This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?…
Scanning quickly through the results … 34 said reading and writing (combined) wasn’t difficult, 14 said it was, four found writing difficult, four didn’t attempt to learn how to write, and five found spelling difficult.
Aaron: Learning to read and write was not too difficult, because I had already learned to speak. Spelling remains a challenge, because many consonants have the same sound (there are five letters that have the ‘s’ sound). At first, vowel position is a bit confusing. It helps to have a good book. I used Reading and Writing Thai, by Marie Helene Brown, 1988, DK Books.
Aaron Le Boutillier
Aaron: No, I enjoy it and it makes sense to me. That does not mean by any stretch that I understand everything and you will still find me scratching my head whilst trying to read the Thai newspaper. I suppose I would change the word difficult with challenging.
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Adam: Not particularly considering Thai is a phonetic language and 95 percent of Thai words are read as written.
Andrew: No. I love it, actually.
Celia: Reading isn’t difficult, but remembering how to spell is hard.
Chris Pirazzi: Not so much but I am used to learning new “codes” from computer programming.
Christy: I think that reading Thai is actually quite simple once you understand the basics of it. Once I’d memorized the alphabet and the general rules, after that it was just a matter of trying to read anything and everything I could.
This might not work for everyone, but one interesting tip that really helped me with my Thai reading was signboards. In a moving vehicle I would sit and stare out the window (not while driving of course ☺) and try to read the signs on buildings, advertisements and the like while travelling along. Although in the beginning the challenge was just to be able to read a certain word or phrase before I passed it by—and it was even a challenge in Bangkok traffic (just to show you how weak I was when I started out)—little by little I began catching on. I think the reason I found this helpful is because the wording on signs is often large and the reading is bite-sized—usually only short phrases and words. Obviously it wasn’t the only method I used for learning to read Thai:), but it’s something that worked for me and others may find it useful as well.
Colin: I’m told it’s odd that someone can read and that skill doesn’t cross over to writing. But I guess I’ve never really had a need to write anything in Thai. I’d always be a long way from writing in Thai the way I’d hope to. Didn’t want to launch into a project I felt was doomed to failure.
Daniel B Fraser
Daniel: Writing yes, as it is a slow process for me (and often incorrect). Reading less difficult, but the lack of character/word spacing was and still is a challenge.
David: Not really. The only time it became difficult was when I was trying to learn to read words I didn’t already know.
David Smyth: No. The script was presented in manageable chunks and progress was quick. We began by learning the most common low class consonants, and followed a similar order to that presented in Marvin Brown’s AUA Thai Course: Reading, Teach Yourself Thai and the Linguaphone Thai Course. Credit for first recognizing that learning consonants by class, rather than traditional alphabetic order, would enable the foreigner to learn to read more quickly, goes to Basil Osborn Cartwright, a teacher of English at the Royal Civil Service College in Bangkok, who introduced his system in his Elementary Handbook of the Siamese language, published in 1906. Yet 100 years later there are still teachers of Thai and authors of Thai language books for foreigners who expect their students to spend early lessons memorizing letters they will hardly ever encounter.
Don: It would have been difficult if hadn’t been so fascinating. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn more. I developed a handwriting that won the admiration of the Thais who saw it.
Doug: Only as expected.
Gareth: Tricky, but not impossible. Once you get your head round vowel placement and punctuation issues it all makes sense, somehow.
Glenn: Not particularly. Maybe as a computer programmer I’m used to working with symbols.
Grace: No, not particularly, what was more difficult was getting the right tones and sentence structure.
Hamish: No! And this is the daft thing. I put off learning the tone rules because I kept being presented with baroque charts and overly complicated explanations, which were terribly off-putting. However, I hooked up with Brett from Learn Thai from a White Guy who had the rules drilled into me within, I kid you not, two hours. He stripped all the rubbish away and taught them to me in a logical, straightforward way. I guess it helped knowing the letters and consonant classes already, but still, it was much easier than I had imagined. Once I had them down it was just a question of practise, practise, practise to consolidate them. Here, Anki SRS cards are your friend.
Hardie: At first, since an alphabet has to be learned, one with much ‘junk DNA’, i.e. archaic obsolete letters. Lao is easier since it has purged much of that. Writing is more difficult than reading, of course, since you have to spell correctly.
Herb: No. Once I had a good grasp of the pronunciation, the consonant and tone rules made a lot of sense, and I could make good progress. I still feel that that is a useful order in which to proceed, at least for me. Otherwise, I think that my pronunciation would have come along much slower. I would have been engrossed in making the lines and squiggles of the script instead of learning how to read clearly and accurately. But the issue of when to begin the Thai script is still a very live one, and the discussion is interesting and varied. I can just relate what worked for me.
For Northern Thai, I strongly feel that returning to a phonetic notation is essential for getting good pronunciation. That’s what worked for me and a few others who learned the language in the past. This may seem like a big step backwards when most learners of Northern will already have learned Thai. The important point is that the Thai script does not fit very well with Northern. And when Northern is written with Thai script, as in three recent major dictionaries, the sixth tone is not always marked regularly. Also, the High-Mid-Low consonants pattern differently in Northern and thus affect how tones are written. Since pronunciation (especially the tone system) is so important, and the sound of the tones and the relationship of tones to each other (in pitch height and direction of movement) is different in the two languages, using Thai script is a major disadvantage. However, once I got good pronunciation, and after I learned Meth’s system for using Thai letters (his dictionary was written specifically to help Central Thai forestry workers learn Northern), I became comfortable using Thai script for Northern, but only in Meth’s very clear and systematic way. The other ways of writing Northern are fine for native-speaking Northern Thais since they already know their mother tongue and can overcome inconsistencies, but learners would be at a disadvantage.
Hugh: I find everything about learning Thai difficult. I am not a really good language learner. I need to hear a word 20 times before I can remember it. I can’t spell in Thai. But I can’t really spell very well in English either so I don’t let it bother me. I figure that I was just born without the spelling lobe in my brain. So any achievement I have made is due to really really hard work and the fact that I just won’t give up until I get something right. Also, thank god for spell checkers. One thing I know that is true for me, if a Thai textbook or a Thai learning system has the words “Easy”, “Quick”, or “Simple” in its title then it is not for me. Thai is not easy, quick, or simple to learn.
Ian: I found reading Thai very easy. Writing is not hard, but spelling is a bitch. Frankly, being able to write Thai is not a useful skill. If you need something written in Thai you ought to get a Thai person to write it – it will always be better than your own effort. The only useful thing about writing is to aid memory in learning the alphabet and vocabulary.
James (Jim) Higbie
Jim: I thought writing Thai was difficult because of the spelling and I only got to the point where I could write a short letter. I thought reading was easier and I read mostly magazines – music and movie star magazines, love advice magazines and all the things they sell which are great for learning about Thai culture.
Joe: I found the first month or so quite difficult, and although I could read simple signs on the street, and simple notes between friends, it wasn’t until I went to Berkeley that I properly learned to read long passages of text.
John: I learned the mechanics of reading and writing consonants, vowels, tone rules, where words begin and end, etc., for the most part in about 10-12 months. I really didn’t find it difficult, just very, very time-consuming and tedious. For me, it was all in the repetition. I know there are a lot of mnemonic devices and tricks for learning all of that, but it seemed easiest to just plough through it.
The part of reading for me that’s a bit more difficult at this point is the vocabulary, especially in newspapers and books where you come across a lot of technical, political words and phrases, proper names, religious terms, etc. The difficulty for me in writing Thai isn’t physically writing or typing the characters, it’s forming a thought and writing it the way a Thai person would.
Jonas: I think once you “get over the hump” reading Thai is quite easy actually. Written Thai is much more phonetic than English. You don’t face “cough” vs. “through” situations in Thai—it reads as it is written, so it is just a matter of memorizing the sounds and the few exceptions.
Writing Thai is much more difficult because of the many consonants that have the same sounds, and the Sanskrit influences in the written language such as silent letters, vestigial endings to words and so on. There are many ways to phonetically spell words properly but only one correct spelling, so basically you have to memorize the proper spelling.
Jonathan: Many rules, some exceptions, but in the end just an alphabet-like writing system! I have found the Thai and Khmer scripts far less difficult and more intuitive than Chinese characters.
Justin Travis Mair
Justin: I did find it hard to differentiate the words, due to the fact that Thai script is written with very few spaces. Eventually it just became normal. It’s kinda like having a conversation in a noisy room, at first it is hard to talk to your neighbors, but after awhile you adjust and it seems normal.
Larry: Learning to read was fun, because I found it easy to measure progress. In addition, because I had already built up a fair vocabulary in Thai, I could quickly read things that I found interesting or useful, such as newspaper stories and street and store signs.
Marc: Reading was not so difficult to learn once you master the alphabet, but writing is another story, especially when it comes to tone marks.
Marcel: Not really. To me, speaking good Thai with the proper accent is more difficult.
Mark: I found learning the alphabet very difficult. Learning by rote and with no context is almost impossible for me so I made a story out of the alphabet to provide the context eg. ท thor tahaan (soldier) is a patriotic chap likes to stand next to ธ thor thong (flag), next to him is… etc.. it’s all silly stuff but through the story I could remember.
The tone rules were difficult too at first but I found similar ways to link them together as an aide to my memory. Applying them while reading was a slow progress too but over time it becomes more natural.
Martin: Yes, but I consoled myself, firstly with the thought that Thai kids pick it up in a only couple of years when they are very young, and secondly, with the idea that Chinese is a lot harder (44 Thai consonants vs. 40,000 Chinese ideograms to read a newspaper). I had the writing down pretty well in about six months. Compare that to the language – after 25 years, I am still picking up new vocabulary.
Nils: Yes. Not having spaces between words, memorizing not only the extended alphabet but also consonant classes, adjusting to vowels being placed non-sequentially and in complex combinations makes written Thai difficult. Not that English is that much better, it is the only European language I know where the sound of a word can not be seen immediately from the writing. English vowel sounds vary greatly, which must be frustrating to Thais, whose vowel system leaves no room for doubt. The student of Thai needs to memorize individual word spelling since identical tones can be made with different combinations. Being raised seeing writing as a code for replicating spoken sounds, I was as frustrated with having to memorize the writing of individual Thai words as Thais must be having to memorize the pronunciation of individual words in English.
Paul: I have found learning to read Thai to be far easier than learning to speak it. This is probably because I much prefer dealing with written text than spoken language; even in English. I am quite satisfied with my ability to read and my vocabulary is quite large.
Peter: Yes, it is a monster. 44 consonants and 33 vowels, depending on how you count, plus all those tone marks and other miscellaneous signs, a lot of duplication, so that it’s usually impossible to tell how something is written from how it’s spoken, and then there are the exceptions! And the ambiguous spellings! And the alternate spellings, they’re like opinions, everybody has one! It takes a lot of memorization. Also, the words are all run-on together, you have to parse them out with your eye, and sometimes that gives ambiguous readings, too. Only after a lot of experience can you start to discern the patterns which begin to make things easier.
Reading Thai subtitles in English-language movies is a challenge, if they’re more than five or six words long. Thais can read them in the time they show on the screen. Reading karaoke doesn’t count, that’s slow and easy, even though it’s good practice. When I can read ninety percent of the subtitles as they come up we’ll break out the champagne—but I’m not there yet. And love that Chula course: writing essays, making a few presentations in class on news stories. T’ain’t easy, but there’s no giving up.
Rick: Yes. But it had to be done. And the hard work I put in has paid off — I can read newspapers, magazines and books at close to full speed and understand most of what I read.
Rikker: Yes, but entirely doable. It was challenging, but it felt like a natural part of the language learning process for me. Being in Thailand provides constant reading opportunities, so the basics quickly became second nature.
Ryan: Not really. The hardest thing about writing was to remember the spellings, like which “s” or which “th” to use. The lack of spaces between words gave me some frustration in the very beginning, but I found that the more you read the quicker you can instantly recognize words, and it’s not really a problem anymore.
Scott: Not particularly. I imagine it’s several orders of magnitude easier than learning Chinese or Japanese, for example.
Stephen: I seem to remember it being fairly quick to learn, though I’ve always been fond of alphabets anyway. It took me a few weeks before I started recognising Thai letters in different fonts and longer before I could read handwritten Thai.
I’ve built up my reading speed by trying to read the signs on buses to see where they go. Now sometimes when I’m at the movies my eyes will pick up the Thai subtitles. On a slower song I can sometimes read along the Thai words on a karaoke machine, but I wouldn’t put bets on it!
Stickman: It is ridiculously easy! I learned to read and write the entire alphabet over 6 x 1.5 hour lessons and about the same amount of time at home practicing. So let’s call it 18 hours all up. The tone rules followed but they were not that hard.
Stuart (Stu) Jay Raj
Terry: Not really.
Tod: I found learning to read Thai (the way I chose to teach myself) was FAR easier than speaking clearly. When I started teaching myself to read I didn’t try to learn the tones (and still suffer from that oversight) or the consonant classes. At first I didn’t even learn the words associated with the Thai letters. Instead I broke it down to things like: Thai has 6 letters which make close to a “T” sound in English, they are; ฐ, ฑ, ฒ, ท, ธ, ถ. So when ever I saw those characters I immediately associated it with a “T” sound. Same for the 5 “K” sounds and the 4 “S” sounds in Thai.
I found the vowels a little tough at first, especially the ones which change or morph appearance due to being followed by a consonant. However, once you get the vowels down fairly well as far as long and short duration, they’re pretty consistent throughout the Thai language. Unlike English where vowels have little consistency due to the hodge-podge of languages English is based on.
Tom: Yes, but it is absolutely critical to long-term success, not just in reading and writing Thai, but speaking it too, because if you rely on transliterated Thai to learn new vocabulary the pronunciation will often be incorrect. Plus there are so many ways of transliterating the Thai script it can only lead to confusion for the student.
Vern: Yes, not because of the alphabet being so large or so strangely different from English, but because the sentence structure and reading backwards sometimes is a bit hard to get over. No breaks for words or sentences is also something that takes getting used to. As I insinuated, it was going to take a lot more effort than I realized it would – and I just didn’t have the time or motivation to keep pushing to learn it.
The series: Successful Thai Language Learners Compilation…
- Successful Thai Language Learners Compilation
- Contributors: Successful Thai Language Learners Series
- What were your reasons for learning Thai?
- Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?
- What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?
- Did you stick to a regular study schedule?
- What Thai language learning methods did you try?
- Did one method stand out over all others?
- How do you learn languages?
- How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?