[video] Another way to look at the 5 tones of Thai

This post includes an embedded video. If you are reading it through RSS or email and don’t see it, click through to watch it on my site!

Note: Rather than this video being a how-to about Thai tones, it’s simply giving an idea of the way that I’m looking at and approaching them to help to make them easier. Since I had only been in Thailand for just over 2 weeks at the time of filming there are a few mistakes, but it should hopefully help others starting off!

Blogger cameo roles in the video

I was going to wait to record this video for another week or so when I would have had a better ear for the tones, but I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to work on a shared project with some big names in the blogosphere! I spent an entire week in Ko Phi Phi and most of that was in the company of some fellow “location independent professionals” that went with me to the parties on the beach every night. It’s definitely been the best part of my Thailand trip so far.

I convinced some of them to help me with this video. They are (in the order you see them):

Sean Ogle Location 180: Sean quit his job and decided to move across the world and has a great blog about why it’s not as scary as you think to do that. In person he’s super cool and really great fun! We’ll be meeting up again before I leave Thailand for sure!

Dan Andrews Tropical MBA: Dan knows his business and he does most of it from somewhere tropical! He runs a cool podcast to inspire others to do the same and was giving me some great advice for how I should expand on my blog. His work partner Ian was the cameraman.

Tom Li: Tom, and the others above are all working together. Tom and I had an amazing time meeting people on the sandy dancefloors!

Adam Baker ManVsDebt: Adam’s blog is huge after less than a year since he started it, because apart from really amazing content, he is proving that you can travel the world even if you have a family and showing that there is a way out of debt if you are committed to it and sell all your useless stuff. His beautiful daughter Milly (who also appears in the video) and his wife Courtney are with him on the adventure of a lifetime. He’s really nice in person!!

Summary of the 5 tones

Just to expand on what I said in the video (and correct little mistakes I made), the way I see the 5 tones of Thai are as follows:

  • High tone. This title is misleading because you would think it is just simply a higher version of the middle/low tone, but I actually hear it as rising. It does so in a different way to the rising tone (see below), and I think this can be pretty well represented by shock or surprise as I did in the video. So you start already high and make it higher.
  • Rising tone. This title is better, but it’s important to note that you have to go down before you actually do rise your tone. This is precisely the same as we do in single word questions (like really?) on hearing interesting information.
  • Middle and low tone. I still find these two a little hard, so in the video I just focussed on the difference between them; at the moment just making a tone that feels middle or low is what I’m going with. Since then, from more practice, from what I can tell, the low tone sounds like how we would end a sentence in English. Click the different words on this page to hear a native pronounce them and you’ll see what I mean. If you can give a better easy explanation than my “jaws” suggestion in the video, say so in the comments :)
  • Falling tone. I totally messed this one up in the video; sorry! (One long take and a lot of stuff to remember, whoops!) In the link in the previous point you can hear what it actually sounds like; it’s like the opposite to the rising tone in that it starts high and then falls low. It’s actually not that hard at all; I was just a little distracted in the video.

One other mistake I made in the video was that despite saying it pretty well on the beach, I said the high tone almost exactly the same as the rising tone (I went down-up, instead of up-up) when giving the example in the last part. I think I sound pretty silly trying to point out the difference between two sentences that sound pretty much exactly the same and shouldn’t in Thai…

So overall, I definitely can’t say that I’ve “mastered” tones yet, but I hope that I have a pretty good idea thanks to comparisons with situations in English, as in the video, and with practice they will come! Rather than giving tips in this video, I wanted to just share the learning experience, even in the stage where I’m still making lots of basic mistakes. And of course, it was a great excuse to work together with the other bloggers on a common project that only took a few minutes!

Right now I’m in a small town called “fisherman’s village” despite there not being a single fisherman in sight; great fake title for tourist soundbites though. It’s on the north part of Ko Samui and I’ll be getting the 20 minute speedboat to the famous full moon party this weekend! Can’t wait!!

If you have any comments on the video, tips to help me improve my command over the tones, or if you are also a subscriber to the blogs of the guys I got to spend a week with in Ko Phi Phi, do share it with us in the comments!!



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  • TropicalMBA

    What a gas! I had a great time getting to know you Benny and look forward to following your adventures here on the blog and meeting again shortly.

  • Geoff

    Looks and sounds like your enjoying the place and the language Benny. I might learn some Thai now so that I can chat with the friendly folks at my favourite restaurant here in Sydney.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yeah, I had an awesome week with you guys!! We'll meet up again for sure at some stage, you can bet on it. Thanks again for the help in the video ;) When I get really busy and need to outsource some work to the Philippines, you'll be the first guy I ask for advice on what to do!! :D

  • http://blog.tumbledesign.com/ Nicky Hajal

    Wow. I was in China 3 years ago and I'd forgotten just how amazing tonal languages are. It's awesome to think how the language one speaks affects their senses (and their perceptions). No doubt after more time hearing and practicing Thai, your ear will become more and more sensitive to the slight tone shifts.

    I think you also bring up the idea that teaching is a great way to learn! Even if you didn't get it perfectly, I learned from you and you were able to look at your progress from a new perspective.

    Thanks, Benny!

  • SophiaMK

    Apenas um comentario geral, como uma Brasileira morando em Yorkshire, eu adoro seguir seu blog :)

    Espero que tenha gostado do Brasil e nao tenha ficado com a péssima impressao que os 'gringos' tem quando passam só uma semana em Copacabana!

  • http://piublog.blogspot.com/ Albert

    Very clever! I liked the video, and I'm surprised of the quick progress you're making. I guess you found the right sources of information.

    However, I think in 3 months you won't get passed the stage of recognizing and maybe getting to utter the tones correctly. Another thing is to know how to apply the tone rules to read, that would take you at least another 3 months.

    It's interesting to follow your experiment anyway, keep up your work!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    I disagree – it might take 6+ more months for some people, but I have a secret weapon ;)
    The progress I've made up to recording the video is in about 10 hours study, since I was travelling around a lot in that first month. Once I go north to Chiang Mai, my rate of improvement will increase as I become more focussed and motivated.
    I can already read tones from the script – it took me a couple of hours after reading the script generally. Don't know why you'd ever need 3 months for it; frankly it was WAY easier than the scary monster people described it to me as. I'll write a post about what I did soon enough. :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Obrigado Sophia. Gostei dos seus outros comentários também ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great point Nicky! Teaching has helped me learn languages much quicker – it's something I may devote an entire post to some time :)
    Glad you enjoyed the video!!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Go for it!! :)

  • http://piublog.blogspot.com/ Albert

    There are several factors that determine the tone that every syllable will have. I don't think you can memorize them all in just a few hours. I'd say one needs a few months to read with the right tone more or less fluently. Stopping 3 seconds to think the tone for every syllable is not a “pass”.

    Have a look at those factors here: http://www.learningthai.com/tones/factors.html

    There's an excellent tone trainer on that site I think, and some tests for you to prove that tones aren't so difficult.


  • lordgriggs1947

    Outre anglais, je balbbutie en allemand, francais et espanol. I sight-read other Teutonic and Romance languages on the WWW. Ive the Google translator so that I can read two languages at one time. I'm a lecoglot.

  • Khach

    Something I’ve found useful to remember when learning a tonal language (in my case, Vietnamese) is to prevent yourself from using too many emotions when speaking.
    Facial expressions are definitely important, as they make communication more straightforward, the problem is that we westerners also use tonal emotion.
    Basically, it’s like learning to speak and communicate from scratch and becoming a new person. We often use a rising tone at the end of a sentence to indicate a question or curiosity, or low tone for thoughtfulness without even realising it as it’s so ingrained in our behaviour. You have to reprogram yourself completely to hit the tones right.
    It’s painstaking but tremendously interesting :)

  • http://www.zenredsalonbangkok.com Hair Salon Bangkok

    I found the Video really interesting and am loving this site so far, well done for your thoughtful insight and positive attitude to learning Thai Languages. A good Attitude and fun approach is what makes learning everything and anything a pleasure more than a chore.