Thai Language Blog

Thai Tones, Part 1 Posted by on Mar 15, 2012 in Beginner

What makes learning Thai easy?
Well, the grammar rules are [relatively] simple. There are no plural/singular distinctions, no verb conjugations or masculine/feminine words (like in Spanish), no past/future tenses, most words are only one or two syllables, and spelling in most cases matches the pronunciation (unlike in English).


What makes learning Thai hard?
The tones. Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal language. It should only take about a week to learn the tones, but more than a year to really get the hang of them. And then plenty more years before you no longer need to ask what the tone is for a particular word. The tones are extremely important, so ignore anyone who says otherwise. And if your teacher doesn’t bother to teach the tones, insists they aren’t important, or hasn’t a clue of which tone is which, find another teacher.

So what are tones? In English, we use tones to convey emotion (‘wwhhaatttt!!!!???’ as opposed to ‘what?’). On rare occasion, in English, changing the tone of the word can also change the meaning. Really? Really! Really. But in Thai, the same word, but with a different tone, makes it an entirely different word.

Let’s take the example ‘pom bpen kai’. Depending on which tones you use, it could mean ‘I have a fever’, or it could mean ‘I am an egg’. Now, on occasion, I meet someone who insists learning tones isn’t important for speaking Thai. They’d argue, ‘well, it’s obvious you aren’t an egg, so through context you are easily understood’. Ok, fine.

Another example . . . let’s say you are at an elephant show, and you declare ‘pom chawp kee chaang’. It could mean ‘I like to ride elephants’, or it could mean ‘I like elephant $h1t’. What’s the context? If you say that one wrong, you’ll get some funny looks I promise.

I do on occasion meet some poor Thai language student who had the unfortunate luck to have a teacher who didn’t teach tones. Picture someone talking in monotone in English, or jumpy between an inhaled helium high voice to a Barry White low voice with every other spoken word. The listener, if he/she concentrates and knows the context, can understand the speaker. But it sounds really weird and unnatural. What’s worse is that the student spent months learning something that isn’t even right – and so will waste many more months to unlearn it.

to be continued . . . 

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