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Thailand

Language Tips for First time Visitors

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Many people ask if they should learn Thai before they go to Thailand. My answer is "NO!".

But please be aware that Thai people pronounce English differently than you would expect in England or America, so in fact you should not learn Thai, but you should "brush up" your English instead!
And so this page does not give you tips for learning the Thai language, but tips to understand how the English language is widely pronounced in Thailand.



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Many Thai people speak English very well, but many more (and especially people you meet in the streets, like your taxi driver, your market merchant etc.) do understand some English, mostly enough to communicate with you, but they pronounce it quite differently than you expect!

The reason for this is that foreign words are in Thailand transliterated into Thai writing. Also books to learn English in Thailand start form the Thailanguage.
And because the Thai language is based on quite different rules and sounds than Western languages, this leads to problems. Thai people pronounce foreign words according to the Thai rules.
That is the reason why a Thai, speaking English, appears to make mistakes. But he does not do so, he simply reads the transliterations.

To start this page I will give some very basic rules for the Thai language:

Some rules for the Thai language, more or less in random order:

Rule 1:

- An "l" sound at the end of a word or syllable does not exist in Thai. It is being pronounced as an "n" sound. This is the background of two of the examples I have given on my introductory Thailand page: "Central" and "Oriental".

Also when a Thai person uses the English word hotel, instead of the Thai word, he will most likely say something very close to hoten.

When in Phuket Town, ask for Hotel "Metropone" when you want to go to Hotel "Metropole". And do so indeed, because there are few places in Thailand where the buffet lunch is better than in Hotel Metropole!! You find all the cuisine's of Asia and several European cuisine's there in your buffet, for a very reasonable price.

Rule 2:

- An "s" sound at the end of a word or syllable does not exist either in Thai. It is being pronounced as a "t" sound. Therefor a Thai person will usually not say "tennis" but something like "tennit".

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The Thai language is divided very consequently into syllables. And syllables with two consonants next to each other are seldom!

Rule 3

- If a syllable -or something that can be recognized as a syllable- ends in a consonant, and the next one begins with one, a native Thai speaker will pronounce an extra "a" sound between the two consonants. And he will do the same with English words!! So don't expect him to say "sport". He will see this as two syllables and pronounce it as "sa-port". It is not so difficult as it seems, is it?

Rule 4:

- If within one syllable two consonants follow each other, usually an "o" is inserted. But let us leave that for the moment for what it is. (Lucky for you).

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Now we bring all this new knowledge into practice with a tricky exercise:

Q: How will "plastic" be pronounced by a native Thai speaker?

A: Ha! This is a tricky one!!

First we have to analyze which syllables can be recognized in this very complex word:

The first part, plas, obviously consists of two syllables already: p-las. Therefor an extra a is unavoidable (See Rule 3 above). That makes it "pa-las" But an "s" sound at the end of this syllable will be pronounced as "t" (see Rule 2 above). So it will not be "pa-las", but "pa-lat".

But this would be too mad! Every Thai person will know that "plattic" (or "palattic") is simply not to be understood by any foreigner.

So: How to solve this? Simply: add the "s" sound as well! That makes it "pa-lat-s". But remember Rule 3: An "a" will be added because this is the end of a syllable: That makes it "pa-lat-sa".

And now the good news! The last part: "tic" is perfectly all right in Thai!! So finally we know that

"plastic" will be pronounced as "pa-lat-sa-tic" according to the Thai pronunciation rules!

plasticplastic

Exactly the same: "elastic" will be pronounced as "e-lat-sa-tic" (no sound example necessary)

Another application of the same rules: You will not hear "Pakistan", but "Pa-kit-sa-tan". You don't believe me? It ids for your own risk!

Another difficult country: Expect "Ratsia" instead of "Russia".

And yet another example: Expect to hear "whit-sa-kee" instead of "whiskey".
And finally: "Christmas" will come very close to "Cha-rit-sa-mat"

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Some further examples:

- The rules for emphasis and tone are complicated. Still you may use as a rough general rule that you will probably best off when you give strong emphasis on the last syllable of a word when you speak English. Don't say "center" but say "center". Don't say "tennis", say "tennis" (or better still "tennit"; see Rule 2 above).

- Some (complex) exceptions to this rule:

1) The word "necessary" will normally be pronounced as necessary necessary.

2) The word "comfortable" will normally be pronounces as comfortable comfortable.

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- If you are a video fan or if you need accessories for your video equipment, don't look for "video", but look for VDO (official spelling) However, the VDO. signs will by now almost everywhere be replaced by VCD and DVD.

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- Expect many small errors in the use of the English language (and don't blame the Thais too much for it. After all you could not learn Thai, so don't blame them when they try to learn English and make a few errors!!)

- The most common error in writing the English language is that a shop is "CLOSE" when it is closed. Sometimes, nowadays, shops are using signs, supplied by credit card companies. Then - of course - you will find the correct spelling.

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I want to show you just one example of a sign on the street that gave me real problems:

Funny sign 1

Apparently this service rises automatically. What else can be meant with "auto rize"?? (Well, I know that they mean "authorized", but they could have checked their spelling on a sign like this!)
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Another example of how the English language is often used in Thailand:

Barbershop

This businessman really did his best to please the tourists by writing his type of business on his shop in the English language too. But English can be so difficult, especially when the English don't pronounce the first R.

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Some very foreign words.

Some words do not exist at all in Thai, like Western names. What to do with them?
Well, they make the best of it.

- A very interesting example is the name of the Polish composer Chopin. As an extra problem the name is normally pronounced as a French name. There is no possibility whatsoever to transliterate this name into Thai is such a way that it resembles the way we pronounce it. So, what can they do? They choose the second best way and replace it by something they can transliterate.

And so: Chopin becomes Shopeng. Be aware of more of these "second best" choices!


However..

If you want to try to learn the Thai language after all, there are some extensive websites where you can do this for free.
The following sites let you start immediately from the Thai alphabet, which is in my opinion the only proper way to start learning the Thai language.

One site is set up by Thai students and although it is very complete, it is not always easy to find your way there.
It has index pages for reading, listening, writing and more. It also has a wide choice of resources.
If you start with Manee and Friends you may be successful. You get to the home page by clicking the logo below.

LearningThai

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Another site is set up by the Northern Illinois University (NIU). You have to install a small font from this site first.
Go to their overview page for the Thai language to get an idea of what you will find on the site, click the link below to visit their Thailand home page (click the door on the left hand side for the menu), or go to a different version of Manee (called Manii here), which also contains book two. The two Manii books (40 lessons) give you a great start with the Thai language.

Seasite,niu.edu

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However, maybe the most thorough course to learn Thai is the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) course. This is a course, originally written for American diplomats and it is of a high quality.
It has been commercially available for many years for quite some money, but now it belongs to the public domain. Find the complete course (all books and all sound files on the FSI pages.

The course in its original form uses a transcription of the Thai alphabet.
However, a group of volunteers has re-written the course in the Thai alphabet. Find this excellent work (with the main sound files embedded) on the Thai language wiki. Learn the alphabet and follow the course there!

When you have finished the FSI course, you need further reading lessons. You can have them from an excellent Thai Reader (with sound files!). This reader was also written by FSI. It can be found on this page from Siamwest.

But my warning was and is: The Thai language is a very difficult language for westerners to learn!



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