Monday, 17 August 2009

Learn to read Thai: the basics

It has been a while since my first ‘learning Thai’ post, it's definitely time for a follow-up - this post looks at the basics of reading Thai.

Learning Thai is hard enough without allowing for differing spelling and pronunciation in Roman script. As has been raised by the likes of Rikker and Catherine, even just basic understanding of Thai will massively aid learning – I can vouch for this.

Now before any scholars or native speakers begin to correct my work, I want to point out that this is a basic look at interpreting Thai and should, by no means, be considered to be ‘by the book’. My advice is based on my experience learning from my own observations, talking with natives and a little research.

Although it may look difficult, learning to read the basics is not as hard as you’d imagine, particularly for anyone who lives in Thailand where the words are all around you.
First of all, two tips for those living in Thailand, these were the first two steps I took to learning to read basic Thai –before I even opened a book to learn to read.
  • Spend a decent amount of time (was about two/three months in my case) looking at, and remembering, the shapes of Thai characters you see around for you. For example at shops, on car registration plates, newspapers headlines, anything anywhere. Don’t put any pressure or timescale on learning as this step helps to gently ease you into remembering common Thai characters.
  • Buy a Thai keyboard, or multi-lingual stickers for your laptop or existing keyboard. Again, this is about familiarisation and, if you spend a lot of time using a PC, this is a great way to familiarise yourself.
Before starting it is important to remember that there are more letters in the Thai alphabet. This includes some sounds that we don’t have in Roman script, it omits some we do have (such as ‘X’ and ‘Z’) and includes a variety of Thai characters which represent one Roman letters.

Chicken (Gai), ก่ is the common word associated with (Gor), the first letter of the Thai alphabet - Credit

[The below is a rough start to reading Thai, including only the most common and basic Thai characters - more complicated letters and vowels have been omitted.]

B ป is technically a ‘pb’ but Thais generally pronounce this as ‘B’

C ค is technically a ‘K’ but it is often used a hard ‘C’ (for example Coke is โคก) ช is a ‘ch’ sound

Dด is a hard sounding ‘D’

F ฟ ฝ are both ‘F’ sounds, at a basic level the difference is minimal and, for reading purposes they can be considered the same.

G ก is a ‘G’ sound, although some argue it can be used as a 'K'

H ห is sometimes used silently to accentuate other sounds but can be found as an ‘H’

J จ represents J

K ค ฅ are both hard ‘K’ sounds whereas ข ฃ are softer ‘K’s – again for basic understanding both pairs can be considered the same

L ล is the most common ‘L’ sound, not be confused with the similar looking ‘R’

M ม represents ‘M’

N น represents ‘N’ while ง represents ‘NG’, a common sound in Thai

P ผ พ ภ these three ‘P’ sounds can be considered the same whilst บ is a weaker sounds ‘P’ and ป is technically a ‘PB’ which is generally pronounced as ‘B’

Q no equivalent

R ร represents a rolling ‘R’ sound although many Thais will pronounce the letter ‘R’ as ‘L’ – hence the word for foreigner is spoken by many as ‘falang’.

S ส ถ ษ these three ‘S’ sounds can be considered the same for reading purposes

T ท is a light sounding ‘T’ (example ‘Tea’) whereas ต is technically a ‘DT’ which is commonly pronounced as ‘T’ (example ‘Tool’)

V ว this is a ‘W’ sound which fills in for ‘V’, a sound otherwise no represented

W ว is the ‘W’ sound

X no equivalent

Y ย is the same as a Roman ‘Y’, it is often used to accentuate other vowels and letters too

Z no equivalent

So that’s a really basic run-down of Thai letters, for a more in depth look flick through a language book or search the web for pages like this.

I'll post updates to cover the rest of the alphabet in due course.


Catherine said...

Excellent. And maybe after reading your post, others would see how nonthreatening learning the Thai alphabet can be?

(nonthreatening: is that even the right word?... 'easy' is too light, so perhaps 'not as difficult as you feared' is closer to the truth)

There are all sorts of methods out there to assist with remembering the Thai alphabet, they just need to find the one that suits them best. As you have. Nice.

Jon said...

Hi Catherine,

Non-threatening is absolutely the right word. The strange appearance and sheer number of letters can dissuade learners but the common letters are nice to hook to start off.

Once I got going I found the learning to be very addictive and rewarding.

This is where the 'if I can do it, anyone can do it' cliche belongs, I guess?