up when the the going gets tough.
At first it will be difficult and it may seem almost impossible. Then one day you will find yourself in a situation where suddenly you realise you have the ability to read a sign or menu written in Thai. There was no English translation and no one to help you. You did it yourself. It feels great.
This is the stage where learning Thai starts to become fun and having a little ability will encourage and motivate you to learn more. After that, everything becomes a lot easier and more enjoyable.
Remember though, before you reach that stage you will need to put in some serious effort. Now think about it. When you scan through and reach the bottom of this page, where will you go next?
Will you head off to a different website; perhaps go to the pages I wrote about Thai girls (which many people do); or will you decide to continue the hard work and look at Tutorial 2? It's your decision.
When I used to teach in Thailand and my students kept begging me to do something that was fun I would sometimes play a hangman game with them. I chose to use proverbs instead of single words, in the hope that they would acquire some wisdom from the proverb.
One proverb I used to use was, "Nothing in life worth having comes easy." When the going gets tough, it's a good proverb to remember.
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These tutorials are aimed at people who currently have zero knowledge of written Thai, but who wish to learn. The objective is to teach people how to read such things as signs and menus, etc. These lessons are not intended for intermediate or advanced readers of Thai. Reading books, newspapers, or other passages of text is beyond the scope of this exercise.
Many expats and regular visitors to the country never bother learning to read, even though some have knowledge of the spoken language ranging from basic to fluent.
The benefits of being able to read Thai should be obvious. It gives you freedom in Thailand and allows you to be more dependent; not having to constantly ask Thais where buses are going, etc.
I have found myself in many situations in Thailand where there is only written information and no one to ask. I started to teach myself how to read Thai early in 2004 and now I don't think too much about it. Occasionally, however, it occurs to me that an inability to read would make life in Thailand a lot more difficult.
It's good walking into small restaurants, browsing the menu written on the wall, and ordering from there. Thais never expect foreigners to be able to read their language, even though they know some foreigners can speak a few Thai words.
Probably the best thing about being able to read Thai, however, is that is gets you away from the dreaded transliteration of Thai words. This is the practice of writing Thai words using the English alphabet, which is known to Thais as 'Karaoke' language.
On Thai music videos, which many Thais sing along to Karaoke-style, there are two lots of subtitles. One is in Thai and the other has the Thai words written in English.
If you are trying to speak Thai from a phrase book and no one understands you, it is because the transliteration used in these books is completely hopeless. You only start to become aware of how useless it is once you start to understand how written Thai works.
The Thai written language - just like English - is made up of vowels and consonants. There are more consonants than English (44 compared to 21) but quite a few are used only very rarely and two are never used. There are more vowels than English but Thai vowels are much more consistent than English vowels.
'But' and 'put' use the same English vowel and should rhyme, but they don't. For these two different vowel sounds, Thai has two different vowels. 'Book' and 'boot' should rhyme, but they don't. For these two different vowel sounds, Thai also has two different vowels. In this respect, written Thai is far superior to written English.
Technically, English only has five vowels but the inconsistencies with pronunciation mean there should really be a lot more. I am telling you this so you understand why there are lots more Thai vowels but don't let anyone convince you it is a more difficult language to learn simply because it has more characters.
Written Thai can be both easy and difficult. Pure Thai is a monosyllabic language and thus most words are quite straightforward. However, there are lots of problem areas for new learners. The written language doesn't incorporate spaces between words so all the words in a sentence are joined together. There is no capitalisation and no punctuation.
Many vowels are voiced but not actually written, while some are written but not voiced. Sometimes there is a special symbol to indicate that they aren't voiced, but sometimes not. There are rules to learn (just like English) and there are certain things that you need to know (just like English).
How does a non-native English speaker know that Leicester is pronounced Lester? They just need to know and this can't be taught.
Any English speaker can learn to read some basic Thai. It is not Chinese, Japanese or Arabic.
I'm planning to do this in bite-size chunks. If you were teaching someone how to read English you might start with C-A-T and explain what sound the different letters make.
I'm going to do a similar thing. Already, with the C-A-T example, you can see why English is such a difficult language for foreigners to learn. If you explained to someone that the 'C' in 'cat' makes a 'K' sound, they would then have problems the first time they met the word 'ceiling'.
You would then have to explain that sometimes a 'C' makes an 'S' sound but then they would have problems the first time they met the word 'cello'.
The 'A' in 'cat' is pronounced one way, but is different to the 'A' in 'about', which is more commonly known as 'schwa'. Thai is a lot more consistent than English although there are still some inconsistencies.
For beginners I recommend getting wall charts (this link opens a pop-up image) with the Thai consonants and vowels. The chart in this picture is of my first wall chart when I began learning. They are intended for Thai kids learning Thai and they are very cheap and easily available in Thailand but they could be difficult to get hold of outside of Thailand. Wall charts aren't essential but the ones I used to have stuck next to my desk were a great help.
Resources for Thai kids learning Thai are excellent resources for foreigners learning Thai, and they cost next to nothing. Conversely, any goods aimed at foreigners in Thailand always come with a hefty price tag. Also worth getting are some kids' join-the-dots books for practising how to write Thai characters.
On your wall chart of Thai consonants you need to write the name of the character, what the initial and final consonant sounds are, and what class it is. The consonant class is only for tone purposes, which I will cover later. First, try to make the basic sound of the word and start thinking about tones later.
It is important to remember that many Thai consonants change sound dependent on whether they start or end a word or syllable. In the Thai greeting sawut-dee, the 's' and 't' in 'sawut' use the same Thai letter.
When transliterating, I think it is important to be as phonetically accurate as possible, even though you may transliterate the same Thai character into two different English letters. Thai Airways disagrees with this philosophy and call its in-flight magazine Sawasdee. However, such a transliteration is guaranteed to cause mispronunciations.
Books with bad transliteration (and that applies to most) tell readers that the Thai word for 'police' is tamruaj. How can a foreigner with no knowledge of Thai expect to get the pronunciation right with that stupid spelling? Yes, the character jor jarn makes a 'j' sound as an initial consonant, but sounds like an unreleased 't' when used as a final consonant. This is why so many phrase books are a complete waste of money.
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The key to learning how to read Thai is memorising what you learn. You need to remember what sounds Thai letters make, and you need to remember certain rules.
If you have an amazing photographic memory, you could finish these tutorials in a couple of hours and be out on the streets of Thailand reading Thai in no time. I once read about an autistic person with such a memory and he was indeed able to learn new languages in a matter of hours. Unfortunately, that isn't the case for most people.
The rote learning system used in Thai schools gets a bad press, but actually it is a very effective system for learning Thai. If you go over something time and time again, you will remember.
The temple education system was originally set up in Thailand just to teach reading and writing. Rote learning then was fine. The problem with the Thai education system these days is that as more subjects have been added, the old methods have simply been retained and they are not suitable for subjects in which students need to think. Rote learning is fine if students just need to remember something, but it doesn't teach them to think.
Rote learning is therefore a system that you could employ while going through these tutorials. Write down letters hundreds of times and keep saying the sound until they stick in your memory.
Alternatively, you might find success with mnemonics. It depends on how your brain operates and which systems work best for you. Everyone is different and you need to employ the most effective system for you as an individual.
My crude attempt in Photoshop at the cartoons above aren't artistic masterpieces, but perhaps they will help you remember the sounds these letters make as initial consonants? If it helps, you can invent your own mnemonics for other characters.
Look at a character, think of the sound, and think of something that the shape of the character reminds you of with the same sound. The idea when you see the letter is to be reminded of the other object, which then reminds you of the sound.
Some courses advertised on-line by farangs trying to make a fast buck who claim to have devised rapid memory techniques learning to read Thai have just done the same thing. They want money, of course, and quite frankly it isn't worth paying for. Just do it yourself.
You are the only person who knows the best way for you to learn. Use your experience of learning in the past and follow your instincts.
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During my time teaching English in Thailand, I noticed how attentive students were for the first lesson or two. It was as if they believed the only reason learning English was difficult was because there was a big secret that no one had told them about. It was all a conspiracy. All they needed was the big secret, but this was being deliberately withheld from them.
Perhaps the new teacher would finally reveal the big language learning secret? After they realised that learning English was just as difficult with the new teacher they went back to sleep.
There are no secrets. There are no teachers with Mr Spock Vulcan mind meld capabilities who can instantly transfer all their years of knowledge to you. There is no magic involved. There are no courses available that contain special secrets, and that applies just as much to the expensive courses.
All the information you need is already out there for free. You don't need to pay anything, so just save your money. All you need to do is apply some effort, determination, perseverance and work out the best way for you personally to remember things.
If you can't follow these free tutorials, let me know why. If I didn't explain something clearly or fully I will attempt to rewrite it. If I missed something, I will add it. I can't do this without your feedback and therefore I would be very grateful for constructive feedback and criticism.
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Let's start the tutorials
Here's your first Thai character. It's a consonant. I'm not planning to do this in any particular order apart from initially only covering commonly used letters. This letter does happen to be the first letter in the Thai alphabet - the same as 'A' in English - and so it's a good letter to start with. My other plan is to cover the characters in such an order as to build useful words. All will become clear soon and subsequent entries to this one will be quite short.
Name in Thai: ก ไก่
Name in English: Gor Gai (chicken)
Initial: g (as in 'gate', not as in 'giraffe')
Usage: Very common
Comments: The basic shape of this consonant forms the basis for several other Thai consonants. The different characters may look the same - or similar - to beginners but the sounds they make are very different.
This consonant is often transliterated as a 'k'. The transliteration of Thai words into English is a disaster zone, and many problems with transliteration are due to the many inconsistencies in written English.
The letter 'k' is used in the English words 'key' and 'whisker'. In the first word it is aspirated, and in the second word it is unaspirated. Hold your hand in front of your mouth when saying these words and you should feel a puff of air for the aspirated 'k' in 'key', but not the 'k' in 'whisker'.
The unaspirated 'k' in 'whisker' is actually more like the 'g' in 'get'. You can see that in written English we use the same letter for different sounds. In Thai, aspirated and non-aspirated sounds have different consonants.
When transliterating, how do we make the distinction between an aspirated and unaspirated 'k'? Whoever devised the transliteration system decided that aspirated 'k's should be followed by an 'h'.
A phrase such as 'key to the gate' would therefore be written 'khey to the kate' with this system. The problem is that English readers regard an initial 'k' on its own as being aspirated. In English the only word I can think of that starts with 'kh' is khaki.
This rule also applies to aspirated 'p's and 't's, which is where we can see another major problem. The consonant clusters 'ph' and 'th' make very different sounds in English compared to aspirated 'p's and 't's.
When Phuket first appeared on the travel scene as a vacation destination, the name caused lots of mirth in the UK because some people thought the pronunciation was 'F**k it'. The standard transliteration, as usual, is utterly hopeless. When English readers see 'ph' they think of a 'f' sound and not an aspirated 'p'.
Phuket actually sounds like poo-get
People write to me as a result of reading these tutorials and attempt to 'correct' me on my transliteration because it doesn't follow their phrase books. My answer is that there is no correct way to transliterate, only wrong ways.
Don't get hung up on writing Thai words using the English alphabet. Remember that there is no correct way to do it, only wrong ways.
Let's continue with the consonant that we just covered.
Thais are obsessive about food and as soon as you arrive in the country you will start to hear the common Thai verb 'eat'. Sometimes you will hear another word, which is the polite version of the verb to eat (taan), but mostly you will hear the common version. Instead of Thais asking how you are, they will ask if you have eaten yet (gin kaaw reu yung?).
Here's your first Thai word:
The character above gor gai is a short vowel that makes an 'i' sound, as in 'lid' or 'pin'. It is always written above the preceding consonant. Vowels are always written after consonants in English.
In Thai they can be written before, after, above, below or around the consonant. This isn't as difficult as it may sound. The same vowels are always written in the same place and it isn't random.
The final consonant in the word is the Thai consonant 'n'. This consonant makes an 'n' sound regardless of whether it is an initial or final consonant, however, many consonants change their sound.
Many transliteration systems and phrase books (for example, Lonely Planet, which is probably the worst Thai phrase book I have ever seen) would transliterate this word as 'kin', but English readers will automatically pronounce this with an aspirated 'k', as in the word meaning family. Wrong.
I use a 'g', intending the initial consonant sound to be like the 'g' in gift, however, we see yet another problem with transliteration. The word 'gin' in English is pronounced 'jin' and normally drunk with tonic water. Whenever you attempt to write Thai words in English, and vice versa, you run into lots of problems. It's horrendous.
It's just as horrendous transliterating English words into Thai as it is transliterating Thai words into English.
When Thais transliterate words written in English back into Thai script they blindly follow rules instead of opening their ears. As a general rule, most aspirated 'k' sounds in English are not followed by an 'h'. The example 'khaki' is about the only one I can think of.
Therefore an aspirated English 'k' gets written as an unaspirated 'gor gai' and we start getting things like Gua-laa Lumpur for the capital of Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur badly transliterated into Thai (third line down)
It really is a nightmare and the best possible thing you can do is to learn to read some Thai so that you can avoid transliteration.
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More About Aspiration
If you put your hand in front of your mouth as you say 'put' you should feel the breath that is expelled as you say the 'p'. This is an aspirated 'p'. If you try the same thing with the name 'Peter' you should only feel the slightest amount of breath because the 'p' in Peter isn't fully aspirated.
When you pay attention to the shape of your mouth as you say these two words you will notice that the 'p' sounds are quite different, however, written English uses the same consonant for both. Written English is extremely poor and there are a multitude of phonetic inconsistencies. Thai, on the other hand, has a separate consonant for each separate sound and it is a lot more consistent.
Now try this exercise with the 't' in 'take' and the 't' in 'sister'. And now the 'k' in 'king' and the 'k' in 'musket'. With one word you should feel a breath of air and with the other you should barely feel anything. One word uses an aspirated version of the consonant and one doesn't.
When translating from English into Thai, Thais often use consonants that are phonetically correct. The following photo is of a floor cleaning product, which we use on our parquet flooring, called Peter Wax. The Thai transliteration is phonetically correct.
Transliterating from Thai to English is where the problems start to arise. Whoever devised the transliteration system decided that an 'h' after the consonant would indicate aspiration. However, there are some major problems with this method.
Firstly, the consonant clusters 'th' and 'ph' make entirely different sounds compared to aspirated t's and p's. This is why Thais sometimes spell my name 'Filip' if they write in English. Secondly, most English speakers are unaware of this convention and thus do not understand that a 'k' is meant to be an unaspirated sound and a 'kh' is intended to be an aspirated sound.
The only English word I can think of that contains 'kh' is 'khaki'. When native English speakers see the transliteration 'kim' they do not understand that it is meant to be pronounced 'gim'.
It all gets very confusing and this is why I advocate learning to read Thai so that you can get away from transliteration systems.
I do realise that new learners of Thai who can't yet read any Thai need to use transliteration and I try to use a system that is closer to the actual sound phonetically than the standard transliteration system.
For an unaspirated 'p' sound in Thai (bpor bplaa) I use the consonant cluster 'bp'. The 'p' in Peter is neither an aspirated 'p', nor a completely unaspirated 'b' as in 'beater'. It is somewhere in between.
Similarly, for an unaspirated 't' sound (dtor dtao) I use the consonant cluster 'dt'. The 'ter' in 'sister' is neither a fully blown aspirated 't', nor an unaspirated 'd', but something in between.
For the unaspirated 'k' sound (gor gai I simply use a 'g', but this is the 'g' in 'gorilla' and not the 'g' in 'ginger'. As I said above, the written English language is full of inconsistences and this is one of the main reasons why transliteration from Thai into English is such a mess.
If I was doing a transliteration of the name in the photo above, I would use 'bpee-dter'. This may seem confusing because all native English speakers are familiar with the name Peter and know how it is pronounced.
However, it is unlikely that native English speakers who are new learners of Thai will know how to pronounce Thai words correctly and they need a simple system that allows them to easily differentiate between aspirated and unaspirated sounds.
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Transliteration is Nasty
If you follow these tutorials at all it will become very clear from my comments that I hate the transliteration of Thai words into English with a passion. I like things in life that make my life better or easier, and I hate things that make life unnecessarily difficult or complicated.
When I first started to learn Thai I couldn't read any Thai and was therefore forced to use transliteration. I soon noticed that there was no consistency between systems and I therefore didn't know which version was correct. It was also likely that neither version was correct.
English native speakers who write books on the subject should know better, but they still continue to use inaccurate and misleading transliteration systems that confuse and mislead people who buy their books.
You will also see a lot of inconsistency in Thailand, but this is more understandable. The vast majority of Thais don't have a clue about the English language and they can't be blamed for providing inaccurate and inconsistent transliterations.
I would transliterate this as 'Gim Yong' but the standard transliteration system uses a 'k' for Gor Gai. At first I couldn't work out why I heard 'Gim' but normally when I saw it written it was 'Kim'.
There is one very easy solution to avoid nasty transliteration. Learn to read some basic Thai. It isn't that difficult and if you follow these simple tutorials I will teach you how.
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There are several Thai consonants that make the same sound, so each has a name to distinguish it from other similar sounding consonants.
The first part of the name is a word that begins with the consonant sound and rhymes with 'or'. The second part of the name is a word that begins with, or uses, the consonant in question.
As an example, there are two consonants that make a 'y' sound:
yor ying and yor yuk.
yor is purely the sound of the consonant so applies to both, but the actual name differs. ying means woman, and yuk means giant.
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Thais hate final consonants. When they transliterate an English word into Thai they will write the final consonant using a Thai letter that corresponds to the English letter but in most cases they will use a symbol written above the letter (called gaa-run) to indicate it can be ignored.
With English words that have a final consonant sound that is a consonant cluster Thais won't even bother with one of the consonants and they will ignore the other.
For example, with the word 'sound' the 'n' in the final consonant cluster 'nd' will be omitted completely and they will write dor dek for the 'd' with gaa-run above it. The Thai pronunciation then becomes saaw, reflecting exactly how it is written in Thai.
Once you start to understand how Thais transliterate English words into their own language you start to realise why Thais generally are such poor speakers of English.
Most Thai words end with a 'p' 'k' ot 't' sound but the final consonant sound isn't fully voiced. It's as if you start to voice the letter but then don't finish.
For non-native Thai speakers the sounds 'lot' 'lop' and 'lok' can be difficult to distinguish but it gets easier with practise.
Questions and Feedback
If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, feel free to contact me. Your feedback will help me to improve these pages.
There are lots of books aimed at English learners of Thai but the vast majority are hopeless. The transliteration used is so bad that if you try to pronounce Thai words as they suggest, you will not be understood in Thailand in a million years.
Lonely Planet has a (thoroughly undeserved) reputation as being one of the best resources regarding anything to do with travel but their Thai phrase book is one of the worst - if not the worst - I have seen.
The two books below are highly recommended. I have these books and the two authors have taught me almost everything I know about the Thai language.
Their transliteration is a lot better than most so you stand a chance of being understood before you are able to read Thai. Much more importantly though, they take you on the first steps of learning to read Thai.
Once you can read Thai you can then put the transliteration systems where they belong - in the nearest garbage bin.
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If you are serious about learning how to read Thai, I highly recommend the following two books. These two books taught me almost everything I know and I still use them almost every day for reference purposes.
Most of the phrase books and text books for beginners that I have bought sit on my bookshelf accumulating dust. They are next to useless and good only to fuel the fire, except that it is never cold enough here to need a fire. However, if a sudden cold snap happens to descend, I will be grateful to Lonely Planet.
If you want to learn how to speak Thai, learning to read Thai will assist your pronunciation enormously. If you are trying to learn to speak Thai from books that use hopeless transliteration systems you are wasting your time because Thais won't be able to understand you.
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