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Learning Thai: A short introduction to the language

Posted By Ewa Gheeraert on 25 Jun 2015
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Thai language is often said to be one of the most difficult to learn. Here is a little guide outlining some characteristics of the language that I have encountered. It is spoken by approximately 60 million people and is similar to Lao. I hope this will enlighten you on the subject and perhaps make you want to learn this beautiful language. I have been in Thailand for five months now, interning for the FutureSense Foundation near Chiang Mai. Languages have always been a passion for me and I was determined to learn Thai during my stay in the country. I have been learning through the rest of the Thailand team, Thai friends and a little help from a 'Learn Thai' book. 

The most common argument for Thai being a difficult language is the existence of tones, which are the different intonations possible when pronouncing a syllable. There are five tones in Thai: high, mid, low, rising and falling; each and every syllable is pronounced in one of these tones. They are called in Thai "see-ung soong see-ung dtum", literally meaning "sounds-high-sounds-low". It is often difficult for foreigners to hear the difference between different tones let alone reproducing them. 

The same syllable will have different meanings if said with a different tone. Many examples can illustrate this, yet my favorite one is the word "glai", which means both near and far depending on the tone used! Nevertheless, do not be overwhelmed by the tones: most foreigners manage to be understood as the Thais understand the context in which the word is meant and not all words have double meanings. Although situations do happen when a tone is not well said and the meaning of the word changes radically, this usually ends in laughter and is a good conversation starter! 

Thai speaking in itself is quite easy in terms of basic grammar, which makes learning basic sentences straightforward. Personal pronouns are rarely used, there is no distinction between singular and plural, and the verbs don't change with tenses. For example, a basic sentence such as "I would like a plate of Pai Thai" (Pad Thai is popular noodle dish) is translated literally by "want Pad Thai one plate". Therefore, if you intend to stay in Thailand for a few weeks or more, it is possible to learn how to present yourself, order in a restaurant and haggle, permitting a small exchange with the Thais!

Writing is another issue, which most foreigners who stay in Thailand do not approach. Thai has its own alphabet. It is said to descend from Indian script and is read from left to right. The alphabet is made of consonants, to which vowels can be added on each side to create a syllable. Once most or all symbols are learnt, it is possible to write and read basic words. This is very helpful in order to understand the correct pronunciation of words, as the English written translation attempts to write sounds which do not exist in the English language. 

Although Thai is spoken by everyone in Thailand, many more languages exist inside the country. The hill-tribe villages in the north which we work with have their own local languages. Yet, as Thai is taught in school, the people in the hill tribes all speak and understand Thai alongside their local language. If you are thinking of volunteering in Thailand, do not let language be a barrier but a motivation. We provide our volunteers with basic vocabulary list upon arrival in Thailand and anyone in the team will be happy to assist you in learning this incredible language! 

Chok Di Ka!  

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