English is a 'Tonal Language' - surprise, surprise!

In Chiang Mai, a woman came to the course who could already read after a fashion and speak fairly fluently – but she came because she had a great deal of confusion about the tones, and so never bothered to “read the tones” – previously she simply tried to recognize the tone from memory of her spoken Thai.

The ‘Rapid method’ clarified the whole issue for her.

Tones the 'Thai' Way

Tones are actually dead simple in Thai.

At least, it should be. Unfortunately, the traditional Thai system seems arbitrary and overly complicated, and the terminology is unnecessarily confusing (e.g. high class / high tone), which leads one to assume that there must be some matching relationship between class and tone.

Well there isn’t! None at all.

There is also a great deal of irrelevant information that has to be learnt… For example, for two of the tone marks, the class of the letter is irrelevant. And in general, it does not matter how long or short the vowel is, except in one special case. You also don’t need to know about initial and final consonant sounds, nor the actual names of the letters, etc.

The Rapid Method

Less is more.

How Thais (and Asians) pronounce their "R"s and "L"s

In the European languages like English, German, Italian, French and Spanish, the sounds for "L' and "R" are quite distinct. This is because the position of the tongue is either at the extreme front end of the mouth (pushing quite forcefully against the top teeth) for the "L" or at the general back part of the mouth for the "R". The French "R" is with the back of the tongue almost being swallowed at the back of the mouth, while the German "R" is vibrated very vigorously in the middle of the mouth. The English "R" is produced with the tongue floating just beneath the palate towards the back of the mouth.

So the "L" is a very different animal from the "R" because the "L" is a strong tongue-pushing-at-the-front sound and the "R" is a vibrating or rolling tongue sound nearer the back.

 

However Thas (and Asians in general) produce an "L" by positioning the tongue very lightly against the palate well behind the teeth just in front of the middle of the mouth.

While the "R" is in the same position but with the tongue allowed to drop a little so that it "floats" ever so slightly below the palate.

The Asian "R" becomes an "L" simply by touching the palate with the tongue.

That's why L and R sound so similar to our Western ears - because they are very similar. And when Thais (and Asians) speak a little lazily, or fast - which is usually the case - when pronouncing "R" it's usually easier to let the tongue touch the palate instead of leaving it "float" just below it - which results in an (Asian) "L".

At the end of a syllable, Ls and Rs aren't fully enunciated. Instead you simply close down your palate and push your tongue down. The resulting sound is very like our English "N".

That's why อาหาร and บิล are pronounced "ahaan" and "bin", respectively (not "ahaar" and "bill").

 

"Spacer" vowels

Basically, for two-letter words with no vowel, the vowel is understood or implied  to be the short “o” vowel. (It’s not the “o” as in “on” and it’s not the “o” as in “no”. It’s the short version of the vowel in "short". There is no equivalent in English, but if you say "o"in “or” and cut it really short then that will be the sound you want.

So here are some examples that you can probably already recognize:

-          ผม – I (for a male)

-          หก – six

-          สด – fresh

-          ตด – fart

-          หมด – used up; completely (note that is just used to change the sex of , it makes no sound of its own)

The last one is still a “two-letter” word! The is just there to change the sex of  from a ladyboy into a girl. Another way you can think of it is that the first consonant (reading from left to right) is what determines the “sex” of the entire syllable.

Now what about the multiple syllable words?

Well, strictly speaking, they’re still single syllable words. These are usually foreign-derived words (from English or Pali) that cannot be easily pronounced by Thais – like “stamp”. So they add a kind of “spacer” or “breather” sound… an “a” (like the “a” in “pizza” or the "u" in "up). So “stamp” becomes “sa-tamp” and “steak” becomes “sa-tehk” and “tnon” (street) becomes “ta-non”. (Can you say “tnon” as a single syllable???)

So if there is no vowel written anywhere in a 3- or 4-letter word then very likely it’s one of those words that have two consonants fused together like Siamese Twins in the beginning and then the invisible “o” vowel in the middle.

ขนม is a good example of this.

This is actually the two letters ขน fused together to form the unpronounceable sound “cn” followed by an . So as there’s no vowel written, it’s the implied “o” sound. And the word – which should be “cnom” becomes pronounced as “canom”.

There are several examples of this in Thai, where two fused-together letters are “spaced out” by inserting a short “a” sound, like:

-          ตลาด tlaahd = ta-laahd

-          สวัสดี swas dee = sa-was dee [s signifies that the “s” isn’t enunciated, so sounds almost like a strangled “t”]

-          สบาย sbaai = sa-baai

In all other cases (where two consonant letters are fused together), you can either say them as written or - very often in colloquial speech - simply drop the second consonant entirely, as in :

-          ครับ krab  or kab

-          ปลา bplaa or bpaa

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