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Thai Language Difficulty: Is It Easy or Hard to Learn Thai?

Thai Language Difficulty: Is It Easy or Hard to Learn Thai?

is thai hard to learn

Have you ever thought of learning Thai? The idea of traveling or moving to Thailand might have presented you with this question. But before you can answer that, you might want to know how difficult it is to learn Thai.

The Thai language isn’t easy — especially for native English speakers. According to the Foreign Service Institute’s Language Difficulty Rankings, Thai is in category IV, like Finnish, Greek, And Hindi. And that means an English speaker would take around 1,100 hours to be fluent in the language. So, the Thai language is difficult.

But why is the Thai language so mind-bending? What makes it take so long to master the language? Read on to find out the obstacles most native English speakers face when learning Thai.

Why Is the Thai Language so Difficult to Learn?

Before answering why the Thai language is difficult, you should understand the basics of language difficulty. Why? Because basically, the language difficulty changes depending on your mother tongue.

How easily you can learn a new language depends on how different your first language is from the target language.

Thai language might be easy if you speak Cantonese daily. Why? Because Cantonese and Thai share many characteristics, from pronunciation to grammar and even vocabulary.

And besides, it also depends on your experience with language learning. If Thai were your third language after Mandarin or Cantonese, you could breeze through the linguistic differences. You have done it before, so you should breeze through it next time around.

So, is Thai a difficult language? It depends.

Is Thai harder than Chinese, Japanese, and Korean? It also depends.

But for English speakers, the Thai language is mind-boggling. And here are the 3 simple reasons.

1. The Infamous 5 Tones

First and foremost, Thai is a “tonal language.” And this concept is alien to native English speakers.

So, what is the “tonal system?”

Basically, it’s how one word can change its meaning based on the tone you choose to articulate. And Thai has 5 — 0th to 4th. For example,

  • “Cow” in the 0th tone (locals call it “สามัญ” or “Saman” tone) means “smell of meat, blood, or fish.” It could also describe the main course of a meal in different contexts.
  • “Cow” in the 1st tone (locals call it “เอก” or “Ake” tone) means “news.”
  • “Cow” in the 2nd tone (locals call it “โท” or “Toe” tone) means “rice”
  • “Cow” in the 3rd tone (locals call it “ตรี” or “Tree” tone) doesn’t mean anything.
  • “Cow” in the 4th tone (locals call it “จัตวา” or “Chattawa” tone) means “white.”

If your original language is non-tonal — like English — you will have difficulty distinguishing each tone. Not to mention simulating one.

2. The Almost Impossible Sounds

Several consonant and vowel sounds exist in Thai but not in English.

For consonants, it’s the “ng” sound. You might be familiar with this sound at the end of these words: thing, song, and long. However, the English lexicon doesn’t have any word that begins with “ng.”

In Thai, though, many words start with “ng” or the alphabet “ง.” For example “ง่าย” (ngai), “งี่เง่า” (ngee-ngao), “งู” (ngoo), “เง็ม” (ngem), “โง่” (ngo), and much more. So, English speakers will have a hard time trying to pronounce these words correctly.

On the vowel side, there is the “- ือ.” The sound is similar to “oo” + “a,” but not exactly. It is a unique sound that doesn’t exist in English.

Furthermore, the “- ือ” can mix with other vowels to generate even more sounds that might confuse English speakers further.

3. The Mind-Blowing Grammar

Grammar is always merciless in whatever language you try to learn.

One of the most irritating features of Thai grammar for English speakers is how the locals use adjectives.

In English, adjectives are put before a noun to describe a person, animal, or object. For example, “red car,” or “tall boy.”

In Thai, however, the nouns and adjectives switch places. The noun comes first, then the adjective follows. For example, if you want to say “red car” you have to say “รถสีแดง” (Rot See Daeng) — and it can be directly translated as “car red.”

If you know Spanish, you might say that “Spanish does the same.” But don’t let that trick you into thinking Thai is similar to Spanish. Why? Because the similarity ends there.

The Thai language doesn’t have the concept of “tense.” That means you can forget all about the verb conjugation and time-related functions of English and Spanish. They are all gone.

Remember that these are just a few examples of confusing Thai grammar. There is much more you need to learn. But don’t let that discourage you. There are ways you can learn to speak Thai more effectively.

What Is the Easiest Way to Learn Thai?

There are thousands of ways to learn Thai. However, not all of them are easy. Some might even spiral you down to the depth of confusion and misunderstanding. And once you hit rock bottom, it will be back-breaking to get back up.

So, it is recommended that you take an official Thai course.

It can be a Herculean task to learn Thai only from a book without the supervision of a native or a proper way to evaluate yourself. So, search for Thai courses on the internet.

Of course, there are many online Thai courses — free and paid — with various goals, like speaking or writing. So, choose the ones that suit your liking. But if you’re unsure which ones to take, here is the recommended Thai online courses list.

However, some of you might not be that interested in online courses. And that’s understandable. So, are there any other easy ways to learn Thai?

Going to Thailand is one of the best solutions. This might not be the most budget-friendly way to do things, but the result is guaranteed. Why? Because you will be forced to speak Thai all the time.

In such a situation, you would gradually adapt and learn some essential words and phrases or even the culture.

But if going to Thailand is impossible for you, here are other ways to learn Thai fast and effectively.

Mastering Thai Is Achievable

Despite the high difficulty level, you can definitely be fluent in Thai. 

Many English-speaking ex-pats in Thailand have overcome linguistic differences and speak Thai like a local. Some can even write in Thai. And some can even teach.

So, you can surely master the Thai language too.

Like always, if you want to learn more about Thailand, stay with ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.

Jordan Sully

I'm a Thailand fanatic who has been traveling to the Kingdom since 2017. The country has given me so much, this is my small way of giving back. I hope the articles on this site help you to learn more about Thailand and inspire your next adventure to The Land of Smiles. Thanks for checking out ThaiGuider!

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