Reading Thai – Starting From Scratch

Throughout these first few months, I’ve been going to the Thai lessons for the teachers at Super English. The lessons have been helpful in learning basic beginners Thai, but so often confusion sets in when we encounter a sound unfamiliar to English speakers. It’s difficult enough to pronounce, but I find myself completely at a loss when it comes to my notetaking. It’s nearly impossible to write some of these sounds phonetically using romanized script. Take the dreaded gut-punch vowel sound, which is best produced (and maybe only accurately pronounced by westerners) when struck directly in the solar plexus. The best I’ve come up with for writing this is something along the lines of “eugh”. This has led to a notebook filled with phonetic approximations like “glaahn-keughn” (night) and “neuau(k)” (rambutan). Sometimes looking back I have no idea what that’s supposed to sound like.

I recently decided I could learn more/better/faster if I could read the language. This would certainly help with the phonetic and tonal aspects of the language. But I also know that if I’m able to read signs, menus, fliers, etc., I’ll be able to make new word associations and both retain and recall more vocabulary. I’ve spent time this past month learning most of the common consonants and vowels, as well as a few pronunciation and tone rules (of which there are many). My primary resource for learning so far has been the e-book “Teach Yourself Thai,” which I snagged from another teacher. Evan, who very efficiently taught himself to read the Thai script, has also been a lot of help in deciphering confusing letter combinations and picking up patterns in the language.

At this point I can move through Thai words and sentences and give a close approximation of how they should sound, and I’ve learned to recognize a few key words. Just today I was perusing the menu at Rice Lady and successfully read some words that we’d learned in Thai class that I had forgotten. Bingo! Reading improving vocabulary – just what I was going for! Unfortunately, with no spaces between words, I still usually can’t tell where one word starts and another finishes. And even with many of the words I do read correctly, I am stumped as to their meaning… But I’ve made a start and I’m gaining confidence. I’ve also recently discovered some online resources that I’m hoping will augment my current guide. My immediate goal is to know all consonants, vowels, and blended sounds, as well as have a better feel for picking out the beginning and end of words. I’m hoping to reach this point by the end of February, in time for our long break.

If you’re considering learning to read Thai but are intimidated by the completely new alphabet and script, be encouraged and know that recognition comes quite a bit faster than you’d probably expect. All the rules will take a while to master, but reaching a basic reading level isn’t too much tougher than reaching the same level of speaking. And if you haven’t considered reading Thai yet, give it another thought. It will improve your speaking as well. Plus, you’ll impress a lot of Thais and might make a few new local friends!


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