Even though you can survive in Thailand without knowing any Thai words (especially in big cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai), knowing basic Thai words will make everyday life easier and more convenient.
That’s why we have put together this complete guide for beginners to learn to speak Thai – from the basic knowledge about how the Thai language is structured, and how tones and sounds work, to essential Thai words that anyone should know.
Learning to Speak Thai: How the Thai Language Works
Words and Script:
One of the trickiest parts for beginners when learning the Thai language is the Thai script. The Thai language is written using its unique alphabet, which originates from the old Khmer script known as ‘aksorn Thai (อักษรไทย)’ (1).
Thai script is written from left to right, with vowels sitting on top and below consonants (2). Thai language also does not use spaces in the written language, and there are no such things as capital letters and lower cases.
Unlike English, the Thai language does not also use punctuation to the same extent that the English language does. Even though full stops (or periods) can signify the end of a sentence, blank spaces are often used more in the Thai language.
Commas can also be used for the same function as they are used in English. There are brackets and quotation marks in the Thai language too. One punctuation form that is unique to the Thai language is the ‘kho mut’ ๛ (โคมูตร) which is used to signify the end of a document or a story (1).
Due to the way Thai characters are ordered, you might need to look above or to the right of a character to read it correctly (1). In the Thai alphabet, there are 72 characters (44 consonants and 28 vowels) (1). However, note that 6 of these characters (2 consonants and 4 vowels) are no longer used because they are a relic from old Thai or taken from Pali or Sanskrit (1).
This makes the Thai language very tricky for beginners when recognizing the words. So it is no surprise that the Thai language is considered to have one of the most challenging alphabets in the world to learn (3).
Tones and Sounds:
Like the Chinese language, the Thai language is a ‘tonal language’ (3). Tonal language means that every syllable is pronounced in the tone of one of these 5 tones – low tone, mid-tone, high tone, falling tone, or rising tone. It also means that depending on the tone of a syllable, the meaning of a word can change entirely (3).
The tone of a syllable is also determined by a combination of the syllable’s type, the class of consonant, the length of the vowel, and the tone marker. This makes the Thai language a tricky language to learn, especially for foreigners whose native language does not have such tones.
For anyone who has never learned a tonal language before, it might take a while to get used to the differences between the 5 tones and to pronounce them accordingly.
Thai language is also considered extremely hard to pronounce and has many vowels that are tricky to get the correct sound out for native English speakers. This is because producing some of the sounds in the Thai language requires one to make specific shapes with the mouth and position the tongue in ways you have probably not done before (3).
Also, those normal vowels have double vowels in the Thai language, meaning that two or more vowel sounds are combined in the Thai language to produce one smooth sound.
Here are some examples of this:
- The word ‘muang’ (เมือง), which means city, is also used for famous places like Don Muang Airport or Muang Thong Thani Arena, consists of the vowels ‘eu’ + ‘uh.’
- The word ‘nuay’ (เหนื่อย), which means tired, consists of the vowels ‘oo’ + ‘ay’ + ‘ee.’
For people whose native language does not have such kinds of sounds (where two or more vowels are put together to create one vowel sound), getting these sounds right would require some time and practice. Otherwise, it would be awkward to pronounce these words, and local people might not understand them as they have not been pronounced accurately (3).
This may be the easiest part for beginners when learning the Thai language. Compared to other languages, it is notorious for having relatively few simple-to-understand grammar rules and structures (4).
Thai language’s grammar structure is easy for native English speakers or people already familiar with English, as sentences are expressed in the same way in both languages through Subjects, Verbs, and Objects (SVO) order (4). However, it would help to keep in mind that Thai people sometimes use the Object + Verb + Subject (OVS) order when they want to emphasize the Object (4).
Another similarity between the grammar structure of Thai and English is that both languages make use of personal pronouns, even though Thai has more pronouns.
Here are some useful pronouns for Thai language beginners (5):
- chǎn (ฉัน) = I
- khun (คุณ) = you
- man (มัน) = it
- khǎo (เขา) = he/him
- thooe/làawn (เธอ/หล่อน) = she/her
- phûuak rao (พวกเรา) = we/us
- phûuak khǎo (พวกเขา) = they/them
- khǎawng khun (ของคุณ) = yours
- khǎawng chǎn (ของฉัน) = my/mine
- khǎawng khǎo (phûu chaai) (ของเขา (ผู้ชาย)) = his
- khǎawng thooe/khǎawng làawn (ของเธอ/ของหล่อน) = hers
- khǎawng phûuak rao (ของพวกเรา) = our/ours
Unlike French or Spanish, one does not need to learn about masculine or feminine words in the Thai language.
Also, words do not change form with the person, gender, or even tenses. There are no present tenses or past tenses in Thai words; simply adding words like yesterday, already, tomorrow, or will to the sentences is enough (3).
Unique Thai Language Structures:
Even though Thai grammar is pretty simple and easy to understand, there are some unique rules that every beginner should know:
1. Different Ways Of Speaking Thai When It Comes To Royal Family And Monks
As a country where monarchy still exists, the Thai royal family is considered to hold the highest status in the country and others have to use different words and speeches when talking to the royals.
Also, monks are considered above ordinary people due to Buddhist beliefs, so people also have to communicate differently when talking to the monks. Whatsmore, these words are complicated and not very easy to remember. Hence, most local people can even misuse them most of the time.
Below are some examples of the words used when communicating with the royal family members and the monks (4):
|English meaning||Normal Thai word||Thai word for royal family||Thai word for monks|
|eat||กิน (gin)||เสวย (sà-wǒoei)||ฉัน (chǎn)|
|sick||ป่วย (bpùuai)||ทรงพระประชวร (song-phrá-bprà-chuuan)||อาพาธ (aa-phâat)|
|food||อาหาร (aa-hǎan)||พระกระยาหาร (phrá-grà-yaa-hǎan)||ภัตตาหาร (phát-dtaa-hǎan)|
2. Numeric Quantifiers and Classifiers
Unlike other languages, nouns do not have singular or plural forms in Thai. To identify the amount or quantity, Thai people put quantifiers for almost everything, and this pattern follows the format below (6):
Noun + Amount or Number + Quantifier
The most standard quantifier that can be used for most of the nouns is “an (อัน).” This quantifier can be used when there is no specific quantifier designated for the noun.
There are also other types of quantifiers, and they include (6):
- bai (ใบ) – used with pillows, cups, bowls, leaves, glasses, dishes
- thâaeng (แท่ง) – used with pencils
- dâam (ด้าม) – used with pens
- gâaeo (แก้ว) / khùuat (ขวด) – used with nouns related to liquids, foods, and grains
3. Special Pronoun Type
A special type of pronoun in the Thai language is called wí-phâak-sàp-phá-naam (วิภาคสรรพนาม), which is used with a group of nouns to describe whether each component of that group performs the same action or not (4). There is no such pronoun or word in English, making it a unique Thai language rule.
For example, thúk-khon-dtàang-chûuai-tham-ngaan (ทุกคนต่างช่วยกันทำงาน) = each of everyone is helping each other working’ or ‘everyone works together.’
Why You Should Learn & Speak Thailand’s Language
With the Thai language being complicated and not easy to remember, you might think, why to bother learning the language, especially if foreigners can survive in Thailand without speaking any Thai.
Even though most Thai people speak English, or a version known as ‘Tinglish’, here are a few reasons why you should learn at least a beginners’ level Thai language if you are going to spend time in Thailand.
Better Social Integration:
Thai people love it when foreigners can speak their language, even when the pronunciations or sentence structures may be off. By communicating with locals in the Thai language, you can gain many new friends and fast-track your language skills in the process. The locals will be more than happy to help you understand their language and even teach you some slang words that you cannot learn formally in the textbooks.
Also, more of the older generation do not speak English. So, if you can speak Thailand, you can easily be friends with almost everyone – from the neighbors in your new Thai home to the vendors in the markets.
Less Likely To Get Scammed:
Thailand is relatively safe for everyone, but some scams are targeted at tourists and foreigners, such as the infamous jet ski scam and ladyboys scam that used to happen a lot in Pattaya. They are more likely to scam foreigners who cannot speak any Thai language as they won’t be able to argue back. So, if you can talk even the beginners’ level Thai, you are more likely to get yourself out of troublesome situations.
Also, some taxi drivers and TukTuk drivers may try to overcharge the foreigners as they know these foreigners won’t complain much due to the language barrier. But if you know how to speak some Thai, for example, tell them to open the meter in the taxi or ask for a fixed price before getting on the TukTuk, they will not be able to take advantage.
Most importantly, if you can understand and speak Thai, you can easily ask for help anytime, anywhere.
Thailand is known as a shopping paradise and has a lot of places, from high-end department stores to weekend flea markets. You won’t need any bargaining skills when shopping at department stores and malls. But bargaining is much needed for flea markets like the famous Chatuchak weekend market or retail malls like Platinum Mall.
Even though the merchants display prices on the products, you can always ask for a lower price at these markets. And if they don’t show any price (and the merchant says whatever price they want), keep in mind that they might try to overcharge you as a foreigner. So, it would be best if you always asked for a discounted price.
And bargaining is more effective when speaking the Thai language, especially the numbers, as many vendors don’t speak English that well. Here are how to count the numbers in the Thai language (7) so that you can easily bargain and get more bang for your bucks (or bahts!)
- sun (ศูนย์) = 0
- nùeng (หนึ่ง) = 1
- sǎawng (สอง) = 2
- sǎam (สาม) = 3
- sìi (สี่) = 4
- hâa (ห้า) = 5
- hòk (หก) = 6
- jèt (เจ็ด) = 7
- bpàaet (แปด) = 8
- gâo (เก้า) = 9
More Job Opportunities:
Knowing the Thai language will be a great asset if you are an international student studying in Thailand. Many companies require their candidates to speak the Thai language, at least at a conversational level.
Of course, there are still jobs that do not require knowing the Thai language but knowing the local language will give you much more opportunities. Perhaps a thai speaker job if you start to get confident. Also, being familiar with the Thai language will help broaden social circles as an expat living in Thailand. It’s easier to join clubs, take classes, and attend events if you know how to communicate in Thai.
For the foreigners who want to start a relationship with a Thai person, learning the native language can help strengthen relationships. There will be no language barrier which can be pretty frustrating at times.
By knowing the language, one can get to know their Thai partner more deeply and communicate with their friends and family who may not know how to speak English. Especially if they are from the countryside and not from the major cities. It also shows that you are putting effort into making the relationship work despite the differences and likely gaining more positive feelings from your partner.
20 Basic Thai Words for Beginners to Speak Thai
If the reasons stated above have successfully convinced you to start learning the Thai language, here are some basic Thai words that every beginner should know (8).
These words and phrases are easy to memorize and can be used in everyday life, making them essential for beginners who want to speak in Thai language. Please note that the word ‘ka’ is used for every phrase if the speaker is female, while the word ‘krup’ or ‘krub’ is used if it is male speaking (9).
- Sawadee khrup/ka (สวัสดี – ครับ / ค่ะ) = Hello
- Sa bai dee mai khrup/ka (สบายดีไหม – ครับ / ค่ะ) = How are you?
- Sa bai dee khrup/ka (สบายดี – ครับ / ค่ะ) = I’m fine, thank you.
- Khop khun khrup/ka (ขอบคุณ – ครับ / ค่ะ) = Thank you
- Chai khrup/ka (ใช่ – ครับ / ค่ะ) = Yes
- Mai khrup/ka (ไม่ – ครับ / ค่ะ) = No
- Mai ben rai khrup/ka (ไม่เป็นไร – ครับ / ค่ะ) = Nevermind/ It’s okay/ No problem
- Phom/chan phut phasa Thai mai dai khrup/ka (ผมฉันพูดภาษาไทยไม่ได้ – ครับ / ค่ะ) = I cannot speak Thai
- Ga-ru-na phut cha cha khrup/ka (กรุณาพูดช้าๆ– ครับ / ค่ะ) = Please speak slowly
- Phom/chan mai kao jai khrup/ka (ผมฉันไม่เข้าใจ – ครับ / ค่ะ) = I don’t understand
- Nee ku arai khrup/ka (นี่คืออะไร – ครับ / ค่ะ) = What is this?
- Ra ka tao rai khrup/ka? (ราคาเท่าไหร่ – ครับ / ค่ะ) = How much is it?
- Paeng mak khrup/ka! (แพงมาก – ครับ / ค่ะ) = That’s expensive!
- Ga ru na lot rakha hai noi dai mai khrup/ka? (กรุณาลดราคาให้หน่อยได้ไหม- ครับ / ค่ะ) = Can you give me a discount please?
- Ga-ru-na gep dang duay khrup/ka (กรุณาเก็บตังค์ด้วย – ครับ / ค่ะ) = Can I have the bill please?
- Hong nam yu tee nai khrup/ka? (ห้องน้ำอยู่ที่ไหน – ครับ / ค่ะ) = Where is the restroom?
- Leow jer gan na khrup/ka (แล้วเจอกันนะ – ครับ / ค่ะ) = See you later/bye!
- By gon khrup/ka (ไปก่อน ครับ / ค่ะ) = Goodbye
- Khor thoad khrup/ka (ขอโทษ – ครับ / ค่ะ) = Sorry/Excuse me
- Yin dee thi dai roojak (ยินดีที่ได้รู้จัก – ครับ / ค่ะ) = Nice to meet you
Loan Words From English
Many Thai words are adopted from English, but one might not immediately recognize them, as they are pronounced quite differently in Thai. Here are some of the examples of loan words from English and how to pronounce them in Thai (3):
- bát (บัส) = bus
- khom-phiw-têr (คอมพิวเตอร์) = computer
- táek sî (แท็กซี่) = taxi
- wai-o-lin (ไวโอลิน) = violin
- thi-wi (ทีวี) = television/TV
How To Start Learning Thai Language?
For those who want to take their Thai language learning to the next level, these are the resources that can help you continue your Thai language learning journey.
The first one is the Thaipod101 online courses that many foreigners recommend for other foreigners (8). Many introductory courses on the site are suitable for beginners. You can get free access to lessons about Thai scripts and useful Thai phrases by simply signing up on the website (10).
Another learn to speak thai app is Learn Thai from a White Guy, a simple but effective course to learn Thai script in two weeks (3).
If you prefer language schools instead of online sources (as different styles work for different people), here are some of the language schools that foreigners recommend:
4 Tips for Beginners to Speak Like a Thai
Finally, this article has compiled some of the tips and know-how to make your Thai language journey as a beginner easier and more effective (11). Please remember that everyone works at a different pace and has different learning styles. Hence, it is totally up to you to choose the way you would like to learn the Thai language as a beginner – after all, learning a new language should be fun and exciting too!
1. Learn to Read
Yes, learning all the forty-four consonants and twenty-eight vowels isn’t easy. Many expats usually give up on reading the language and instead focus on improving their conversational skills. However, knowing how to read Thai can make a big difference in speaking it and greatly help while living there.
Reading Thai will enable you to use a Thai-English dictionary, which is a must for everyone learning a new language. To help your reading skills, Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s series of textbooks from “Thai for Beginners” are highly recommended. They introduce Thai to the beginner through a special Romanized script accessible before gradually introducing the Thai letters to the English speakers, making learning easier (11).
2. Find Someone to Converse in Thai With
Having a conversation partner can help improve language skills and make the whole learning process less tedious. It is also easy to find local people who can converse with you one-to-one, as most Thai people are friendly and eager to help. You can speak in Thai with them for an hour, and in exchange, talk in English with them for another hour so that both of you can improve your language skills.
If you don’t know where to start looking for a conversational partner, then maybe try reaching out to Thai universities (such as Chulalongkorn or Thammasat), as these universities usually have conversation clubs run by students who are looking to improve their English skills (11).
3. Learn the Correct Tone
This is essential for every beginner as Thai is a tonal language, and one difference in the tone for the same word can change the whole meaning of that word. It is essential to learn the correct tones from the beginning. If you get used to speaking in monotone, it will take a long time to fix that habit and learn the correct tones again.
Also, not being able to speak in appropriate tones will make learning the Thai language more frustrating as local people won’t be able to understand what you are saying if you are not using the correct tones (12). Another benefit of learning the right tones from the start is that you can improve your listening skills by knowing how the word is supposed to sound. It will help to understand when native speakers are talking.
To learn the correct tones, it is recommended to learn Thai from native speakers. Spending time with a native speaker will help you understand the individual phonemes, the phonetic building blocks of the language (11).
Hanging out with the locals can also help you learn the tones as you get used to how the words are supposed to sound. This will help you to be able to differentiate between different tones. It may seem complicated and time-consuming, but it is indeed important and will bring you more benefits than the hardships you may face while learning.
4. Learn from Thai Music Videos
Many Thai music videos have their lyrics displayed across the bottom of the screen through the music video. This can help beginners improve their Thai language skills as they can practice two skills at once – reading and listening.
One can also build up their Thai vocabulary knowledge by listening to Thai songs and watching music videos, as the translation of the lyrics can be found online. This learning style is not only fun but also can make you a popular ‘insider’ among young Thai students, as they love to watch Thai music videos and are fans of Thai superstars (11).
Compared to English, Thai words are pronounced differently, and some words require you to move your mouth and tongue in ways you have probably have never done before. For these reasons, the Thai language is considered hard to learn for English speakers. However, it is not impossible to speak in Thai.
The benefits of learning the Thai language outweigh the hardships and struggles during the process. We hope our explanations about the Thai language and tips on how beginners can learn to speak Thai found in this article are helpful to anyone looking to start learning this unique language.
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2. Fon. About Thailand’s Alphabet. ThaiAlphabet. [Online] [Cited: February 5, 2022.] https://www.thaialphabet.net/.
3. Aa, Jan van der. The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide To Learn Thai. LanguageBoost. [Online] [Cited: February 5, 2022.] https://languageboost.biz/beginners-guide-learn-thai/.
4. ThaiPod101. An Easy-Breezy Thai Grammar Guide. ThaiPod101. [Online] March 18, 2021. https://www.thaipod101.com/blog/2021/03/18/thai-grammar-overview/.
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7. ThaiPod101. The Best Guide To Learn Thai Numbers for Daily Usage. ThaiPod101. [Online] October 24, 2019. https://www.thaipod101.com/blog/2019/10/24/thai-numbers/.
8. Peter. Thai Talk – Thai For Beginners Lesson 1. The Thailand Life. [Online] September 21, 2021. https://www.thethailandlife.com/thai-talk-thai-for-beginners-lesson-1/.
9. Pang_Pb. Question About Thai. Hi Native. [Online] September 8, 2020. https://hinative.com/en-US/questions/17231723/.
10. Learn Thai From A White Guy. Learn Thai Online. Learn Thai From A White Guy. [Online] [Cited: February 5, 2022.] https://learnthaifromawhiteguy.com/?aff=11/.
11. King, Paul. 8 Essential Tips For Learning Thai. Matador Network. [Online] May 11, 2011. https://matadornetwork.com/abroad/8-essential-tips-for-learning-thai/.
12. Edgar. 7 Tips To Learn Thai For Total Beginners – From an advanced Thai language Student. Thai With Grace. [Online] September 14, 2020. https://thaiwithgrace.com/tips-learn-thai-total-beginners/.