Is Thai hard to learn?

Thai is easier than English. There I said it. This is spoken as an English teacher, and someone who sees the struggles that foreign learners have with minor grammar concepts that don’t change the meaning of the sentence much. But, if they are not spoken this way, then you sound strange.

Thai has its intricacies, of course, and I’m sure many that I haven’t encountered. However, the simplicity of the language makes it easier to learn. And, a lot of fun to learn, too. Since you’re not paying attention to small things, you can focus on what’s important: making yourself understood.

Here, we will compare and contrast Thai and English to talk about what is easier, and what is more difficult, about learning Thai.

What is easy in the Thai language

No tenses

Present simple, present continuous, present perfect, present perfect continuous. Recognize these tenses? You may not know them by name, but you use them every day.

Remembering all of these in English — of which there are 12 in total — can be a hassle. English speakers take it for granted but growing up hearing these every day, and learning these by using them, is a giant relief.

Luckily, in Thai, this isn’t the case.

There aren't tenses in Thai. It uses a few words to help provide the time, if necessary. However, a lot of it is based on context. This takes the pressure off using the wrong tense and being misunderstood.

For example, in English, if I said,

I go to Bangkok to see my sister yesterday.

While the meaning is understood, the grammar is incorrect. The correct way is,

I went to Bangkok to see my sister yesterday.

Which poses multiple questions. First, why does go change to went? This can confuse many new learners of English, with the common answer being goed. This is an easy mistake to make.

Second, why do we have to change the verb? We already have yesterday for a time word — doesn’t that indicate when it happened?

In Thai, you do not have to worry about this. You can say it like this,

ผมไปกรุงเทพเพื่อพบพี่สาวของผมเมื่อวาน

Pom bpai Grung-thep pue pob pee saao khong pom muea wan

While this looks difficult on its own, it translates literally like this,

I go Bangkok to meet my sister yesterday.

Note: Thai people do not call Bangkok by its English name. In Thai, it is called Grung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin, or, for short, Grung Thep.

It would be the same if I changed it and said I am doing this tomorrow,

พรุ่งนี้ผมจะไปกรุงเทพเพื่อพบพี่สาวของผม

Prung nii pom ja bpai Grung-thep pue pob pee saao khong pom

Again, not too difficult if you look at the structure of the sentence. It literally translates to,

Tomorrow I will go Bangkok to meet my sister

Thai is similar to English because it has a word to indicate future (ja จะ) but we do not need to remember all the future tenses. Ja will indicate that it's something you're going to do, as in the future.

There are ways that time is indicated in Thai. This will be based on context, tense words, or time words. And even these are pretty easy to remember, especially once you’re immersed in Thai, as you will hear them frequently.

Speaking of context…

The Thai language is context-based

One of the things that I found incredibly easy once I started learning Thai was that a large portion of the language seems based on context. This relieves you, the speaker, of a lot of responsibility.

Are you talking about your brother, but you forgot to use the word to indicate it (khong pom/khong chan — ของผม/ของฉัน)? That’s alright, it’s largely understood.

Thai speakers understand that, since you’re talking about a brother coming to visit you in Thailand, you’re probably talking about your brother, not the brother of a friend or the brother of your neighbor.

This could lead to some confusion if you are talking about someone else’s brother. However, if you are, then you probably used another word to indicate that it wasn’t your brother.

As an English speaker and teacher, I feel that English has many words that are unnecessary and often redundant.

This context also helps when you’re having trouble with your pronunciation. Thai is a tonal language (more on this below). This means that saying the word with different tones will give the words different meanings.

For instance, let’s look at the word maa.

If we say it in a flat tone, it can mean “come”, as in “Come here”.

มาที่นี่
Maa thee nee
Meaning: Come here

However, if we say this with a rising tone, which sounds like you are dropping your voice then bringing it back up — like a kid yelling his mother’s name but isn’t sure if she’s home. With a rising tone, the word now means “dog”.

This can lead to some confusion, especially if you’re telling a dog to come.

หมามา
Maa maa
Meaning: Dog come

While these look the same, they are not said the same. The first (dog) is said with a rising tone, and the second (come) with a flat tone.

As well, just to add to the confusion and the frustration this brings new speakers, if you say the word with a falling tone, then it means “horse”. This one sounds more like you’re in disbelief that your mom put a pizza in a boiling pot of water to cook it. Your tone is going to go high, then drop low.

Here is an example,

ม้าวิ่ง
Maa wing
Meaning: The horse runs

Again, spelled (almost) the same, but the tone will make all the difference.

Luckily, Thai people understand that if you’re in a pet store and looking at a cage of dogs, you’re probably not asking about horses — even though, with your tone, that’s exactly what you asked for.

So, context will clear up a lot of confusion — or potentially add to it if you happen to be around dogs and horses.

Thai sentences are simple

As I mentioned above, without having to worry about tenses and getting the correct tense of the word, you can focus on the structure of the sentence and the word order. Which, luckily, follows a very similar pattern to English.

Most Thai sentences are going to follow this structure:

Subject + verb + object

Look familiar? Right! It’s just like English.

This makes it easier if you're coming from an English background. You don't have to worry about where to place the object or verb, or if you're using the correct pronoun in the right place.

Relieving you of these worries allows you to focus on just using the language, which is going to help you acquire the language faster.

Let’s look at an example just to get the point across:

I eat pizza.
ผมกินพิซซ่า
Pom gin pissaa

The structure follows the same structure as English. Let’s look at another:

I play basketball with him.
ผมเล่นบาสเก็ตบอลกับเขา
Pom len basketbon gab khao

Again, the structure is exactly the same as in English.

This will help clear up a lot of confusion, as it gives you one less thing to worry about. However, that doesn’t mean that Thai isn’t going to have its headaches it will give you as a new learner. We’ll discuss those below.

What is more difficult in the Thai language

Thai Script

There’s no hiding it, as you could see from the examples above, the Thai writing system looks nothing like English. It’s a unique script.

In addition, there are 44 consonants and 21 vowels. So, these will take a bit of remembering.

A note for learners, the Thai alphabet associates each character with a word. For instance, when English speakers say the names of the letters — 'ayy', 'bee', 'see', 'dee', we are reading their names.

In Thai, they have a word that uses that character for the name. For instance, 'gor-gai'. ก is the character, and it makes the ‘g’ sound. Gai in Thai means ‘chicken’.

If you were spelling something in Thai, and it contained this character, you wouldn't say 'gor', you would say, ‘gor-gai'.

So, to remember these sounds, I tried to draw any connection with the character that I could. Here are a few examples:

lor ling

For this one, I tried to remember that it made the 'l' sound by imagining the script as a lion's paw. The bottom part with the circle is its toes, and the part that goes out above it is the claw.

wor waen

This character makes the 'w' sound. Here, I thought of Wolverine and thought of him having his hand balled up, with his claws out.

dor dek

kor kwaai

These two look similar, right? My Thai teacher taught me a great way to remember these. The top character, dor dek, the circle is on the inside of the line. Dek means child in Thai. So, the child is inside the house. So ด makes the ‘d’ sound.

The bottom one, ค, makes the 'k' sound. In that character, the circle is on the outside of the line. Kwaai means buffalo in Thai. The buffalo stays outside the house.

It seems complicated, but a little practice will go a long way.

Tones in Thai

Thai is a tonal language. As I briefly explained above, this means that the way a word is said will determine its meaning. This is the area where most Westerners struggle.

Tones are largely non-existent in Western languages. In English, for example, we will use tones to help get a meaning across, but it will never change the meaning of a word.

For example, below I will write the word I am emphasizing with tone in caps:

Are YOU kidding me?

Are you KIDDING me?

Allow yourself to say these in your head, applying the proper tone to the words. Sure, adding the tone to the word changes the emphasis of the sentence, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

In Thai, as expressed above with the word maa, the word can have different meanings based on the tone — and none of them are similar.

Thai sounds not found in English

Tones are difficult enough to master, but there are certain sounds in Thai that are unique also. In the same way that some sounds in English don't exist in other languages, some do not exist in English.

This is going to result in some awkward moments as your tongue gets tied, trying its best to make a sound that it’s not used to making.

This also causes some confusion when writing Karaoke — which is the transliteration of Thai using English characters. Often, the way these words are spelled in English does not represent a proper pronunciation of the word.

For instance, we’ll take a common word that you’ll hear and see in the south of Thailand:

เกาะ
Meaning: island
Karaoke: koh

The Karaoke spelling of this world does not closely represent the proper pronunciation of this word, largely because the sound it makes doesn’t exist in English. The closest representation that can be given would be like saying the word go, except with a short ‘o’ sound instead of long ‘o’.

Another example would be the following:

งู
Meaning: snake
Karaoke: ngoo

The sound that is difficult here is the ง. English has this sound, it is the sound you will hear from -ng at the end of words like sing, bring, etc.

However, in English, this sound beginning a word does not exist. The -ng sound is a common beginning in Thai, and it gives foreign speakers a lot of trouble.

A fun fact is that the Thai word for easy is actually a hard word to say:

ง่าย
Meaning: easy
Karaoke: ngai

This can only be considered a fun prank to play on foreigners. And, hey, who doesn’t like to laugh at themselves when learning a new language? It’s one of the best parts!

Conclusion

Thai is a language that looks intimidating if you have no experience with it. The strange script, the way the language sounds like music as it is spoken, and the unknown sounds that are made can make it seem like it’s impossible to learn.

However, with practice, it will start to become much easier. The script’s characters start to come together to form the words you recognize. The tones are still slightly confusing, but you’re starting to hear the differences in the way the words are said.

Then, for the first time, you hear:

พูดไทยเก่ง (you speak Thai well)

your eyes get big because you know they understood you. All it takes is a little effort.