Andrej: How I’m learning Isaan


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Isaan is a catch phrase for Lao varieties spoken by about 20 million people in North-Eastern Thailand. These languages are closer to Lao than to Thai, but due to Isaan being part of Thailand the influence of Standard Thai is substantial and sets Isaan apart from the Lao spoken across the border. Isaan, Lao and Thai itself are closely related and have split off and developed from one common ancestor language in the past.

Isaan has always been my favourite part of Thailand, both in terms of people and food. I’ve been learning Thai for several years and initially didn’t want to mix things up, but my Thai is now at a level where I feel comfortable, and I’m ready for something new. I was fortunate to find a speaker of Isaan (Ton) willing to work with me long-term, and so it started.

Initial challenges…

There is no *one* Isaan language, there is no standard which could serve as a reference. Actually, there are several varieties/dialects which have different tones and vocabulary. Currently, there is also no established writing system for Isaan dialects, and the Thai writing system, without adaptions, is not suited to represent Isaan pronunciation faithfully. Isaan and Thai tones have different contours, and Isaan varieties can have more than five tones.

There are a few books (in English) and webpages (mostly in Thai) for learners of Isaan. I’ve looked at the books but as I’m not a fan of textbooks, I haven’t worked with them. The Thai websites are pretty useless to me as a primary source because I can’t figure out the correct tone from the approximative Thai spelling. Learning a tonal language without getting the tones right doesn’t work for me.




So I started out making my own language learning materials. I’ve developed a set of illustrations for basic vocabulary and communicative functions, and I got Ton to record descriptions or questions and answers for these pictures. In the beginning, I only listened to the recordings, trying to understand what’s going on and getting a feel for the tones without analysing anything. Many Isaan words have Thai cognates, so I usually had enough context to guess and learn those words which were different.

After a few months, I added some pictures stories which were a lot of fun but also showed me that many basic words and the language used in real communication can be very different from Thai. There’s a lot I don’t understand at all. The listening phase was pretty casual, I didn’t spend too much time on it, but it was important to get a feel for the tones and learn to recognise some vocabulary.


Getting serious…

End of last year, after about ten months of casual listening, I decided to take a stab at the tonal system of Ton’s language. As mentioned before, there are various Lao dialects in Isaan which differ in at least their tonal systems. Ton is from Khon Kaen province, and that’s the variety I’m learning.

There’s actually a pretty neat way to determine the tonal system of Tai languages (like Lao, Thai and other related languages). Due to their common ancestor and how the tonal system developed, all native Tai words fall into one of 20 categories. Words in each category have the same tone, and many categories share the same tone as well (so that Thai ends up with five tones, not 20). In order to figure out the tones of a new dialect, one only has to go through these 20 categories. This approach has been developed by Gedney and is sometimes called ‘Gedney tone chart’ or ‘Gedney tone box’. A corresponding illustration with 80 words which can be used to elicit these 20 categories is on my website.

I went through the Gedney tone chart with Ton. After a bit of back and forth, and also consulting with Luke who knows both Thai and Lao, I distinguish now six tones. They are all pretty different from Thai, and two of them may actually be just one underlying tone with a lot of variability. I’ve recorded the Gedney words and documented the analysis on my website; whoever wants to learn another variety can follow the same approach.

Once I’d figured out the tones, I realised that it’s actually possible to write the language with Thai characters by reinterpreting the tone rules. This is due to the conservatism of Thai spelling which makes learners’ lives difficult but is a huge boon for learning Isaan. For instance, words with ไม้เอก always carry a high tone (which, by the way, sounds different from the Thai high tone): ไก่ ไข่ ด่า พ่อ are all pronounced with a high tone in Ton’s Isaan. I worked through the Gedney chart and wrote down the tone rules, and so far I haven’t found a word I can’t spell with proper Isaan tones.

The writing system is obviously a private one which nobody else uses. I don’t even use it myself consistently when I text-chat with Ton and drop some Isaan because I know that he is more used to approximating Isaan tones with Thai tone marks instead of reinterpreting the rules. But for my learning it’s super useful because I can write all words with their correct tone. For 90% of the cognates, the Thai spelling already gives away the correct Isaan tone, and for the rest I can often figure out the tone from the Lao spelling. It’s a huge boost.


Second phase…

Now that I have a writing system, I can transcribe recordings. I love doing transcripts, I’m learning so much by doing this. When I’m just listening, I can gloss over words I don’t understand as long as I still understand the overall message, or even zone out a few seconds. When I’m writing a transcript, I need to catch every word.

This second phase in my Isaan learning journey consists of writing transcripts and seeing a lot of vocabulary and structures in context. I’m mixing slow and easy illustration-based recordings with much more challenging little stories à la ‘Thai Recordings’. Whenever I’ve worked through a recording, I put it on my website and integrate it into the little corpus I’m building up. It’s currently a lot of fun, and I’m seeing a lot of progress in my comprehension.

In order to keep track of the spellings and tones of the words I’m hearing and writing, I’ve started a little dictionary; it’s on the website. It’s a work in progress and constantly developing, but I hope that most of the entries have the right tones and are correctly translated. It’s currently pretty small and doesn’t live up to linguistic standards, but given the dearth of materials it might still be a useful reference, especially if it grows over time.


What’s next?…

Who knows. I’m in it for the fun of it. I love languages, and I enjoy experimenting with language learning materials. I have quite a few plans with Isaan, but in the end it all comes down to whether I enjoy what I’m doing or not. It’s clear that all these recordings and transcripts don’t magically turn me into a good speaker of Isaan — in order to develop speaking skills, I need to engage in speaking. What I’m doing now is laying the foundation: acquiring vocabulary, getting ample exposure to structures, getting the tones right.

Isaan page on aakanee: check out document on tones, the dictionary and the recordings.

Other Isaan dictionaries on the web:
Thai-Isan-Lao Phrasebook
Pantip: There are a lot of vocabulary lists on Pantip, not well structured but sometimes good to confirm a hunch.


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