Is Learning Thai Difficult?

Thai is famous for being a troublesome for many Westerners – it has tones, a unique alphabet, and grammar that is quite different than English.  Let’s take a look at how difficult it is to learn Thai based on studies from the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI)!


The Foreign Service Institute & Language Categories

The FSI is the primary educational institution of the U.S. Federal Government relating to foreign affairs. The FSI educates over 170,000 people each year in over 80 languages with students from the Department of State, military, and other areas. The FSI was formed in 1947, after the second World War, and they have conducted many in-depth studies of second language acquisition for native English speakers.  It’s safe to call them experts on second language acquisition for English speakers.

The FSI groups languages into 5 different categories depending on their difficulty and the estimated study hours required to become a proficient speaker and reader. Category I consists of languages similar to English, such as French or Spanish, that can be learned in around 6 months. At the other end of the spectrum in Category V you can find Chinese and Japanese, which will take you roughly 1.75 years to become proficient.


How Difficult Is Thai?

Thai is considered a Category IV* language by the FSI, which means that it takes almost a year to develop proficiency.  The asterisk means that Thai is one of the hardest languages in Category IV, which I attribute to Thai being a tonal language.  Other languages in this group include: Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Lao, Russian, and Vietnamese*.

So based on this rating we can tell that Thai is going to take a commitment to learn.  There’s a unique alphabet, tones, and grammatical differences compared to English.  Some of these differences take time to get used to but some actually work to your advantage.


Why Category IV Shouldn’t Scare You!

It’s true that Thai has some significant differences with English, but in many ways Thai is much simpler than English once you understand the basics.  First of all there are no verb conjugations in Thai, which makes it much simpler than English.  You probably don’t even pay attention to verb conjugations as a native speaker, but each verb has many different forms depending on singular/plurals and the verb tense.

Let’s briefly consider the English verb: to eat.  With the present tense you use ‘eat’ as in ‘we eat.’  If you want to create the past tense you must use ‘ate’ as in ‘we ate.’  There aren’t any clear rules for changing from present to past tense, there’s eat/ate, swim/swam, look/looked, and drink/drank.  An English learner must memorize all of these different verb forms for every new vocab word that they learn.  They can’t just look up ‘drink’ in a dictionary and use it in any sentence that they want!

Thai is so much simpler because there aren’t conjugations.  You use special verb modifiers (which are similar to adverbs) to change the tense of any verb.  A Thai verb always stays the same and you change the words before or after it to change the tense.  Let’s look at the Thai verb for eat: กิน.  If we want to change this to the past tense we can just add the verb modifier แล้ว after the verb.  Eat is กิน and ate is กิน แล้ว.   We can add แล้ว to the end of any Thai verb to change it to past tense – this is very easy compared to English!

There are tons of other benefits to Thai grammar compared to English that make learning the language much less scary.  Verb conjugations are just one simple difference between the two languages.


Conclusion

The key to learning Thai efficiently is to identify the difficult parts of the language and focus extra resources in these areas.  Tones are difficult to hear and pronounce, so make sure that you spend more time on these.  On the flip side of this, if you can recognize that verbs are easy and how they work then you can spend less time studying grammar and more time on developing a solid vocabulary.

It’s important to note that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so don’t stress out if areas that you struggle come easily to one of your peers.  I’m sure that they’re having their own difficulties with the language too!  Just do your best to be honest with yourself and figure out how and where to dedicate your studying and most of all try to make it fun.

Comment (4)

  • Peter CAPE| May 1, 2018

    The English verb has simple and perfect tenses, continuous too, and a dozen modal auxiliaries (shall should, will would, must have-to…and dare).

    Thai does most of this. Just it is not an inflected language. So is it any easier?

  • Evan| May 1, 2018

    Since Thai is an analytic language it is much easier grammatically than an inflected language like English.

    Verb conjugation in English is extremely messy and the modification for changing tense, number, voice, etc. doesn’t follow any universal rule but needs to be learned on a verb by verb basis. There are some general rules that apply to many verbs, but there are enough irregularities that you can’t learn a single verb modification and apply it to a new word and expect a comprehensible output.

    Thai, on the other hand, has universal rules that apply to all verbs so when you learn a new word you don’t need to worry about how to conjugate it. There aren’t unique conjugations for singular or plural subjects, or based on gender of the subject, which also simplifies things quite a bit.

  • Wayne Katz| September 1, 2018

    As a newbie whose been struggling to get my hands on this type of information I’m really grateful for the app! I’ve been trying to learn from my Thai gf – as an ESL teacher, I know how rubbish native speakers are at explaining language.
    Having to learn to read first is frustrating, but I can see the benefits.
    Thanks for your hard work!
    Ps. I can’t believe Japanese is rated as more difficult than Thai. I guess it’s becausenof kanji

    • Evan| September 1, 2018

      You’re right that native speakers often struggle to explain their own language but it’s also essential to interact with native speakers while hopefully learning from a variety of sources! Having a Thai girlfriend will give you invaluable practice opportunities.

      I recently released a third app focused only on speaking for people who don’t want to learn how to read, but I strongly encourage any serious Thai students to learn the alphabet.

      As for Japanese, I think that the rating is a variety of factors – kanji requires tons of memorization but also Japanese grammar is very different than English. Thai has similar word order to English and a simple grammar system, which helps keep the difficulty rating down.

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