Learn Thai Language

Thai Numbers

Teach a Thai to Teach you Thai

In my experience learning Thai I have found that Thai people are really bad at teaching their own language. It isn't actually their fault, its just the psychology of how a native speaker understands their own language. Native speakers of a language have internalized the rules of their own language way below a subconscious level. Their mind automatically can apply the rules of grammar and vocabulary without actually consciously thinking about it. Ask a native speaker why must something be said in a certain way and you will get, 'I don't know, its just the way your supposed to say it.'

So how does a native Thai speaker understand language?

The Tones
In learning Thai, the hardest endeavor a beginner can pursue is learning the tones. You probably know that Thai is a tonal language, where the spoken pitch determines a word as much as the spelling does. You also probably know already that Thai has five tones in total . . . yet can you believe that many Thai people do not actually know any of this?!?!? I have had Thais tell me their language has 7 tones. I have had them tell me the written language uses different tones from the spoken. I have met some that didn't even know what a tone is, or was shocked that me - a speaker of Thai - even knew what a tone is!

Thai - mi mi mi mai?
"Does new wood burn?"

Chinese - mama m ma de m ma
"Is mother scolding the horse's hemp?"

Chart of Thai Tones

This is because the Thai brain actively 'hears' words of different tones as completely different words. Say 'mai' in two different tones, and they will hear two very different words. Contrarily, a native English speaker would hear the same exact word spoken in different pitches. Biologically, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has shown that tonal speakers have a section of the brain dedicated to interpreting tones of a word that non-tonal speakers do not have. This brain area has been found in Chinese, Thai's, and other tonal speakers. Although no research I am aware of has scanned brains of learners of a tonal language, I would guess that they are developing this tonal neural structure gradually as they learn the new language.

fMRI of Tonal Area in Brain

Ever asked a Thai which tone a word was and they didn't know? Or they would suddenly starting counting on their fingers while mumbling to themselves? While a westerner would refer to the tones as high, middle, low, rising, and falling, a Thai would refer to the tones as 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

    1 middle
    2 low
    3 falling
    4 high
    5 rising

Early in the education of a Thai child, they are taught to repeat various words (usually 'gah') in each of the five tones, and in the order of 1 to 5. If you ask a Thai if a word is a falling tone, they wouldn't know. But if you ask them is it tone 3, they could tell you after they count on their fingers. The point I am trying to make is, learn which number represents which tone. This way a Thai can answer your 'which tone is it' question. Or another option would be to teach them why we think of tone 2 as being low, or tone 5 as rising . . .

Something interesting to comment on, although it doesn't relate to the Thai language specifically, is how Mandarin Chinese comprehend tones. The odd thing is, they are consciously aware of them. They have numbers for each tone just like Thai does, although in a different order. And if you ask them what tone, chances are they will do some strange karate chop in front of you. A different angle of the chop represents a different tone. Interestingly, the angle is the same as tone - a high chop for a high tone, or a top down chop for a falling tone, for example. This means they understand the tones more like a non-tonal speaker . . . I have no idea why, just interesting to know =)

Chinese Tone Chop

So now you may be asking, 'if a non-tonal speaker has trouble with a language with tones, wouldn't a tonal speaker understand a language without tones?' Yes they would have difficulty, but not nearly as much. In spoken English, we do use tones, but not for lexical meaning (vocabulary). Instead, tones are used to express emotion, place emphasis on certain words, or show contrast. In the Thai language, different word choices reflect emotion, etc. But in English, they are forced to understand how to use tones to express those emotions. I have had Thais tell me that after 5+ years of living in the US they still feel like using tones to express emotion in English is entirely guesswork . . .

Karaoke (kaa - raa - oh - kay)
Now how do you write a Thai email to express tones? Well you could learn to read and write Thai, as various combinations of letters and tone marks specify which tone you should use. Or you can write in karaoke - using the English alphabet to spell Thai words. The word karaoke does not mean the same as the English word stolen from the Japanese language does. It does not mean getting drunk and singing songs on stage . . . Although I am guessing it has something to do with it. Thai karaoke (the English definition) is very popular. You can easily buy a cd with Thai music videos, and at the bottom you will very commonly see the words written in both Thai and in English alphabets. Because of this, the Thais probably call Thai words spelled out in the English alphabet as karaoke. Just my theory, but it makes sense . . . Anyway the problem with karaoke is that it has no set spelling of words, and usually no way of specifying tone.

Thai Music Video Karaoke

At first reading karaoke can be challenging for both native speakers and learners of Thai. But with a little practice, you can figure out the words and tones through context. There are two tricks you should remember. First, try to spell out all words as phonetically correct as possible. Second, when reading karaoke, IGNORE THE SPELLING. Just pronounce the words out phonetically to yourself, and try to be as immune to spelling as possible. For example, don't let 'my,' 'maai,' and 'mai' spelling differences throw you off. The same for 'dtok' and 'tok,' or 'paa,' 'bpaa' and 'ba.'

Speak Slowly, Please
In the US, we often have to communicate with those who speak English as a second language. We quickly learn that if we speak English to them as we do to a native speaker, they will have difficulty in understanding us. Obviously, we should speak slower and use a more basic vocabulary to communicate. However, most Thais have never met someone that speaks Thai as a second language. They automatically assume everyone who speaks some Thai is perfectly fluent in Thai. Have you ever spoken a Thai sentence to a Thai person only to have them ramble off in Thai back so fast you couldn't understand a single word? Always remind Thais to 'pood (3) cha cha (5) noi (2) krab (4),' or 'speak slowly please.' Teach them that they should use a simpler vocabulary, and speak clearer too.

That concludes what I know at the moment.