Learning to Read Thai

palomnik

Senior Member
English
I have been working on Thai for almost a year now, and I am faced with a barrier that has frustrated me considerably. I hope some foreros out there might be able to pass on some useful ideas.

Thai writing is purportedly phonetic (that's a subject for another thread, though). Nevertheless, I have a great deal of difficulty reading Thai. It was a while before I realized that the reason for this was not the symbols themselves, but rather because 1) there are no spaces between the words, and 2) because of the way the symbols are put together it is hard to determine syllable boundaries. Thai shares these characteristics with Cambodian, Lao, and (I think) Burmese. Virtually all other written languages, whether English, Chinese or Mayan hieroglyphs, have discernible boundaries between words, syllables, or both. (Sanskrit doesn't, but it is not really difficult to learn to recognize syllable boundaries in Sanskrit.)

If you are not used to a system like this it can be unusually difficult to learn to read. Has anybody out there encountered this problem? Does anybody know of any techniques to make the learning curve easier?
 
Last edited:
  • Ghabi

    AL/OL/Ar/Zh mod
    Cantonese
    What do you mean by "syllable boundary"? You mean like this: boun-da-ry? Could you give a Thai example for illustration?:)
     

    palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    Ghabi: by "syllable boundary" I mean writing like Chinese, where phonetically each character represents one syllable. The same is true in Japanese, with some exception for kanji, where kunyomi readings are usually multisyllable and onyomi readings are sometimes two syllables.

    In Thai there are no obvious boundaries. Take the following sentence:

    สิ่งเหลานี้สำหร้บอะไร - sìng lào ní sămràp àrai - What are these things for?

    Separated into syllables it is สิ่ง เหลา นี้ สำ หร้บ อะ ไร. Some symbols, such as เ and ไ can occur only at the beginning of a syllable. Others, like ำ and ะ can occur only at the end of a syllable. All the others in the example (except for ห, which usually only occurs at the beginning but in this example is in the second position in the second syllable) can occur either at the beginning or the end of a syllable.

    Thai books for children often separate the syllables, but not normal literature.

    Some teachers point out that the vowel and tone diacritics (the marks above the letters) are an aid in determining syllable boundaries, but a lot of syllables do not use them.
     
    Last edited:

    Ghabi

    AL/OL/Ar/Zh mod
    Cantonese
    I think the problem is that in Thai there're no virama and "consonant conjuncts", which exist in Sanskrit and help telling whether a consonant is the final consonant of a syllable or the opening consonant of a syllable, isn't it?
     
    Last edited:

    palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    That is a large part of the problem. I guess essentially the problem is that Thai, like Chinese, uses the syllable as the basic phonetic unit, but it uses a writing system ultimately borrowed from India.

    The basic problem for the foreigner is that it's very difficult to tell where words begin and end when you see a page of printed Thai.
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    I am trying to master the Burmese writing, based on principles similar to Thai : no boundaries between words, specific consonants for words originated from Pali, vowel symbols written left and/or right, below and/or above the consonant ... The point is to get used to scan these various symbols used around two following consonants so as to tell the ones tied to the first from those tied to the second. I think one can make it with a regular practice, but as far as I know ( I can just decipher some Thai words ), distinguishing words is harder in Thai than in Burmese for various phonetic and grammatical reasons.

    I read that knowing the consonants clusters ( like กร or คว ) that can exist at the beginning of a word helps to avoid misreading certain two-syllable words. If the two first consonants are not clusters, the short a inherent vowel sound is added to pronounce them ; maybe that is useful to read syllables correctly. The more you are easy with the vocabulary and grammatical forms as เหลา or นี้ in your example, the more you can see the words in the sentence. About your example again, I think two more symbols can be helpful : the ั on the ร reads an a , but points out a final syllable as well ; the letter ห without vowel turns the following consonant into a high class consonant and notes the beginning of a word.
     

    palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    Thanks, and good luck with Burmese. Maybe Thai writing is more difficult, I'm not sure; as for me, however, the Burmese letters all look so much alike that I think it would drive me crazy!

    It is true that various Thai teachers point out things like diacritical marks for vowels and tones as a way to establish word boundaries. Part of the problem, though, is that proper nouns, especially Thai personal and place names, more often than not don't follow the standard spelling rules, and of course words like this make up a large part of your daily media fare. Interspersed in with regularly spelled words this makes for difficulties.

    I sure that somebody must have researched how word boundaries are indicated in various languages has an impact on how people learn to read, but I can't find anything on the subject.
     

    Ghabi

    AL/OL/Ar/Zh mod
    Cantonese
    I guess essentially the problem is that Thai, like Chinese, uses the syllable as the basic phonetic unit, but it uses a writing system ultimately borrowed from India.
    You mean that both Chinese and Thai have mostly mono-syllabic morphemes, right?:confused:

    So would you prefer the Vietnamese chữ Nôm system?:D An interesting thing is, in the modern Latin alphabet used for Vietnamese, each syllable is written separately, even though two consecutive syllables form a single word (i.e. a di-syllabic morpheme), a feature that some people complain about.;)
     

    palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    Yes, native Thai morphemes are monosyllabic, and in general Thai uses more of them as free (i.e., not bound) forms than Chinese does. However, a lot of the educated and literary vocabulary (as well as proper names, oddly enough) comes from Pali, and it is basically polysyllabic.

    The similarities between Thai and Chinese are striking, especially considering the fact that the languages are unrelated and there is no long history of close cultural contact as there is between Vietnamese and Chinese. But that's a subject for another thread.

    I'm not sure I would prefer the Vietnamese system; something cultural is lost in the process. I suppose what I would prefer would be that Thai writing separated the words, like modern Hindi, and started using punctuation, like modern Chinese. But as we all know, writing systems aren't created for foreigners learning the language.
     
    < Previous | Next >
    Top