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Thailand | Learn To Read Thai - Tutorial 14

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Fortunately for foreigners, some signs in Thailand are universally understood

Fortunately for foreigners, some signs in Thailand are universally understood

 

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Learn How To Read Thai - Tutorial 14

 

Benefits Of Reading Thai

Bpuat chee

 

Here's another pictorial sign in Thailand that can be easily understood without the need to be able to read Thai.

Unfortunately for foreigners, most signs are of the written variety. There is a huge amount of extremely useful information written on signs in Thailand, but this information is only accessible to those who can read Thai.

One example is the way that Thais advertise. If they are offering a product or service for sale they will make signs and stick these on lampposts around the neighbourhood. Foreigners looking for a house to rent who can't read Thai will walk past lots of signs offering exactly what they want because they can't read.

If you visit Thailand often, and especially if you live in Thailand permanently, it is well worth the effort to learn to read some basic Thai.

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Tone Rules

I have learnt all the basics from two authors: David Smyth and Benjawan Poomsan Becker. Both of these authors are excellent and can be highly recommended. In fact, they are almost gods in the small world of farangs learning Thai.

I have found that one or the other sometimes explains certain things better. I discovered through Benjawan that tones of certain words didn't follow the tone rules. On the other hand, I find her description of the rules quite confusing.

I think that David Smyth explains the tone rules in a very simple way and that is the way I have learnt.

The first thing I look for in a word or syllable is a tone mark. There are four of these but just like Thai consonants, there is a big variation in their usage. The first two get used all the time but the third and fourth don't appear very often.

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Tone Marks

If the word has a tone mark written above the initial consonant, the tone is easy to determine.

First, here are the four tone marks. Remember that the first two are extremely common, whereas the third and fourth tone marks aren't used very much.

1st tone mark

 

ไม้ เอก

mai ayk

Symbol: อ่

2nd tone mark

 

ไม้ โท

mai tor

Symbol: อ้

3rd tone mark

 

ไม้ ตรี

mai dtree

Symbol: อ๊

4th tone mark

 

ไม้ จัตวา

mai jut-dta-waa

Symbol: อ๋

After checking to see whether a tone mark is used, I then check the initial consonant class. When a consonant cluster is used, the tone mark is written above the second consonant in the cluster, but the first consonant in the cluster is the initial consonant for tone purposes.

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High Class Consonants

 

อักษรสูง - uksorn soong (11)

ข ฃ ฉ ถ ผ ฝ ศ ษ ส ห ฐ

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Mid Class Consonants

 

อักษรกลาง - uksorn glaang (9)

ก จ ฎ ฏ ด ต บ ป อ

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Low Class Consonants

 

อักษรต่ำ - uksorn dtum (24)

ค ฅ ฆ ง ช ซ ฌ ญ ฑ ฒ ณ ท ธ น พ ฟ ภ ม ย ร ล ว ฬ ฮ

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Words With Tone Marks

If a word uses a tone mark, use the following rules:

Low Class Initial Consonant

1st tone mark = falling tone

2nd tone mark = high tone

3rd tone mark = high tone

4th tone mark = rising tone

Mid Class Initial Consonant

1st tone mark = low tone

2nd tone mark = falling tone

3rd tone mark = high tone

4th tone mark = rising tone

High Class Initial Consonant

1st tone mark = low tone

2nd tone mark = falling tone

3rd tone mark = high tone

4th tone mark = rising tone

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Words Without Tone Marks

If a word doesn't use a tone mark, the tone is a bit trickier to work out. First, you need to decide whether the syllable is live or dead. A quick way to check if it is a live syllable is to see if you can continue voicing the sound. If it ends with a long vowel (such as 'aa') you can continue voicing the sound. You can also do this if it ends with an 'ng', 'n' or 'm' sound. If it ends with a short vowel or an unreleased 'p', 'k' ot 't' glottal-stop sound, then you can't continue voicing it so it is a dead syllable.

If it is a dead syllable, you then need to check if the vowel is long or short. An 'aat' sound would be a dead syllable with a long vowel but an 'ut' sound would be a dead syllable with a short vowel.

Vowel Lengths

Long vowels:

- | - | | อี | อู | อื | | | เอีย | เอือ | อัว | เอิ

Short vowels:

อั | - | - | อิ | อุ | อึ | เอ็ | แอ็ | เอา | -

Once you have determined the vowel length and whether the syllable is live or dead, you can use the following rules:

Low Class Initial Consonant

Live syllable = mid tone

Dead syllable/short vowel = high tone

Dead syllable/long vowel = falling tone

Mid Class Initial Consonant

Live syllable = mid tone

Dead syllable/short vowel = low tone

Dead syllable/long vowel = low tone

High Class Initial Consonant

Live syllable = rising tone

Dead syllable/short vowel = low tone

Dead syllable/long vowel = low tone

That's all there is to it.

Consonant Classes

There are more low class consonants than mid or high class ones. If you can remember the mid and high class consonants, then all the rest are low.

Thais use a couple of little rhymes to help them remember consonant classes. The initial consonants of the words in each rhyme are the same class. I'm not quite sure how this works because the rhymes do not include all the consonants; just some of them.

High class consonants

ผี (pee)

ฝาก (faak)

ไข่ (kai)

ใส่ (sai)

ถุง (tuung)

ให้ (hai)

ฉัน (chun)

This is something about a ghost giving me an egg which I then put into my bag.

Mid class consonants

ไก่ (gai)

จิก (jik)

เด็ก (dek) or เฎ็ก (dek)

ตาย (dtaay) or ฏาย (dtaay)

บน (bon)

ปาก (bpaak)

โอ่ง (ong)

And this is something about a chicken pecking a child, who then died, on an earthen jar.

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How Do Thais Learn Tones?

When I started to learn to read Thai and asked Thais for help regarding tone rules it soon became obvious that they didn't understand what I was going on about. It was also obvious that Thais have a natural way of learning and that they understand tones instinctively, rather than needing to learn a set of tone rules.

Years later when my children started to learn to read Thai at a Thai school it was very interesting for me to see how tones were taught. My theory that Thai children aren't taught tone rules was confirmed.

The following is from my son's Kindergarten Level 2 textbook.

How Thais learn tones

 

These are all words with sara 'aa' and there are no tone marks. Tone marks come later in the Thai education system. Sara 'aa' is a long vowel and the syllables are live. If the initial consonant is low or mid class, the word has a mid tone. If the initial syllable is high then the word has a rising tone.

Well, that is how I would work out the tone, but young Thai students are not told any of this. At four years of age they would only be confused if they were.

The first example is:

กา (gaa) - mid class initial consonant

The teacher (or parent) will say 'gor' (mid tone) 'aa' (mid tone) 'gaa' (mid tone) and the child will repeat using the same tone. Yes, we all know that Thai schools have a huge reputation for rote learning, but it actually works very well when learning the Thai language. The problem seems to be that because it works well for the Thai language, Thai schools use rote learning for everything else as well. But that's another subject.

When the word uses a high class initial consonant, such as 'for faa', the teacher or parent will use different tones.

ฝา (faa) - high class initial consonant

The teacher (or parent) will say 'for' (rising tone) 'aa' (mid tone) 'faa' (rising tone) and the child will repeat using the same tone.

Over the course of the school year this is repeated hundreds or thousands of times and eventually the child will know instinctively which tone to use without having to remember any rules.

When the child reaches junior school level they will meet tone marks. The following is something that my daughter wrote while she was studying in Pratom 2.

How Thais learn tones

 

The first thing I noticed was that the school doesn't bother with the 3rd and 4th tone marks. These appear so rarely that I guess they can be ignored, or they are taught at a later stage. Students simply learn tones for words that don't use tone marks and words that use the 1st or 2nd tone mark.

The eight lines at the top use mid class initial consonant and the four at the bottom use high class initial consonants.

Again, absolutely no rules are taught. The teacher or parent will read three words out loud. The first has no tone mark, the second has the 1st tone mark and the third has the 2nd tone mark. Naturally, the tone of each word will be different and the teacher or parent will use the correct tone. The students will then repeat each word using the correct tone.

This will go on throughout the school year and eventually the students will know instinctively which tone to use depending on the spelling of a word. It's rote learning again, but it works very effectively.

I often hear people talking about learning second languages naturally, but for the vast majority of non-Thais trying to learn to read Thai it is impossible to learn in a natural way. The only way you can learn naturally is by growing up in Thailand and attending a Thai school.

It is rules that make language learning so difficult. When I was teaching English in Thailand I had to try to give my students rules for such things as grammar articles and when to use different tenses. Native English speakers don't think about language rules, they simply use the correct articles and tenses instinctively.

Language rules are troublesome, but the problem for people learning a second language later in life is that we all need rules because the way we learn isn't natural.

Another problem I have found is that Thais haven't been able to answer my questions about tones because the unnatural way in which I learn is very different to their natural way of learning. As far as they are concerned, a tone is the way it is simply because that's how it is. Not having been taught tone rules specifically, they can't explain tone rules to foreigners.

When learning to speak Thai I would strongly advise learning from a native Thai speaker, however, if you have questions about reading Thai you will most probably find that foreigners who can read Thai are better equipped to answer your questions.

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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.

Recommended Books

Amazon UK

 

Amazon UK

 

Amazon US

 

Amazon US

 

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Downloadable Worksheets

Downloadable worksheets

The best way to remember the various characters used in Thai script is by writing them down on paper. In addition to improving your writing skills, the very act of writing the characters on paper will commit them to memory.

This is how Thai children learn and it is a very effective approach. The best way to practice your writing is by using the same worksheets that Thai children use. They are available everywhere in Thailand, but a lot more difficult to find outside of Thailand.

Downloadable Worksheets

 

Visit Thailand

Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.

One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.

Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.

If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.

Images of Thailand

Images of Thailand