Should You Learn To Read Thai?

Many Thai language learners start out by learning how to speak the basics.  If you ask these people why they aren’t learning the Thai alphabet, you’ll hear a lot of common myths such as “it’s not important to read Thai” or “the Thai script is too difficult.”  I avoided the Thai script like the plague and spent the first 6 months only using transcriptions.  Once I finally sat down and spent a weekend learning how to read I thought “that’s it?”  It’s really not so difficult!

Why Should You Learn The Thai Script?

There are tons of benefits to learning the Thai alphabet and tone rules, but I want to keep this post a brief so I’ll limit this list to just a few important reasons.

  • You’ll have much better pronunciation if you can read Thai.  There are sounds in Thai that you can’t easily map onto the English/Roman alphabet, so you’ll always be at a disadvantage if you only use transcriptions.
  • You’ll have hundreds of bonus learning opportunities every day if you learn the Thai script.  As you go through your day you’ll be exposed to menus, street signs, building names, and countless other bits of Thai that you would have to ignore if you didn’t learn how to read.
  • Learning to read opens up the door to the Thai internet – you can read and talk to your Thai friends on LINE, Facebook, twitter, or just browse through the news in Thai for some extra practice.
  • Reading makes learning Thai faster and easier in the long run.  With all of this extra practice you’ll start to pick up and reinforce vocabulary much faster once you can read.  You’ll walk by a hospital and see โรงพยาบาล on the sign.  You’ll head to school in the morning and see โรงเรียน written in large letters.  Once you’ve seen these things over and over they’ll be burned into your brain and you won’t forget them!

Hards Truths About Learning To Read Thai

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, there are a few difficulties when learning the Thai script.  For one, there are a lot of letters in the Thai alphabet!  We’re used to using 26 letters in English, but Thai has almost triple that amount and it takes some practice to quickly recognize each letter.  There are also three different classes of consonants and you need to remember the class so that you can determine the correct tone of a syllable or word.

Thai vowels can be written on any of the four sides of a consonant or even on multiple sides!  Take a quick look at these vowel examples to see how they can appear left, right, above, or below a consonant:
เ- (left)    -ะ (right)     ี (above)     ู (below)

There are additional symbols in the alphabet called Tone Marks that are written above Thai consonants and that change the tone (and meaning) of a syllable.  Thai is thought to be the first written language that included Tone Marks, but as English speakers these symbols aren’t something that we’ve seen before.

There aren’t spaces between words in Thai.  Many beginner textbooks or learning programs add spaces to make it easier to read, but real Thai doesn’t have spaces between the words and this can take a little getting used to for students of Thai.

Shortcuts & Silver Linings

The good news is that learning to read Thai is not as difficult as people make it seem.  There are some shortcuts that cut down on total learning time and some silver linings that make learning the Thai alphabet easier than English in some ways.

I’m writing another blog post that goes into details on mnemonics, but I want to briefly mention them here.  Mnemonics are memory aids that exploit our natural ability to learn stories and they make learning the Thai alphabet much easier.  Let’s take a look at an example mnemonic with the Thai letter บ.  Most textbooks would tell you that this letter makes a ‘b’ sound, which is true, and then they expect you to remember that forever.  Once you’ve been shown 43 other letters, some of which look quite similar, it can be hard to keep them all straight.

Now let’s look again at the Thai letter บ, but this time you look at notice that it looks like a bucket.  Every time you see this in the future it’s easy to remember the sound it makes because you can quickly associate it with an English word and shape that you already know with the same sound!

A silver lining about learning to read is that all good dictionaries include transcriptions to fall back on.  If you can’t remember small portions of the alphabet or if you’re still struggling with the tone rules, you’ll get a chance to practice and check the correct sound or tone each time you look up a word in the dictionary, which makes things much easier!

In Conclusion

If you’re just going to Thailand for a week or two and want to order some food in Thai or get around a little easier, there’s really no point in learning how to read Thai.  On the other hand, if you live in Thailand or you’re staying there for a few months or more (or if you just really like the language) then you should take the time to sit down and learn the script.  It really only takes a few hours to get the basics down and probably a week to be comfortable with the various rules and exceptions. Just make sure that you spread your learning out over multiple days for the best long-term retention and don’t try to cram the entire Thai alphabet in one afternoon!

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