How To Learn Thai: Complete Guide + Best Courses And Books

  • Zoe Mei
    Written byZoe Mei
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How To Learn Thai: Complete Guide + Best Courses And Books

If you are here, that likely means that you want to learn a new language, and Thai in particular. In that case, สวัสดี or sà-wàt-dii — hello!

Many people dream of traveling to Thailand and exploring the lush rainforests, the stunning beaches, and experiencing the culture and traditions that are still strong. And while you don’t necessarily need to learn Thai to do so, it is a good idea to become familiar with this unique and challenging language’s key characteristics.

The language’s name itself means “free”, and comes with a long lineage of cultures and historical events that have helped to shape and spread it across parts of Southeast Asia.

Thailand is a beautiful country that enjoys a rich backstory, so why wouldn’t you want to delve deeper into languages that allow you to better understand this fascinating place?

Read on for an overview of Thailand’s primary tongue, and some of the interesting considerations that make up its structure, as well as the best Thai courses and resources for you to begin learning to speak Thai and read it on your own!

Table of Contents:

  1. The Thai language and its history
    • Where is Thai spoken?
    • Thai origin
    • Ancient Thailand
    • Regional variations
    • Social dialects
  2. The structure of Thai
    • Sound system: Vowels
    • Sound system: Consonants
    • Sound system: Tones
    • Thai script
  3. How to learn Thai
  4. Thai resources
    • Language schools
    • Online courses
    • Thai dictionaries and vocab books
    • Thai textbooks and workbooks
    • Podcasts and audio
    • Apps
    • Flashcards
    • TV shows
    • YouTube channels
  5. Summary

The Thai Language And Its History

Thailand itself enjoys a deep and immense history, so it’s only fitting that the country’s national language does as well.

Not only is the Standard Thai language a key part of ancient Asian linguistic history, but it is also a direct cultural link between the people of Southeast Asia today and their ancestors in the Kingdom of Siam.

Before delving into the minutiae of Thai grammar and syntax, and where to find Thai lessons and resources, let’s take some time to get to know the origins of the Thai language, the people who speak it, and the land it influenced.

Where In The World?

Thailand

Thailand

Today, the Thai language is primarily spoken in Thailand, but also Myanmar, Laos, Northern Vietnam, parts of China, and the Assam state in Northeastern India.

Most of these cultural uses of Thai can be traced back to the original tribes and dialects as Southeast Asia grew in prominence and standing.

Thai is also known under different designations based on those tribes, depending on the country. For instance, Myanmar has the Shan dialect, Khün in Laos, and Red Thai in Northern Vietnam, among many others.

However, the Thai words themselves do not tend to change remarkably between these Thai-speaking countries.

The residents of these areas and Thai natives also commonly speak English, among other languages.

It is typical to learn English at a linguistic school, grade school, or through interactions with English-speaking foreigners, particularly for anyone who lives in Bangkok.

The Roots Of Thai

The earliest emergence of Thai can be traced back thousands of years, belonging to the Tai-Kadai language family.

These include Austronesian, Mon-Khmer, Sino-Tibetan, and Tai; and the Thai language itself belongs to the latter subfamily.

This is because of the interplay of the original kingdoms that dominated the geographical area of modern Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, as they fought and resettled the land and cultures repeatedly.

Ancient Thailand, Siam, And Languages

As the first Thai people migrated from China and began to settle onto the Indochina Peninsula—including Thailand—about 2,000 years ago, they also brought with them a form of proto-Central Tai from the Guangxi province of China.

It was during the Tang dynasty of the 8th Century AD that significant changes were made to the language, and proto-Southwestern Tai began to emerge.

This included various words adopted from Old and Late Middle Chinese, as well as an early alphabet derived from the Han Chinese characters to write with, called Sawndip.

During this period, the Thai were beset by warring kingdoms such as the Mon and Khmer, continuing to dominate the land and the Thai people.

As such, more loanwords from these other dialects began to work their way into the native language, continuing to expand it.

It wasn’t until the late 13th Century AD that the unification of the individual political powers occurred, and a peaceful state was created under the rule of King Ram Khamhaeng of Sukhothai, also known as the Kingdom of Siam.

It was also at this point that a new, solidified writing system was adopted, borrowing from Old Khmer script.

Now that their language could be written and understood by everyone within the kingdom, and by others fluent in both Khmer, Pali, and Sanskrit, the political connections of Southeast Asia and its neighbors were strengthened and the Thai people were well on their way to becoming a power of their own.

And while it would take a significant amount of time for the original language to become the Thai that we know today, there are still strong and undeniable roots that link modern Thai grammar to the ancient proto-Southwestern Tai dialect of the first tribes to settle outside of China and into Thailand.

Regional Variations

Speaking of modern Thai, it’s worthwhile to note that several differences within the language exist, depending on the area of Thailand that you are from, also known as regional variations.

These include Northern or “Yuan”, Northeastern, Southern, and Central Thai variations.

Central Thai (also known as Bangkok Thai) is used for most broadcasts, programming, and teaching in schools, and so is often the first Thai dialect that you might encounter.

Social Dialects

Apart from these regional Thai variations, this language also uses socially-based words depending on the context of your speech.

This includes different words to speak about royalty and religious figures, as well as a dialect for everyday situations and even a type for crude interactions.

The higher dialect form of Thai generally is used to refer to religion and high-ranking members of the Buddhist clergy, as well as the royal family, and borrows words from Sanskrit and Khmer to describe these officials.

Otherwise, the lower form is used for day-to-day communications.

The Structure Of Thai

Now that we are familiar with its origins and a brief overview of this language’s interesting history, let’s review some of the most important aspects of its structure, syntax, and semantics to better understand the Thai language.

Sound System: Vowels

In total, Thai has nine different vowel sounds that make each word mean something different.

Like in other languages, these vowels can be either short or long, depending on the word, or can take the form of diphthongs or semivowels, such as -ia, of which the second vowel will always be /a/.

Sound System: Consonants

Similar to the sound system of vowels in Thai words, spoken consonants have twenty different verbal forms or phonemes that change the word’s meaning.

However, it is rare for consonants to appear at the end of syllables or to be present in clusters, making most Thai words relatively short and easy to determine with practice.

One key aspect of Thai consonants is the lack of contrast between voiceless and voiced stops.

That is to say, the difference between saying the letter /p/ and the letter /b/ aloud.

Instead, Thai consonants do have a distinction between voiceless stops and aspirated stops, such as pronouncing the letter /p/ versus “ph-” or /ph/.

Sound System: Tones

One of the most interesting parts of the Thai language is its tonal dependencies.

Like other tonal languages like Cantonese, the meaning of words will differ due to their inflection and the way they are said.

To speak Thai, you must get not only the pronunciation correct, but also the sound of the tone—including the high tone, falling tone, and rising tone.

These differences can be quite easy to hear when you have trained your ear to pick them up, and learning to note the variations in sound is essential to speaking Thai.

Each tone has a range of sound and inflection, depending on the notation of the tonal marker.

These words are then pronounced either with glottalization or without, a term that refers to the partial closing of the throat in order to make the syllable sound more croaky or stressed.

The following chart breaks down these aspects of the Thai sound system further:

TonePitch VariancePitch Sound HeightVoice QualityVocal SoundExample of Tone Marker in ThaiMusical Notation Range
LowLevelLowNon-GlottalizedConstant pitch, lower than normal vocal rangeàF#2 on a piano
MidLevelMediumNon-GlottalizedConstant pitch, in normal vocal rangea (none)A2 on a piano
HighFallingHighGlottalizedConstant pitch, in high vocal rangeáC#3 on a piano
RisingRisingLow to HighNon-GlottalizedRising sound with question inflection, within normal vocal rangeăF#2 to D3 on a piano
FallingLevelHigh to LowGlottalizedFalling sound, starting at slightly high vocal range and diminishingâC3 to F2 on a piano

Thai Writing, Alphabet, And Script

The phonemic system used in Thai writing is comprehensive and vast, containing fifteen vowels and forty-four consonant graphemes, each branching into further combinations.

When writing, the letters run from left to right, and while spaces are used to denote forms of punctuation, they are not used for the process of word separation as English speakers are accustomed to.

Furthermore, though learning the script can seem daunting, it is an essential part of completing your understanding of the entire language.

The script itself contains marks for the true tones you should be inflecting in speech and for long vowels that change meanings drastically.

How Do You Learn Thai?

Learning a new language is always a challenge, and becoming fluent in Thailand’s native language is no different.

But by following some handy tips, you can make sure that your educational experience is as successful as possible.

  • Create Flashcards—These should include pronouns, particles, word lists, and other useful Thai grammar notes to keep testing yourself routinely and enhancing your speed.
  • Learn To Read Thai—Even if you are just dabbling with easy sentences or children’s books, getting familiar with the written language (Romanized or scripted) is important.
  • Memorize Key Phrases—Get a head start on conversational Thai by learning as many common phrases as you can!
  • Practice With Thai Speakers—As you learn Thai, it’s one thing to look at a Thai word on the page and quite another to hold a conversation. Try to find people to converse with you and help you build your base of knowledge and confidence.
  • Study The Fundamentals—It’s all about pronunciation and tones when speaking Thai, so make sure to spend time getting comfortable with these aspects of the language.

As always with languages and becoming familiar with them, repetition is key.

Feel free to talk to yourself and try out new words when doing household chores, driving, or cooking.

You can even get the rest of your family in on it and make learning new languages a communal activity!

Resources For Learning Thai

If you are interested in the language of Thailand, there are many resources available to both beginners who are brand new to it, and even for advanced students wanting to brush up on their skills.

So, let’s go over some of the best places to find Thai teachers, free lessons, texts, and other resources that will make learning Thai easier than ever!

Thai Language Schools

Language schools are a great option for anyone wanting to get started with Thai.

Not only is the support unmatched, but in-person or video classes can help explain a wide variety of linguistic nuances, such as syntax or the Thai alphabet, that other resources might not connect with.

Sumaa Language and Culture Institute in Thailand is a great place to start learning Thai.

Not only can you get the opportunity to travel to the country and try out your language lessons in person, but the teaching methods are comprehensive, well-paced, and just make sense.

Alternatively, the Duke Language School offers classes in Thai for online and video study, as well as a physical term program in Bangkok that lasts either 8 or 14 months, depending on your type of enrolment.

The school also assists in applying for the educational visa necessary to attend the college in person.

Another option for studying in Bangkok and enjoying Thai culture as you learn the language is the Rak Thai Language School.

This institute prides itself on fun, friendly, and affordable classes, geared towards a practical and comprehensive understanding of Thai and Thai culture.

Thai Online Courses

These days, there are a plethora of options for online Thai lessons, with a web course that is sure to fit anyone’s needs.

Not to mention the variety of internet language teachers and tutors that are available to you!

Stuart Jay Raj is a popular online teacher of Thai, and his Cracking Thai Unlimited Bundle comes with all the resources and lessons you need to begin learning Thai on your own.

Another site for accessing Thai lessons and coursework is Mindkraft, offering great resources and lesson plans for learning Thai.

If you want a more structured course, Learn Thai For Beginners by Udemy is a great option. With over one hundred lessons, you will learn to read and write, hold conversations, and understand basic Thai communications.

For anyone looking for an online tutor in Thai, Preply has a wide selection of Thai tutors and teachers available for private, online lessons that will fit your schedule and learning level.

Or, try Verbling for even more instructors that will work with your availability, with some even offering free trials for their tutelage!

Thai Dictionaries And Vocabulary Books

For any language learner, having a comprehensive dictionary or guide to grammar is essential.

And the following books are among the top titles for students of Thai to implement in their courses and lessons.

The Collins Thai Dictionary is indeed one of the essential resources for anyone learning Thai or the Thai alphabet. With grammar points, phrases, and linguistic guides, this is a must if you want to learn the language.

While some might assume picture dictionaries are for younger students, it can actually be very helpful to see visual representations of a foreign phrase or word in English, Thai, and Thai script.

Thus, the Tuttle Thai Picture Dictionary is a great resource for all learners.

Additionally, the Thai Vocabulary Book by Pinhok Languages is a topic-based approach to tackling the most daunting aspects of grammar, sentences, and other Thai linguistic structures that students can find the most difficult to understand.

Thai Textbooks And Workbooks

If you are looking for a classroom schedule at home, these texts and workbooks could be perfect for your process of learning languages!

Try Progressive Thai by Rungrat Luanwarawat for thousands of hours of instruction geared especially towards foreign students and English speakers.

A more comprehensive book is Thai Language and Culture for Beginners by Yuphaphann Hoonchamlong, offering everything from syntax to customs.

Or, try out Everyday Thai for Beginners by Wiworn Kesavatana-Dohrs, with units and lesson plans to help you become comfortable with speaking and reading Thai within 30 weeks.

Thai Audio And Podcasts

What better way to learn good pronunciation—especially in a tonal language like Thai—than to listen to fluent speakers through podcasts and audio files.

For beginners in the language, The Learn2Thai Podcast is the easy way to get some of the essential words and phrases under your belt with minimal effort.

ThaiPod101 is a comprehensive resource to learn phrases, vocabulary, and basic grammar, along with cultural history, current information, and linguistic facts.

And if you are looking to listen to something completely in Thai, ThaiPBS Radio offers commentary and international news without English translation, providing you with a challenge!

Thai Smartphone Apps

Having access to Thai learning resources right in your pocket is not only useful, but also can help put some fun into your day!

For beginners and professionals alike, take the focus off of linguistic charts and add some mobility to your education.

With quizzes and other enjoyable tasks, the Ling Live language app is a great option for anyone, while also giving access to tutoring.

Pimsleur teaches conversational techniques and sentences in as little as 30 minutes per day, making it an easy-to-use and free resource for your first lesson and all subsequent ones!

Alternatively, Drops is well-loved by millions of users and has received a variety of glowing reviews from media everywhere.

The lessons are short and playful, and you will be left feeling accomplished with your lesson.

Thai Flashcards And Communication

Test your knowledge with real-time chats or fast-paced flashcard challenges.

These can help solidify the language even more and give you confidence in your skills

FlashCardo provides over one thousand important Thai vocabulary words and terms to test your abilities.

Select a category and get ready to go with tests for everyday life, common phrases, and all the other basics.

Or, for communication practice, try Italki, HelloTalk, or Conversation Exchange to find a partner who will make time to help you hone your conversational skills.

Thai TV Shows With Subtitles

For those of us who speak English, learning Thai might seem complex and difficult.

But if you can immerse yourself in some of the narratives and stories of the country’s cinematic offerings, you are likely to find yourself understanding it more and more.

Love Destiny (บุพเพสันนิวาส/bùp-phee sǎn-ní-wâat) is a successful historical romance show from Thailand that has an intriguing premise and characters, and the ability to keep you glued to the screen with anticipation.

For a good drama, try In Family We Trust (เลือดข้นคนจาง/lûueat khôn khon jaang).

It is a suspenseful mystery show that gained widespread popularity after airing a few years ago, and continues to be a favorite among fans.

Thai YouTube Videos

Finally, if you are looking for an easy-to-follow video where you can review your lessons and practice words and phrases, here are some YouTube channels with content that you might find useful.

Stuart Jay Raj’s YouTube channel is a great place to listen to the differences in tonal inflections in spoken Thai.

Along with that, he has lessons on the pitch accents that accompany Thai and other Asian languages.

Another option is Let’s Learn Thai! With Kanitsa, which offers to teach you how to speak, read, and write, as well as other linguistic and cultural knowledge.

And lastly, MThai Inter English is yet another excellent YouTube channel, with phrases, reading, writing, and other essential lessons in Thai.

Learning Thai: In Summary

Delving into new languages is always a challenge, but it’s one that you can gain high rewards from pursuing.

And if you are interested in the national tongue of Thailand, it’s no different—it opens up many new opportunities and experiences for you to enjoy.

Plus, when you become fluent, you can take a trip to Thailand and enjoy the natural beauty and cultural gems that await you, without the need for a translator!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek
Greek

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