Things you didn’t know about the Thai language

August 18, 2014 by Alison Tunley

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Despite it being almost literally a world away from English, it’s not impossible to understand the Thai language.

However, you’ll have undoubtedly noticed that learning how to speak, read and write this fascinating tongue is likely to take a wholly different approach to learning German, French or Spanish, for example.

Whether you have ambitions to master the language or would like to know more about the challenges that interpreters and translators face when tackling it, we’ve put together a brief guide to some of the background information you might wish to know.

The alphabet is very different

You’ve probably realised that unlike many foreign languages, you won’t be able to recognise similar-looking words by reading Thai script.

This is because it operates on a completely different alphabet, which consists of 44 basic consonants and 28 vowel forms.

The alphabet itself is of Indian origin and many of these letters are rarely used except for in words that have been ‘borrowed’ from other languages like Sanskrit.

In the past, the government has looked to address this by reducing the number of letters, although this move was ultimately rejected, leaving the current form with effectively too many – there are four different forms of the equivalent of ‘s’, while there are six ways to write ‘t’.

It’s based on phonemes

Phonemes – specific units of sound that differentiate one word from another – are the building blocks of the spoken Thai language.

One of the early hurdles that native English speakers have to jump over is becoming familiar with how phonetically-contrasting their mother tongue and Thai are.

As a result, learning the individual Thai phonemes is often seen as a good place to start when trying to speak the language, although this can take some time to master as it will involve moving the mouth and tongue muscles in ways that have probably never been developed before. However, to avoid miscommunication issues in the future, this very basic step is crucial for anyone with serious ambitions of achieving their goal.

There is some Thai that even Thai people don’t understand

While you might think that the Geordie or Brummie accent can often be difficult to digest even if you have spoken English your whole life, there are parts of Thailand that are even more extreme examples of indistinguishable dialects.

One such example is Isaan Thai, which is spoken in the north-east of the country. In reality, this is closer to the language of nearby Laos rather than Thai itself and can be completely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t spent time in the region.

Similarly, other regional variations of the tongue can differ greatly, with many never manifesting in standard Thai classrooms or in the capital, Bangkok.

It can be the key to understanding other languages in the region

While Thai is the official language exclusively of Thailand, there are similarities between it and what is spoken in neighbouring countries in south-east Asia.

We’ve already mentioned Isaan Thai, demonstrating that there are links between Thai and Lao, and the same also applies to Cambodian.

Even though the latter tongue is not directly related to Thai, westerners who have learned Thai tend to have a different perspective of the language compared with native speakers and tend to notice similarities between the two.

Because of this, they often find it easier to communicate with other nationalities in this part of the world, even if they haven’t studied the individual languages in their own right.

Written by Helen Fream

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