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Learning to Read Thai Posted by on Aug 21, 2010 in Beginner

I realize quite a lot of beginners cannot yet read Thai, dramatically reducing the utility of the vocabulary lists on this blog. If you cannot yet read, I recommend making it a priority to learn the Thai alphabet. Many beginners think that they can bypass the reading and just learn speaking as a shortcut. They think they don’t really need to learn how to read, and that it’ll just waste time otherwise better spent learning to speak Thai.

Not true. For a start, learning to read will dramatically improve your spoken pronunciation of the central Thai dialect. Second, you’ll no longer need to bother writing up lists of karaoke (Thai written using the English alphabet) spellings – and every author has his own method of karaoke spellings. Third, you’ll then be able to read Thai on your own, no longer requiring a Thai person to teach you. Fourth, you can chat with your Thai friends on MSN chat and SMS on your phone – Thai people generally can’t read karaoke with bad grammar and confusing spellings.

Learning to speak Thai without learning to read Thai is like trying to learn English without learning the English alphabet. Sounds silly now, doesn’t it?

So what’s the best way to learn to read Thai? Well, first you need to start memorizing the alphabet. There are about 80 characters you need to learn, so do three a day and within a month you’ll have them down. Make sure you practice often. I learned the alphabet when I was in Thailand, so I’d try and pick out letters I knew on signs as I walked/drove passed them. It’s called basic reinforcement learning.

Now memorizing the alphabet is only a small part. Part two will be forming words. This will be hard at first, as Thai doesn’t space out the letters between words. For example, compound words drove me nuts for the longest. Get a Thai children’s book with a large simple font and just practice an hour a day. Within a week it’ll go from painfully hard to just hard.

The next step is learning to spell and building a vocabulary. This will take many years of effort, and there is no shortcut. Just keep reading, looking up words you don’t know, and over time your brain will get faster and faster. And write those words down!

I have a reading material recommendation – comic books. Thai people absolutely love Japanese manga, translated into Thai of course. Lots of pictures to keep you interested and make it understandable by context. You can rent them for mere baht, so they’re incredibly cheap. Look for ones with simple fonts at first, then later try to read manga with difficult to read fonts – it’ll help you read better in the long term, trust me. Obviously, avoid any books that have the potential to put you to sleep, because when learning isn’t fun, your brain will refuse to learn. And don’t push yourself too hard, or you’ll get frustrated and quit! Determine your limit and never push it, as learning a language is a multi-year (and often times decade) commitment.

Executive summary: learning to read Thai, although it might seem to waste time, will make learning spoken Thai easier and faster in the long term.

Keep learning Thai with us!

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