How to Gain Insight into the Thai Language from How Thais Learn English

How to Gain Insight into the Thai Language

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Just how DO Thais learn English?…

Tenses for Thais Having recently written a book (Tenses for Thais) designed to help native English speakers and Thais who wish to teach English to Thais, I received a friendship invitation from Ms Wentworth, whose roving eyes had detected my work. At her suggestion, I will try to ‘turn the tables’ and offer the readers of a few insights into learning Thai based on how Thais learn English.

Three separate issues leap to mind:

  1. Thais unwittingly impose many of their own rules of pronunciation on English. By listening to how Thais pronounce English, insights into how Thai is pronounced can be gained.
  2. Thais generally impose their own language structure on English. The student of Thai must forsake the structures of his/her native language. Likewise, we must forsake the structures natural to native English speakers.
  3. The importance of culture in learning language is greater than many presume. I believe it was Hegel who hypothesized that a language is more than just different words and structure; it is the reflection of a culture. If you merely translate the words of your own language into the new one, regardless of grammatical correctness, your alien status will become quickly apparent. In order to speak another language perfectly, you need to understand the culture it represents.


Inserting Unwritten Sounds:
To Thais, many consonant combinations that seem simple to native English speakers are very difficult to pronounce. Just like they insert extra vowels into ‘simple’ words like STOP (sa-top), we need to insert vowel sounds between certain Thai consonants even when none are written.

Changing Pronunciation of Final Consonants:
Final consonant sounds in Thai are often not fully pronounced. This is also common in English to a varying degree based on regional dialects. Please think of words like ‘stop’ or ‘it’, where we don’t finish the consonant sound, but rather ‘swallow’ the end of it. Still, we can easily hear which consonant sound is used. I have in my classes referred to such sounds as ‘silent’ final consonants, though technically they ought to be referred to as unreleased. In Thai, many ending consonants will not only be unreleased, but will change consonant sound altogether. Final -s or -j in Thai becomes an unreleased -t (as in the English word ‘it’), final -g becomes an unreleased -k, final -l becomes a sounding -n etc. The lack of certain ending sounds in Thai leads Thais to mispronounce seemingly simple words like ‘yes’ and ‘hotel’ (yet, hoten) and is once again a useful hint as to details we need to observe when learning Thai.

Using ‘Thai English Pronunciation’ to Improve Your Thai:
Knowing these rules will not only help you understand the mispronunciation of English by Thais but will also help you with your own pronunciation of Thai. The pronunciation of Thai vowels is, though difficult, not an issue since Thai vowels have only one sound (albeit with varying tones). This is the opposite of English, where vowels have very inconsistent pronunciation but consonants are relatively consistent. I often contrast English to Thai in my classes since speaking and writing are direct opposites in several ways. In English, we separate words in writing but often pull them together in speech; In Thai, they do not separate words in writing, but they do separate them in speech. Since the commonly used systems for writing Thai words with our alphabet are sometimes misleading, I have even created a small chart for Thais wishing to learn English in my book. That chart is certainly useful for Westerners wishing to pronounce Thai words as well.


Tones in Thai are notoriously difficult for native English speakers. When listening very carefully to examples of ‘tones’, it occurred to me that Thais do not always change the pitch of their voice. Instead, tonality is a combination of tone and relative vowel length or ‘tone contour’. When studying Thai, I graphically drew the pitch and vowel length for the 5 different tones, which helped me greatly. If you truly wish to master the tones, please consider listening with a different focus than mere tone of voice. Hopefully, it will make tonality less difficult for you as it did for me.


Question Words:
The first thing I teach my Thai students (provided they have a working vocabulary) is how to use question words. In Thai, these tend to be placed at the end of sentences. In English, they are placed at the beginning. Not paying enough attention to the question word can lead to answering the wrong question. If you ask a Thai person “How are you doing?”, you will more often than not get an answer to the question “What are you doing?” Anyone learning Thai should learn all the common question structures in Thai. Also learn where to insert the much appreciated polite words or phrases. Please also remember that question words are sometimes used differently; the question “Bpen arai?” does not mean “What are you?” or “What is it?” but “HOW are you?” even though ‘arai’ is usually translated as ‘what’ and ‘how’ is usually translated into ‘yang rai’.

In Thai, it is not necessary to use verbs in every sentence as we do in English. My early teaching of questions for Thais focuses greatly on the use ‘to be’ or ‘to do’ in questions and answers. All present simple and past simple questions in English use these verbs, directly and by implication, as do correct answers to the questions. In Thai, questions such as “Car color red or plain (or not)?” or “Married or not yet?” are perfectly acceptable. No added verbs are needed.

Another aspect of verbs in Thai is that they do not change form to reflect time; instead, words determining time (such as ‘will’ or ‘already’) are added. Learning the words for future (dja), past (laew), ongoing (gamlang … yoo) and just done (pung dja) and where they are placed in relation to the verbs is a a good start to referring to time in Thai. To the surprise of many though, all the English tenses can be explained in Thai. Thais just don’t bother to go into the complexities of time as much as we do in English. When learning to understand Future Perfect and Future Perfect Continuous, Thais have to change their usual way of thinking quite significantly.

Singular & Plural, Classifiers:
The absence of pronounced final s’s (under Pronunciation) in Thai leads into the topic of countable and uncountable nouns since Thais rarely pronounce plurals correctly. Many mistake this for ignorance and explain it by saying that Thai nouns have no plural form. This is true – sort of … Though no one seems to realize or teach this, all Thai nouns are uncountable in structure. In Thai, “two glasses of water” and “two cars” are structured “water two glass” and “car two unit” – exactly the same. Uncountable nouns in English are treated much the same in Thai, with similar units of measure that can be translated. However, ALL Thai nouns have units of measure. For countable nouns, the grammatical term for these units is ‘classifiers’. Unfortunately, many classifiers are devoid of meaning on their own and have to be learned by memorization. For any student of the Thai language, this means that every single noun must be accompanied by a unit of measure or classifier in order to be used correctly in conversation.

The Thai teacher who assisted with translations into Thai in my book, Mrs. Nampeung Khonseuh de Escobar, is currently writing her Master’s thesis on ‘The Thai Classifier’, which I am looking forward to reading.

Many say that Thai lacks articles. This is of course not true since ‘a’ and ‘an’ mean ‘one’ and Thai has numbers just like we do. However, as with uncountable nouns in English (and nouns are ALL treated as uncountable in Thai), the quantity need not always be specified. The definite article ‘the’ is indeed not a part of the Thai language. If you wish to refer to a specific object, a self-explanatory context or proper explanation is needed.

Thai Culture…

When in Rome, do as the Romans!:
Thais have a different way of thinking than we do in The West. Even in different Western countries and indeed parts of countries, cultural thinking differs significantly. Sometimes, the difference is so great that Thais do not understand us even though we have done a pretty good job selecting the right words and grammar to express ourselves. We all tend to use our subjective references when having conversations and the fact that we think and express ourselves differently may cause communication to fail, even when using the same language. Therefore, try to adopt the mindset of a Thai, sensitive to overt expressions of disagreement, relaxed about time, and using the most polite language you are able to. If languages are truly an expression of culture, consider the lack of tenses and disinclination to say NO directly as clues to how one should communicate with Thais. Please note however, that there are many punctual Thais and that all generalizations can backfire if applied automatically to everyone. Just as native speakers of English are all unique individuals, so are Thais of course.


As in my book, what I write is based on personal experience. Though fluent in several languages, I have not studied linguistics and sometimes find grammatical terminology cumbersome. Therefore, I usually opt for explanations that help the learner understand rather than focusing on linguistic terminology. One major part of my book is actually recommending a simple change to terminology in traditional English verb conjugation in order to simplify the English tenses dramatically.

In this text, I used the word ‘classifier’ at the suggestion of Catherine Wentworth and the terms ‘unreleased’ (consonant pronunciation) and ‘tone contour’ after feedback from Rikker Dockum, who stated that tone pitch and tone contour are the two aspects of tones in Thai. Previously, I had never heard any reference to tone contour or even vowel length, but I am happy to see that this method of explaining tones is already known. Mr. Dockum also pointed out a few areas where I had not made myself completely clear, after which I expanded a few of my explanations and added examples.

Thank you Ms. Wentworth and Mr. Dockum for your feedback and suggestions.

Nils Bastedo
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