We have mentioned a few times here about how tones are used in Thai. Much like in the Chinese language, each word has an associated tone or changes in pitch that affects the meaning of it. This can sometimes lead to awkward situations if you do it for the wrong word.
For speakers of languages that don’t use tones, it can be a difficult adjustment to learn. However, in English, there are situations where we use tones while we speak. So how are the Thai tones pronounced? In total, there are 5 tones used in the Thai language. Here is a quick guide that will help you pronounce them.
The low tone is the first one we will be looking at. For this, it is simply a case of saying the word in a slightly lower pitch than you normally speak with. Alternatively, it can also be pronounced with a very slight falling tone too, though again starting at a pitch lower than normal.
An English equivalent would be the ‘uhhh’ sound we make when we are thinking. For many people, this would generally be a lower pitch, and so can be seen as the low tone.
An example of a Thai word that uses the low tone is ไข่ (khai), which means ‘egg’.
The mid tone can be seen as the neutral tone. It mostly involves speaking normally, trying to avoid changing the pitch in the middle of the word. As such, you probably won’t need to spend too long practicing the mid tone. However, adjusting from a mid tone to a different tone in a sentence can be a challenge so don’t think you can get away with not learning it completely.
As mentioned before, the mid tone is very much just like your regular talking voice in English. You just need to make sure it is lower than your low tone pitch and higher than your high tone pitch. If that makes sense.
An example of a Thai word that uses the mid tone is ไฟ (fai), which means ‘fire’.
For the high tone, the whole word is pronounced with a flat but high pitch tone. You will need to take you regular speaking voice and make it a bit higher to get this tone right. This can be a little embarrassing to try out in public but ultimately people will be happy to see you try it so don’t worry.
In English, we do something similar when we go to the dentist and we are told to stick our tongue out and say ‘ahhh’. Perhaps you can think of a better example of this in English or another language.
An example of a Thai word that uses the high tone is ลิ้น (lin), which means ‘tongue’.
This is one of the two tones that involves changing pitch in the middle of a word. In this case, as the name suggests, the tone will fall from a higher pitch to a lower pitch. This is a little more tricky than the others. While it doesn’t need to be a sudden or dramatic change, it needs to be recognizable by the listener.
I always imagine a sad ‘oh’ sound when thinking of a similar sound in English. At least the way I say it, it moves from a slightly higher pitch to a lower pitch. Maybe you can think of a better example.
An example of a Thai word that uses the falling tone is ข้าว (khao), which means ‘rice’.
The second of the two changing tones is the rising tone. This is the opposite of the falling tone. It moves from a lower pitch to a higher pitch mid word. Again, it doesn’t need to be a dramatic change but it should be noticeable to others.
The closest equivalent sound in English would be the inflection made when asking a questions. For example, if you were to ask your friend ‘hungry?’, you would change your pitch from low to high. This is how they would know you are asking a question rather than just saying ‘hungry’ randomly.
An example of a Thai word that uses the rising tone is หมู (moo), which means ‘pig/pork’.
Tones in Thai are not as scary as they may seem at first. Sure, it can take some time to get the hang of it, but it is certainly not impossible to learn. There are just 5 that are different enough that it should be easy to tell which one is being used.
As you can see from the examples, in English, we use tones too but in a different way. So that just goes to show that we are capable of doing it.
There are other variations like vowel length also can make an impact on meaning, but we can look at that another day. For now, continue to practice these tones. Over time, you will be able to use them normally in a conversation.
The Ling Thai app is a great way to test your listening skills using the tones. Try it out today to get your learning on track.