Tones Are Hard

As anyone who has tried learning Thai knows, it is a very difficult language, the basics are easy enough but the tones are the real killer. Thai is a tonal language, the same word can have up to 5 meanings depending on the tone used. Tones are a completely foreign concept to westerners, we simply don’t use them. Take the following example:

“Khay Khaay Khay Kay” which means “Who sells eggs”

To me, each word sounds the same. But to Thais, each word has a pronounced tone and has a completely different meaning. I started learning Thai from a book and then practicing it out in the real word, with mostly humorous results. I went to the road side “Barbecue Chicken” vendor and asked for chicken, easy enough but then I thought I would ask for rice and was greeted with a blank stare followed by the usual “Alaina?” and, when I repeated it, she told me she doesn’t sell mountains. I had to point to the rice for her to understand.

To really learn Thai you need to speak to a Native Thai speaker. That way you will grasp the subtleties of the Thai language. Since meeting my girlfriend, my Thai has improved drastically. I now speak a pseudo language, that is a mixture between Thai and English, but at least it gets the message across.

7 thoughts on “Tones Are Hard”

  1. If you think Thai is hard, then try learning Mandarin. I’m half Chinese and even I can’t get it.

  2. You are spot on. The tonality is the killer. My best example is the use of the word “suay”. Depending on how you say it, it can either mean “beautiful” or it can mean “unlucky”. When complimenting your girlfriend, make sure you use the correct one!

  3. I’ve been through that one. Suay, gets me all the time. It’s got that whole rise at the end to make it Beautiful. Most of my Thai is pronounced with a flat tone, so I often get stares from the locals.

  4. Without my tones operational, I have explained
    to waiters at restaurants that my lady is a slow
    dog, when trying to communicate that my dinner
    partner shall be arriving at some time soon,
    before we order from the menu.
    Pooying maa cha-cha.

    Pasa Angkrit ajarn. Pasa Thai anuban.
    (have to laugh in hindsight)

  5. The Thais who know us and are around us often soon get used to the strange way we speak Thai….. and then tell others…’Oh he speaks good Thai’….but then they meet us for the first time and cannot understand us… can even hear them say out loud sometimes….”fang mai ruu ruang”
    So I like to tell thai students….actually it is “mai fang, mai ruu ruang’

    Because their heads are so full of their own little voice saying “I don’t understand…..I don’t understand..” that nothing from the outside can get in!
    They should think…well my friends said he spoke good thai…maybe it is me…..I should listen carefully and see if I recognise any words…..yes..there were a few I could understand…..listen …listen

    Of course although a word may have five meanings according to the tones….they can usually be understood by the context of the conversation

  6. Well put Fabianfred. I can speak a little Thai and I know my tones are not correct, but I am 90% understood by my Thai friends and my wife. When I speak to someone I’ve just met, they very often do not understand a single word I am saying.

  7. As you’ve discovered, you can’t learn Thai from a book. You have to hear it spoken, and then imitate the speaker, which is exactly what young children do.

    How can a 2 year old girl speak better Thai than you? Because she is copying her parents. She can’t read, can’t write, but she can hear.

    The best way to learn Thai is to live with a Thai person.

    If you can’t do that, you need a CD or tapes to learn vocabulary the correct way, with the tone. However, I personally have never had the stamina to go through a CD course right to the end. Typically, after 3 chapters, I’m bored and I quit.

    That’s why I wrote Speak Easy Thai. It has 5000 words spoken by a native speaker, so you get the correct tone, but the important thing is that it has a picture for most words. This lets your brain naturally make a link between the printed word, the spoken word, and the image.

    There are no lessons, per se, in Speak Easy Thai. You can learn words by subject, 10 or 15 at a time, then quit. Use it for 10 minutes a day and you will make progress.

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