We Have ALL Five Thai Tones in English Too!

Hitting the Second Wall of Learning Thai

Thai tones are in English too…

I’m always running into foreigners learning Thai (or giving excuses on why they can’t learn Thai) who say, “I can’t hear the tones. English doesn’t have tones”.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble or take away yet another excuse about why you can’t learn Thai… BUT…

In English we have ALL of the five tones used in Thai. We just use them for different things. Plain and simple, in Thai the tones are used to delineate words, use a different tone, get a different word. However, in English we use tones to carry emotive value. No one, not even Stephen Hawking (who speaks thru a computer generated voice), speaks English without using tones. It’d be a very robotic and flat language if we did.

Here’s my take on how we use the five Thai tones in our every day spoken English. And we do it totally without thinking.

Mid Tone: This is a normal tone and pitch in spoken English. Not much more needs to be said, other than it’s how we speak most of the time. You would think this might be the easiest tone for non-native speakers to replicate in Thai, seeing as it’s said in the normal tone of your voice. Sadly, this is not the case. Without thinking, native English speakers tend to inflect word endings with subtle changes in tone. Most people hafta really work at saying a mid tone Thai word with a long vowel and a live ending correctly, because in English we automatically change the ending sound.

Low Tone: This tone is used in English typically for non-committal types of single word answers. You wife asks you to take out the garbage while you’re watching football. You answer “sure”, but in a lower tone than your normal voice. It conveys that you got what she said but you’re not gonna jump up and take out the trash this second. This tone is used a lot in English for statements where there’s an understanding of what was being said, but the reply shows no commitment either for or against. In Thai, this is a tone you can pretty much give a pass to as I’ve found it can sound a lot like a middle tone in spoken Thai without loss in understanding.

Falling Tone: This is a tone we use in English to express regret, or sympathy with something that’s said to us. A friend says his dog was hit by a car and the reply is, “Ohhh, is it okay?” That first word, “Ohhh” is said with a falling tone and conveys your sympathy to the speaker in just that single falling toned word. This tone in Thai is a critical one to wrap your head around. You should practice the falling toned Thai words used in daily dialogs.

High Tone: This tone is a little trickier to explain on how we use it in English, but we most definitely do. The reason it’s trickier is that the high tone in Thai starts at a pitch higher than your normal spoken voice and then goes up even higher from there. In English it’s used to express surprise, shock, mild outrage or a degree of incredulity when speaking. Someone says, “hey man your car just got backed into in the parking lot”. Your response is, “what!?” The word starts high and goes even higher on the ending. It’s my experience that this and the low tone are possibly the least critical of the tones to master in Thai, and they can be blurred in spoken Thai with little loss of comprehension.

Rising Tone: This tone is used when asking questions in English. It is especially evident on single word questions, “what?” or “right?”. I’m sure this is why most foreigners don’t have problems replicating this tone when using the question word ไหม seeing as it’s also (by blind luck) a rising tone. You must use this tone correctly when you’re speakin’ Thai to Thais as they exhibit very little forgiveness in foreigners getting this tone wrong. Again, I suggest you go thru words in daily dialogs that use this tone. Work on getting it to sound right. Speaking rising tone Thai words with another tone is something which can send you off script faster than you would even believe possible.

As you can see, just from the few examples I gave – and I’m sure any native English speaker can think up a lot more – we most certainly do routinely replicate ALL five of the Thai tones without much thought.

The huge stumbling block we have as native English speakers tryin’ to speak Thai is that we vary the intonation of Thai words like we do when we speak English. It’s a deal-breaker from word one because you can’t vary how a Thai word is toned and still have it be the same word. That’s the reason Thais have ending particles (I think there’re more than 50). They are the tag words Thais use to add emotive value to what’s being said. They can change the meaning from speculative, interrogative, urging, questioning, etc.

However, ending particles are a horse of another color, and a topic I am not qualified to write about. I use maybe 8-10 out of the 50. I also often use them at the wrong time and place in sentence constructs. If you interested in how ending particles (codaphrases) are used in the Thai language, read the excellent (and in-depth) paper compiled by Don Sena: Codaphrases.

I hope you found this of interest. If it takes another lame excuse away from foreigners who say ,“I can’t learn Thai”, then I’m happy to have helped.

As I have said many times, I am far from the sharpest tool in the shed. If I can speak something which resembles Thai enough for Thais to understand, than ANYONE who puts their mind to it can too.

Good Luck.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

18 thoughts on “We Have ALL Five Thai Tones in English Too!”

  1. I do agree,Tod,with all that.Westerners must first fine-tune their ears and learn to spot the subtle differences their linguistic culture did not condition them to stress.And cadence is important too,but that is the case with most languages,I guess.Then,most Thai s are not interested in conversation for its own sake,unlike most westerners who love to argue and show”what they are made of”or at least what they want to project as a persona.So the psy factor is essential here.By “music”I just meant the melody of the speech,i.e. the tones.

  2. Michel, that’s what I love about learning this language.. We as non-native adult speakers sometimes experience the exact opposite thingz and that’s okay because we’re all just doin’ the best we can!

    One of the reasons that you and me too (to an extent), marvel at the fact “thaiz in general will not think the mistake lies with the tone or try to mend it by replacing it” is.

    To a born-bred-rice fed speaker of thai, the words เขา-เข่า-เข้า, ขาว-ข่าว-ข้าว or ไหม-ใหม่-ไหม้-ไม้ don’t sound even remotely similar to their ears, not one little bit. They just didn’t learn their words that way.. Sometimes when I’ll hear a thai word, ask if it’s a word that sounds similar (to my foreign tuned ears) and the thaiz will look at me like I’m crazy!

    By “music”, I take it you mean “cadence, rythym, meter” of what you’re saying, or am I wrong in thinking this?

    Cadence is another important factor when you speak thai. You need to get what you’re saying out the way a thai would say the sentence. You can’t pause between compound words, you can’t stop mid sentence and ‘look’ for a word you’re wanting to say. You pretty much need to bust out with a complete sentence using the correct musical lilt thaiz say it.

    As a rule I’ve found, thaiz will put in the time it takes to understand our foreign pronounced thai IF they have a vested interest in the outcome of the conversation. They are much less likely to work out what you’re tryin’ to say if it’s just a casual conversation..

    Still, thanx for the comment…. Sorry it took so long to get back to you. I was otherwise engaged…

  3. Well,Tod,my experience has taught me just the opposite of what you state at the end of your post:I found from early on that Thai people will tend to guess what a farang is trying to say if the music is right albeit with wrong words and will have difficulty making sense of the opposite:wrong music but right words.Thais in general will not think the mistake lies with the tone and will not try to mend it by replacing it,which is quite amazing to us farang s in general.Plus,due to the “kreng jai”factor,they typically will not let you know that they did not comprehend you.

  4. Thanx for reading my post “nemrut” and sorry it took so long for a reply.

    I hafta disagree that you can “get your point across in english perfectly fine without any tone whatsoever”. How pray tell, would you ask a question ending with the word “right?” if you didn’t use a rising tone? What would clue the person you’re speaking to in to the fact you’re asking for agreement in what you said?

    This post was mostly designed to show we most definitely do have all 5 of the tones used in thai in english and use them all every single day.. It was also designed to point out how difficult it is in the beginning for foreigners to “hear” the tones in thai. Our ears are trained to listen for tones in english NOT in thai. Because the two languages use tones for different reasons often times foreigners (especially native english speakers) can’t “hear” them.

    Just so we’re clear. While correct intonation is pretty high on the list of things a foreigner hasta do to be understood when speaking thai, it is far more important we nail vowel lengths in thai than intonation. I am of the mind that if a foreign speaker of thai nails just the falling and rising tones in thai they will be understood. Thais will auto-correct for bad tones when listening to a foreigner, as they know what you’re tryin’ to say based on context. They have a MUCH harder time understanding you if you massacre the vowel length..

    Still, thanx for reading…

  5. It’s kind of a stretch to compare tones in Asian languages to that of English or other western languages. The former requires not only the correct pronunciation of the word but also the correct tone to convey an actual meaning, while the latter uses tone as a way to enhance meaning.

    With English you can get your point across perfectly fine without any tone whatsoever, albeit in a very boring way, but this is absolutely not true for Asian languages requiring multiple tones which is why theyre so hard to master.

  6. Mia, I don’t know about Thais teaching English with Thai transliteration (karaoke) but I have come across quite a few resources written that way. It gives insight into how they (Thais) pronounce their own language. When I first realised what they were doing it was a big WOW for me 🙂

  7. The common statement I’ve heard is “I’m tone deaf”

    Has anyone every use this excuse ? Well, you are not the only one 🙂

    From many years of teaching Thai, I’ve noticed that students who speak more than 1 language get the Thai tones faster than students who speak just 1.

    What’s the extra language or languages might be? “tonal language” or not? It doesn’t matter.

    When you speak more than 1 language, you are more aware of differences. Your ears are trained to hear the different sounds and this is an advantage.

    Students who are musician, sing, play or just love music is mastered the Thai tones surprisingly well.

    In “Thai tone’s lesson” music lovers had amazed me many times.

    As far as being born, bred, educated and lived in Thailand. I don’t seem to remember that being taught English via “karaoke” or English words written in Thai script.

    Maybe some other schools do?

    I’ve been taught to use the stress symbol on top of the word
    For example, “computer”
    The teacher will tell us that the word stress at “pu”. So, we will mark it as “com-pú-ter”. This is an “ideal” way of teaching though, it doesn’t mean Thais can easily mastered that.

    On the other hand, คำทับศัพท์ or loan words are written in Thai script in order to use when write Thai sentences. A whole dictionary written for just that.
    eg.ทุกคนมีคอมพิวเตอร์/everybody has a computer.
    As some of you might have heard, Thai says com-pú-dtêr, very loud at “dtêr” 😉
    How to buy a bus ticket in Thai

  8. Reading your latest comment, Tod, I’m now really interested to hear Thais speaking English when I pass through Bangkok later this month so I can compare with Vietnamese learners!

    The Vietnamese obviously don’t have a problem with transcription (I’m sad to hear that’s how Thais are taught) however (details of the Vietnamese language aside) learners, like us but in revise, have to reprogram their tonal ears to pick up sentence intonation. Again like us, it also takes them a very long time to reprogram!

  9. As native English speakers we are pre-programmed to listen for tones in words for the wrong reasons. As Rick Bradford pointed out the true term in English is probably “stress”, but tone or intonation is close enough for me, being a not very cunning linguist!

    It’s this “re-programming” our ears so we listen for the tones in spoken Thai for the right reason which takes time (in my case a LOT of it)..

    As far as Thais speaking English, well that’s a horse of another color entirely.

    If you’ve ever see text books which a LOT of Thais learn English from in school; you’ll see they they learn English via “karaoke” or English words written in Thai script. Unfortunately (mostly for the Thais) once you write a word using Thai script, it hasta follow THAI tone rules. Some endings are not possible, some tones can’t be used, because every syllable follows Thai tone rules.. That’s really the reason Thais sound so squirrelly speaking English.

    It ain’t their accent, because for the most part, an accent in English isn’t a “deal breaker” for a native speaker to get past when listening. It’s how the Thais were taught to read and pronounce English in the first place which hurts ’em.

    Thanx for the comment

  10. Tod you are quite correct when you say we all use tones in English, however, and this is a big however, we do not listen for them as a Thai does and we use them far less often. I personally have trouble hearing all the tones as I am used to dealing with people in business where the language is quite flat so as to convey true meaning without inflecting emotion. This in effect also makes it difficult for me to converse with my Thai family as I find their English language, although extremely advanced, difficult to listen to as it to becomes quite tonal.

  11. Linguists would probably call it ‘stress’ rather than ‘tone’, but it is undoubtedly a key part of spoken English, and which adds so much colour and shade to a sentence.

    I’d go so far as to say that it is easier for an English speaker to pick up the tones in Thai than it is for a Thai speaker to be able to master the nuances of sentence stress in English.

    Pity the Thais who have to add the extra charge to their sentences through those final particles — อะไรนะ vs อะไรวะ for example.

    Or, consider how the phrase “Well, thank you very much!” can mean two completely opposite things depending on nothing more than the sentence stress.

  12. Very nice. I wish I knew this when I first started. Anything that helps bridge the gap and builds upon what we already know, makes learning a new language less intimidating. Cheers!

  13. Well, we’re gonna hafta agree to disagree on your statement “in English those tones are not that important”.

    Whether you believe it or not you use tones every time you say anything in English.. If you didn’t most people listening to you wouldn’t have the slightest idea of the emotive, the felt or implied meaning in what you said. You just learned how to do it by mimicking your parents when you learned to speak English so now you do it without thinking about it.

    Just like Thais don’t consciously “think” about hitting the correct tones in Thai when they speak, because they had the tones beaten into them as children at school.. Funny enough; I heard from a Thai teacher that when she learned Thai they had a joke that there were FIVE tone ‘marks’ in Thai.. ไม้เอก, ไม้โท, ไม้ตรี, ไม้จัตวา and the ‘mark’ left on you by the ไม้เรียว that the teacher switched you with if you got the tone wrong!!

    As I said, English and Thai use tones for different reasons, but both reasons are equally critical to getting a handle on either language. Non-native English speakers struggle with the usage of intonation in English ALL the time, just like non-native speakers of Thai do too..

    Still, thanx for reading..

  14. English may have tones, but it’s a stretch to compare them to Thai tones. In English those tones are not that important, in Thai you can’t do without!

  15. I’ve always described the High Tone as when you answer a question, but you are unsure if you are correct, so your answer is kind of a question in itself. Typically accompanied by a shoulder shrug or something.

  16. Exactly! English does have tones, we just use them in a completely different way.

    Thai tones look a little similar to Vietnamese, though I’m envious that there’s a question word ending with a rising tone. The word ‘what’ in Vietnamese is ‘gì’ which has a down tone. It feels so unnatural to end a question that way. Yes/no question are flat, which is a little easier.

    A lot of my Vietnamese students (who I teach English to) struggle with the concept too. The end up speaking flat, robotic sentences because they’re not used to this different way of using tones. With practice they get better, and I’m sure we will with the reverse too!


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