You probably won’t learn the Thai language before traveling to Thailand. But a simple understanding of how the language works, plus memorizing three easy phrases, will pay real dividends in enriching your travel experience.
The polite word
When speaking in Thai, it’s good to end your sentence with a word that doesn’t translate easily or neatly, but simply conveys politeness, much as “sir” or “ma’am” would in English. In Thailand, however, the word reflects the gender of the speaker rather than of the listener. Men end a sentence with khrap;women with kha. (In the examples below, we’ve alternated between genders.)
Three easy pieces
Ask someone in Thailand, or even a flight attendant on the plane going over, to help you get the pronunciation of the three basic expressions below. Your pronunciation won’t need to be perfect, however. These phrases are so common and expected that you can mangle the pronunciation quite a bit and still be understood.
Sawadee khrap. (sometimes spelled sawasdee; the second s is faint). Hello. Also good evening, goodbye, and even good-night.
Kop Khun kha. Thank you. However, in routine situations with someone who ranks lower in the social hierarchy — a cab driver, clerk, or doorman for example — a smile is more appropriate than a spoken thank you.
Possibly you’ll want one additional phrase, for use in restaurants:
Mai Phet. Not spicy.
But don’t be in too much of a rush to make this request. Most Thai restaurants tone down their dishes for westerners, anyway.
Thai uses a script-like amalgamation of some 48 consonants and 32 vowels – more or less, depending on who’s counting. Different letters may be used to represent largely the same sounds. Worse, entirely too many Thai consonants resemble either snakes or squiggly-tailed pigs as viewed from behind, so merely noticing that “this is the letter that looks like a squiggly-tailed pig” will not help you read Thai.
Wait … It gets worse. When you speak Thai, a single syllable can be spoken with any of five vocal pitches. Low, medium, high, rising, or falling pitches each have different meanings. The sentence mai mai mai mai, mai, often quoted in language books, means new wood doesn’t burn, does it? Each mai is spoken with a different intonation.
Since tone changes meaning, Thai speakers don’t raise their voice at the end of a question, as English speakers do. When necessary, a “question word” such as where, how much, or why, is inserted at the appropriate point in the sentence.
There is no single, widely accepted formula for transliterating Thai into a Roman alphabet. Nor is one likely to appear soon.
Part of the problem is that English and Thai sounds aren’t really comparable. Take just one sound as an example: P. Hold a finger in front of your mouth and say “Spain”. Now say “pain”. You’ll probably notice more air coming out the second time. We use the same letter “p” to represent both the more- and the less-aspirated sounds; the Thais distinguish between them. This is why the island in southern Thailand is variously spelled Phuket and Puket. The “ph” (pronounced as an aspirated “p”, not as the “f” sound of “photograph”) is sometimes used to represent this sound.
The unaspirated P, on the other hand, sounds almost like our letter B, and can be found transliterated as either B or P. Likewise, there’s a sound that can be represented by K or G; another that is between a T and D.
Consequently, items like street maps and road signs can be quite confusing for a Westerner visiting Thailand. If you’ve got two maps on which names have been transliterated into English, they may use different spellings. The same happens with proper names. The king’s name is variously spelled Bhumibol and Phumiphon.
Some points to watch:
The letters S and T are often interchanged; so are T/D; L/R; J/CH; K/G.
H is often dropped or added to show aspiration, not a total change in sound. (Note the pronunciation of the word Thailand itself.) The exception is “ch”, which is pronounced like our “ch”, in chop.
The sounds of L and N at the end of a word may be interchangeable.
A name that appears as two words on one source can merge into a single word somewhere else.
If your maps use Thai script, spellings will at least be consistent, but you’ll have to get on a first-name basis with a lot of squiggly-tailed pigs.
And one other thing: Thai offers ten ways to say “you”, depending on whether you’re speaking to a friend or a lover, a family member, someone higher or lower than you on the social hierarchy, and so on.
So, is there any good news for someone wishing to learn Thai? Yes. The grammar is a lot simpler than for most European languages. Thai has none of that hard-to-remember masculine-feminine stuff for inanimate objects, no past or future tenses of verbs, not even plurals. The tonality is the trickiest part, and if you’ve got an aptitude for music, perhaps you’ll master this language. There are language schools in the U.S., of course, but you could live in Thailand and learn it there faster, better, and for less money. Good luck!