Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Learn to speak Thai: the basics

Reading another of Ben’s excellent language tips has finally spurred me into posting tips of my own.

Learning and speaking Thai is one of the most enjoyable aspects of living in Thailand. At times it can be one of the biggest problems and frustrations as it the language barriers can affect some aspects of life here.

Sure, you can live without speaking Thai but you must rely on other people as you are effectively illiterate. Knowing even a little Thai gives independence which, in a country with comparatively few English speakers and limited English media sources, is well worth the initial effort.

Plus speaking to, and understanding, locals is incredibly rewarding, they are always surprised to hear a foreigner speaking Thai and will always compliment you.

So, without further ado, I present the first instalment of Johnny Foreigner's guide to basic Thai.

General rules

Strangely these are often not listed in guidebooks or well know to the public yet they are essential to even basic communication.

- Conversational Thai can be incredibly informal between people who know each other. Pronouns are rarely used in conversation – say no “I”, “you”, “they”, etc – so much so that people will use their own name when talking about themselves.

- Thai uses its own script so there are no official translations for words into English. Spellings are let to the individual authors of translations books, so don't worry if a word is spelt differently between books.

- Thai verbs are never conjugated, making them incredibly easy to use – no need to learning verb endings.

- There is no past tense (that I’m aware of). Time can be indicated by phrases “already”, “now” or “not yet” - more hassle saved.

- Thais often pronounced the letter ‘r’ as an ‘l’ (or disregard it altogether) which is confusing as ‘l’ exists in its own right. For example the word farang (foreigner) is pronounced “falang”. Other pronunciations deviate from the English but this is the most common.

- The future tense is formed by adding ja to the beginning of a verb – again, masses of problems with verb endings avoided.

- Thais use a polite article to end every sentence when speaking in formal conversations. The article differs depending on sex – male speakers say krub (phonetically pronounced “cup”) while females says ka (pronounced “car”). This is incredibly important for native speakers.

- Lastly, the Holy Grail for foreigners is the Thai tones. Thai words have different (often opposing) meanings depending on how they are spoke: with no tone, a high tone, a low tone, a rising tone or a falling tone. The best way to learn is listening to native speakers, but newbies need to worry as Thais will give foreigners the benefit of the doubt with tones.

Basic verbs

To have – Mee
To want – Ow
To like – Chob
To go – Bpei [pronounced “by”]
To eat – Gin [pronounced with a ‘g’ like Graham not a ‘j’ like the spirit]
To know – Lieuw [pronounced “loo”]
To be – Pen [pronounced “ben”]

Basic nouns

Food – Khaow [pronounced “cow” with a longer ‘o’]
Water – Naam [rhymes with “damn”]
Toilet – Hong naam [hong meaning room]
House – Baan [pronounced like “barn”]
Girlfriend/boyfriend – Faen [rhymes with baan]
Person – Khun [pronounced “koon”]

Also useful

Beautiful – Suay [pronounced “Sue-eye”]
Big – Yai [rhymes with “eye”]
Very – Marg [pronounced with ‘g’ like “gun”]
Much – Jung-roi [rhymes with “Roy”]
Incredible/incredibly – Jing jing [pronounced with ‘j’ like “jingle”]
Delicious – Arroy [pronounced like the wheels]
Hungry – Hieuw [pronounced “hee-you”]
What – Array [pronounced “ally”]

The use of “no” - mei

Using Mei [pronounced “my” with a long vowel like “why”] is an easy way to make the most of your Thai, no matter how limited it may be.

Mei can be used to make a statement in question when it is used at the end. When using the polite article (krub or ka) mei changes to na.

Mei is used before a verb to form the opposite. For example Ow means like, Mei ow means don’t like.

Some examples of phrase making

English: Do you have a toilet?
Thai: Mee hong-naam, na krup?
Phonetic: “Mee hong-namn, nah cup/car?”

- - -

You are very beautiful/handsome.
Khun pen suay/lorr jing jing.
“Koon ben sue-why/law jing jing.”

- - -

What would you like to eat?
Ow gin array, krup/ka?
“Ow gin allay, cup/car?”

- - -

I'd like pad thai, please.
Ow Pad Thai, krup/ka.
“Ow Pad Thai, cup/car”

- - -

I am going to go home.
Ja-bpei baan.
“Ja-by barn.”

- - -

I don't know.
Mei lieuw.
“My loo.”

- - -

I already have a girlfriend/boyfriend.
Mee faen laew.
“Mee fan lay-o.”

- - -

The food is very nice.
Khao alloy marg.
“Cow alloy margh.”

- - -

I like Thailand.
Chob Thailand.
“Chob Thailand.”

- - -

I would like to go to The Hotel in Bangkok, please.
Bpei The Hotel ti Bangkok, krup/ka.
“By The Hotel tee Bangkok, cup/car.”

- - -

Enough for now but as you can see sentence making is not too difficult – sometimes only a verb and noun is needed.

Stayed tuned for the next instalment.

* Disclaimer for any Thai language purists out there, this is not perfect Thai but will allow you be understood.


Ben Shingleton said...

Excellent post, this is around about where I am at, look forward to the next installment!

Catherine said...

This is great! There can never be enough Thai to learn from, so I'll be back too.

Talen said...

Another convert that will return soon...I really need to get my tones straight as well.

The FrogBlogger said...

Very useful, trouble is I'll have forgotten it all by tomorrow as usual! Nice blog, I'll be back for a good read. I'm starting up Thai lessons again next month - much good it did me last time out though :-(

Jon said...

Hi guys - thanks for the positive feedback. I'm going to try and post something every week, we'll see how it goes.

Online Dating said...

You're gonna confuse some people with the explanations on how to pronounce some of those words.

Baan - Home and Faen - GF/BF aren't rhyming words. The difference is in the vowel sound. Baan - Home is บ้าน with the "ar" vowel, while แฟน faen - gf/bf is with more of a "eh" sound.

English: Do you have a toilet?
Thai: Mee hong-naam, na krup?

should be: Me hong-naam mai krup? Na is just meant to sound cuter or town down the harshness of a statement, but doesn't need to be included to create a question.

What would you like to eat?
Ow gin array, krup/ka?
I'd knock out Ow and add in ja
Ja gin array krup/ka?
Ja ow array is fine too.
Ja ow array gin krap/ka?

I am going to go home.
Ja-bpei baan.
Should be "I'm glap baan" or I will return home. This will imply that you are returning to your own home and not someone elses.

I like Thailand.
Chob Thailand.
Thai's rarely refer to Thailand as Thailand. They'll refer to it as just "Thai" and add the word "country" before that. The correct sentence would be
Chob pra-tet Thai

Not trying to make fun of you, just makin sure anyone that comes along and reads this says it as well and as easily understood as possible.

Jon said...

Hi Online Dating - would love it if that is your real name, btw :)

Thanks for the pointers, I certainly need them as my Thai has developed through speaking. I'm starting Thai lessons to help straighten it up & help me understand the language better.

As in the disclaimer, the post is aimed at helping people get the basics and be understood. Of course, I've left a lot out, can't do it all at once, but I will re-edit the post following your comments.


thaikarl said...

interesting that you spell the polite male ending "cup" there way an american like me says "cup" doesn't sound at all like what i hear. up here in lom sak, it sounds like the way americans say "cop" as in policeman.
but i've seen it transliterated as: cap, kap, kab, krap, krab, kup, krup, and now cup.
but then, part of my difficulty learning even simple thai is not hearing the consonants klearly. when they sai "chai" meaning "yes" i sometimes hear jai, chai, dai, tchai... that beginning consonant sound if vague, and i say things wrong all the time. but i'm picking up bits here and there.
let alone *hearing* the tones.

thaikarl said...

"i'll have forgotten it all by tomorrow" is my problem also. the thai words and phrases just don't stick in my brain. try as i might - writing them down, repeating them over and over, etc. next day, or next week. gone. frustrates me, but i keep listening anyway.

Jon said...

Hi Karl,

I'm a Brit so my 'cup' is perhaps different to truth pronunciation differs from Thai to Thai anyway. I think the point of it proves that the best way method of learning Thai is to learn Thai script.

At a basic/intermediate level it isn't actually that difficult and will help pronounce words without doubt. Funny example, when I scour the sports page of the wife's (Thai language) newspaper, I find it easier to pronounce exotic footballer's names using Thai script over English. Thai is more phonetic and methodical, in general, where as English is tougher. Eg read vs red.

Jon said...

There is a vague method to my madness, learn slowly. Am planning to write a few pointers up so keep in touch for more.