Mattison Boveri is a junior currently studying abroad in Thailand through a fully funded scholarship from the U.S. State Department. Her weekly observations will be posted in her column in The Forest Scout, “Half the World Away.”
The language. One of the biggest obstacles when traveling or study abroad in a foreign country. Whether you are planning to go to Thailand or are just interested in the step-by-step process to learning a seemingly impossible language, I have some tips for you.
Learn the alphabet. Before coming to Thailand I always got this advice. This tip seems self explanatory and simple enough to follow but one look at the squiggles and swirls of the Thai alphabet and I thought, “well… why don’t I just put that off and learn Thai without learning the alphabet”. Silly, silly, girl. I truly believed I could skip this step and I was wrong. Imagine trying to learn English without learning the ABCs. The only difference is instead of only 26 letters, the Thai alphabet has 44 consonant letters, 15 vowel symbols that combine into 32 vowel forms, and 4 tone diacritics. If that sounds confusing and overwhelming, that is because, it is. However, it is the foundation of the language and therefore must be mastered. Trying to learn Thai using the transcription into the phonetic alphabet is more hurtful than helpful. In Thailand, nothing will be written in the English alphabet. This was a little bit of a shock to me. Additionally, because Thai has more vowels, symbols like an upside down “e” are assigned for vowel sounds which means nothing to us native English speakers anyways so might as well just learn the Thai script.
Learn to read. Each letter in the Thai alphabet is identified as the sound it makes when pronounced and a word that has the letter in it. For example “ko kai”. “Ko”
is the sound it makes and “kai”, which means chicken, is a word that uses that letter. This method is used to help people differentiate between letters that produce the same noise. With 44 consonants, you are bound to have overlapping sounds. For example, there are three letters with an “s” sound: so sa la, so rue si, so suea. Why not just simplify this into less letters? I don’t know. You tell me. When reading, you only need to the know the starting sound of each letter. Next, you have to combine the consonant sounds with the vowel sounds. In Thai, there are long and short vowels. These vowels do not directly correlate with the traditional “a, e, i, o, u”. The best way to learn Thai vowels is to repeat the pronunciation after a native speaker. Do not try to connect them to English vowels. This is the confusion that happens when you try to write out Thai vowels in the phonetic alphabet. Once French gets involved, I am out.
Read to learn. After the reading basics are acquired and fluency is developed, use reading as a way to expand your vocabulary and study sentence structure.
Other fun facts that make this language unique is that there are no upper and lower case letters. Furthermore, there are no spaces between words. Due to the rules associated with writing Thai words, this is less baffling then you think it would be. Lastly, there is little punctuation.
There is one crucial aspect of Thai language that is especially challenging: the tones. In Thai the five tones, low, mid, high, falling, and rising, are not the same for every letter. The tonal marks do not correlate to the same sound on each consonant. Each consonant class, low, mid, or high, dictates what sound is created with the tonal mark. Honestly, this is more trouble than it is worth and I survive fine without having to study and memorize this concept in depth. I acknowledge the tonal marks and fluctuate my voice accordingly when repeating words from native speakers. Parroting the tones is easier and less work than trying to master all of the intricate rules when it comes to this skill. Occasionally, a native speaker will not understand what you are saying, the word “rice” can be easily mistaken for “mountain”, but usually the context of the conversation will help clarify and when in doubt just try saying the word in every tone.
Language is a key part of culture. You can learn a lot by observing what phrases and words are frequently used. For example, in Thai, when you ask someone if they have eaten yet, you say, “กินข้าวแล้วหรือยัง”. This directly translates to, “did you eat rice already or not yet?”. In Thailand, people do not consider a meal to be consumed unless you have eaten rice.
One step at a time. Being able to immerse myself and be surrounded by Thai language everyday has pushed me to practice. It is necessary for survival. In the process, I have fallen in love with this alternate form of expression and communication. So, what are you waiting for?