The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Learn Thai
A quick guide, full with value for everyone who wants to learn Thai quickly.
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Do you want to travel to Thailand and be more than just another tourist? Maybe you’re living in Thailand and you want to be able to speak with Thai people in their own native language. Or perhaps you have a partner who’s Thai?
Learning how to speak Thai can be a great asset for those who want to get the most out of their stay in Thailand. It can also help you to improve relationships with Thai people. Being able to hold conversations in Thai can definitely be a life-changer.
A few years ago I decided to learn Thai after a short visit to Thailand. I had an amazing experience in the country and I wanted to be more than just another tourist during my next visit.
For a few months I tried really hard, but after a while I still wasn’t able to hold a simple conversation in Thai. Eventually I gave up…
Finally, in the summer of 2016 I went back to Thailand on a mission to become conversational in Thai, in only 21 days.
In this article you will learn how I managed to do it. I will show you exactly what I did on a day to day base and give my best tips and tricks so that you can learn Thai more effectively.
1. How I became conversational in 21 days
2. Is Thai a difficult language to learn?
3. Should you learn the Thai alphabet?
4. How to overcome the challenge of tones and pronunciation
5. The secret to speaking Thai from the beginning
6. Powerful Thai resources
My arrival in Bangkok
Together with my friend Olly Richards, I took a plane to Bangkok to see how much Thai we could learn in 21 days.
My goal was to simply succeed at what I failed at during my first attempt; holding a spontaneous, 10-minute conversation in Thai. We documented our whole learning journey in a YouTube video series which you can find here.
As this was quite an ambitious goal, I needed to have a good game plan. Three weeks is not a lot of time, so I had to make sure that I spent my study time on the aspects of Thai that mattered the most.
I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to become conversational in Thai quickly, I had to focus on only two things;
– Learning the most important vocabulary that a beginner needs (1 hour per day)
– Learning how to use these words through a lot of speaking practice (1 hour per day)
That was it! Sounds simple right?
Because I only had 21 days I decided not to learn the alphabet as it would take me a lot of time.
As I already spoke fluent Chinese, I didn’t want to spend too much time on learning the tones and pronunciation. Instead I tried to listen carefully to the sounds of the language and I tried to repeat them out loud, as accurately as possible.
During my stay in Thailand I dedicated a maximum of 2 hours per day to Thai. I learned Thai for 21 days straight so it means that my total study time was more or less 42 hours.
Here’s a video of Olly and me trying to hold our first conversation after only 4 days:
Languages contain tens of thousands of words but only a fraction of them are used on a daily basis by native speakers and only a fraction of those are words that you need for your first conversations. This is called, the Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule).
Especially in a language like Thai, it’s relatively easy to make sentences as the grammar is extremely simple. You just put the words in the right order, make sure your pronunciation is ok and often it works.
But how do you know what the most important vocabulary is that you really need as a beginner? I did a lot of research, but I couldn’t find learning materials which really focus on the most important vocabulary.
Most of the resources I found used way too many advanced words for beginners in the first lessons and dialogues. As my time was very limited, I didn’t want to waste any time learning irrelevant vocabulary. Instead, I wanted to focus on learning the words that I could use right away.
Therefore I created my own learning materials. The good news is that you can use these now as well. You’ll find more information about it in the ‘’resources’’ section of this article.
I learned new words in sentences, as it’s proven that people tend to memorize new words better when they see them in context. The flashcard app Anki helped me to revise new words so that I was less likely to forget them.
My goal for this mission was to learn about 300 words. You might wonder if that’s enough to speak fluent Thai. Well, it’s not enough to speak Thai fluently but it is enough to actually hold simple but spontaneous conversations. In this article I will show you how I did this.
My friend Vladimir Skultety from foreverastudent.com analyzed 80 news articles in Chinese. These are the word frequencies he found. According to this analyses you can already understand 50% of news articles with only 500 words. Imagine how would you could understand of simple conversations. Also in Thai, the 20:80 rules applies.
Learning new words is a very important activity in language learning but without learning how to use those words in real conversations won’t bring you very far.
Mastering a language is a combination of knowing how the language works and being able to use what you know in conversations.
Therefore, I took 1-hour language lessons over Skype every day. You can go to a language school like Olly did, but I chose to take lessons online with a Thai teacher called Jane from Italki.com.
Going to a language school can work well too as you get to interact with other people in Thai in person. However, I decided to take lessons online because it’s quicker. You don’t need to travel (even though I was in the country already), and after your lesson you can just continue doing whatever you were busy with.
Outside of these lessons, I tried to use basic Thai with taxi drivers, in restaurants and I even went to a few language meetups.
I tried to hold simple conversations with my teacher with the words I had learned from the very beginning.
Here’s the first a video where I explain my daily study routine:
Stu Jay Raj is a polyglot originally from Australia, but he has been living in Thailand for over 20 years and speaks Thai like a native. I’ve always been a huge fan of Stu’s work as linguist and a businessman and therefore I was very excited when he asked me if I wanted to stay at his place during my stay in Thailand.
Although Stu was not involved in my daily study routine, Stu regularly gave Olly and me feedback on our Thai:
For three weeks I learned the most important vocabulary by using the Thai version of VocaBooster that I created with my teacher. In total, I had about 20 hours of speaking practice.
By the end of my mission I met my teacher in person and we had a simple but spontaneous conversation in Thai:
Thai is a tonal language, it sounds very different from English and it has a script which might scare you.
Let’s assume that you’re a native speaker of English or that you speak English very well. What does it actually take to become conversational in Thai?
Let’s take a look at the facts.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has created a list to show the approximate time you need to learn different languages as an English speaker:
As you can see in the image above they’ve categorised Thai as a language that has significant differences from English and is therefore not very easy to learn.
What makes the language so different from English?
Thai has a lot of vowels that can be tricky to pronounce for native English speakers. In order to produce some of the sounds in Thai you need to make certain shapes with your month and position your tongue in ways you’ve probably never done before.
Besides the normal vowels you also have double vowels in Thai. This means that two or more vowel sounds are combined into one smooth sound. For example:
– ‘’muang’’ (เมือง), meaning city, consists of the vowels eu + uh.
– ‘’nuay’’ (เหนื่อย), meaning tired, consists of the vowels oo + ay + ee
Getting these sounds right requires some practice and if don’t pronounce words accurately enough Thai people might not understand you.
Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal language. That means that the meaning of a word can change depending on the tone of a syllable. In Thai, every syllable is pronounced in one of the 5 tones low, mid, high, falling, or rising.
If you’ve never learned a tonal language before, it might take you some to recognize the 5 tones and eventually use them yourself.
The Thai script consists of 44 consonants and 15 vowels. Thai is read from left to right and it doesn’t use spaces in the written language, which makes it tricky for beginners to recognize words.
The tone of a syllable is determined by a combination of the class of consonant, the type of syllable, the tone marker and the length of the vowel. Ok, does that sound complicated enough?
It’s possible to learn the most important features of the Thai script in a few weeks but still, it’s considered to be one of the most difficult alphabets in the world.
Thai does have a bunch of loanwords from English. Here a few examples with the romanization and the English translation:
บัส bát bus
ไวโอลิน wai-o-lin violin
คอมพิวเตอร์ khom-phiw-têr computer
เซ็กซ์ sék sex
แท็กซี่ táek sî taxi
ทีวี thi-wi television
Now, let’s take a look at the things that actually make Thai easier than it seems:
Most words in Thai contain only one or two syllables. This is not the case in German and Russian for example. I found it much easier to memorize new vocabulary in Thai than in most European languages.
Like in Chinese, Thai has many compound words; combinations of two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning.
A few examples:
1. หักหน้า hàk nâa
หัก to break + หน้า face = to make someone lose face
2. ทำตัว tam tua
ทำ to do + ตัว body = to behave
3. บอกใบ้ bàwk bâi
บอก to tell + ใบ้ mute = to give a hint
If you already know some some basic vocabulary, memorizing these compound words becomes pretty easy.
This is maybe the most important reason why Thai is not that difficult. There are no conjugations, declensions, inflections etc.
Words in Thai do also not change form with gender, person or even tense. To indicate tense you can simply add words to your sentence like; tomorrow, yesterday, already and will.
In Thai there are no articles and you also don’t need to learn if a word is masculine or feminine like in French or Spanish. The word order is very similar to the word order in English.
What makes Thai easier is that Thai people really appreciate if you try to speak their language and they reply in Thai, even if you don’t speak it very well. This is not always the case with European languages like Dutch for example. When Dutch people hear you have an accent they often reply in English.
If you have a chance to visit Thailand you will notice that you can get a lot of speaking practice if you make the effort to try and speak. You could say that this makes learning Thai easier as well.
Words are relatively short, there are many compound words, the grammar is easy, but on the other hand, the tones and pronunciation can be quite tricky.
Thai is definitely a bit more difficult for a native English speaker than for example Spanish or French, because these languages have much more vocabulary in common with English.
According to the Foreign Service Institute it takes 44 weeks (1110 hours) to reach proficiency. I haven’t tested that, but what’s sure is that in much less time, let’s say 50 to 100 hours, you can reach a basic conversational level.
Here I discuss with Olly if Thai is easy:
This depends on what your learning goals are. If you want to learn how to speak Thai quickly, I would recommend not learning the alphabet at the beginning.
I learned the alphabet after my Thai mission and it found that it really takes some time to learn how all the features work. I still don’t know exactly how the alphabet works to be honest. Learning the alphabet at the start can be intimidating.
If you’re living in Thailand learning the alphabet can indeed be rewarding as you see it everywhere. Likewise, if you already speak some basic Thai it will probably be easier to learn the script as you can starting using it right away. In these situations, you should give it a try.
The key here is to become very good at noticing sounds. Listen very carefully to the sounds of Thai and try to notice the five different tones. You can do this by going to YouTube and search for something like ‘’tones in Thai’’. There are plenty of videos out there where the tones are explained. Repeat what the teacher says out loud.
Once you start practicing your speaking make sure that your teacher corrects your tones and pronunciation from the beginning. Bad habits will be difficult to change after a while. Better get your pronunciation right from the beginning.
If you’ve never learned a tonal language before, it will take some time to get your tones and pronunciation right. Once you finally get it learning Thai will be much easier as the grammar is pretty straightforward and you will soon be able to hold simple conversations.
Ok, so how did I manage hold spontaneous conversations in Thai, after only 21 days?
There are two tricks:
As there are no conjugations, cases and genders in Thai and the word order is pretty similar to English, you can start using the words you learn from the beginning.
In my final video you can see me having a nine minute chat in Thai about basic topics but the reality is that I’m only using a few hundred words. Again, with only a few hundred words you can do a lot, as long as you know how to use them.
So what’s my secret to become conversational in Thai quickly? Pay attention to the pronunciation and tones, learn the most important vocabulary first and practise your speaking skills from the beginning with tutors on websites like Italki.com.
VOCABOOSTER THAI – This is the course I created myself for this project. We’ve hand-picked the most important vocabulary for those who want to start speaking and communicating in Thai from the beginning.
Besides the ebook we will also send you native audio recordings and Anki Flashcard decks with the content of the course.
This is the language school where Olly studied during our trip.
He highly recommends it!
LEARNING THE THAI SCRIPT
Learn Thai from a White Guy – Simple but effective course to learn the Thai script in two weeks. I’ve done this course myself and it works really well! Highly recommended!
AFTER THE BASICS
Glossika Thai – We find Glossika a great resource for those who already have a foundation in Thai. This course is great to use after VocaBooster Thai for example.
Glossika comes with 1000’s of sentences in Thai. In the beginning they are easy, but as you go further through the course they become trickier.
A THAI OPERATING SYSTEM FOR YOUR MIND
Cracking Thai Fundamentals – Stu Jay’s course is a collection of interactive courses that will prepare your mind, body and environment with everything that you need to develop a high level of competency in both using the Thai language and working and living with Thai people.
Choosing Thailand as the destination for a language mission definitely had its benefits…
Although this project was very short, I really enjoyed learning Thai in Bangkok. If you’re planning to learn Thai, I hope this article will be useful for you.
If you have friends who are planning to learn Thai, it would be great if you could share this article with them. This way you help me out, and your friends as well 😉
Chok di! (good luck)
Jan van der Aa traveled to 100 countries and learned 10 languages before he turned 30. On his website he shares his language learning experience and helps people from all over the world to learn languages faster.
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