So you are wondering at the moment how to speak Thai? Is it doable? Or nearly impossible? You have come to the right place. I have studied Thai using 3 different methods, with varying success and I can tell you it’s not as hard as you’d think (if you do your homework, that is).
I’ve been living in Thailand on a few different occasions (and visited countless times) and to me, it’s self-evident that if you live somewhere, you will start learning the language. If you’d be enjoying all the positive things a country has to offer why wouldn’t you familiarise yourself with the language, at least a little bit?
Keep reading and you will find out which is the best way to learn Thai, in my opinion, and which pitfalls to avoid.
Learn How to Speak Thai – the Transliterated Way
I first studied Thai in Finland almost a decade ago. The teacher was Thai and we used his own material. We didn’t study the alphabets but used the transliterated way, ie. how a Thai word would be written in the English alphabets (well, Finnish, to be more exact but you get the point). This seems the easiest way but is it really the best way?
We learned the most useful phrases and words that a traveller might need. The teacher had prepared sheets with a wide array of vocab. Some of it was very useful but others I found a bit strange. He was a bit of a character, though.
We used the drilling method, repeating phrases over and over again and yes, some of these stuck in my head. When I later compared the pronunciation with other methods, I noticed that there are differences, nevertheless. It is impossible to produce the exact same pronunciation using Western ABC:s compared to using Thai alphabets.
Then again, Thailand is a huge country and the pronunciation varies among Thais also, depending on where they are from. The farangs (foreigners in Thai) are taught the Bangkok dialect which is also the standard Thai taught at schools.
It is nice to be able to utter a few sentences but from my point of view, you are missing out on a lot of things if you can’t read. First, you are able to start recognising words everywhere (menus, street signs etc) and, ultimately, this will enhance your learning. Second, can you imagine the elation when you start figuring out what the “secret, coded language” actually means? Oh, pure joy, I can tell you that. And third – let’s be vain for a moment – you can impress your Thai friends. Okay, last but not least, maybe it might be useful if you needed to visit some offices or deal with bureaucracy (if you know the language quite good, though).
Study Thai Online by Yourself
The second time I started studying Thai, I did it on my own, using an online platform and a style called the Rapid Method. This self-study method really is unconventional but I liked it a lot and I found it very useful.
It started with the alphabets and indeed the most utilised ones. Even though the Thai language has 44 consonants (the number of vocals varies a bit depending on the classification system), only a small number of them are used frequently.
I noticed this on my own when I was watching Netflix and the subtitles were in Thai. I was amazed when I realised that it was mostly the same letters that kept coming. Of course, you do need to learn the rare ones as well if you really want to be fluent in Thai but most of them you won’t be using that much.
Anyway, back to the Rapid Method. In this learning style, the alphabets are depicted as very peculiar or shocking cartoon characters that stick to your head. Or what would you say about ladyboys who are into S&M practice or a guy urinating and shouting “Aaaaaaaah!” while relieving himself? That’s right! These images stay in your head. I can still remember the funny characters even though it’s been a few years now.
The developer of this method, Gary Orman, gives pronunciation advise and you get the idea pretty fast. The downside is, of course, that you don’t have a teacher next to you that you could make questions to or correct you if you are having difficulties with some words. However, you can email Gary if you need a hand and he will be happy to help you. Moreover, you can try the Rapid Method for free so you have nothing to lose.
Unfortunately, self-study means that you don’t have a group to support you. I’m often a bit of a loner though when it comes to studying so, in that sense, this method suits me. But I do recognise the benefits of having a group to help you out and a teacher present in the class. If you are very social or not super disciplined, perhaps this is not the best way to start your Thai language studies.
Study at Language School
I studied for about 5 months at KPT Language School, on Koh Phangan. I became good friends with some of the people in the class. The classes were actually really enjoyable with this crew. Humour was not scarce, nonetheless, most of us did take studying seriously.
Yet, let me tell you, it is NOT a walk in the park. If you miss classes and don’t do your homework, you will not pass the course. Period. This means that you need to change your group to the next available beginner’s course and start all over again. This happened to quite a few.
We started with the alphabets and I was lucky since I had been learning them earlier in the Rapid Method. I didn’t remember all of the letters but the review brought them back to me quite fast. The course really means a lot of work and if you don’t study, you will be left behind (sorry, I don’t want to scare you off but just trying to be honest here).
By the way, if you do decide to enrol in a course, this post gives some useful advice on how to obtain a student visa for Thailand.
The Benefits of Speaking Thai
I think it’s fair to say that most people everywhere appreciate it if you bother to learn just a few words in their mother tongue. I usually visited the same ladies in the marketplace on Koh Phangan so started exchanging a few words with them while the course progressed simultaneously. How happily surprised they were when I spoke Thai with them. They start smiling and say, “Oh, you speak Thai. Very good!” You make yourself happy and them!
On a more practical level, when you seem like a local, you get treated like one. Thais often like to add a bit of extra on the prices (especially items such as clothing, souvenirs etc, not on food or groceries that much) but if you ask the price in Thai, you are more likely to be getting a fairer price. And if you can haggle the prices in Thai, all the better!
If you are out of the tourist zone in Thailand not many locals necessarily speak English. I was working in Thailand, in Rayong which is quite a big city but most people there didn’t know any English. It was good because I was forced to open my mouth and get out of my comfort zone. Even just a few words can get you a long way if the locals don’t speak any English.
Okay, I hope this article has given you encouragement and you’d consider learning Thai. I know from experience that it is not impossible but it does take some effort, of course. I have learned through 3 different methods. They all have advantages and disadvantages. We are all different learners so it is up to you to choose the way that suits you.
By the way, Koh Phangan is a lovely island and worth a visit in itself. You could easily study and live there because it has a lot of things to offer: you could go hiking on Koh Phangan, visit its amazing saunas or do a yoga teacher training on Koh Phangan. Can’t wait to go back there soon again!
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