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Reading Thai and its tones isn’t as hard as you think

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

This is what I get for buying an “M” t-shirt in Asia

My first month in Thailand has come to an end; the purpose of this month for me was to discover a little of the south, be a tourist and be able to grasp the rules on reading Thai.

It was way easier than people warned me it would be, and I've only put a total of about 2-5 hours a week into it. Really. (The real work starts from this weekend; see below)

I'd like to think I had learned a lot about languages before starting this blog, but I've been exposed to something that will be essential in helping me communicate how you can do it too; waves of scepticism, doubt and negativity through comments and e-mails. This has been a very good thing because I am getting a much better idea of what is holding others back from achieving the same goals, by gaining a deeper understanding of their perspective, which I honestly think should be changed if they want to make it easier.

I was told that it would take months of pure practise to read Thai without romanisation, and almost 50,000 stumbles on my post about how I did it has shown that I was on to something in showing that just a few hours is all you really need. Despite that I got warned that it would definitely take months (or years) to learn to decipher Thai tones from the text.

Just because it took you months or years doesn't mean that I or anyone else has to follow your same boring timetable 😉

Let me show you what I mean, by looking at Thai's reading/tone roles in two ways:

The unnecessarily complicated & pessimistic way

Deciphering Thai's 5 tones (mid, low, high, falling & rising) from the script is an intimidating process of remembering if the first consonant is low, mid or high (which you have to remember for each of the 44 consonants), whether the syllable is live or dead and if there is a tone mark present. Live or dead syllables in turn depend on whether the vowel is long or short or if it ends in an unvoiced consonant.

There are no spaces between Thai words, so it will take lots of work to figure out where one word ends and another begins before you can even begin to apply these rules. Even if you somehow master all of this, English speakers are completely unused to Thai's 5 tones so you will likely say them wrong or find it impossible to distinguish them when others speak.

Expect years of hellish labour or give up right now. (Encouraging, huh?)

There are always shortcuts

What I've learned from the naysayers is that they tend to look at a problem one-dimensionally. If they wanted to lift something heavy, they'd get 3 strong men to do it instead of just doing it themselves with a lever or pulley. If they wanted to find a guy named Bob in a room they'd go up to each man and ask if his name is Bob, instead of just shouting “Which one of you is Bob?” And if they wanted to learn a list of rules for how an aspect of a language works, they'll write it out in tabular form and learn each cell of the table until it's drilled into their head.

It's unnecessary overkill. Rules like the above one, and basically any set of rules that you need to learn are “complicated” when you look at them expecting them to be complicated. I've already said that you need a positive outlook and this is what I always apply to languages I learn.

There are always shortcuts, techniques and patterns that will make it much easier if you just look “outside the box” (literally; I keep seeing such rules written in tabular boxes!)

Some Thai reading-rule shortcuts

I've discovered several ways of reducing the workload of understanding and remembering Thai tone and reading rules. I'm sure others have seen these patterns too, but from what I can tell a lot of them would not be included in Thai courses. So here is my personal summary of everything you need to know to read Thai quite well in just 11 bullet points.

  • Forget learning the high/mid/low aspect of each consonant. Well over half of them are low. So just presume the consonant is low (‘default') and learn to recognise the high/mid ones. Work reduced by more than 50%.
  • In case that wasn't enough, reinforce it by remembering that all nasals (m, n, or ng sounds) and semi-vowel consonants (y, w sounds) are low class.
  • Several symbols have the circle on the left (overall, or from diagonal line) for middle class and on the right for high class. There are a few exceptions, but it helps a bit for recognition. Here's some Mid vs High to give you an idea of what I mean

ฎ ฏ ด ต บ ป vs ถ ผ ฝ ศ

  • Looking for patterns in the annoying table of rules we can see that you can presume that the syllable is a mid tone if it ends in m, n, or ng or a long open vowel (3/4 of the time; i.e. for both low and middle class starting consonants). So just look out for high class consonants where it would be rising instead and otherwise always presume that it's mid tone!
  • I don't see the point of the live/dead syllable notation other than academic labels for linguists. I personally ignore it: if the syllable ends in a k, p or t sound, or has a short open vowel then it's a low tone for both high and middle class. Low class splits it up further into falling tone (long vowel) and high tone (short vowel) when also ending in the same consonants.
  • The tone markers and are only really used with middle class consonants, so you only need to learn the other two (and ) in the 3 classes. The “silent H” consonant ห is high so this means the whole syllable will have the “high consonant” rules applied to it.
  • The above 3 points are all important points to remember about tone rules. If I'm missing anything, it just means that I'm 90-95% covered, which is fine by me. The above points are much easier to learn than 3 seemingly random tables for low/mid/high class consonants.
  • Learning the alphabet is easy; use the same association techniques I discussed before but add multiple levels and associations to each symbol; First, its alphabetical order number: associating a number isn't that hard and will help you look up words in the dictionary; rather than remembering the overall order of the symbols (as we tend to do in English), remember its order number (e.g. ด “do dek” is 20th, which was easy for me since it looks like Esperanto's word for 20, dudek) and compare to the next symbol! It's really effective for using a dictionary. Then learn the name of the letter (chicken, monk etc.). This will help you read Thai letters as the Thais do, as well as expanding on your vocabulary.
  • Don't forget to think of the tones as what we have in English as I demonstrated in the video of the previous post; high is “surprise”, rising is “question” etc. Here‘s a good page for testing your understanding of the tones. The first few times are tricky, but then you get the hang of it and see it isn't that bad!
  • To distinguish between different syllables, it helps a lot to know what almost always denotes the end of a syllable, such as vowels , or even which shows that there must be a linking consonant next, and which consonants never end a syllable (ฉ, ฌ, ผ, ฝ, ห, etc.) so you know just before them the previous syllable has ended. Also, because you have learned how to read Thai and are learning vocabulary that way rather than through romanisation, you'll quickly start to recognise words and know where it has to end.
  • The consonants ร, ล, ว tend to merge with the preceding one, and you have to learn the irregular combinations ทร = s at the beginning of a syllable and รร = n at the end of a syllable. indicates a silent letter (usually for foreign words like ฟิล์ม “film”, with a silent l), shortens the vowel, ฯ means the previous word is abbreviated and ๆ means the previous word is repeated.

That's it – nearly all the rules of reading Thai.

I've seen whole books try to present the same information across hundreds of pages. As far as I'm concerned this is all I need to know for now since I can indeed read words and apply the right tones. If I'm skipping anything, then I don't particularly care as the above will help me read the vast majority of what I need to, and I just need practise to make sure I'll do it quickly when under pressure.

Time for stage two: speaking

Since I'm happy with my understanding of reading, I'm going to move on to the more fun part of learning a language that I usually tend to start with; actually speaking it! I wanted to focus on the least familiar linguistic aspect first, just this once; tones, and script. Now I'm going back into familiar territory and using my usual methods to see how far I get and how much I can speak before I fly out in a month's time! I'm going to try to aim for a higher (basic) conversational level than my initial goal when introducing the mission.

The south was interesting, but not for me. I was an English speaking tourist my entire time and there are so many things missing that I usually get to have in my travels, even in the early stages of speaking a language. Once I have a basis of comparison from living in the north, I'll share my reasons for why learning languages hugely enriches your travels. You would think that it would be obvious, but the amount of tourists without even hello/thank-you in the foreign language disproves that. This is the first time in a very long time that I've used English to travel with in a country that it isn't spoken in.

I'm going straight to Chiang Mai on Saturday and if I like it there, I'll stay for several weeks before going back to Bangkok 🙂

So, any thoughts on my condensed guidelines for reading Thai, or nitpicks for obscure rules I didn't include? In case you haven't gotten it yet, discouraging comments don't work on me 😉 So what I'd really like to see is even more patterns that I've missed. I came up with these in a few short hours study. I'm sure those way more familiar with Thai could make it even easier for us and show us more simple patterns and short-cuts!

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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