How to read Thai. For travelers

How to read Thai - for travelers

Want to learn how to read Thai? Start from here and you'll get the core idea of the Thai script in just a few minutes! For travelers and other non-linguists.

Hi, guys! Let me tell you my story of learning Thai. So I traveled to Thailand twice and spent several months in total there but I could never read Thai letters. I tried to understand the Wikipedia article on Thai script but failed twice. I gave up and invented the explanation that it is just too complicated for a person who is not talented in linguistics, a person like me... Reading Thai is only for the Thais and specialists, scientists, I thought. I changed my mind when I met a German, an absolute non-linguist, who could read some Thai. And I asked myself --- am I worse?...

Writing and reading Thai is actually very difficult. But anybody can get the idea and learn the basics... Let's get started.

Three truths about reading Thai alphabet

Most general rules of reading the Thai script are:

  1. Consonants should be read left to right just like in English.
  2. Vowels can be located left, right, below and above consonants
  3. Vowels often are not written but they are supposed and there are rules that say how to spot and read these 'invisible vowels'

Thai consonants

Two more facts about Thai consonants:

  • Some Thai consonant letters sound the same or almost the same
  • Many Thai consonant letters change their sounds in the end of the word

Before you see Thai consonants (that means before you get panic), let me give you advice... Don't start learning Thai alphabet with consonants. Too many, too complicated and completely useless if you don't know how to write and read vowels! For the beginning, learn several consonants, for example, those ones that form your name and surname. This first bunch will help you to learn vowels.

Thai consonants
Thai consonants (source). Click to enlarge. Red Latin letters say how to pronounce Thai letters and small Latin letters in the end of the description of every Thai letter (for example "-n") say how to read Thai letters in the end of a syllable.

Listen how Thai consonants sound:

how to read thai

Handwriting of Google.Translate app is the best way to learn new characters. If you traveled in Thailand before, try to remember any Thai letter and try to write it. If you got near, the programm will offer options - letters that resemble the scribble drawn by you.

How to read Thai vowels

Learning how to read Thai vowels is the most important thing since, if you get the idea, you will be able to read Thai having the tables in front of your eyes - the table of consonant and the table of vowels.

For example, this is Thai "B":

If you want to write down "i" like in "bit", you must write a sign above "B":
บิ
And a worm-like sign below means 'u' like in 'boo':
บุ
'e' like in 'bed' goes before a consonant:
เบ
And 'a' like in 'car' goes after a consonant:
บะ - ba

Vowels can work together so two or three vowel can form something new like
เบีย
sounds 'ia' like in the end of "Italia".

This is the table of Thai vowels:

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The blue letter is just an example of consonant to show where a vowel should be placed relative to a consonant. The symbol of the colon (:) show that a vowel is long. Yes, vowels can be long and short and the fact is significant...

What do all these signs in the table mean? Listen how Thai vowels sound:

And the most adcanced table of Thai vowels is here.

Invisible vowels

There are two main facts about Thai invisible vowels (so called "inherent vowels").

The fact number one:

  • If there is no vowel between two consonant, it means that, most probably, you should read short "o" between them.

For example, "b" and "t" stand together without vowels around:
บท
so you should read it "bot".

But if you want to write "baht", you must use the third letter, a vowel one:

บาท

(This is the name of Thai currency and you will see it everywhere around in Thailand.)

Or if you need to write "beet" you must draw "a hat with a feather" above "b":

บีท

The fact number two:

  • If there is no vowel between three consonant, it means that, most probably, there is 'a' in the first syllable and 'o' in the second one.

ถนน (tnn) sound "tanon" and means street/road and

ถนนข้าวสาร means Khao San Road (a famous backpackers' street in Bangkok).

And the last example is a reminder of the fact I have already mentioned above: consonants in the end of a word can sound different - they write 'Khaosar' in Thai...

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Go to the setting of your smart phone and set Thai keyboard. In this way, you'll get quick way to translate Thai and communicate with the Thais. The keyboard consists of two "layers" since there is not enough space for all Thai character. So the first layer (seen on the photo above) represents the most useful letters including 26 consonants most commonly used.

And the bad news is that Thai writings mostly don't have gaps between words so ... it is uneasy to implement the mentioned rules...

...the real challenge is more one of separating words within a core phrase or sentence. As with most things that seem really difficult at first, this task naturally becomes easier with general experience and is also aided by some basic rules. For example, a vowel that includes a symbol to the left of the consonant it pairs with is a good indicator of the start of a word. Likewise, a symbol that goes to the right of a consonant is an indicator of the end of a word. Even vowels that go above or below a consonant indicate either the end of a word or that the following consonant will mark the end of the word. Finally, if you see one of the consonants that can’t be used to end a syllable (ฉ, ฌ, ผ, ฝ, ห, etc.) then you know to keep reading. - lengthytravel.com

One more difficulty is that they use mostly two types of fonts. One font is classical:

Classic Thai font

And another font is newer, more generalized, a product of the computer era, I guess. They like to use it for food labels and advertisement signboards, for example. And the newer one has not much resemblance with the classical one:

Classic Thai font

But the more experience you have with the classic font, the easier you read the new one.

Tones

As you maybe know, Thai language is tonal. And as you maybe know, it is not easy to learn how to pronounce tones for those whose native language is not tonal one.

There are 5 tones in Thai and, unfortunately, it is not easy for us, dummies, to understand which tone to pronounce while reading. Thai tone marks are just one of the factors that define the tone...

Thai tones marks
Thai tones' marks

This is what knowing people say:

Consonants are divided into three classes - high, middle and low. To realize which tone to pronounce while reading, you must:

  1. remember which class the first consonant belongs to
  2. check whether the final letter in the word is a voiced consonant or unvoiced consonant or vowel
  3. check whether the vowel of the syllable is long or short
  4. check whether the initial consonant has a tone mark

Considering these data, you can choose the correct tone. This is the formal way. The Thai people just remember every word's tones -- thedeemon.livejournal.com (in Russian)

So now you know what I meant when I said about bad news...

How to read Thai

Google.Translate shows the Latin version of a Thai word including tone marks like ^ or ' (above consonants that initiate syllables). However these Latin tones just reflect the Thai signs used in the word and say nothing about real tones you must pronounce! But! In some (many?) online tutorials, they use this 'Latin Thai' to show real pronounciation including real tones! The word on the photo means "a dog" and the real pronounciation is "măa" (with the rising tone mark).

So this is your choice to go further or not. Check youtube, there are tons of video tutorials on Thai language and specifically tones.

Conclusion

Some Thai people may say:

- Can you say you can read Thai if you can't define a tone and even can't pronounce it in the correct way?

Indeed, "ma" can be "a dog" or "a horse" depending on the tone selected. As well as "rice" becomes "stinky", "white" and "news" if you choose the wrong tone.

Imagine, you read English and you read "car" instead of "care"... Ridiculous!

However, this partial reading skill is good as a beginning as well as it has some moderate practical value for a traveler.

Thai signboard

It is written "exit" (ทางออก) on the board. This is how I found the way out the maze of the Chatuchak market in Bangkok. Yes, I could just ask people. And yes, you absolutely don't need to learn how to read Thai alphabet to survive in Thailand. However, at least, my experience became deeper with the skill. For example, only after I learned some Thai letters, I noticed that Khao San Road is saying something about rice (ข้าว)! I checked the web and this is what I learned: "...in former times the street was a major Bangkok rice market". Now I can read a bus destination board and I can get some things on a food label or in Thai menu. I can type anything I see in the street and translate on the smartphone.

And it is just easier to remember Thai words when you can see and understand letters they consist of.

Price label

Learning Thai at the shop. A price label in a Big C supermarket

Many languages in the world are based on the same writing concept (they are called abugidas) for example the Indian script. So learning Thai writing can help to learn other scripts in future.

Also, getting acquainted with any tonal language is a way to enrich your understanding of the general concept of language and even the concept of the human since so many languages use the tonal system.

The skill inspires to learn more. Is it so hard to read Lao script which shows much resemblance with Thai? Is it fun to learn Vietnamese that uses Latin letters or better to consider Khmer that has no tones at all? How do we use tones in our nontonal languages to express emotions? How many types of tones exist in all human languages? Do tones influence the way tonal language speakers express their emotions?..

Thanks for reading! And good luck with Thai script!