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The 4 Most Difficult Aspects of Thai and How to Overcome Them

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Like the culture it represents the Thai language is beautiful and multifaceted. If you’ve decided to learn Thai you’re in for a real language learning treat!

However, your Thai learning journey won’t be all sunshine and roses. If you’re a native English speaker, there are some real challenges standing between you and fluency.

But that’s no reason to despair or thrown in the towel. The truth is that these challenges, though they often look intimidating, are common and countless students before you have overcome them. You just need a little practice and perseverance!

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In this article, we look at four of the most common hurdles students face while learning Thai, and we give some practical tips on how to move past them. Enjoy!

1) The Thai Script

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If you’re a native English speaker and Thai is your first foreign language, you may be in for a shock when you first encounter the Thai script. In English, we’re coming from a Latin based alphabet. If we see written languages like French, Spanish, German or even Romanian we’re a lot more comfortable. Heck, even languages as far-flung as Russian and Vietnamese make use of Latin characters.

But when it comes to the Thai alphabet, nothing is going to look familiar. You will have a whole new set of characters to become familiar with. You’ll also start to notice that the Thai alphabet, doesn’t work as a true alphabet the same way the English one does. Characters representing consonants are often interspersed with diacritic marks which represent vowel sounds. If that wasn’t foreign enough, there are also four tone marks (one tone has no mark). More on the Thai tones later!

It’s this mixture of characters and marks that make up written Thai words.

When studying Thai it’s important to start learning the alphabet as soon as possible. Knowing how to read Thai will open the doors to new study materials, literature, media, and so much more. The best way to get started is to learn the Thai alphabet like you did the English one: one step at a time.

The truth is foreign alphabets look a lot more intimidating than they actually are. Once you dive in and start practicing you’ll most likely pick things up quicker than you thought.

2) Tonal system

Tonal system

Like other languages native to Asia, Thai is a tonal language. This means that the pitch of your Thai pronunciation will affect the meaning of what you say. There are a total of five tones in Thai: low, mid, high, falling, and rising.

The best way to practice the tones is to learn them individually and then practice hearing them as well as speaking them. Once you’ve spent some time practicing the tones one by one, test yourself with native audio.

Listen to a native conversation and try to pick out the words you hear. If you can get a written version of the conversation double check it after you’ve listened back a few times. Focus on the sounds you missed and work through them more slowly. You can also record yourself saying the conversation aloud and compare your recording to the native one.

ThaiPod101 is a perfect tool for this kind of auditory exercise because their lessons are built around Thai conversations. Each lesson has a transcript and you can even play back individual words at a slower pace if needed!

3) Regional differences in the language

Thailand

Most spoken languages have different dialects or mild differences in different parts of the world. Thai is no exception. For example, the Thai spoken in the North of Thailand (known as the Isan region) shares more commonalities with the language of nearby Laos than the Thai spoken in other regions of Thailand.

Usually, this isn’t a huge problem for students. Regional differences appear more often in day to day informal speech, and less in media or learning materials. Advance students and travelers might have to grapple with these differences but the average language learner is unlikely to.

If you do encounter a regional difference it’s nothing to sweat about either. Think of it as a door to another room in the deep and mysterious hall that is Thai. The bulk of the language will be the same, so you should able to figure out the words you don’t know pretty well for the words you do know.

4) Listening comprehension

Listening

Once you get past the alphabet and have a decent handle on the tones, you will most likely notice a big jump in your language ability. Basic phrases and common words will start coming to you fairly easily. When you start speaking with native speakers though, you will hit the next major roadblock on your journey: listening comprehension.

Listening comprehension is a common problem every language learner faces, whether he or she is learning Thai or a different language. For me, nothing was more discouraging than feeling like native speakers talk at 100+ miles per hour. Even though I knew core vocabulary and grammar, I couldn’t understand Thai when it was spoken naturally.

Fortunately, this challenge is nothing a little practice and a bit of patience can’t solve. Remember the listening exercises we did for the Thai tones? To improve your listening skills, you just need to take that basic exercise and expand it ever so slightly.

When you were working on the five tones you focused on pronouncing and hearing individual words. Well, when you want to take your listening skills to the next level you just need to move from practicing single words to practicing whole phrases.

When words are spoken together in rapid succession, the syllables in the word can be combined, changed, or even dropped altogether. It’s these changes that throw off new students. This happens in every language, not just Thai.

Think of the English phrase. “How are you doing?”. Depending on what part of the English speaking world you’re from, this phrase can sound like “How you doing?” “How ya doin’?” or “How’r you doing?”. What’s natural for native English speakers is not natural to students of the language, and the same goes for Thai.

Practicing your listening skills with whole phrases will help you develop your ear and pick up the nuances of spoken Thai that are unfamiliar to you.

Conclusion

If you’ve studied Thai for more than a week or two you’ll realize pretty quickly it’s no walk in the park. However, the challenges you face shouldn’t discourage you from learning the language. No matter which aspect of the language is giving you trouble, there’s a method or technique for overcoming it. Hopefully, this article inspired you and gave you some practical tools for your journey through the Thai language!

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