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Thai - How difficult?

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The tones are not that big a deal once you consider that in English we use tones as well.  The difference is we use tones to convey emotions with the word rather than the word actually changing.  For example in English you can say the word 'What' in different ways (using different tones) and it will sound different, it will still mean 'what' but the tone and emphasis will make it sound like you are expressing surprise, questioning, boredom, curiosity etc.  

Another big difference is English doesn't have written tone marks so when writing we have to describe the tone with which someone is speaking - "what; he said in a bored sounding voice"  "What! he exclaimed excitedly"  "What? he said in a very questioning sounding voice".

The question about speaking Thai is how much do you need to?  Living in Bangkok I go days without needed anything more than "Sawadee Krap", "Kop Khun Krap" and "Kor Tord"  ('Good morning' to security when I leave the condo, 'Thank you' to the girl at the BTS who takes my temperature and 'excuse me' (maybe) if the BTS is busy on my way to the office.  Once at the office all my Thai colleagues speak English, when we go for lunch I tell them what I want and they order in Thai.


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My opinion after 30 years of Thai study.   To learn Thai presents many challenges to a speaker of a Western language beyond simply hearing and making the correct tones.   The five "tones"  b

Of the two foreign languages I’ve studied extensively, French and Thai, I’d say that for me at least, Thai’s around 20 times harder than French - ie for every hour of study to improve my French, 20 ho

My biggest issue is actually hearing the tones, I'm deaf in one ear and pretty crumby in the other (I'll spash out for an aid one day). Of course when speaking I invariably get the tones wrong and (li

Interesting question OP


I was an 'A' student in lanuages in high school where I studied French and Russian for 5 years. I can still almost get by in French but never got to use Russian in the real world, although I can still read and write a little, still I remember the alphabet.


Forward 30 years and I ended up in a job in Wuhan, PRC thinking, Mandarin? No problem. Wrong! After 2 years my speaking was still way to basic to be useful, and after a week there I met my wife who pretty much did all the talking for me, so I ended up putting in less effort. My colleagues and I had a running competition to see who could give the taxi driver our address the least number of times before being understood. The tones made it so difficult, often making some words unpronouncable for me.


Forward 10 years and I  moved to Cambodia so tackled Khmer, which is non-tonal and did ok on the speaking.


3 years ago it was time to learn Thai and so far so good. Not making excuses but now at 65 I have a memory problem. I need to learn new words by rote or writing them phonetically over and over. I can understand the gist of a conversation but not take part. As the only farang in the village it's been pretty immersive and the wife and I now speak 50/50 Thai and English. I am happy with my slow progress and surprise my wife and myself when I realise I can say something new in Thai. Tones so far are not too bad I find, but remembering words is a chore. I'd not attempt reading or writing, I just hope to get gradually more proficient.


My one big failure is trying to remember the months of the year!


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3 hours ago, donnacha said:

Actually, I found it surprisingly easy to attain fluency in all those languages. Especially Navajo, that one was p*ss-easy.


Thanks! I needed a good laugh today. (I'd have replied in Navajo but my keyboard doesn't support it.)

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2 hours ago, andre47 said:

Nowadays we can use software at our phone or our computer.

dictionary works well too... I also do not believe I will ever be able to write off the top of my head, speaking I am ok as tones seem to be just mimicking a sound and spoken in context really helps... 

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55 minutes ago, Saltire said:

I need to learn new words by rote or writing them phonetically over and over.


55 minutes ago, Saltire said:

My one big failure is trying to remember the months of the year!

If I don't regularly use a word or hear it used conversationally, I have trouble remembering also... 


Funny - I almost quit many years ago because of the months... after Spanish, Enero, Febrero, being so simple as to nearly be English... to have to learn Mokkara.kom.. Gumpa etc.. was a wall too high... I still struggle on the later part of the year... 

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My personal opinion, is that for most people who speak the Western languages, they are able to think in circles. Most of us are taught the art of creativity, and the virtues of an open mind. So, if you mispronounce or improperly state something, an effort will be made to try and stretch the mind, to figure out what you have just said, and what it means. This is especially true of Spanish. Not as much with French. 


It is not at all the case with Thai. If you do not nail it, it is your fault, and little effort can and will be made to accommodate your lack of perfection. It becomes a huge challenge when trying to speak or converse here. If the tones are not right, most Thai people are completely lost or unable, or unwilling to even venture a guess as to what you are saying.


The exact opposite is the case with most Spanish speaking people, nearly anywhere in Latin America. And that makes it so much more rewarding. 

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1 hour ago, seancbk said:

The question about speaking Thai is how much do you need to?

It is not a matter of need but want... when I was 24 I travelled around the world for a year and surely did not pick up each language as I went and I functioned fine. 


Wanting to take communication to another level with people who do not speak English, has been my motivation. It is also an insight into the culture... 


I am sure you do fine - deaf people do ok too... 

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2 minutes ago, spidermike007 said:

If the tones are not right, most Thai people are completely lost or unable, or unwilling to even venture a guess as to what you are saying.

I find that if I am speaking in sentences, if I miss a tone or mispronounce one word or speak grammatically incorrect, most Thai understand and it does not present a hiccup.. 


That said, there are some people who I cannot understand 20% of what they are saying and same for me, but others, I can speak to all day and not have an issue.. 

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My opinion as someone who still is very basic in Thai.


I feel the language itself is pretty simple. More difficult concepts are often created by mixing words. So I feel you should be quite effective if you learn a quite limited set of words. 


Words don't change based on past, present, future tense, unlike in English, German, Dutch, French ... That itself is great. It seems to put something in past tense people just add "leao" (meaning: already) add the end of the sentence.


The alphabet isn't too difficult to learn. Though it does take a little while to get used to the ordering of vowels and consonants. But after some time reading the language becomes mostly automatic (for me). Though I'm still a quite slow reader I have to admit.


The most difficult aspect is the tones. Saying something in the wrong tone can give people a very puzzled look. For us Westerners some tones might seem very similar, hard for us to spot the difference or to utter a tone correctly. I guess one has to talk a lot with Thai people to practice and better understand tonal differences. 

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2 hours ago, StevieAus said:

However hard Thai may be I am glad that English is my first language



I cannot imagine trying to learn it with all the idiosyncrasies and colloquialisms...


I fly

You fly

We fly

They fly


He/she flies????????? 


Why is that??

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If you are from 2 to 5 years old, learning another language is simple.

But if you are over 50 it is just very difficult. I knew some French, and tried to

use that knowledge.  Ehhh.  The tones are hard, and if you try to learn

to read and write the language, it is likely even more confusing, Go to Thai

language classes, and learn to speak the language, Get some books if you want to

learn the writing, as learning some words are helpful, if you plan to drive a motorbike 

or vehicle.  Just have lots of patience, and be happy that there are so many

Thais in Thailand that want to learn English, and are quite helpful.


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3 hours ago, uptome1946 said:

Here is a gloss of a sentence I just heard an hour ago.


"He do same not hear I speak".


Meaning "he is acting as if he didn't hear what I just said"


Which version is concise,  straightforward to the point, with a clear and simple structure?


And which version is a convoluted mess, full of redundancies, and makes you ask what must be going on in the brains of people who speak this language? 

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On 10/21/2020 at 11:09 AM, kenk24 said:

I have heard that Thai is the 5th most difficult language to learn

I think "Thai" includes more than pronunciation, letters, reading and writing.

Who wants to communicate with whom and how?

I.e. do you want to order some food?

Do you want to have a simple conversation with a girl?

Those are not too difficult, especially if those people are used to mispronunciation by foreigners.


If you want to have a business conversation it Thai and you want that Thais don't get the impression you learned the language on the street, that is a lot more difficult.


If you want to read and write Thai that is more difficult.


And if you want to understand news on TV and/or written i.e. in newspapers it is even more difficult. Because it's not enough to understand the language. To understand the news you also need to know lots of nicknames from prominent people because often these nicknames are used instead of the real names. Good luck with that one.


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