Learning Thai is More Than a Study of Words & Grammar – Part 2

Lanta International Language School

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Being true in your communication…

In my last post, I talked about the fact that the Thai language is what is known as a HIGH context language. I referred to the example of “mai pen rai” to highlight the implications of a language and culture where the actual words used are only a part of what is communicated.

The topic started a bit of a debate on whether other cultures do actually differ or not in this way… to refresh or take a first glance, you can find the original post here: Why Learning the Thai Language Needs to be More Than a Study of Words and Grammar.

While pondering upon this debate, in conjunction with writing other articles on what makes the Thai language difficult or easy to learn, it occurred to me that there is another element of the Thai language that makes it harder to interpret the true meaning of what is being communicated.

One of the other difficulties that many people experience when learning to speak Thai is the fact that the Thai language is a tonal language. It has five tones; low, high, mid, rising and falling. If you take one word, and pronounce it with each of the five tones, you will have five completely different and totally unrelated words.

Compare this to western languages where we often use tone to express emotion or attitude, and where we learn to read what people are saying by the tone of their voice, as well as the actual words that they use. When speaking Thai, this becomes more difficult. You can’t just take the same words and pronounce them more shortly and sharply to express that you are angry, for example. If you did this, you would be saying something completely unrelated to what you intended.


It occurred to me that the tonal element of the Thai language heightens and contributes to the fact that it is a HIGH context language. As we start to lose the ability to interpret attitude and emotion from the tones being used, it becomes even more important to read the context of the situation, read between the lines, become familiar with the culture and watch the body language and expressions of Thai people when they are speaking.

The great thing is, once you are aware of these differences, everything becomes much easier. You no longer puzzle over the “but you said this, when you meant that”. And as you become more and more familiar with the Thai culture, through the eyes of a Thai person (preferably your Thai language teacher), you soon begin to understand what exactly Thai people take for granted as being understood within certain contexts.

So, how do you master the Thai tones?…

In order to truly master the tones of the Thai language it is essential that listening comprehension plays a major part in your learning process… At Lanta International Language School, they teach primarily using listening comprehension, however they’ve also found that many students find it quite hard to grasp the sounds simply by listening. To combat this they introduce hand movements and actions in order to reflect and explain different tones. They also use these hand movements and actions repeatedly later on, in order to correct any mispronunciation of tones. It’s amazing how much easier students are able to hear and speak the tones, when key visuals and actions are added into the learning process.

Later on, when reading the Thai alphabet is introduced to the syllabus, LILS combine reading lists of syllables (written in Thai) with listening to sound files. This way students gain an understanding of the tones and how they are reflected in Thai writing. Although this method isn’t quite as much fun as the other methods they adopt, they have found it to be the most effective method for teaching people how to read and pronounce the tones correctly.

Tina Gibbons
Lanta International Language School

3 thoughts on “Learning Thai is More Than a Study of Words & Grammar – Part 2”

  1. Hi Talen

    Sorry to read you’re struggling with the tones… introducing some visual aid will really help.. and keep listening 🙂

    Maybe a course would help you to kick start and get over the initial hurdle… ?

    Keep at it though, and good luck!

  2. The tones are killing me. I really feel like I have asburgers syndrome when I try to get the tones right.

    I think the hand gestures would definitely help but it’s still an uphill battle. I remember when I first started learning one book showed the sentence ” Mai mai mai mai mai” and because each word was a different tone they were all different words that formed the sentence…I knew I was in for it then.

    I really need to find a teacher both here in the states and in Thailand when I make the move.

  3. i think visual cues are very useful and important when learning to speak and hear a foreign language, such as thai. the learner cannot rely on their own alphabet as a reference point.


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