Published: Jul 25, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver
Thai is seen as a difficult language to learn for Westerners without experience or previous knowledge of Asian languages. But if you want to learn to speak Thai, the good news is that it’s not as hard to learn as you think.
If you want to learn to speak Thai then there are a few things you’ll need to know, so I decided to put them together in this blog post to help you on your Thai learning journey.
At the core of learning any language, you’ll need to learn its most basic components. For speaking Thai, that will come down to: learning the words you need to say, learning how to pronounce them, and which order to put them in.
Sounds pretty simple right?
Well, it is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Let’s take a look at the tricky parts of Thai you’ll need to get more familiar with if you want to eventually become fluent.
The Thai language is written in its unique script, which consists of 44 consonants and 15 vowel symbols. Learning the alphabet is normally someone’s first step on their journey to speaking a language fluently.
While you don’t need to know the Thai alphabet to be able to speak Thai, understanding the pronunciation of each letter will go a long way toward helping you form accurate sounds of Thai words.
It becomes much easier to understand how to say each word when you know how it’s written in Thai.
To communicate effectively in any language, you need to know some basic phrases. Here are a few essential Thai expressions to get you started:
Hello: สวัสดี (sawasdee)
Thank you: ขอบคุณ (kob khun)
Yes: ใช่ (chai)
No: ไม่ใช่ (mai chai)
Excuse me/sorry: ขอโทษ (kor toht)
Don’t forget to add the polite ending word on the end. “Kráp” for men, and “kà” for women.
If you want to learn all the basic phrases you’ll need to speak Thai in Thailand, you can check out our online basic Thai travel course called “All the Thai you need to know to travel in Thailand.”
It was created by a native Thai teacher along with me. We’re very proud of it and it’s already helping foreigners here in Bangkok speak Thai while they’re traveling here, so make sure to check it out.
In the fascinating journey of learning to speak Thai, understanding the word order is a crucial stepping stone towards mastering the language. Unlike some other languages, Thai follows a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) pattern, which forms the backbone of its sentence structure. By grasping this fundamental concept, you will gain the ability to effortlessly construct grammatically correct sentences and express yourself more confidently.
Let's break down the SVO pattern in Thai sentences:
Subject: The subject of a sentence refers to the person or thing that performs the action. It usually comes first in the sentence, setting the context for what the sentence is about. For instance, if you want to say "I eat," the word "I" (ผม /pǒm/ for males, ดิฉัน /dì-chǎn/ for females) would be the subject.
Verb: Following the subject, the verb comes next. It represents the action or state of being. Thai verbs do not undergo conjugation based on the subject, making it relatively simpler to use them. For example, to say "eat," you would use the verb กิน /gin/.
Object: Finally, the object completes the SVO trio. The object is the recipient of the action performed by the subject. In the sentence "I eat rice," "rice" would be the object. In Thai, the word for rice is ข้าว /kâao/.
Constructing sentences in Thai becomes more manageable once you internalize the SVO pattern. Let's put it all together in a simple sentence:
English: "I eat rice."
Thai: "ผมกินข้าว" (if the subject is male) or "ดิฉันกินข้าว" (if the subject is female)
Additionally, Thai uses various particles to indicate aspects such as questions, negation, tense, and politeness. As you advance in your language journey, these particles will add depth and nuances to your sentences.
Practicing the SVO pattern and utilizing particles in your conversations will greatly improve your ability to communicate effectively in Thai.
One good thing about learning to speak Thai is that verb conjugation takes on a refreshingly simpler form compared to some other languages.
Thai verbs undergo minimal changes, which makes the process of conjugation relatively straightforward. Understanding the different tenses and forms of verb conjugation will empower you to express actions accurately and articulate your thoughts with precision.
Let's explore the essential aspects of Thai verb conjugation:
When describing actions or events that are currently happening or are generally true, the present tense comes into play. Fortunately, Thai verbs remain unchanged in the present tense, regardless of the subject.
"I eat." = "ผมกิน" (if the subject is male) or "ดิฉันกิน" (if the subject is female)
"He eats." = "เขากิน"
To talk about actions or events that have already occurred in the past, the past tense is utilized. Remarkably, Thai verbs maintain the same form in the past tense as they do in the present tense. To indicate the past, you can use specific time-related words or phrases.
"I ate." = "ผมกิน" (context or time-related words indicate it's in the past)
"She danced." = "เธอเต้นรำ"
When discussing actions or events that will happen in the future, the future tense comes into play. Similar to the present and past tenses, Thai verbs do not undergo changes in the future tense. Time indicators or context help convey that the action will take place in the future.
"I will eat." = "ผมกิน" (context or time indicators show it's in the future)
"They will travel." = "พวกเขาเดินทาง"
To give commands or express requests, you can use the imperative form of verbs. In Thai, the imperative form is generally the same as the base form of the verb. To add politeness, you can include the word "กรุณา" (please) before the verb.
"Come here." = "มาที่นี่" or "กรุณามาที่นี่" (adding politeness)
Mastering verb conjugation is a key milestone on your journey to speaking Thai fluently. By grasping the simplicity of Thai verbs and their minimal changes in different tenses and forms, you'll be able to communicate confidently and accurately express a wide range of actions and ideas.
Understanding nouns and pronouns is essential for having meaningful conversations. Nouns serve as the building blocks of language, representing people, places, things, and ideas, while pronouns facilitate smoother communication by replacing nouns to avoid repetition. Below, we present an extensive list of common nouns and pronouns, along with their correct usage:
คน /khon/ - person
สวน /sǔan/ - garden
ร้าน /ráan/ - shop/store
ไก่ /gài/ - chicken
น้ำ /nám/ - water
ประเทศ /bprà-tâyt/ - country
ฉัน /chǎn/ - I, me (used by females)
ผม /pǒm/ - I, me (used by males)
เขา /kǎo/ - he, she, him, her
เรา /rao/ - we, us
คุณ /kun/ - you (singular, polite)
เธอ /thooe/ - you (singular, informal)
พวกเขา /phûak-kǎo/ - they, them
มัน /man/ - it
เขา /kǎo/ - they, them
Correct usage of nouns and pronouns is vital to communicate your message accurately and respectfully.
When referring to yourself, use "ฉัน /chǎn/" if you are female, and "ผม /pǒm/" if you are male. "เรา /rao/" is used for "we" or "us" and can include both the speaker and the listener.
Address others with "คุณ /kun/" to express politeness in singular form, or "เธอ /thooe/" for informal situations.
Remember that context plays a significant role in figuring out the appropriate pronoun usage. Always be attentive to the social setting and the relationship between you and the person you are speaking with.
Engaging in everyday conversations is essential for language practice, but it’s also the most difficult to practice without a teacher or course. Before you start practicing your Thai skills with a native speaker, however, let’s cover a few things you’ll need to know first.
In Thai culture, showing respect and using polite expressions is of utmost importance. Politeness not only helps build positive relationships but also reflects the speaker's good manners and thoughtfulness.
Mastering polite expressions in Thai will not only earn you admiration but also ensure smoother interactions and a more pleasant language experience.
Here are some essential polite expressions to incorporate into your conversations:
Sawasdee (สวัสดี) - This is the standard Thai greeting, used for both "hello" and "goodbye." It is appropriate for all occasions and with people of any age or status.
Khob khun (ขอบคุณ) - "Thank you." Express gratitude and appreciation by using this simple yet powerful phrase. To make it more polite, you can add "ค่ะ /khâ/ (for females)" or "ครับ /khráp/ (for males)" at the end.
Mai pen rai (ไม่เป็นไร) - "You're welcome" or "It's okay." Use this phrase to graciously respond to someone's gratitude. It conveys a sense of easygoing and accommodating attitude.
Khor thot (ขอโทษ) - "Excuse me" or "I'm sorry." When you need to get someone's attention or if you accidentally do something wrong, this phrase will help you convey your apologies politely.
Chai (ใช่) / Mai chai (ไม่ใช่) - "Yes" and "No," respectively. Adding "ค่ะ /khâ/" (for females) or "ครับ /khráp/" (for males) at the end makes your responses more courteous.
Nakrub (นะครับ) / Naka (นะคะ) - These particles are used to soften your statements, making them more polite and friendly.
Chai mai (ใช่ไหม) - "Is that right?" or "Really?" Use this phrase to show interest and engage in conversations politely.
Arai na (อะไรนะ) - "What?" This is a polite way to ask "What did you say?" or "What is it?" in a conversation.
Bai nai (ไปไหน) - "Where are you going?" Use this expression when you want to inquire about someone's destination politely.
Hong nam yoo nai (ห้องน้ำอยู่ไหน) - "Where is the restroom?" This polite question will come in handy during your travels or when you need to find the restroom in public places.
By incorporating these polite expressions into your conversations, you will leave a positive and respectful impression on the people you interact with.
Thai people really appreciate when foreigners make an effort to embrace their culture and show respect through language, so your hard work in learning will definitely be rewarded if you speak Thai when you’re here.
When engaging in conversations with Thai people, understanding the nuances of Thai conversational etiquette is essential for building rapport and fostering positive interactions.
Learning this etiquette will be an important part of learning to speak Thai, since Thai culture places great importance on respect, politeness, and maintaining harmony during conversations.
Here are some key aspects of Thai conversational etiquette to keep in mind:
Greeting and Acknowledging:
Begin conversations with a warm and friendly greeting. As mentioned earlier, the traditional Thai greeting is the "wai," but in casual settings, a simple "sawasdee" (hello) is appropriate. When entering a room or joining a group, it is polite to nod or smile to acknowledge others.
Using Polite Particles:
The Thai language has polite particles that are added to the end of sentences to show respect and politeness. For males, "ครับ" (khráp) is used, and for females, "ค่ะ" (khâ) is used. Adding these particles when appropriate will enhance the courteous tone of your conversations.
Addressing Others: Use respectful pronouns when addressing others. "คุณ" (kun) is a polite way to refer to someone, equivalent to "Mr." or "Mrs." However, in casual conversations, it's common to use titles such as "นาย" (náai) for Mr., "นาง" (naang) for Mrs., and "นางสาว" (naang-sǎao) for Miss, followed by the person's first name.
Showing Interest and Active Listening:
Demonstrate interest in the conversation by actively listening and nodding occasionally. Asking questions and maintaining eye contact are signs of engagement and respect.
Thai culture values harmony and avoiding direct confrontations. Be mindful of your tone and use gentle language even when expressing disagreements or offering criticism. Raising your voice or being aggressive is considered impolite and can lead to discomfort.
Compliments and Modesty:
When giving compliments, be modest and avoid excessive praise, as it may be seen as boasting. Similarly, if someone compliments you, respond with humility rather than overt self-praise.
Be mindful of cultural sensitivities and avoid discussing sensitive topics like politics, the Thai monarchy, or making negative remarks about Thai customs or practices.
Taking Turns to Speak:
In group conversations, Thais generally take turns speaking and don't interrupt each other. Wait for a natural pause to add your input.
Thanking and Farewells:
At the end of the conversation, express gratitude by saying "ขอบคุณ" (khob khun) - thank you. When saying goodbye, use "ลาก่อน" (laa gòn) for informal settings and "บาย" (baai) for casual goodbyes among friends.
If you want to take your Thai skills to another level above just being able to speak Thai conversationally, you’ll have to put in some extra work.
You’ll have to greatly expand your vocabulary to be able to speak about a wide range of topics. You’ll also need to know about the current events in Thailand that people frequently speak about.
You’ll also need to know idioms and the various local proverbs that people use in conversation in their everyday life here.
On top of these two things, you’ll eventually need to learn more complicated grammar rules, structures, and different ways of speaking about things depending on the context.
Language learning requires consistent practice, but learning Thai doesn’t have to take forever. Set aside daily dedicated time or week to learn and speak Thai. From my experience, if you don’t set a dedicated time, it will be all too easy to make excuses and find reasons not to study. Especially if you’re not here in Thailand and it’s not super relevant to you yet.
If you want to learn Thai more quickly, you should expose yourself to Thai movies, music, and TV shows to improve your listening skills and get accustomed to the natural flow of the language. There’s a small amount of Thai content on Netflix you can choose from, but you can also get lost in the world of Thai YouTube. Don’t blame me if you get lost in there, though.
Participate in language exchange programs or find a language partner who is fluent in Thai. This will give you the opportunity to practice speaking with native speakers. You can find these exchanges on apps like Meetup and Tandem.
Or just check Facebook or your local university and see what’s going on there. This part could actually be the most fun of learning to speak Thai.
You don’t have to learn everything all at once. If you want to learn to speak Thai, start by learning something you can use immediately that will give you some early rewards. Once you start to experience some rewards from speaking Thai in real life, then it’ll be easier to build and keep momentum in your learning journey going forward.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out our online course for learning Thai for travel that I mentioned before. It’s only 5 lessons and you don’t have to learn the alphabet at all like you’ll have to in more advanced Thai courses.
And the best part is that everything in the course is relevant to you when traveling and something you’ll actually say. This makes it super easy to actually practice what you learn because you’ll use it in your real life.
No matter what you decide, we wish you the best in your Thai language journey.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.