On Thai Language/Thai Culture
Over the years WomenLearnThai.com (and some men too) and I have posted lots of stuff on learning the Thai language (vocabulary, grammar, tones, and all the good stuff learning a language entails), and since language and culture can never be separated, we have included some Thai cultural background with each post. Browse through the posts below, click on the links, and see what you can come up with. Learning Thai is a chore, but a fun and very useful one.
Lots of luck, and don’t give up. It CAN and WILL happen if you put in the effort.
Suggestion #1: Many of the posts here include Thai script (along with phonetic transcriptions for those not yet reading Thai), which can be quite small and hard to read (especially if you are like me and living in your 8th decade). You can use the zoom function of your browser to make the script as large as you need. One way to do this is to hold the Ctrl Key down while using the roller on your mouse.
Suggestion #2: If you would like to hear the Thai that you are reading, you can use Google Translate to help. There are pros and cons with using Google’s Translate program. One big “pro” is that there is an audio feature to Translate.
- If you want to hear the Thai you are reading, open https://translate.google.com/ with the Thai language open on the left side.
- Copy the Thai text (Ctrl C).
- Paste the copied Thai into the Thai language box (Ctrl V).
- Click on the speaker icon.
- The program will read the selection back to you at normal speed.
- If you click on the speaker icon a second time it will read the selection back at a slower pace.
Essentials of Thai Conversation
- The Ten Essentials of Thai Conversation: Intro
- Thai Greetings and Ending Particles
- Please and Thank You and Excuse Me: Part 1
- Please and Thank You and Excuse Me: Part 2
Thai Language Thai Culture
…open-ended series of essays on Thai Language/Thai Culture, where he will discuss various aspects of learning Thai and how the Thai culture will influence what and how we say things.
Knowing the “Latin”, or “Greek”, or any of the many other roots to our English words they immediately not only know the word’s basic meaning but they have a big head start on how to spell it correctly. Well, Thai is also a language whose roots come from many other languages.
Thai, just like any language, has multiple ways to say the same things. And culture has a lot to do with which words we use in which situations.
Although Thais are always on a first name basis because they eschew the use of last names, they almost never use the person’s first name or nickname on its own. They almost always add some kind of honorific or relationship title.
Thai has more than just karaoke music. It has a plethora of musical styles from the classical, to country, to folk, to popular, and much more.
Now that I have a little more experience with the Thai language I realize that there are lots of loanwords from English that have perfectly good Thai words that express the same thing or concept.
What better way to break the ice and start a conversation than to talk about the weather? I know it is a bit cliché-ish but, hey, it works. And in Thailand, the sentence, “The rainy season sure is late this year” is a much better conversation starter than “What’s your sign?”
When I started learning Thai I was told that it was one of the hardest for an English speaker to learn. That was 40 years ago and you know what? Thai hasn’t gotten any easier.
It probably took me ten years before I could understand anything anyone said on the telephone here in Thailand. It’s not the language. My wife had the same problem in English when she got to America. It is just really hard dealing with a disembodied voice and not seeing the person who is talking.
It is important to learn how to use Thai ending particles. The most common and well known are ครับ /kráp/ (for males) and คะ /ká/ (for females).
The Thai language is as rich in metaphor as any language is. The kinds of metaphors that you will come into contact with will all depend on what level of society you hang out with. It is a good idea to keep the drinking buddies’ metaphors separate from the HiSo matron metaphors.
A lot of Thai learners are familiar with a number of tongue twisters that illustrate how different tones and consonants can make for different meanings of Thai words. One of the most familiar is ใครขายไข่ไก่ /krai kǎai kài gài/ which means, “Who sells the chicken eggs?”
It turns out that most Thai place names have a meaning. Here is the trick I have been using lately. When I hear a name I try to translate it in my head as someone is telling it to me (or later when I get back to my dictionary). If I can figure out what it means then I can usually remember it later when I have to.
An “Ah ha” moment is sort of a Zen “satori” experience where we become enlightened, although sometimes only for a short while, about “what’s what”. Well, I recently had one of those.
From my years of teaching English I have learned that there is a two-line dialog that is ingrained in every student of English, probably in the world. It goes like this:
Hello, how are you?
Fine thank you, and you?
As native speakers of English, we know that there are lots of other ways to answer the question in the first line of the dialog. But “fine, thank you” is about as far as the lesson usually goes. What if you aren’t fine?
I was reading one of those Thai expat blogs recently when I came across someone discussing the Thai word for “stingy” (seems like his girlfriend uses this word with him often).
If language were like a song, then the vocabulary and grammar of the language would be the words. The vowels, consonants, syllable stress and sentence intonation in English, and the tones in Thai would be the music. You really have to sing both the words and the music to get the song across.
One thing I like to do as a vocabulary building exercise is when I come across a word that I find is often used paired up with other words (making compounds) I like to see how many different combinations I can come up with.
If you are going to live in Thailand, one of the things you will find yourself doing is food shopping. When I first came to Thailand there were no such things as supermarkets. Now they are as ubiquitous as Thailand’s outdoor markets.
In English the word “house” indicates a structure whereas “home” includes the idea that this is where you “live”, thus we have the song “A House is Not a Home”. But all my Thai dictionaries (I have 8 now) define “house” and “home” the same – บ้าน /bâan/
I was watching TV the other day and the announcer came on and told us that His Majesty the King was 83 พรรษา /pan-sǎa/. I did a little guessing as we all need to do when picking up a foreign language and figured that they were telling us the King’s age, 83 years old. I knew the Thai word พรรษา /pan-sǎa/ as the word for the Buddhist lent (or rainy season). So I figured that someone who is 83 years old has lived through 83 rainy seasons.
There is a basic difference between the philosophy behind western food and Thai food. Back home, a cook will make a dish the way it “should” be made. One might add to a dish by shaking a bit of salt and maybe a dash of pepper but if you want to insult the cook you can’t do better than dousing it with catsup or some hot sauce. In Thailand, you would be expected to add something.
I recently read a post titled Reforming Thai Language Structure which advocated changing the Thai written language by adding spaces between words to make written Thai easier to read.
I have often heard the advice given to people just learning how to read, that they should practice reading Thai street signs. That made me think, why not collect pictures of a bunch of real signs and compile them into a fun practice reader?
It is common for beginning students of Thai (or students of most foreign languages for that matter) to start off making sentences and answering the teacher’s questions. In fact, quite often the art of ASKING questions is frequently left to much later, and sometimes is forgotten altogether.
Unless you are someone who picks up languages by simply breathing, like the famed English explorer Sir Richard Burton, then your journey to becoming fluent in Thai will be a long, hard (but in my opinion, enjoyable) struggle.
If you haven’t gotten around to studying reading and writing yet I know exactly how you feel. I went for about 20 years thinking that simply speaking Thai was enough.
The Thai great floods of 2554 have affected almost everyone in the country. The rains in Chiang Mai, where I live, have subsided and the floods only lasted a short while. But the water had to go somewhere, and it did. Ayudhaya and Bangkok are now getting the water that fell here.
If you’ve found yourself in Thailand during the floods, the few phrases below will help you to communicate at a basic level with your Thai neighbours and friends.
Verb wrappers (aka verb patterns) show how Thai verbs can be used in different tenses. The verbs themselves don’t change, but their ‘wrappers’ do.
I have never done anything so difficult as to play golf. The game of golf is difficult enough to play in one language, Why try to do it in another?
I’ve heard Thai described as a language made up of simple one syllable words. One of the possible results of this kind of thinking is that a person believing this can begin to believe that because the language is so simple and unsophisticated (primitive?) then the people who speak it must also be simple and unsophisticated (primitive?). The Thai language as well as the Thai people are more complicated than that though.
One chief bugaboo that has plagued me in my endeavors to learn to read Thai is the numerous abbreviations scattered all about newspapers and magazines. I usually end up skipping them when I read, but as they are usually integral to the story line I am forced to look them up later.
That got me to thinking about how the Thais refer to their relatives. I am always getting some relationship word wrong so I put together the following chart, mostly for my own edification.
Lots of people have questions about the Thai language and usage. If you have a question or two about the Thai language why not send it on to us and we’ll see what answers we can come up with.
Here is a primer on Thai legal words and phrases that you will encounter frequently in Thailand. Although we don’t do translations at WLT, and definitely don’t give legal advice, if you have a legal term you need to know in Thai send it to us and we’ll see what we can come up with.
The great bugaboo in learning to “speak” Thai is of course the tones. By comparing English and Thai it might help us understand how tones fit into both languages.
Writing about eating got me thinking that about the jargon used in Thai restaurants. It’s quite specific. And those who take the time to learn Thai restaurant talk just might be able to order what they want.
The English phrase “excuse me” has lots of uses, from asking to leave the dinner table, to apologizing for knocking someone down on the street, to interrupting someone, to asking for forgiveness for a wrong doing.
Lots of people find that when they first begin to read Thai they like to look at street signs and ads and try to decipher them. Reading signs helps to build vocabulary and will also get you to be comfortable reading all kinds of different fonts.
From a post this week titled “Reasons Why Not to Study a New Language”, here is one comment, “Learning Thai is boring and a waste of time, useless outside this liitle (sic) country. If you can get by without don;t (sic) bother” .
One thing that might make living in a foreign country a bit easier is to know lots of words on the subject of money. It seems I can’t go more than an hour or so before I have to either use, or talk about money.
A reader asked me recently if I would write about how I went about learning Thai. It was a great question because in fact I had never even thought about that before.
We just went to see our dentist. Everything is good with me, but my wife needs lots of work (we blame it on those calcium-sucking children of ours she had to carry around for 9 months and who left her teeth a shambles).
As I sat in the (dentist) chair with my mouth wide open for close to 3 hours, enjoying the deftness of my dentist, I used this considerable free time I found myself with to think about all the Thai words and phrases I could remember that had anything to do with “pain” and “suffering”. I mean, it was something that was already on my mind.
I am always looking for new ways to learn Thai vocabulary so that this ancient brain of mine can retain new words. I usually find that if I can learn a new word in some kind of context it makes it easier to remember.
The Thais don’t want me to learn how to speak Thai! Every time I try speaking Thai to them, they tune me out, or switch to talking to me in their broken English.
(S)ince it appears that so many people are having trouble asking for directions (a problem everyone, especially men I have to admit, have everywhere in the world – see below) I thought that maybe a short primer on Thai direction words and phrases might help you get where you’re going.
For this post I perused the local Thai and English newspapers and listened to the news on TV to glean words that you might hear.
As often happens, a mistake I made in speaking Thai has led me to thinking about things to share with our readers. In this case it’s where a Thai word has a certain English translation in one situation, but another Thai word, often with the same English translation, needs to be used in different situation.
Thai, like any other robust language, has lots and lots of words for “sex” and all the stuff associated with it. And in Thailand, for various reasons, discussions of this topic are quite frequently encountered.
We had to get away from Chiang Mai during this ridiculously hot spell and after the madness of Songkran (for which we stayed at home for four days). So Pikun and I decided to take a trip down to the southern beaches for a break and play with real water.
In my experience, the best language learners are people who love to talk and listen. They are quite often story tellers, raconteurs, writers, journalists, anyone who loves to give their opinions, ask questions, listen to how other people think, people who just can’t survive unless they can talk with just about anyone about just about anything; those who are highly motivated just to simply communicate.
As many of you know I began reading Thai long after I was speaking it. Even though I had a good vocabulary I had never seen these words written before.
To many people, the search for the holy grail of learning to read Thai is finding a book that fulfils a number of requirements.
To avoid talking about the last shot I had just hit into the water on the 3rd hole last week I got to talking with my golfing partner, a former fellow English teacher, about something much more interesting than trying to find my ball, Thai grammar.
We start with an idea in our heads. In order to get this idea into another person’s head we use the magic of language. When we use language we turn the idea in our heads into a symbol, a symbolic noise that our mouths make that we usually call “words”.
This patriotic song that we hear on the radio and TV every day is said to have been written by General Prayuth. A translation in the subtitles on TV and an official translation can be found on the Internet.
Since I needed to go to the hospital for certain procedures I came into contact with lots of doctors and nurses. My doctors’ English was usually quite good but the nurses’ English was limited. Luckily I could ask and answer their questions in Thai.
Many Thai technical terms and vocabulary that describe complicated ideas are made up of a compound of simpler Thai words. The list we have here contains terms in English but they are basically concepts. We start with breaking down the concept first, then finding the Thai word for each constituent part, and then reconstructing the concept in Thai.
It is probably because I am a bit obsessive compulsive that I still spend some time every day studying Thai. But that means that I have to constantly find new and interesting ways to work on my language studies.
If you live anywhere in or near northern Thailand you probably can’t get the smog out of your head – both physically and figuratively. I live about ½ kilometer from the base of Doi Pui – Doi Suthep National park. Today I can’t see the mountains less than 500 meters away.
It wasn’t until about 300 years after the Buddha’s death that his teachings were put down in writing. Before then the teachings were organized in an oral tradition. One of the ways that the early teachers organized complicated ideas was to make lists. So in Buddhism you have The Three…, The Four…, The Five…, The Eight …, and many more.
Thai tones are the bugaboo of most learners of the Thai language. I know they are my biggest problem. Some people blame their “tone deafness” for their difficulty, although only a very small percentage of people have real tone deafness.