When people first come to Thailand, learning Thai can seem like a daunting task.
And it’s understandable….
What with 5 tones, consonants that are not used in English, and vowels that make you sound like you’re stuck on the toilet with food poisoning, it takes a while to adjust your ears.
Can you say sara euuuuuuuaaaa
One thing I have noticed that is detrimental to proper pronunciation of Thai is the choice of transliteration for some words. Actually, it can hardly be described as a bad choice, more a case of THERE IS NO EQUIVALENT SOUND – or at least no way to write it – in English.
Here are some Thai words that are difficult to transliterate into English.
เกาะ – Island, transliterated as Koh/Ko. Most foreigners pronounce this word incorrectly. It’s not really their fault, if I was to read the transliteration of this word without knowing Thai, I would probably say it the same. This word is actually pronounced a bit like the word “got” without pronouncing the “t” at the end, so you get “go” with a short “o” as in the word “orange.” The problem is that English has no way to distinguish between a short and long vowel.
Any word with the Thai letter ต in it. This is a consonant we don’t really use in English. It sounds somewhere between a “d” and a “t,” I believe other languages use it, but English tends to use the soft “t” as in “Thailand.” The way to pronounce it seems to be to put your tongue between your teeth as you say a “t.” Problem is, when it’s transliterated it’s always written as “t” so you get people saying things like “Pattaya Tai” which is supposed to mean south Pattaya, but unless you use a hard “t” and falling tone it doesn’t really sound anything like the original word. But don’t worry, I think most Thais are used to this sort of thing. They should get the gist.
Same for the Thai letter ป. Another in between letter, it sounds somewhere between a “b” and a “p.” Kind of like popping your lips as you say “p.”
Words that use the vowels อึ and อื. An example is Bang Sue (บางซื่อ) in Bangkok. Non-Thai speakers usually pronounce this like the name “Sue,” and why not? It looks like it. But it’s actually a kind of stretched “u,” like the sound you might make if you were punched in the ribs by Bruce Lee. I guess the closest sound to it in English might be the “er” sound at the end of words like “water.”
Well, I’m no expert in Thai language, but these are a few things I’ve noticed while learning Thai and living here for 4 years. I highly recommend learning Thai from Thai people, books don’t really help in the initial stages when you need to learn the tones and new sounds. Books are fine to reinforce knowledge and learn new vocab once you understand the fundamentals. Let me know if you have noticed any words that don’t transliterate well. Do you have ideas for transliterating Thai into English that would be more effective? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!