The Complete Guide to Learning the Thai Alphabet

The Complete Guide to Learning Thai Alphabet

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I have seen the advice that you should learn to communicate in Thai before you learn to read it. Some even say that you should not learn to read Thai until you are proficient in the language. However, from my own experience, this is not helpful.

When I first moved to Thailand, I did not know a single word. This was not out of me being ignorant, but because my move here was quite sudden. I had 1 month to prepare for my new life, and I was more focused on the documents and legal aspects of moving here.

For the first 6 months, my Thai language learning felt extremely slow. I couldn’t tell words apart, the sounds of the language were hard for me to pick up, and the tonal nature of the language made it confusing. I felt lost, and the task of understanding the language seemed out of reach and impossible. That is until I had the idea of learning to read Thai.

By learning to read, I was also learning to listen to and speak the language in small and easy to manage blocks, which is perfect for a difficult language like Thai. By learning to read Thai, you build your knowledge of the sounds that are unfamiliar to you. This will greatly improve the rate of your learning, as well as improve your listening and speaking abilities.

For me, learning to read was an essential step in improving my Thai proficiency and ability to communicate. Learning to read helps you to take the first baby steps in pronunciation, and helps you to recognise unfamiliar sounds that you will hear. The ability to read was also the best tool that I had in helping me to remember and learn important vocabulary by practicing it in real-world settings.

It is surprising how many words you can quickly forget if you don’t keep using them. Seeing images and words together while doing real-world tasks really helped to make sure vocabulary stuck.

So how do you learn to read?

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Step 1 – Use Just 1 Resource

When learning a new skill, people tend to use a lot of apps or websites. While this may feel like you are giving yourself lots of options and ways to learn, it will actually have the opposite effect. Learning can quickly become disorganised, information that was sequential can become disjointed, and you may not know where to start.

You need to pick a resource that is right for you and your own needs as well as effective. You also need to make sure that the resource you use is both comprehensible and enjoyable.

Huahin Station
Learning the Thai alphabet is your first important step to speaking Thai.

But how do you know if a resource is effective? When I was learning to read, I was lucky and found an effective resource by chance. Reflecting on my choice, I think a good resource should have the following things:

  • Audio clips and images of all 44 consonants.
  • Information about the ending sounds of consonants.
  • Consonant clusters.
  • Details of rarely used letters (such as ฮ and ฬ).
  • Audio clips and images of all 21 vowel sounds.
  • Information about how to form words and example words to practice reading.
  • The different tone markers you will see in words.

The Thai writing system is complicated. These are not the only things that make up the rules of the writing system, but they are the essentials. Some resources will go into more detail about the class system of consonants and how they can change or determine the tone of a word, but I found that learning these rules from the start was a hinderance to my learning.

It was better for me to learn these rules briefly, but put my main focus and efforts into the 7 things listed. The reasons why will be explored further in step 4.

My 1 and only learning resource was Thaipod101. I used the  Thaipod101 YouTube channel and watched “Learn ALL Thai Alphabet in 50 minutes/hour – How to Write and Read Thai”. The title of the Thaipod101 video has the words “learn ALL”, but there are actually a few letters missing from it.

However, I found that if I went to the Thaipod101 website, I was able to find and complete the reading and writing course for free using the free trial. This means that you do not have to pay any money to learn how to read using Thaipod101.

The Thaipod101 resource was comprehensible for me as it showed me the shape of the letters, the pronunciation, the name of the letters, and how to write words in short simple lessons. This built up my fundamental knowledge. I also enjoyed the content, which made me stick with it. This resource is great for learners who want to be taught using teacher and student-based learning, as that is the method which is applied.

In addition, the video uses graphics, has large visual examples of how to write the letters, and a view of the teacher saying the letters and words. This makes the video clear and easy to follow. Furthermore, it also included the 7 essential things to learn and more. 1 resource was enough for me to learn how to read in just 1 month.

Other online resources are also available. For example, the Memrise course Read Thai: A Complete Guide to Reading Thai also covers the same 7 essential things for learning how to read Thai and more. Memrise is also free to use. This resource differs to the Thaipod101 resource as it is taught in a more interactive and game-like way.

The course first teaches you the letter, reading rule, or word, and then uses a variety of multiple-choice questions in which you have to match the Thai letter to the Latin alphabet letter, or listen to the sound of a Thai speaker and then choose the correct option written in Thai.

Both methods used by these resources are great. You can choose which to use based on the method you will enjoy more. In fact, any resource is good as long as the resource covers the 7 essential things to learn listed, it is comprehensible, and you enjoy the process. If it is missing any of those things, my advice would be to find another resource to learn from.

Step 2 – Make a Plan

Learning a new skill is always a big task. It is important that you do not just jump into it and hope things work out. You also need to feel motivated to keep you on track. Before using your resource, write down 2 or 3 simple goals. These goals should be short-term 2-month goals as learning to read can be done surprisingly quickly.

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I was able to read, albeit slowly, in just 1 month. That is a much better rate of success than what I experienced in my first 6 months trying to learn through just listening and speaking.

The goals you write could be something along the lines of “to be able to read the cities I see on road signs”, “to recognise the sound of individual letters when I see them”, or “to remember the rules of how to form words properly in Thai”. These goals will act as a reward to motivate you in your learning journey. It is easy to lose track of the progress you have made when you are doing something every day.

Having goals and a means of testing those goals will give you a concrete example of how far you have come, helps you to feel pride in your achievements, and will help you to continue with your learning in the future.

You also need to be able to fit your learning into your schedule neatly. When can you learn? What time is good for you? Will you be able to learn after work, or will you be too tired? Is it better for you to learn in the morning rather than the evening? Do you need to take a Thai class? You need to think about the actions you will take every day as this will help you to guide yourself, and will help you to stay motivated and have the energy to study.

Your learning schedule for each day does not have to be long. I was able to learn to read in just 1 month by only setting aside 20 to 30 minutes for learning each day. I set aside 30 minutes after work to learn, giving myself time to shower first.

making a plan
It’s important to make and commit to your plan to quickly learn the Thai alphabet.

The Thaipod101 course that I used is split up into separate lessons. Although it may be tempting to watch the whole video in 1 sitting, as it is just 50 minutes, I would advise not to do that as it is a lot of information to take in. Instead, if you watch just 2 or those lessons per day and continue to watch the entire video each day using this process, then the information is not overwhelming, is easier to digest, and easy to manage.

The Thaipod101 video also has reviews of the previous lesson to help you retain information, which makes this method of using the resource effective as you can use these sections as revision when you return to it the next day. Repeating information like this over periods of time is a good way of cementing information.

To make the Thaipod101 resource even more convenient, you can pin the tab to your web browser. This will save your place in the video and will mean that you can access the video quickly at any time.

If you choose to use the Memrise course, then you can split the session up in a similar way. The course has separate sub-courses that you can access, each with a set list of letters or words. You can further divide these sub-courses into smaller, less overwhelming sessions as you have full control over how many words or letters you will see in your learning session each day. My advice would be to see and practice just 10 words per learning session as it will make information easier to digest and manage.

The great thing about Memrise is that when you create a profile, you will have a front page with the courses you have been learning. It also saves your progress automatically, meaning that your courses and progress are easy and convenient to access. Memrise also has an app with all of these features, so you can also learn on the go, making it easy to fit into your schedule.

Similar to the Thaipod101 video, Memrise has reviews of all the letters and words you have learnt so far. Memrise uses a technique called spaced repetition. What this means is that you will see items that you find hard to remember more often than the things you get right all the time.

Each time you review an item correctly, it will take longer for the website to revisit that item in future reviews. You can even customise your reviews by using the classic review, which makes you type words out, or the speed review, which is a multiple-choice style review system. This means that you can choose the review method that is best for you.

I have used Memrise for other learning materials in the past and found it trained both my short-term and long-term memory through this technique. However, the reviews are not automatic, so you will need to set some time in your learning session to do this.

It does not matter when you do your learning sessions, where you learn, or which resource you use, as long as you plan learning effectively and do it every day. If you are learning every day, even if it is for 20 or 30 minutes, then you will always be improving. Even if it is only small improvements that you make each day, those improvements are helping you to become a better reader. Consistency is key. This is why it is important that your resource is enjoyable.

Step 3 – Take Notes Along-Side Your Resource

To really make the information from your resource stick, you should keep notes of all the letters and words you learn. Using pencil and paper for taking notes is great for connecting you to the language, which helps you to remember information better.

When I was making my notes, I would write down the shape of the letter and the sound that the letter makes. For letters with unfamiliar sounds, I used the Latin alphabet to write an approximate sound in a way that made sense to me. Remember, it is you and you only that has to remember the sound, so it only has to make sense to you. These are your notes after all, and nobody knows what makes sense to you more than yourself.

There is an official Latinised version of the Thai alphabet which you can easily find, but this was not helpful to me as it did not match my accent and the way I pronounce letters in English, and I am a native English speaker. Through using my own system, I was always able to accurately repeat sounds because my notes were personal to me and my thought process.

You should also write the characters that you have learnt several times after each lesson. Writing the shapes of the letters in this way really helped me to retain the memory of the shape through constant practice. I was able to connect the sound, visual image, and the kinaesthetic action of writing the letter through this method. By doing this, you are giving yourself more ways of learning and a better chance of remembering what you learn. Also make sure to write the words that your resource teaches you and a translation so that you can build vocabulary.  

I also found it very helpful to write the letters and words that I could remember at the end of each day on a separate page at the back of my notebook with no accompanying notes. I would then use this page as a revision page and see if could remember the sound of each of the letters and words that I was reading, using my notes pages to check whether or not I was correct.

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Although both resources I mentioned have revision quizzes, I found it helpful to be able to revise and further practice reading letters and words in this way any time I liked. By doing this, I had 2 forms of revision that I could rely on using the same resource. Having notes like this is also another way in which you can remind yourself of how much you have learnt, which helps to keep you motivated to learn more.

Step 4 – Know What Information Is Important

The Thai alphabet can be confusing. There are 4 tone markers which float above words that help determine the tone in which you should say that word. These tones change the meanings of similar sounding words.

The Thai alphabet also has 44 consonants. These consonants only have 21 unique sounds, meaning that some consonants share the same sound. This is because consonants are also split into 3 categories; high, mid, and low class. These consonant classes are not related to the tone markers and act differently to them, but they also help determine which tone to use in a word.

However, the classes do not directly translate to the tones with the same name. For example, a high-class consonant doesn’t mean the word is pronounced with a high tone. This means that there are many ways to determine which tone you need to use in words. Confusing, right?

A lot of the resources that you come across will go into detail about this information. The learning resource I used certainly did. This made reading seem like an impossible task as I had to memorise classes, tone markers, and the various ways in which they interact.

The more I focused on these rules, the less I focused on the actual act of reading in my 30-minute study time. This, I found, hindered my progress. I realised this early on in the process, and I decided to not focus on these rules.

Do you remember the list of the 7 essential things to learn in step 1? Those are what you should focus your time and efforts into. While you should still learn the rules of high, mid, and low-class consonants, only study them as they come up in learning sessions and keep notes of them in your note book. This way, you will have a basic understanding of these rules and notes to refresh your memory if you do want to go into more detail with these concepts in the future.

By focusing on the 7 essential things to learn, you will be able to read any word and understand how to produce the sound. The tone may be wrong, but this is something that you will have to practice in your speaking anyway, as this feature of Thai does not come naturally to those that were not born into a tonal language. As you learn to speak, you will naturally begin to understand these rules through context and meaningful real-world practice, settings, and contexts.

In Thai, a word is not read in the same way as languages with the Latin alphabet. Vowels can come before, after, below, or above a consonant, and clusters of vowels around a consonant can make an entirely new sound. The 7 essential things to learn that I listed in step 1 will help you to get to grips with these rules, meaning you will know both how to produce the sound of what is written down, and more importantly how to read the word itself.

This means that you can now read to a degree that will open up opportunities to take your learning to the next level, whether that be reading signs and menus in real-world contexts, or using further resources that use the Thai alphabet.

Step 5 – Maintaining Your Reading Skills and Learning Through Context

Once you have learnt to read, you need to practice using your newfound skills. If you live in Thailand, use this opportunity to read everything you can. Any sign, menu, or road marking is an opportunity to practice and learn. Also spell out names of people or places in your country using the Thai alphabet. These kinds of practices really help to cement the rules of the phonetics and letter order of the writing system.

The more you practice, the better you will get at reading. Soon you will find that the order of the letters comes as natural to you as reading from left to right.

reading books
Once you remember all of the Thai characters, you should keep reading in order to improve your Thai skills.

A great benefit of learning to read is that it is very useful in your day-to-day life in Thailand. Having the ability to read menus in restaurants and products at the supermarket and shops makes your life easier and can help you to pick up and cement vocabulary. Did you forget the word for a meal or kind of meat? You can learn it or refresh your memory from a menu with pictures. Do you not know the name of a product or item? You can find it in the supermarket and learn the word from labels.

Reading words on real products or seeing pictures of meals accompanied by words on menus really helps you to learn and remember vocabulary. We learn better when what we have learnt is meaningful to us. By putting yourself in real-world situations and completing real-world tasks, learning becomes meaningful.

Learning to read is something people take for granted, but is important if you want improve your Thai. Not only does it help your listening and speaking through learning pronunciation of letters and sounds, but it also opens up a wealth of new learning resources.

Resources like Anki and Memrise offer free courses, such as “Thai vocabulary 4000” and “Thai frequency, top 4000 words”, for you to further improve your Thai. These resources use the Thai alphabet due to the Latin alphabet’s limitations. They also mean that you will practice reading new words every day. Both of these resources provide the word written in Thai, a translation, and matching audio for the Thai words which helps you to learn the tone rules naturally. By learning to read, you get access to so much more.

Now, on to You

Learning Thai is the best window into this wonderful, unique, and exciting culture. Being part of the community is the most rewarding thing you can do in your life here, and learning the language is necessary to do that.

Learning to read does not take long in the grand scheme of things. It is a key to a whole new world of Thai learning potential that should not be ignored, helping not only your ability to learn, but also your ability to understand the fundamental parts of how the language works and sounds. For me, reading was an essential part of adjusting to a new culture after moving to Thailand and becoming a part of the wider community here.

Ben Kenyon is a foreign language teacher spreading his love and passion of languages throughout the world. He likes to constantly give himself new challenges to face and is always on the hunt for new experiences. He currently lives in Tak,Thailand and is committed to learning as much about the culture as he can by fully immersing himself in his local community.

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