(Ok, this post is really just for sympathy and pity as we try to learn this language.)
Language learning is difficult because it is not enough to just learn the vocabulary of the new language and then do a word-for-word translation from English, you must learn whole new patterns of communication. And since it is not a Latin-based language, vocabulary is 100% new! Very few words, outside of modern inventions, sound like the English counterpart at all.
Here is a glimpse of some of the difficulties associated with learning to communicate in Thai.
All the Letters!
There are 76 weird looking letters in the Thai alphabet noodle soup. 44 consonants and 32 vowels. Then there are extra markings on top of that for tone marks and other rules.
ก ข ฃ ค ฅ ฆ ง จ ฉ ช ซ ฌ ญ ฎ ฏ ฐ ฑ ฒ ณ ด ต ถ ท ธ น บ ป ผ ฝ พ ฟ ภ ม ย ร ล ว ศ ษ ส ห ฬ อ ฮ
–อ, –ะ, –ั, –ัย, –ัว, –ัวะ, –า, –าย, –าว, –ำ, –ิ, –ิว, –ี, –ึ, –ื, –ุ, –ู, เ–, –็, เ–ะ, เ–ย, เ–อ, เ–อะ, เ–ิ, เ–ว, เ–า, เ–าะ, เ–ีย, เ–ียะ, เ–ียว, เ–ือ, เ–ือะ, แ–, แ–ะ, แ–็, แ–ว, โ–, โ–ะ, ใ–, ไ–, ฤ, ฤๅ, ฦ, ฦๅ
The dash is where the consonant would go. Meaning, the vowels are before, behind, surrounding, or just gone (assumed) from the consonant they go with to make a syllable.
English is a little tonal as well. Saying a word or phrase with different inflection modifies the meaning.
But in Thai, tone and meaning are locked together and a change in tone totally changes the meaning.
Every sound you make takes on 1 of 10+ different meanings, dependent on the tone that is used while making that sound and how long you hold the vowel sound. It is not only dependent on context, like a homonym, but totally on the tone.
10 different words depending on the tone and length of the vowel. (5 tones x 2 lengths of the vowel = 10 words)
- In low tone – (Short) fresh (Long) no meaning
- In middle tone – (Short) Microphone, (Long) mile
- In high tone – (Short) makes a sentence a question, (Long) wood
- In falling tone – (Short) burn, (Long) No
- In rising tone – (Short) silk, (Long) notice
Once you finally learn a word, congratulations, you are half-way there!
This one is the hardest parts so far. Word-for-word translation from English doesn’t work. To demonstrate, I will do a strict, literal reverse translation from Thai sentence structure to English.
“You want will go store food what?”
“Do you want to go out to eat?”
Even if you know the definitions of the words, trying to get your brain to think in those wild sentence patterns is tough!
No Punctuation or Spaces
One thing that I would be very glad for isn’t there. Punctuation. No periods, question marks, commas, etc. So, you don’t know where words start and stop and there are no signs along the sentence-road to give you clues about where you are.
- The 76 foreign characters are challenging to recognize quickly.
- “Sounding it out” is impossible until you learn the impossible way its read.
- Read left-to-right?? It is more like, start heading right, skip every 3rd character, look up to catch the vowel, then go back a few, find the consonant, apply tone rules, tone marks, and THEN say that sound. And make it sound natural!
Makes you feel a real sense of accomplishment when you read a word.
The Lord did a really good job confusing things at Babel, and it is not a easy barrier to cross back over, but reversing the problems that sin brings is the reason that we are here in the first place, so every step is encouraging!