What Books are Best to Learn Thai? This question inevitably comes up with every new class I teach – what books do I recommend my students to buy? For a beginner, I don’t recommend any specific book. Let me explain why . . .
When I was a beginner, almost a decade ago, I was tight on cash at the time so didn’t want to buy too many books. So I just went to a book store and browsed until I found something that seemed right. While the book I read definitely assisted me in learning Thai, I later found it was full of mistakes – all of which I then had to un-learn. This was back when there weren’t very many internet resources, and paper-back literature was also limited.
Students today have it so much easier! You guys got Amazon.com, tons of recently written books, online help forums, book reviews, this blog, and many pathfinders with sage advice. In my day, we had to walk 10 miles barefoot in the snow in Bangkok just to get to the bookstore.
Let’s start with the ‘learn Thai in 20 days’ books. If you believe that, I have some land to sell you in Nakorn Nowhere. Moving on . . .
As I don’t have any particular recommendations on beginner-level books, I will tell you how to identify a good book from a bad one. The ‘learn Thai’ books today are a dime-a-dozen now. Many target impulse buyers – lots of ‘easy’ but not meant for a serious learner. Just follow these three simple rules:
1) If the book doesn’t identify tones, move on. You can’t learn a tonal language from a book that doesn’t teach tones!
2) The book should somehow identify diphthongs and have reasonable transliteration. For example, many Thai books claim ป sounds like ‘p’ or ‘b’, or that ต is a ‘t’ or ‘d’, or ก only makes a ‘k’ sound. If you use these books, you’ll end up with a horrible unintelligible accent. When at the beginning of a word, ป should be written as ‘bp’, ต should be ‘dt’, and ก should be ‘g’. At the end, it should be ‘b’, ‘d’, and ‘k’, respectively. If the writer doesn’t write it that way, the writer probably doesn’t even know, putting the whole book into question.
3) Learning Thai without the Thai alphabet is like learning English without the English alphabet. You want written side-by-side English, Thai, and transliterations. If you are just casually learning Thai and don’t have the time to learn the alphabet, you still want the Thai. One day you may change your mind. And your Thai friend can use it to help you with pronunciation.
After you’ve passed the beginner phase, finding a good book to go yet further is a challenge. Thai is an obscure non-traditional language with very few people ever getting passed the beginner phase . . . For those who are past the beginner stage, I do have books I’d recommend. Read on!
If you are very serious about learning the Thai language, Thai Reference Grammar is not optional! I highly recommend getting it. This book is more intermediate and advanced level Thai, but the first 100 pages does cover some of the basic grammar. The book teaches by method of example. First it shows you a new word, then explains what that word means. Then it gives you several examples in english, transliterated Thai (Thai words using English alphabet), and finally the Thai spelling. I literally carried this book wherever I went for two years, as it covered so much of the language! Although I still had issues with some of it, it’s by far the best book you can get.
Most Thai people will not teach you ‘normal’ Thai. They will instead teach you ‘correct’, ‘proper’, and ‘polite’ Thai. Meaning if someone doesn’t speak ‘perfect’ Thai, you’d be clueless to what they said. And actually, 90% of the time, Thais don’t speak ‘perfect’ Thai. What this book teaches is street-level Thai, full of useful insults, perverted remarks, informal phrases, and everything else my Buddhist monk teacher doesn’t want me to learn. Being the only book that covers this information, I’d say it’s the best and a must-have. However, it’s obvious a native Thai did not grammar/spell check the book. Every other page had at least one mistake, either in grammar, in Thai spelling, and often even in karaoke spelling. Occasionally the karaoke doesn’t even match the written Thai! So practice it on your Thai friends to make sure you learned it correctly . . . Check the book out, Outrageous Thai: Slang, Curses and Epithets.
You will find tons of Thai-English English-Thai dictionaries out there, but this is a great beginner level book for those who haven’t yet mastered reading and writing in Thai. It has the English spelling, Thai spelling, and a decent karaoke spelling. As the karaoke spelling takes up a decent part of the dictionary, it sacrifices many words that an intermediate or expert learner would typically look up. Great for beginners, but not for experts. Check the book out here, Thai-English English-Thai Dictionary for Non-Thai Speakers, Revised Edition (Dictionary).
For experts I’d recommend ‘A Junior Thai-English Dictionary‘ by Tianchai Iamworamate. Why? Well, big dictionaries are too annoying to carry around, so you’ll never want to bring it with you. At home you can just look a word up online. But while out on the streets, this *tiny* book easily fits into a pocket, yet the fine print and one-way translation allows for quite a large (14,500 word) vocabulary to be stored inside. Translations are useful and unambiguous.
So, what about software?
Next up, Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone. Despite what their marketing wants you to believe, their software doesn’t actually teach any language. It’s just one big multiple-choice test software which was cut and pasted from their other languages. It’s like trying to learn Thai by taking the final test – it doesn’t work like that. But . . . what the software does do is give you an opportunity to help you practice and test your abilities – after you’ve learned the material somewhere else. While Rosetta Stone is no longer offers it’s Thai software, you can get the Pimsleur Thai software here.
One final option . . . online software. Transparent Thai offers online Thai learning software for less than the price of a good beginner’s book.
You can see a demo of their software for Spanish here: