How to learn beginner Thai
Did you know? Over 60 million people speak Thai (six times more than Swedish). If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, a lazy start at learning Thai could really pay off.
How to learn beginner Thai
While you can definitely enjoy your Thailand trip speaking only English, you'll be rewarded for learning just a few words in Thai. Unlike in many parts of Asia, Thais will expect you to learn at least hello and thank you in their language. It’s the least you can do, right? As outlined below, Thai is not a language you can just “pick up”. Believe me, I had ten years of optimistic laziness before I gave in to actual effort with language lessons. If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, a lazy start at learning Thai could really pay off.
Want to learn Thai? Enter ThaiPod101 – a comprehensive world of Thai language lessons in mp3, PDF and video form, starting at absolute beginner level. While I previously used the now-defunct Learn Thai Podcast, recommended in its stead is ThaiPod101. It’s an online language learning kit of audio, video and PDF Thai language lessons that cater to absolute beginners through to total fluency. You can access course materials online or use the app. There are both free resources for basic ‘holiday’ Thai and a paid course if you have any hope of ever holding a conversation. After a year with the paid version of Learn Thai Podcast, I had nothing but praise for it (and could tell strangers that their dogs were very cute – a crucial life skill).
Any efforts to learn a word or two of Thai will pay off. Again, unlike many parts of Asia, Thais will be far happier to teach you their language than pester you for English tips. Lonely Planet's Thai Phrasebook & Dictionary ranks number one on Amazon for learning Thai (and, very strangely, often number two for learning Vietnamese). Its companion, Lonely Planet Fast Talk Thai, is the obliging phase two. If you're a visual learner, these books are helpful to have transcribed words and phrases to look at while asking Thai speakers for pronunciation. (Be ready with a pen to add your own notes).
How does the Thai language work?
After a decade of regular visits to Thailand, I finally admitted that I’ll never just “pick it up”. With five tones versus Mandarin’s four, and its own alphabet, Thai – to my ears and eyes – is a harder start than Chinese.
No Latin alphabet: There’s no standard method to write Thai words in the Latin alphabet. (Whereas Chinese has ‘pinyin’, for example). So you might see ‘sawasdee’ (hello) written in any number of ways. Where popular sites and places do have standard ‘English’ spellings, they can add even greater confusion. For example, Bangkok’s Airport, BKK, is written Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport. Yet ‘Suvarnabhumi’ is pronounced more like ‘Sawannaboom’. You actually can’t win so, when you learn a new Thai word, just write down how it sounds to you.
Remember your French? Just like French, Thai pronouns are selected by gender. (However, the speaker and subject’s relative status are considered, too).
Good news – No conjugation: Verbs aren’t conjugated in Thai. Instead, the sentence gives context to the tense. (E.g. the words ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ would indicate past or future tense). This makes it an easy language to learn to speak badly.
Bad news – Thai has 5 tones: Thai has five tones, making the language one tone harder to learn than Mandarin. (Consider it the payback for lack of verb conjugation). Pronunciation will be your Everest…
How to learn with ThaiPod101
As mentioned, ThaiPod101 is an ideal way to develop – bare minimum – a small collection of Thai words and phrases for your next trip, and on and on through to full conversations and fast-track fluency. Free resources include:
If you sign up for a free account, you also get the first three lessons in each series as a free trial.
Course components: With a basic or premium subscription, you might start at the absolute beginner’s Level 1 curriculum. Its fifty lessons cover basic greetings (how are you/good morning), numbers, colours and various restaurant terms (‘please make it not too spicy’) telling the time and discussing the weather. Each lesson has dialogue, new vocab, lesson notes and transcripts. You can quiz yourself before moving on to the next lesson.
An easy study schedule: The content and length of each lesson are ideal – short enough to digest, and long enough to leave you with a feeling that you've accomplished something. At the beginner level, each audio lesson is roughly ten to fifteen minutes long. Know what takes ten to fifteen minutes? Loading the dishwasher and tidying up the kitchen. Folding laundry or ironing a few shirts. Brushing your teeth and getting ready for bed. It’s really easy to work through a lesson a day without any actual effort.
Tip: I recommend doing your lessons somewhere private (like your own kitchen), so you can speak out loud along with the teachers, sounding like an absolute maniac. Screeching SA-WAT-DII KHRAPPPP!!!!!! with headphones on might, just might, affect your Uber rating. To try ThaiPod101's absolute beginner lesson 1, just hit the large ‘play’ button at the very top of the lesson window (in the blue section). If you scroll further down, you’ll only play lesson segments rather than the whole thing. As mentioned, you can try the first three lessons in each module for free.
Tip: Are you a visual learner? Click the accompanying PDF sign (also in the top blue section) and download the lesson notes. Each word, phrase or conversation in the downloadable PDF lessons has English, Thai, phonetic pronunciation and a direct word-for-word translation – very useful.
Working through Level 1: As mentioned, ThaiPod101 starts at the very beginning. (Although you can take self-directed placement tests to find your starting point if you’ve had previous Thai language instruction). You might work through its modules in the same way as the intro material – ten minutes or so when you do the dishes – in the hopes that, by the end of the year, you’ll be able to:
- Make appointments and reservations
- Order in restaurants
- Make general chat about the weather, activities, friends and family
- Provide driving directions and get home in a taxi
- Know all the colours – fuchsia, I’m looking at you...
- Have even the most minute clue about reading Thai
While it will take time, it’s an excellent resource and you’re in good hands. Lessons are easy to understand, a suitable length and well-graduated in difficulty. The overwhelming advantage of ThaiPod101 is that you learn natural pronunciation, putting it so far ahead of a phrasebook.
In addition to what's available for free, ThaiPod101 offers both basic and premium subscriptions, starting at US$4/month (check for seasonal sales and offers). It's an investment but, ten years into getting nowhere, I think it's fantastic value. The premium course is ideal if you want to learn some grammar and a wider vocabulary (and love a good flashcard).
This solo/self-directed study will suit you if:
- You don't like group language classes: As an adult, I've found them typically frustrating, with too much variation in purpose and ability.
- You dread private tutors: It seems like a noble idea, but it's the last thing you want to do in the evening.
- You'll never, ever “just pick it up”: Attempting to learn only to speak Thai is hindered by total illiteracy in the language – especially difficult with the Thai alphabet.
How to fit Learn Thai Podcast into a busy day? Twenty minutes max. Twenty minutes with ThaiPod101 is approaching my mental "saturation point" but I feel I learn a lot more than in a one-hour classroom lesson. The lessons are well structured to review and reinforce, with an overall feeling that they're leading somewhere useful.
Immediate results? Cut to arriving in Thailand after two months of “baby beginner” lessons. My catalogue of stock phrases now included:
- Numbers: Be able to count from 1 to 999, means you can recognise your flight being called in Thai before the English. A tiny but early success!
- Colours: Just the basics, but imagine jumping up and down when specifying you’d like ‘the blue one’.
- Basic phrases: A smattering of stock phrases to compliment and joke with staff at favourite restaurants.
The proof? People seem to understand what I’m trying to say. I got a lot more out of a trip than my friends who mustered a single "sawadee khrap" between them. I could even ask for a beer. Being able to say more than the tourist stand-by phrases of "hello" and "thank you" was very effective and gratifying. I tried various phrases out and found that Thai people were often surprised and always helpful. A hotel bartender spent twenty minutes giving me detailed coaching on the subtle tonal details that distinguish "near" from "far" (complex!) and another member of staff took a large part of his lunchtime teaching me to tell the time (very complex!).
Encouraged by that experience I'll eventually move on to learn grammar and more demanding phrase construction. The goal is to have a grasp of “real” Thai to initiate conversations in shops, restaurants and bars, etc. I have high confidence in developing my skill to the “universal five-minute factual chat” (where do you come from, what do you do, how do you like Thailand, introduce family...). That will serve as a good basis for any conversation, allowing my vocabulary and confidence to grow rapidly. Definitely the best process for me.
When I regularly used Learn Thai Podcast, my enthusiasm waxed and waned over the ensuing months but, like exercise, decent consistency helped me to a good beginner foundation. I think the lessons are good way to reach that critical point where you have enough knowledge to maintain the basic "starting" conversation in a shop, restaurant, bar or office. With that base, it's your choice of where you take the language, and how fast. You can take that step knowing that your efforts will be rewarded with smiles and encouragement by the Thai people you meet.
Eventual goal: No matter how shoddy the pronunciation, I want to be able to share a joke – in Thai – with a stranger. Ideally a Thai-speaking stranger.
Learn Thai, then what?
To start on the right foot (fully aware of what ‘the wrong foot’ can entail), easily arrive a savvy cultural expert: