Thai Language Thai Culture: Some Thoughts on Learning Thai Tones

Thai Language

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Some Thoughts on Learning Thai Tones…

After looking through the wonderful compilation that Catherine has put together on Successful Thai Language Learners I realized that my own interview was quite long-winded. Sorry about that. But I did enjoy rereading my thoughts on learning Thai tones (something I feel cannot be stressed enough) and wanted to repeat some of that here in a slightly edited version.

Learning Thai tones…

The great bugaboo in learning to “speak” Thai is of course the tones. By comparing English and Thai it might help us understand how tones fit into both languages.

A while back I was writing some English pronunciation exercises for an upcoming book and I was working on a chapter on English sentence intonation. I was explaining that English, like Thai, also had its tones. The difference is that the English tones are at the sentence level.

If you take the simple sentence “John’s going to the market.” and stress the word “John’s” (sounds a lot like a Thai falling tone) then the sentence answers the question “who’s going to the market?” If you stress the word “market” you answer the question “where is John going?” The sentence takes on additional meaning when the intonation changes.

Both Thai and English are “tone” languages. The tones in English are on the sentence level and the tones in Thai are on the word level. A change in English tones usually adds to the meaning of a sentence. A change in Thai tones changes the meaning of a word.


I call this “the music of the language”. Just like songs, languages have words and music, and you must know them both before you can get it right.

If you have trouble with tones try this. Listen to what the Thai person is saying and then try to hum it back, without using words, just a hum. The words, with their meanings, consonants, and vowels, won’t get in your way. All you will hear is the “music” of Thai. Those are the tones. After humming the sentence next try adding the words. Don’t forget to use the same music as before. This works whether we are learning Thai or English or any language. All languages have their own music.

Note: I discussed language as music a while ago in the post The Do-Be-Do-Be-Do System of Learning Thai Tones.

One of the biggest mistakes learners of Thai have is not to stress the importance of Thai tones. In my opinion, if you get the tones wrong, no matter how much they are smiling at you, no matter how much vocabulary you know, no matter how well you read and write, no matter what context you are speaking in, no one will understand a word you say (I know I’ll have arguments on this statement and cordially invite them).

Let me change that a bit. If you have someone you spend lots of time with, your partner, paramour, maid, golf caddie, they may be able to “decipher” incorrect tones and “guess” what you mean. That becomes more of an idiolect, your own personal language, which can be understood by only a few. That isn’t Thai.

Here is why tones are so important. The sounds of English can be divided into 3 very important parts, consonants, vowels, and intonation or stress. If you get any of these wrong then the person listening will have trouble understanding you. For instance, let’s say we have trouble with our consonants. You want to say “your life is fine,” but you confuse the consonants and come out with “your wife is mine”, only two small consonant changes. But if you say this to the wrong person you will quickly see how important consonants are in English. In this case we say that the change in consonants is “morphemic”, it changes the word’s meaning. I don’t think that anyone would say that it is unimportant to learn the English consonants and vowels. Then why do some people insist that Thai tones are not essential to being able to speak and be understood?

In Thai, tones are just as important as consonants and vowels. Changes in Thai tones cause “morphemic” changes in the words just as changes in consonants and vowels do. They mean something different. If one speaks toneless Thai it is the same as saying all English words using only one consonant. “Your life is fine.” becomes “tour tife is tine”.

And for those who advocate just saying an approximation of the Thai word and letting the Thais figure it out through its context. Don’t expect a Thai to understand a toneless Thai sentence just by using context. Would context help you understand “tour tife is tine”?

No wonder Thais look at us incomprehensibly at times. I’m not saying learning Thai tones is going to be easy. I still get those looks sometimes. And when I do, I don’t blame the listener for not understanding me. I know I just have to work a little harder at getting the tones right.

I have a thought about those who advocate learning Thai tones using the written tone rules. First of all, I have never been able to remember the written tone rules. Maybe I need to tattoo them on my arm or something. I am trying to learn to sight read playing the piano but I can never remember what line on the staff goes with what note. I have to write them down on the sheet music. It also took me until I was in college to get the multiplication tables down. It’s probably the same missing lobe in my brain that keeps me from remembering Thai tone rules.

But the real problem with learning how to say something through reading about it is that they are really two completely different skills. If I know the written tone rule I will know “what” tone a word uses. That doesn’t mean that I will be able to “say” the tone correctly. Just by knowing that a certain note is an “A’ doesn’t mean that we will be able to sing an “A”, except for those few who have perfect pitch that is.

My advice on getting tones right is to listen to how a native speaker of Thai says a word and then repeat it exactly as they say it. It is the difference between people who have perfect pitch and can sight read the music of a song and the rest of us. Some people can sing a song right from the sheet music. But most of us need to hear it banged out on a piano first before singing the notes correctly. So reading is a great way to know what the tone of a word is, but it is not the best way to say a Thai tone correctly. Listening and repeating is how it’s done. That’s exactly how all Thai children learn to speak in tones – long before they learn how to read.

Again, let me stress how important tones are in speaking Thai. In one of my favorite books, Alice in Wonderland, Alice and the March Hare have a discussion as to whether “saying what you mean” is the same as “meaning what you say”. I never could figure out who was right. But I do know that if we don’t use the correct tones when speaking Thai we will always be meaning one thing and saying another.

Warning: Anecdote to follow:

Thais just don’t understand me when I speak Thai. Why is that?…

There is a common complaint here among Expats that feel that Thais just don’t really want to understand them when they speak Thai. Here is a little story that happened to me recently that might put some light on the subject.

I needed to buy some gasoline (petrol) for my lawn mower. It needs to use benzene, 91 octane in order to run correctly. So I went to the gas station and asked for เบนซีนเก้าสิบเอ็ด /​ben-​seen gâao-​sìp èt/ “benzene ninety-one”.

The attendant stared at me as if I were speaking Martian. I repeated myself. This time he did a little shake of the head. One more time, this time saying เก้าสิบเอ็ด /​gâao-​sìp èt/ in a much louder voice. He started to go over and call his manager. Obviously he didn’t understand a word I said. And I had learned Thai numbers the first week of Thai class – about a million years ago. And I write this column.

Well, many people might interpret this as the attendant just refusing to understand my Thai. But, no he didn’t hate Farangs, and he wasn’t pretending not to understand. I was saying it wrong! What I should have said was เบนซีนเก้าหนึ่ง /​ben-​seen gâao nèung/ “benzene nine one” the way it is supposed to be said in Thai.

He didn’t understand me because I wasn’t saying it correctly. And the moral of the story: If a Thai doesn’t understand you when you are speaking Thai, you might not be speaking correctly. Maybe to him you sound like you are making nonsense noises.

The next time I went to that station I asked for เบนซีนเก้าหนึ่ง /​ben-​seen gâao nèung/ and I got exactly what I asked for.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand

32 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Some Thoughts on Learning Thai Tones”

  1. Great post. Getting thai tones wrong only becomes a greater problem when constructing a sentence. Of course, there are are 5 tones so one word may have 5 meaning depending on the tone. However, put a 10 word sentence together, that’s a possibility of 50 words, and so for your thai listener, trying to figure out what u say is where the problems could come from. My friend, however, went into a restaurant and ordered rice, but used the tone meant for mountain and the waiter just did not understand why he was ordering mountain curry lol.

    I’m having mixed days of being well understood and days of not being understood at all. My thai is virtually pure beginner, with about 10 verbs, I, you, he etc subject, and about 50 nouns or so. I’m finding that learning thai is a little bit of a roller coaster, and I just have to ride it out until I’m fully understood all of the time.

  2. Khun Todd, thanks. I posted a link (currently awaiting approval before it goes live) to a research report prepared by a research team of the Royal Institute of Thailand. The findings therein support the notion that the majority of the general Thai public do pronounce มนุษย์ศาสตร์ as “ma-nut-sa-ya-sat” (using your transliteration system). As pointed out above, gas station attendants would be used to “gas station phrases” in current use in gas stations. So to be fair to to Khun Hugh, it is a fact that currently many university folk do pronounce มนุษย์ศาสตร์ as “ma-nut-saat” (using your transliteration system) even though they know that it is not the formally correct pronunciation. It is therefore not surprising that Khun Hugh, as an ex lecturer of the Faculty of Humanities (CMU), is used to this informal pronunciation. I think that most of the minority of the general Thai public who pronounce มนุษย์ศาสตร์ as “ma-nut-saat” are probably university folk.

  3. David,

    Great read – although I have to admit that I read the English version. It is a good discussion on the differences between “prescriptive” rules, the ones the books say you should follow, and “descriptive” rules, telling you what people really say.

    Seems like about 2/3 of Thais like the easier ways to pronounce things. I especially liked their recommendation that the dictionaries offer the popular pronunciation before the one dictated by the Royal Institute which would follow the normal dictionary conventions. I agree.

    BTW, Isn’t it he Royal Institute who gave us the official spellings of Thai words (th for t, ph for p, and all those other crazy indeciperable spellings)?

    Thanks David, it’s good to have ones chain yanked by someone in the know.

  4. Thanx David Indy; it’s good to know the “fossilized” pronunciation in my head is the “real” way to pronounce the word.

    The “blurring”, “slurring” or just plain reduction of syllables in words spoken by Thais comes as no surprise, because they’ll shorten almost anything, words, phrases, etc.

    One anecdote which immediately comes to mind is; last nite I was sitting with the group of Thai guys I normally sit with, when a student I’d seen at a Thai school walked down the Soi. I called him over, told my friends he could speak Thai. They promptly asked him เป็นไงมั่ง which is a much abbreviated colloquial version of the longer “phrozen phraze”; เป็นอย่างไรบ้าง. This guy had NO idea what they’d said, as he’d only been taught the “real way” to say/hear that phrase, and it took a little explaining to get him to make the leap in logic that it was the same thing, just the “abridged version”.

    The “slurring” or ล/ร substitution is another common one foreigners fall into mis-hearing; “a-loi”, “a-lai”, “na-lak”, “falang” for the words; อร่อย, อะไร, น่ารัก & ฝรั่ง. Funny I’ve heard TONZ of Thais sub out the first ร in a multi syllable word with ล but they always seem to “hit” the second ร just fine as in; Sa-la-buri สระบุรี, Bu-li-ram บุรีรัมย์. This shows me they’re fully capable of enunciating the ร and just don’t. Also while they routinely do the ร as ล, I’ve never ever heard them do an ล for ร, it would appear this is a one way consonant substitution only.

    Before I even posted what I’d been told about the pronunciation of มนุษยศาสตร์, I knew Hugh would come back with the “there is more than one way to say a word”.

    You will find out he doesn’t much cotton to being told he’s wrong, especially about anything to do with Thai. I think that’s why I like “yankin’ his chain” or “windin’ him up” ;P

  5. Many long Thai words have two pronunciations. One, the way they are supposed to be said (and you will hear this from most TV announcers), and the other is the way the average person really says it (which you will probably not find in a dictionary).

    Here are two examples with the way they are supposed to be said.

    เพชรบุรี /pét-chá~bù~ree/ Phetchaburi province
    ราชบุรี /râat-chá-bù~ree/ Ratchaburi province

    In reality these words are quite often shortened with the ช taking the “t” sound it would normally have at the end of a word (instead of between two syllables).

    เพชรบุรี becomes /pét-bù~ree/
    ราชบุรี becomes /râat-bù~ree/

  6. Khun Todd, whenever two words are to be combined (สมาส) to form a new word (คำสมาส), the rule is that if the first word has a ไม้ทัณฑฆาต, it must first be removed before the two words are combined (สมาส). Once you have the compound word (คำสมาส), the usual reading rules apply. So you would read มนุษย์ศาสตร์ as “ma-nut-sa-ya-sat” (using Khun Todd’s transliteration system). If you look up this word in the Thai dictionaries (for e.g. Matichon), there is only this pronunciation, there is no alternative pronunciation.

  7. The sign in front of the building shows the spelling as คณะมนุษยศาสตร์ as opposed to how you have it spelled with the ย์. The girl in the building told me it’s pronounced as “ka-na ma-nut-sa-ya-sat”, where the ษ functions as the ending consonant and then is voiced with a ะ and the ย loses its ไม้ทัณฑฆาต and is also voiced with a ะ.

    Plugging Srinakharinwirot University มนุษย์ศาสตร์ into Google gets the “Showing results for Srinakharinwirot University มนุษยศาสตร์” too.

    In all honesty I dunno and am only relating what I saw on the inscription and what the girl inside told me.

    Perhaps I have a spurious pronunciation now locked into my head! Thank the stars I rarely hafta say it, no matter how it’s pronounced.

  8. Todd,

    The word มะกัน (ma kun) is a shortened form of American “a MA ri KUN” and is used all the time in Newspaper headlines. The first time I read it it had me completely stumped. Now it seems perfectly logical. Sorry though, nothing to do with fruit except that they have similar first syllables.

  9. Todd,

    I know what you mean. I also taught at the Faculty of Humanities (Chiang Mai University). If I told someone I taught at CMU the first question would always be “Which faculty?” คณะอะไร /ká~na à~rai/. So I had to say that tongue twister quite often.

    Luckily for us, spoken Thai, like all languages, has some short cuts to help us out. Instead of the complete form of Faculty of Humanities คณะมนุษย์ศาสตร์ / ká~na má~nút sat / or for those being overly correct they can pronounce this the really long way as in /ká~na má~nút saa sat/. I use the short form คณะมนุษย์ /ká~na má~nút/. มนุษย์ /má~nút/ = human whereas มนุษย์ศาสตร์ /má~nút sat/ = humanity (ies ).

    (Like most written languages Thai has some crazy spelling/pronunciation rules. Sometimes if a spoken consonant appears at the end of a syllable and also at the beginning of the next, one written letter will be spoken twice. I am a lousy speller so you might have to look these rules up yourself.)

    The word มนุษย์ /má~nút/ is interesting being of Sanskrit root meaning “human” because it has the word “man” right in it. Both English and Thai have roots in Sanskrit and this might be one example showing the relationship.

    Try the short form คณะมนุษย์ /ká~na má~nút/ next time. It will hurt your tongue less.

  10. Interesting observations Hugh and Rick Bradford too!

    Once you have a “baseline vocabulary” in Thai it is amazing how you can “break the words down” into their component parts. It’s not always the combined meaning of the base words, but you can get a good idea, especially when they’re used in context. Still political words aren’t up there on my list of high frequency vocab, although they’re a must know set when reading the Thai newspapers.

    Pronunciation is another kettle of fish altogether, because sometimes “silent syllables” come “alive” when the word is combined with others to make a compound. The one which is etched permanently into my memory is “Faculty of Humanities” seeing as that’s where the Thai classes are taught in Srinakharinwirot University. I knew faculty คณะ, human มนุษย์ and knowledge ศาสตร์ when it’s being taught. Nothing prepared me to pronounce it like; คณะมนุษยศาสตร์. I mean how can the final consonant ษ in มนุษย์ become “double functioning” or the ย์ suddenly lose its การันต์ and “come alive”? I mangled it so badly asking the security guard where that place was he laughed until he had tears in his eyes! While it is certainly a very low frequency word in my vocab, I do remember the correct pronunciation.

    I find it funny how the Thais will shorten about any word of theirs that they can. Some of the older (read; ancient) Thais I know still refer to Americans as มะกัน and Brits as มะกฤษ. I cannot even hazard a guess why it may have a “fruit” reference; like มะม่วง, มะพร้าว, etc. Still I’ll take it over ฝรั่ง or บักสีดา any day of the week.

    Thanx for the “linguistic-ese” warnings too!

  11. Thanks Rick,

    Just in case that long bunch of Thai words for some readers has made your brain come close to having a seizure: สาธารณรัฐประชาธิปไตยประชาชน would basically be translated as “Democratic People’s Republic”

    Thanks for the word สาธารณรัฐ. The base of this word is สาธารณะ /sǎa-​taa-​rá~​ná/ which means “public” as is สาธารณสุข /sǎa-​taa-​rá~​ná-​sùk/ “public health”. The word สุข is a shortened form of สุขภาพ /sùk-​kà~​pâap/ meaning “health”. Alone สุข /sùk/ means “happy”.

    Isn’t it fun how it all comes together?

    A while back I wrote a post commenting on some people’s labeling Thai as a mono-syllabic language ( The word สาธารณรัฐ is surely a mouthful and is a great example of how complex some Thai terms can be while at the same time being quite decipherable once they are broken down.

  12. And while learning those 2 words, it might be an appropriate time to learn the word สาธารณรัฐ (saaR thaaM raH naH ratH) – republic.

    Although, whether the countries which style themselves as สาธารณรัฐประชาธิปไตยประชาชน live up to that name is open to debate…..

  13. Note of caution: “linguistic-ese” to follow.

    In watching the Olympics on (Thai) TV I just discovered an interesting minimal pair of a long and a short vowel that I did not pick up until I saw it written.

    Here are the pair

    สหรัฐ /sà~​hà-​rát/ as in สหรัฐอเมริกา /sà~​hà-​rát-​à~​may-​rí~​gaa/ (United States of America)


    สหราช /sà~​hà-​râat/ as in สหราชอาณาจักร /sà~hà-râat-chá~aa-naa-jàk/ (United Kingdom)

    The word สหรัฐ /sà~​hà-​rát/ is made up of สห /sà~​hà/ (united) and รัฐ /rát/ (state) which contains a short “a” sound.

    The word สหราช /sà~​hà-​râat/ is made up of สห /sà~​hà/ (united) and ราช /râat/ (king) which contains a long “a” sound.

    There is also a tone difference but who’s being picky?

    Have a Thai friend say the words สหรัฐ and สหราช back to back and see if you can hear the difference. In this case the context might be the better way to hear it. The first is followed by อาณาจักร /​à~​may-​rí~​gaa/ (America) and the second by อาณาจักร /aa-​naa-​jàk/ (kingdom).

    Good luck in hearing the difference.

  14. David,

    Great examples and explanation. I see exactly what you mean. I still think my phonetics mentor (Jimmy Harris, who has done lots of work on Thai phonetics as well as dozens of Native American languages)would say that in the short “half sound” the glottis would be open less than in the long sound (making it not just a length thing). Anyone out there who is a phonetician? I’d ask Jimmy but he seems to have dropped off the map.

  15. Khun Hugh, the vowel อะ in words ending with it for e.g. จะ พระ ละ ปะ ธรรมะ, is supposed to be pronounced with a glottal stop (เต็มเสียง). In all other situations, the vowel อะ in words where it is written for e.g. กระจก กระชาก คะนึง ตะลึง ละเอียด ทะนง ประเดียว or unwritten (but inherent) for e.g. ขนุน ขโมย สารพัด รัฐสภา, is supposed to be pronounced as a short ah (กึ่งเสียง), but NOT with a glottal stop.

  16. David,

    Thanks for the “linguistic-ese”. When we are trying to get things right a bit of analysis really helps. What could also help would be a few examples. Can you give an example or two of the “half sound” (กึ่งเสียง)? We can maybe get a native speaker to say them for us and see more clearly what you mean. I would be very interested.

    As to the dropping the รู้, David is referring to the Thai term ฟังไม่รู้เรื่องเลย (which Tod used) and which literally translated means “I hear you but don’t understand a thing you are saying.”, which is something all of us learning Thai have heard more often than we would like.

    Thanks again for the input.

  17. Khun Hugh, great post.

    Khun Tod, you dropped รู้.

    Khun Hugh and Khun Tod, in respect of the length of Thai vowels, relatively there is a “half” length, between long and short (short here means short and abrupt or as Khun Hugh has explained above as a glottal stop). In Thai it is literally called a “half sound” (กึ่งเสียง). In everyday spoken Thai, this “half sound” is used in place of the glottal stop. This means that long vowels (especially in words which may have a “shorter twin”) must be pronounced extra long so as to differentiate it from the “half sound”.

  18. Dan,

    I have an unpublished book called Professional English Pronunciation for Thailand. It is an in depth pronunciation textbook covering almost all aspects of teaching English pronunciation to Thais. Never got around to publishing it but I like to give it away to people who can use it. If you are interested drop me an email at [email protected] and I can email the book to you – gratis of course. One of the first lessons is on the Ch/Sh sounds. Anyone else teaching pronunciation can do the same. Teaching pronunciation happens to be one of my pet projects.


  19. Sadly (mostly for you Dan) I think you missed the “implied meaning” of my previous reply. Sometimes high-intermediate or advanced learners of this language portray the learning of Thai as TOO hard for new learners of the language.

    What it most definitely ain’t is rocket science! Making it out to be harder than it is can be a “buzz-kill” for new learners!

    True it’s a different language and one that (other than the many words the Thais have stolen from English, yet mispronounce) bears little resemblance to how English “goes together”.

    Still it is NOT beyond the reach of a person with even average intelligence (as evidenced only too well by the 64+ million people here who seem to speak/understand Thai just fine).

    It does take dedication, a lotta time and then some MORE time. Becoming “coherent” or “understandable” in Thai is certainly an objective ANY person can achieve.

    There ain’t a non-native speaker of Thai in this country (especially an English native speaker) that isn’t immediately pegged by the Thais as anything but a non-native speaker, EVER (no matter what these over-complimentary people say about your ability in their language)!

    Andrew Biggs holds a degree in Thai, yet is easily identified by Thais as a non-native speaker. The same is true for “legend in his own mind”, Adam Bradshaw, and his spoken Thai is some of the best “most Thai-like” structured Thai I’ve ever listened to.

    This is a site about people interested in learning Thai. Still sometimes when I read the posts, I think it’s a site designed to dissuade them from even beginning to undertake the learning of it. That is what makes me sad.

    I’ll be the first one to say “I ain’t all that smart”, but what I do know is; if I can speak something that’s close enough to Thai so that Thais respond in kind, ANYONE who really tries can to.

  20. “I guess I’ll just “muddle along” almost speaking something which sounds close enough to Thai to be understood by these people.”

    That seems to be your aim but don’t assume – and it’s an assumption which as far as I can tell underlies every one of your posts – that that’s what everyone else is or ought to be doing; being “understood by these people” (strange choice of words but anyway) is great but it hardly marks the endpoint in learning a language and if you want to get to a decent level in any language and you’re not some kind of savant, you’re going to have to worry about “linguistic-ese”.

    As for whether this kind of kindergarten-level linguistics gets in the way, I’m teaching a pronunciation course at my local Rajabhat (not something I usually do but I was asked to help out). The students’ collective level averages out at around high elementary/pre-intermediate (though there are a fair few who are much lower and I think one of the forty who might be described as intermediate) and I and the Thai teacher I’m helping have been using a degree of technical terminology and explanation (so they know the difference between their nasal cavity and their alveolar ridge, what happens when you voice, the difference between a diphthong and a vowel, etc.) As far as I can tell, the students have been enjoying it and their pronunciation has certainly improved. If, by contrast, I had just stood there saying “Say cheese. No, wrong. Say cheese. No, wrong. Say cheese. No, wrong. You’re saying she’s. Say cheese. No, wrong. Listen to me – cheese. Now you say it. No, wrong …” I can absolutely guarantee that they would not have progressed anything like as much because they would not be in a position to understand what they were doing wrong and what they had to do to remedy the situation. And if students at a provincial Rajabhat (lovely lot but not the sharpest tools in the shed and nobody could ever accuse them of over-intellectualising their approach to language learning. Or anything else, for that matter) can handle it, I’m sure most people learning Thai can, too.

  21. Believe me, you’re not the first person who’s said that -ะ -า are two completely different sounds which come from different areas of the mouth.

    As a general rule of thumb, I usually stop paying attention when ever I hear too much “linguistic-ese” in anyone’s posts. They may have some relevance in research papers; but in real life; tryin’ to speak something which resembles Thai enough to converse with these people, there’s often little practical “in-the-field” application.

    Also parsing things out too much can get in the way of new learners who undertake this language. And yes, I have seen the nifty diagrams and pictures showing where the sounds originate inside the mouth. Other than being neat to look at, I didn’t get a lot of use outta ‘em.

    Anyone who’s listened to Thais “parrot” the vowel sounds as they were taught them in school; “short/long” starting with -ะ/-า and right on down the line, can almost immediately tell they’re the same sounds just with a short and long duration of time. More surprising, they’re even called short and long vowels in both Thai (and English when teaching Thai to foreigners), so I mean how “convenient” is that? They’re also taught to Thais as “pairs” of vowels. Amazing Thailand huh?

    I guess I’ll just “muddle along” almost speaking something which sounds close enough to Thai to be understood by these people. Why, just today I was totally understood by a “strange Thai”!! Now it’s not that the Thai I was talking to was any stranger to me than the rest of the 64+ million of ‘em here. What I meant was they hadn’t ever met or spoken to me before. Still it appeared they had no problem understanding what passes for “my version” of spoken Thai.

    Honestly, If I’da put too much credence into some of the stuff about learning Thai that I’ve read; it’d have probably put me off from ever startin’ to learn this language.

    We ain’t sequencing the human genome, tryin’ to solve world hunger or world peace. My gosh, all we’re tryin’ to do here is talk to Thais in something which resembles Thai enough for them to understand what we’re saying!!

  22. I here now for a few years and I can have a fluent conversation about everyday subjects. I almost never need to repeat what I have said. Still, sometimes it happens I need to repeat something. The mistakes that at this moment lead to most confusion by the Thai listeners are (in order of frequency):
    1. my laziness – sometimes I am lazy and don’t focus on my pronunciation
    2. Pronouncing aspirated consonants as unaspirated.
    3. getting the tones wrong
    4. the fact that I speak Thai while they are not expecting it…
    5. getting แ and เ mixed up.
    6. vowel lengths

    So, I agree with you that the tones are very important. And I also agree with the comments of others that mentioned other aspects that are important in Thai language.

  23. Hugh – A fantastic post and you’ve managed to stick a label on my Thai language skill level at the same time. Idiolect. That sounds about right.

    The main thing I’ve grasped from this post is the absolute importance of getting Thai tones right. The Thai I can speak is not quite monotone but I’ll admit I do not put too much emphasis on tones. You have explained perfectly the need to put that right. You’ve also proven that when in Thailand it’s best to buy an electric lawnmower.

  24. Justin,

    I would guess that means that “A tone by any other name would sound as sweet.” I come from the “Whatever works for you” school of language learning.


  25. Great Post Aaron. Tod I think what happens is that sometimes, Thais can understand through context what you may not be saying correctly. Then as soon as you mistake enough words in the sentence, the context is lost. For example, I had a neighbor who was from germany. Most of the time I understood him, but sometimes the accent would keep me from understanding enough of what he said to understand even by context what he meant.

    I had a friend who spoke Fantastic Thai (according to other thais) when he went to an italian restaurant in Bangkok, he was given the menu in english and then ordered the raviol. Unfortunately, the waiter could not understand him. Eventually my friend pointed to the item and the waiter said, oh! RaviolI(with emphasis on the last syllable). It sounded like another word to him.

    For me to get the tones down, I stopped using their conventional “names” and gave the tones their own name that helped me learn them. To this day I don’t know which tone is the “high” tone. I called one the Robot voice tone and another a valley tone. I called one the “breath out” tone and another the Sighing tone. I also took a page out of the Thai primary school system and would say all 5 tones in order,15 or 20 times every morning.

    I also thought of the voice having 3 levels high medium and low and I would think of a trombone moving it’s slide between those levels. I hope those little things help others.

  26. Aaron,

    Thanks for that. It might be interesting to note that if you said Seven Eleven here in Thailand you might also be misunderstood. The correct way to refer to this store is “Seven” and pronounced correctly it would be “SeWen”.

  27. Todd,

    Thanks again for your comments. Always stimulating.

    If one can speak, and be understood, even without getting the tones correct, this is basically good. Communication is usually the goal when learning a language. But it isn’t Thai. The listener is probably simply figuring out what you mean. Good first step but some ways to go from there.

    Notes on vowel length.

    Todd has me thinking now about vowels. My thoughts are that we should stop thinking about vowel length. Because, in fact, these are not the same vowels, one longer, and one shorter. They are completely different vowels made in slightly different ways physically.

    It is a bit hard to illustrate this but here are two examples (BTW, there are a number of ways of showing a shortened vowel and I am using only one here). They are best heard when taken in isolation at the ends of words as they do change a bit in the middle of words. Lets take the vowels ะ and า. For simplicity we’ll refer to these as short “a” and long ‘a”.

    Short: พระ /prá/ = monk
    Long: พร้า /práa/ = sickle

    It would appear at first glance that this is just a short “a” and a long “a” but upon closer examination (get a Thai to say them for you or go to one of the dictionaries that have a recording of them) the first one is a short “a” with a glottal stop at the end of it. That means that after the vowel is voiced the back of the throat closes up cutting the sound off. (Technically glottal stops are consonants, but hey, let’s not get crazy.) The second “a” sound just keeps going on. So the one we call a short “a” is really an ‘a” that is physically cut off by a movement at the back of the throat. It isn’t that it is just voiced for a shorter period of time than the long one. The long one just continues on without being physically cut off. That’s for vowels at the ends of words.

    For vowels in the middle of words I think of my former phonetics professor who used a camera stuck down people’s throats to see what the glottis does when saying these sounds. I am not sure but I believe that in saying the long “a” the glottis is open a bit wider (and longer of course) than the short form.

    I agree that vowels and what we refer to as vowel length are just as important as consonant differences (like ด /dor/ and ต /dtor/)and tones. It’s just another thing we have to work on. If it were easy, learning Thai would be over too soon. This way we have lots of fun ahead.

    Looks like I have a couple more things to think about.

  28. The seeming inability to make the leap in logic that when you say 91 you meant 9-1 reminds me of a similar anecdote in Japan.
    Nobody understand that you are talking about the convenience store if you write 7/11 in an email. No matter the context 7/11 cannot be interpreted as anything other an July 11. In order to be understood you have to write it out as seven eleven, which is a pain in the butt.

    Not really about tones but just showing that what we might perceive as a logic gap isn’t just when we try to speak Thai, but appears in other languages too.

  29. Now don’t get me wrong, in a “tonal language” like Thai is classified, the correct tone for words is indeed important. Still I don’t believe it’s the deal breaker foreigners and indeed Thai teachers who teach foreigners make it out to be. Nor are the tones in everyday spoken Thai even similar to the over enunciated intonation foreigners here in Thai language classes the country over hear and parrot. They’re much more subtle.

    Comparing intonation in Thai to consonant changes in English, while anecdotally interesting is like comparing apples and oranges, it sheds little light on the problem. I also don’t agree that tones and word stress are similar at all. I firmly believe we use tones in English to carry emotive value to what’s being said. That’s why we use a rising tone on single word questions; right? Use a falling tone to express dismay or sadness; Ohh. Use a high tone to express shock or surprise, Ohh! Use a low tone to express a noncommittal attitude to what’s been said, Ummm. Every one of those tones in English carries the emotional value of what’s been said. To me that’s how tones are used in English.

    I firmly believe there are two things which are critical (in fact possibly even more critical than “hitting” the right tone;

    One is saying things like Thais are used to hearing them. Your story about the gas illustrates this nicely. You said something in a completely “un-Thai way”, and thus the person listening was unable to figure it out. As soon as you said it the “Thai way” he understood you. He probably would have understood you even if you got the tones wrong because he is so used to hearing gasoline phrases. He’da corrected what he heard in his head for the errant off-toned Thai foreigners are apt to speak here.

    I spend HOURS a day eavesdropping on Thai conversations all over this city from all demographics of Thais. As a rule Thais don’t alter the way they speak when I’m around them because like most Thais here they think foreigners can’t understand what they’re saying. Now I have NOT gotten the secret to the universe from listening to these people talk to each other, BUT I have gotten incredible sentence structure in colloquially spoken Thai from them and I have incorporated those constructs into my daily spoken Thai.

    The other thing which is possibly even more critical than the tones is correct “vowel length”. By that I mean the length of time you voice a vowel’s sound. There is very little restriction in English on “vowel length” and this is exactly opposite to Thai where it’s much more rigid and inflexible. If it’s a short vowel you can’t say the word with a long one or it’s a different word. True getting the tone wrong can make it a different word (or a nonsense syllable) but I feel vowel length is far more unforgiving than saying a word with the wrong tone.

    If you say things like a Thai would say it, and incorporate the correct vowel lengths for the words, even if you miss some of the tones, Thais do indeed understand. I know this because I speak some horrifically errant toned Thai, yet am pretty good about vowel length and really good as far as “sayin’ it like a Thai would”; meaning using sentence constructs they hear every day all the time. The Thais I interact with have NO problem understanding me and I rarely get the ฟังไม่เรื่องเลย or that “deer in the head-lites” look when I talk to them.

    Good post; even if I take exception to some of the premises in it. You always pique my interest Hugh, and give good insight into “all-thingz-thai” too! Oh sorry for the overly verbose reply too.


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