Thai Language Thai Culture: Some Thoughts on Learning Thai Tones

Thai Language

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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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.

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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

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