To me, there was nothing scarier than speaking the language you have been learning to a native speaker. There are just so many things that can go wrong. That can lead to what is possibly the worst feeling of all - embarrassment. However, you eventually come to learn that to fully master pronunciation, you need to get practice speaking out loud. The ‘embarrassment’ that you feel is actually all in your head. Once you have overcome this barrier, you will then start to see much faster growth and improvement in your pronunciation. My journey in learning Thai pronunciation was no different, which is why I wanted to outline for you how you can start working on your pronunciation of Thai words.
There are many different elements that come together to form the pronunciation of Thai. There are the Thai consonants and vowels, of which there are over 50 characters to learn. This includes a number of diacritics, the concept of initials and finals, as well as the infamous unaspirated consonant sound that is unheard of in the English language. In addition, there are the tones that must also be learnt. The spelling of Thai words is the ultimate key to revealing how to say each word and which tone to use. The Thai script is unique however, so it can take some time to learn to properly read and write in the language. While this may appear daunting at first, all in all, Thai pronunciation is not particularly difficult to master once you pass the initial learning phase.
The importance of pronunciation is obvious: if you are not speaking clearly, then you will likely not be understood. Sure, there are many people who are used to talking with foreign speakers and so have a better ability to understand those who do not use the correct pronunciation. However, these people are few and far between, especially outside of the tourist areas. It can feel quite embarrassing to have to repeat yourself multiple times in order to be understood, but that is also all part of the process of learning Thai pronunciation. If you practice this skill more, then you will get better and maybe you will only have to repeat yourself twice rather than three or four times. Then there are the tones to contend with. The use of tones can change the meaning of a word, even when they are spelt the same or otherwise pronounced similarly. Some can lead to pretty awkward situations as well or just be inconvenient. In all seriousness, focusing on your pronunciation of Thai will help both you and the person you are speaking to. If you push to get it right from the beginning, you will face fewer problems later on, which can save you a lot of time on your journey to learn Thai.
In the Thai language, there are a total of 44 consonants. Yes, that is a lot but it is worth noting that not all of them are in use today. There are 2 that are only used for writing archaic languages and words. While the majority of these sounds should be familiar to English speakers, there are some sounds that are less so. To help with the pronunciation of Thai consonants, there is already a commonly used system in place. This system is known as acrophonic, where the words start with the corresponding consonant sound. This would be like saying ‘F as in Fire’ in English.
|ก||k||ก ไก่||ko kai||chicken|
|ข||kh||ข ไข่||kho khai||egg|
|ฃ||kh||ฃ ขวด||kho khuat||bottle (no longer in use)|
|ฅ||kh||ฅ คน||kho khon||person (no longer in use)|
|ง||ng||ง งู||ngo ngu||snake|
|จ||ch/j||จ จาน||cho chan||plate|
|ฉ||ch/j||ฉ ฉิ่ง||cho ching||cymbals|
|ช||ch/j||ช ช้าง||cho chang||elephant|
|ซ||s||ซ โซ่||so so||chain|
|ฐ||th||ฐ ฐาน||tho than||pedestal|
|ฒ||th||ฒ ผู้เฒ่า||tho phu-thao||elder|
|ณ||n||ณเณร||no nen||novice monk|
|ด||d||ด เด็ก||do dek||child|
|ต||dt||ต เต่า||to tao||turtle|
|ถ||th||ถ ถุง||tho thung||sack|
|ธ||th||ธ ธง||tho thong||flag|
|น||n||น หนู||no nu||mouse|
|ผ||ph||ผ ผึ้ง||pho phueng||bee|
|ฝ||f||ฝ ฝา||fo fa||lid|
|ฟ||f||ฟ ฟัน||fo fan||teeth|
|ภ||ph||ภสำเภา||pho sam-phao||junk boat|
|ม||m||ม ม้า||mo ma||horse|
|ร||r||ร เรือ||ro ruea||boat|
|ล||l||ล ลิง||lo ling||monkey|
|ษ||s||ษ ฤๅษี||so rue-si||hermit|
|ส||s||ส เสือ||so suea||tiger|
|ห||h||ห หีบ||ho hip||chest|
|อ||a||อ อ่าง||o ang||basin|
|ฮ||h||ฮ นกฮูก||ho nok-huk||owl|
Vowels in Thai are a bit different from English. There are a total of 32 Thai vowels, but only 28 are frequently used. They are generally split between long and short vowels, based on how long you say the vowel sound. Vowel length plays a big part in their pronunciation and so you should take some time to recognize which group each vowel belongs to. As a side note, when the vowels are written out, they are usually said with the word ‘sara’ (สระ) before the vowel itself. This word means vowel and doesn’t work as an acrophonic like the consonants.
In case you didn’t know already, Thai is a tonal language. Tones are important in Thai pronunciation as any change of the tone will change the meaning of the word, leading to unintended consequences. Every word has an associated tone that you must learn in order to pronounce it correctly and be understood. The tones can be identified from the Thai script, thankfully and when transliterated into English, 4 tone marks are often included to differentiate them. Essentially, tones impact the pitch of a word based on the type of tones it uses. There are a total of 5 tones in the Thai language, consisting of low, middle, high, falling, and rising.
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 a 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 your 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 a high tone is ลิ้น (lin), which means ‘tongue’.
This is one of the two tones that involves changing the 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 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’.
We all make mistakes once in a while. Even native Thai speakers say something wrong. Add to this that there are several different dialects in the Thai language, and you will realize that pronunciation is not so simple. There is some leeway in the pronunciation of some words. However, it's best to try your best to avoid some common Thai pronunciation mistakes. Failing to differentiate between aspirated and non-aspirated consonants is a common mistake that many people fall into. While it can be a subtle difference in pronunciation, many Thai people will have difficulty understanding you if you don’t make a good enough attempt at it. This could lead to you ordering chicken Pad Thai when you just wanted egg Pad Thai, for example. It is just one of those things you will need to practice to get right. Ignoring the Thai tones is another common mistake. Sure, some people will understand what you are trying to say, but there are some words that can get mixed up. When learning new words, make sure you also learn which tone to use for it and work on getting that right.
There are a few different ways for you to improve your Thai pronunciation. First and foremost, as you are learning new vocabulary, you can take the time to listen to a recording of someone saying the word. Whether you are watching videos or using the audio function on some online dictionaries, this will teach you how a native speaker would say it and give you a good starting point for saying it out loud. Repeat it to yourself a few times until it sounds right. Another great way to perfect your pronunciation of Thai is to listen and speak with native Thai speakers. Who would know the pronunciation of the language better than them? Like before, you will learn a lot by listening to how they say each word. You can discover things like syllables, stress placement, and more. They can also give you pointers if you say something in a weird way and correct, you. Of course, the secret of knowing pronunciation is in the spelling. Using the pronunciation guide for the Thai vowels and consonants above together with your ability to read Thai characters, you can gauge how words are pronounced just by seeing how they are spelled. You can also see which tones you need to use too through the spelling.
By following the tips outlined above, you should be more comfortable with how you say Thai words. Each of those methods will give you a good starting point to move forward with learning Thai and building up your confidence to talk with others. Make sure you practice so that you can properly pronounce aspirated consonants. Try puff some air when you say them then do it again without the puff of air. When you are able to notice the difference, then you should be good. Same with the Thai tones, find some words that fall into each of the tones and say them one after another. Over time, you will be saying them properly. Looking for a real challenge? Try reading out some Thai tongue twisters and see how well you do. Speaking is a major element of a language so you should continue practicing it over time. Hone your Thai tones to make sure you don’t say something you don’t mean to. Continue to watch videos where they pronounce Thai words and then speak with other Thai speakers. These are some of the best ways to progress in this area such as reading Thai addresses or street signs, telling the time in Thai.
sFrom this article, it should be clear how important Thai pronunciation is. You should also now know some of the basics when it comes to pronouncing Thai consonants and vowels, which is a very good foundation to continue your learning from. Don’t forget the tones as well. They can really make a difference to your fluency. Just keep practicing and using the methods we suggested, and pretty soon you should start to see some improvement. You will be talking confidently with locals in no time. A great way to assist your Thai pronunciation is to use the Ling Thai app. With a chatbot and audio from native Thai speakers, it is the perfect way to get to speak Thai.