Understanding the Thai Language and How to Learn it

Thailand’s tuk-tuks in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The richness of the Thai language is rooted in the deep history of Thailand.

The Thai language, formerly known as Siamese, is the official language of Thailand. Eighty-eight percent of Thailand’s population speak the country’s official language.

If you are a foreigner looking to travel or immigrate to Thailand, or simply interested in foreign languages, knowing Thai can prove to be a necessary skill for navigating the Land of Smiles.

It can, however, be a difficult language to learn for many reasons. Before even beginning your first lesson, it’s useful to have an understanding of the language, its origins, and its components.

There are four major Thai dialects, classified by region (Northern, Northeastern, Central, and South), however, Thai generally refers to the Central dialect which is the language spoken in the country’s capital city Bangkok.

The language has a diverse and rich origin. Some theories say that the old Thai language resulted from a combination of Proto-Tai, a southern Chinese language, and the language of Old Khmer(the language of Cambodia), along with a mix of borrowed Chinese and Vietnamese words.

King Ramamhaeng the Great developed the Thai writing system which is in use today.

Is Thai a Tonal Language?

You might be wondering whether Thai utilizes tone and pitch variations.

One of the many reasons why a lot of foreigners, mostly English speakers, struggle to learn Thai is because it is a tonal language. While most, if not all languages, use some intonation to emphasize, convey, and imply meaning, Thai is especially reliant on tone.

Thai uses five primary tones: mid, low, falling, high, and rising. The variation of tone can fully change the meaning of a word.

For example, the word “maa” could either mean a dog or a horse, depending on the way it is pronounced.

Anyone learning how to speak the Thai language must take great care to learn how intonation factors into speaking and expressing thoughts.

The Various Languages Spoken in Thailand

Smiling Thai women riding on a boat. There are four major regional dialects in Thailand.

There are approximately seventy-seven languages spoken in the whole country of Thailand.

They can be categorized as the following:

The Main Language: Thai

Here are the four major dialects of the Thai language in their respective regions:

  • Northern Dialect - The Northern part of Thailand is home to many popular tourist attractions such as the Golden Triangle, Wat Phra That Doi Wao, and Wat Thampla(Money Temple). If you plan on visiting these places, you’ll observe the soft and pleasant sound of the Northern dialect.

  • Northeastern Dialect - Also known as the Isan Thai. This dialect is native to the Isan people from the region’s twenty provinces. It was derived from Lao which makes the two languages mutually intelligible.

  • Central Dialect - It is the standard and official language of Thailand which is commonly spoken in metropolitan areas like the capital city Bangkok. When someone asks what language do they speak in Thailand, Central Thai will be the most accurate answer.

  • Southern Dialect- The most stunning and famous resorts in Thailand reside in the Southern areas. Southern Thai(also known as “Dambro”), differs from Standard Thai in terms of vocabulary and words because of its Malay influence.

Language is dynamic which is why dialects develop over time. In the US, for example, some parts of Southern Florida use the word “sneakers” while the South, Midwest, and the West Coast say “tennis shoes”.

In Thailand, however, the distinctions are quite varied. For example, the translation of the word “speak” in these Thai dialects would be “pûut”(Central Dialect), “ûu”(Northern Dialect), “wáao”(Northeastern Thai), and lɛ̌ɛng(Southern Dialect).

Minority and Immigrant Languages

Thailand has a long history of immigration and interaction with different nationalities. The country was and continues to be accessible to many refugees and immigrants.

Here are some of the minority and immigrant languages spoken in Thailand:

  • Teochew(derived from the Old Chinese)

  • Hmong language(native to the Hmong- a Chinese ethnic group)

  • Khmer(influenced by the Older Northern Khmer)

  • Austronesian(languages of the Indonesian archipelago)

  • Sino-Tibetan(a mixture of Chinese and Burmese)

Foreign Languages

Thailand is a paradise for many tourists and travelers. This is why the number of foreign tourists visiting the country increases every year. Here are some of the foreign languages you might hear in the streets of Bangkok or anywhere in Thailand.

  • English - While Thai people are not fluent English speakers in general, Thailand’s capital city Bangkok is easy to navigate. The restaurants and establishments in the area have English translations of their signs and menus. Besides, the locals are willing to have a conversation in English, even at a minimal level.

  • Chinese - Chinese ranked third as the most common language spoken in Thailand following English.

While a few Chinese variations belong to the minority languages, Mandarin is the most widespread.

  • Burmese - There are over two million Burmese residing in Samut Sakhon Province in Thailand. After Chinese, Burmese made it to the list of most widely spoken in Thailand at 2.4%.

Because Thailand is a hub for expats with a large international community, you may hear any number of foreign languages being freely spoken, such as:

  • Japanese

  • Thaiglish(a mixture of Thai and English)

  • Korean

  • Hindi

  • French

  • German

Tips to Get You Started with Thai

A man studying the Thai language by reading a book. The Thai language is hard to learn, but there are practical ways to overcome its difficulties.

Learning the Thai language takes time. But, learning a language in general requires the right amount of patience and dedication. So, is the Thai language hard to learn?

The Foreign Service Institute classifies Thai as a level 4 difficulty language, which requires around 44 weeks of study to achieve a working level of the language. Therefore, it is generally considered difficult to learn especially for English speakers.

But before you give up the thought of trying, here are practical tips to help you learn faster:

  • Thai Script

    The Thai Script can be intimidating, especially for English speakers. While the English alphabet is Latin based, the Thai script is a totally different writing system.

    Just like when you were learning how to write, you have to start with the alphabet, or in this case the characters. Practice handwriting the different consonant and vowel characters. There are many printable materials online for beginners to work on.

    Try to memorize the characters as you use them. While there are no shortcuts to learning how to write in Thai, doing exercises even for a few minutes every day should help you progress faster.

  • Thai Tones

    Learning a new language is a painful experience. When you come across challenges, it’s tempting to call it quits right then and there. In Thai, one of the greatest challenges is the tonal system.

    So, how do you overcome this difficulty?

    The most convenient way to encounter the language is by watching Thai movies, TV shows, or online Thai content and observing how the language is spoken.

    When you feel ready to get into details, start diving into the individual tones of the words. Listen and repeat after the audio pronunciation guide. You can even record yourself to evaluate the differences.

    Oftentimes, learning a language all by yourself can be overwhelming, and more so with Thai. You’re going to need someone to correct and guide you through the whole learning process. There are many Thai language schools in Bangkok or even Thai language lessons you can avail online.

    You can also find a Thai friend to practice with.

    If you want to go all out, you can even stay in the country to learn the language with the locals, as well as immersing yourself in Thai culture.

A Few More Additional Tips:

Listening comprehension is another huge difficulty when learning the Thai language. You might feel a little confident after memorizing a few Thai phrases. But, once you engage with a native speaker in Thai, you won’t likely understand a thing.

One of the ways to handle this challenge is by practicing linking the sounds of the words in phrases or sentences. Basically, you learn to pronounce a Thai word by mastering and connecting the individual sounds of the syllables.

The same rule applies when speaking and listening to a Thai phrase or sentence. The syllables or sounds might alter or mix up which is why listening comprehension becomes a challenge.

Notice how a Thai native speaker blends and links the sound at the end of one word into another. Or, try to imitate the sounds at your own pace. You can use recording tools or speak in front of a mirror to observe your mouth and tongue movement.

Another thing, the more you expose yourself to practical situations, the better you can naturally acquire the language. Eat at Thai restaurants or travel the country when you get the chance. Visiting Thailand will not only open doors to new experiences, but it’s also a way to familiarize yourself with the Thai language.

Learning the Thai language means starting with a clean slate. Forget what you know about your native language and be receptive to new information.

You may feel scared about making mistakes or sounding dumb. But, you have to embrace and accept that that’s part of learning.

To quote Charlemagne, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

This implies that you should go out of your comfort zone and explore the world with different eyes.

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