Deciphering Thai – Part 1

Learning Thai is something I’ve tried to do since I got to Thailand and I’ve had varying degrees of success. I learnt some essential phrases like “Hello.” and “Thank you.” but sadly my listening skills are awful and I learn best when I see words written down. So I decided I was going to learn how to read Thai.

When I arrived in Thailand, the symbols on signs had a mystery and complexity to them that my brain just couldn’t deal with. So for a long time they were glanced at and filed under “cannot process; do ignore”.

But it’s important to persevere so I looked online for some help. A great resource for starting out is It has has an excellent guide to the Thai alphabet and lots of reading exercises.

The first thing I did was try to memorise the sounds of all 44 different consonant and then some vowel sounds.

But that was boring.

So I moved on and tried to decipher some basic words I knew. I like puzzles and there’s nothing more puzzling than a Thai word. I mean, just look at this:


Just look at how puzzling that looks.

This happens to be the word for chicken. It’s pronounced gài (the à accent here is used to show it’s said with a Low tone).

But why?

This word is made up of three things: a consonant , a vowel and a tone marker.

Sometimes Thai vowels are written before the consonant they’re attached to even though they’re said after it (gah!?). This vowel is one of those sneaky fellows and has the sound ai where “” can be a consonant sound. For this word, the consonant has the hard g sound that is needed.

So what about the tone marker? Well, that little dash above the word is one of several tone markers that change the tone of a word. Thai is a tonal language and the tones are important. If I were to just write ไก, it would be said in a Mid tone and could mean something completely different or nothing at all without sufficient context.

For reasons I’ve yet to fully comprehend, when this tone marker is used with , it makes the tone of the word a Low one.

Hmm well that’s one puzzle down! Sort of. Solving puzzles seems to lead to more questions than answers! Why exactly does that tone marker do what it does? Is it the same for all consonants? Why not?

But this is all part of the appeal! I’ll keep going and maybe someday there won’t be any questions left to answer!

20 Useful Thai Words & Sayings

This is a list of 20 Thai words that I found to be most useful over the last year. Hopefully it will be a good start for you if you are trying to learn Thai.

  1. Hello = Sa wat dee ka/kap**
  2. No = Mai Chai
  3. Yes = Chai
  4. Delicious = Aroy
  5. Beautiful = Sue why
  6. Meditation = Sa ma tee
  7. Shhh/softly = Bow bow
  8. Sorry = Khaw thot ka/kap**
  9. I am a teacher = Bpen Kru
  10. How are you = Sa baai di mai
  11. I am happy = **Chan/pom me quam sook
  12. Are you happy = **Chan/pom me quam sook mai
  13. My name is = **Chan/pom chue _______
  14. Can you help me = Chuay nawy die mai
  15. No worries = Mai bpen rai
  16. I don’t understand = Mai cow jai
  17. Turn left = Leeow saai
  18. Turn right = Leeow qwaah
  19. Straight = Tdrong
  20. Stop = Yout


  • **Use Ka if you are a female and Kap if you are a male.
  • ** Chan is the female word for I and Pom is the male word.


Funny Translations

bad translation

I hadn’t been in Thailand long before I started noticing funny translations all over the place. Sometimes it is just a small mistake that makes something funny, like “rice ant pork” instead of “rice and pork.” Other times a terrible spelling can make a translation funny, such as “singarporsrink” instead of the well-known “Singapore Sling.” Then there are the translations that make absolutely no sense, like this menu I saw at a restaurant in Bangkok that said “the fish estimates the sea thicket is angry.” Yes, waiter, I’ll have the fish estimates the sea thicket is angry, please. These bad translations are found most commonly on menus at restaurants, but if you look you’ll find them all over the place. Here are a few of the “best worst” translations from Thai to English that I’ve come across in my first year here in Thailand. Continue reading

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!

Thai to English Dumbed Down — by Shelby

Thai to English
Some Simplifications & What You Might be Saying by Accident

My→ Mai

This means no. It can also be used after a verb asking a question, like au mai? Do you want it? Or literally, want no?

Ow (as in ouch) → Au

This is to want. Stub your toe and say, “Ow, ow, ow,” and you have said I want, I want, I want.

Key→ Kii

In English, this is an every day object. You have a key for your house, for your car, for a hotel room. Here, it is s&*!. Be careful with this word, especially while traveling and using keys for your room. Hand motions work best.

Chop → Chawp

In America, this can be a type of barbeque, or the way you cut something up. In Thailand, it means to like. Quite a bit different, though I do chawp chopped brisket.

Guy→ Gai

A common phrase for me State side is, “Hey, guy!” In Thailand, I am saying, “Hey, chicken.” Gai is chicken, and you will use this word a lot while ordering food.

Cow→ Kao

Moo, says the cow. They roam Texas like mosquitos roam Thailand. But here, kao is just as plentiful as the cows in Texas, because it means rice. You’ll miss the other cow.

Dee→ Di

A name in English or letter sound becomes the word for good.

Mock→ Mak (mak)

Not something that I enjoy happening in my day to day, though as a teacher, you will be mocked. Mak is similar to very much, like di mak mak—It’s very good!

Ka→ Ka (Kahhhh)

A sound you would make for a bird, can no longer be. It is the ultimate for all respect if you are a female. It is like please, yes, thank you, yes ma’am, and no sir all rolled into one little syllable.

Cop→ Kop

Police officer, meet the equivalent of ka for males. If you are a male, this will become integrated as a regular vocabulary word, especially when speaking to Thai teachers.

Alright→ A rye

Apparently, I am a big fan of the word alright as a transition word. I don’t use like or um. My awkward pauses are filled with alright, next… But a rye is what in Thai. What, what, what?!?

Sow→ Su

In English, this is a pig. In Thai, it means young.

Wing → Wing

In English, it is what helps a bird to fly. In Thai, it means run. You’ll hear this a lot.

Song→ Sawng

In English, you love to listen to your favorite songs. In Thai, this is number two.

See→ See

From sight to the number four.

Ha→ Ha

What might be used whilst laughing becomes the number five.

Jet→ Jet

A really amazing airplane meets the number seven.

Sip→ Sip

From taking a tiny drink of water to the number ten.

Roy→ Roi

A name commonly used in the south and days of old, here it’s a crisp one hundred.

Pun→ Pun

Oh you are so witty… but what might be better than that here in Thailand but have one thousand baht. Pun is thousand.

Rim→ Rim

Recently taught during some free time at SRP, this word is spelled the same and means the same. Who’d have thought.

Me→ Mi

Stop talking about yourself, kid. Naa, it’s the verb to have. Mai miiiii. I don’t have it. You’ll hear this one a lot.

Thai = Ngaai — by Blake

I’ve noticed something with almost every new group of teachers that come in: usually every single one of them wants to study and learn Thai when they first get here.  But how many of us really end up doing it?  Sure, there are a few people that have obviously put in the effort and excelled, but for the most part… we either get lazy or we get disinterested or we become discouraged. I’m no exception. I didn’t even try to start learning Thai until I’d already been here for well over a year… months later I may not be able to hold a full conversation with a local, but I have improved with just the slightest bit of effort.  Anyway, with consistent practice and some patience, learning Thai (or any language) can be pretty ngaai (easy). Here’s what has helped me and I thought (for anyone who wants to get back on the horse) these tips might help you too.
1. Get a freakin’ teacher already!- I recommend Brittany 2.0 (obviously). It’s a great opportunity for all of us that we have a native English speaker that can teach Thai (she even taught herself!).
2. Read a book, bro!- Thai for Beginners seems to be the best and most popular.
3. Go drill yourself! – Find a new way to practice…I recommend Memrise, which is awesome. It’s a flashcard-like program that uses repetition to drill vocabulary into your brain. It will also remind you when your memories “need watering” or are “about to die” if you haven’t practiced in a while. This site is awesome and they also have tons of topics you can study other than languages. And… there’s an app for that. They just came out with the Memrise app for the iphone.
4.CHEATERS PROSPER!-  Learn the 100 most commonly used words… and other helpful hacks. Check out this article about “How to learn any language in 3 months” or this one about “how to learn (but not master) any language in one hour”.

It’s never too late… get on it!

Five resources for learning Thai — by Brittany

Now that we’re settled in to the new semester, you might be interested in learning or brushing up on your Thai language skills.  Here are a few resources:

Learn Thai Language blog

I’m a big fan of blogs (duh) and Thai Language Hut’s Learn Thai Language blog updates frequently with useful topical information, like this recent post about how the word  /lɔɔng/ ลอง can be used in a few different ways (it means to test or try out).

Curious about what they’re singing about every day when school starts? Here’s their translation of the Thai national anthem so you can sing along!

Thai For Beginners

Thai for Beginners has more or less been my manual for learning Thai.  I think it’s one of the best publications out there because its method for transliterating Thai to English is clear and easy to remember.  I’ve got the audio and a copy to share with you when you want it.

Another reason I like this book is because Benjawan Becker also does a great job of encouraging you to learn how to read Thai! Plain and simple, if you learn how to read, it’s going to vastly improve your pronunciation and comprehension.  It’s not easy, but it’s certainly possible to do within a month or two.

I’d recommend pairing this book with a communicative book like Instant Thai, which I found helpful for cross-referencing words and concepts.

Thai Alphabet Flashcards

Speaking of learning how to read Thai, Slice-of-Thai has consonant and vowel flashcards that you can print yourself, for free!  These are great because they show you the things you’d expect from a flashcard (a picture, a translation of what the consonant represents, and the consonant class), but my favorite feature is the examples of different Thai fonts.  I was baffled by the different fonts I saw on signs and in menus until I got these flashcards.

I really like because it encourages you to learn via mnemonic devices (for example, if you can remember that lumberjacks LIKE to CHOP then you can learn that ‘chɔɔp’ means “to like”).  Besides, who doesn’t like feeling like learning is a game? Memrise gives you points and you can compete against your friends if you login using Facebook.

I’m in the process of adding my own Thai “course” to it, using the transliteration and vocabulary from Thai for Beginners.  Here’s a quick peek at Lesson #2.  Let me know if you’re using it and I’ll keep adding more!

Everything around you

There’s no better way to learn Thai than to get out there and practice constantly with the people you see everyday.  Most Thai people are eager to teach and laugh with you as you try out those tricky tones and that impossible “ng” sound.  It’s scary, but making mistakes is how we learn! Most importantly, it’ll give you a chance to experience what your students go through every day – which is something we all need reminding of every once in a while, don’t we?


I never expected to learn Thai, but it’s been incredibly helpful for everything from my night market meals to not getting ripped off in a scam.  Plus, you never know when it’ll will lead you to interesting situations – like when I surprised a group of Thai people gossiping about us near Mount Everest Base Camp (the next day, they returned me the beanie I accidentally left behind). Just remember the phrase “Rak muang Tai” – “I love Thailand!”

If this isn’t enough to satiate your curiosity, Women Learning Thai also has a ginormous list of free online resources.

Happy learning!