Thailand Language Corner: Fighting Illiteracy

มุมภาษาไทย / mum pha:să: thai / Thai Language Corner

By Klavs Johansen ([email protected])

With this slightly provocative headline, we will this month strike a blow for learning to write and read Thai – at least a little bit. While some gifted foreigners have managed to become fluent in Thai without spending time on writing and reading, most people – including those of us less gifted – will do well to invest some time in learning to write and read. The time invested will pay back manifold also on your ability to speak and understand. thaialphabet

Indeed, time is all you need and you may start as soon as you have a grasp of the Thai sounds and know a few common words and phrases. Get a Thai children’s text book for the first grade and start writing the letters the old-fashioned way with a pencil, just as you did when learning your ABC. Writing and reading offers you the opportunity to learn a language, not only through the ear, but also through the hand and the eye.

Once started, you will soon discover the immense satisfaction of being able to recognize letters on signs and, better still, decode some of them! From here, your ability to read is likely to progress hand in hand with your ability to speak, the former going from decoding, over spelling out each word, to reading whole words in one go as they jump up from the text and into your eyes, just as when reading these lines in English.

As an appetizer, let’s take a few examples of writing you are bound to encounter in Thailand:

กม. means km, the abbreviation of kilometres, and consists of a ก, pronounced /k/ , which happens to be the first letter of the Thai alphabet, and a ม, pronounced /m/. Both are consonants and the consonants are primary in the alphabetical order. The vowels, in contrast, are merely secondary and, when written, appear like satellites around the consonants, that is, before, over, under or after the consonant, and, in some cases, not at all! The position depends on the vowel and the good news is that any given vowel symbol always takes the same position.

The word กรุงเทพมหานคร is pronounced / krungthê:p máhă: nákhor:n / and means Bangkok Metropolis and you will see it on millions of vehicle license plates in Thailand, right below the numbers. In Thailand, the province of registration is written on the license plates and this one is by far the most common. Do you recognize the ก in first position? You will also see the ม right in the middle of the word. The second letter is ร, pronounced /r/. You will recognize it again as the very last letter of the word, but, as you may recall from our December column, final r’s are pronounced as / n / in Thai. Note the little 9-like symbol below the first ร. It is the /u/.

One highly common word is ถนน / thànŏn / ~ road. You will surely recognize it on all the blue street name signs around town. While easy to recognize, the spelling features the not-so-simple unwritten vowels /a/ and /o/. That means that we only see the consonants, the first being ถ /th/, and the second (and third) being น /n/.

Another common street sign is หยุด / yùt / ~ stop. You will start by recognizing the /u/. Then we have ห /h/, which is silent, a feature which should not discourage Scandinavian readers. Following this, we have a ย /y/ and at the end is a ด /d/.

Other widely used words you may try to memorize just as whole words without necessarily knowing all the letters are:

ทางเข้า / tha:ng khâo / ~ entrance, ทางออก / tha:ng òr:k / ~ exit, ห้ามเข้า / hâ:m khâo / ~ no entry.

Even more useful are หญิง / yĭng / ~ ladies and ชาย / cha:i / ~ men.

Let’s end with a couple of omnipresent commercial names:

เป๊ปซี่ / pépsî: / ~ Pepsi and โค้ก / khó:k / ~ Coke!

Now, do get that text book and a new world will open up for you!