So what about the tones?
It turns out that tones are almost a non-issue. Thais tend to speak in a monotone most of the time, no matter what the actual tone of the word is! (Read that again.) If you ask a Thai person (not a teacher) about tones, they will tell you that Thai is a monotone language. (Ask an English person if English is a tonal language… Heck, ask a Swedish person if they use tones also. Each person will insist that their language is spoken mostly in a monotone!)
Once you’ve understood what the tones should be (and if you master the tones ‘flow chart’ and make-subconscious the Four Questions (which you'll get in the course), you can more or less ignore them. Tones DO need to be unmistakably expressed for certain words, usually where you pause for breath or where the word in the context of your conversation is ambiguous. You will eventually get to know the rhythm and musicality of Thai when you listen to full sentences spoken at natural speed.
It’s much easier and less confusing not to think of the letters as high/middle/low class – because of the way tones are usually described (“high”, “mid”, “low”, “rising”, “falling”). There is absolutely no one-to-one correspondence between the class and the tone. So a high letter will not give you a high tone, and so on.
As for the modern fonts, if you can more or less recognize the classic fonts, with all the loops in the right places, you are probably ready to have a go at recognizing the more stylish, minimalistic modern fonts.
Most of the letters are the same, with bulges or blobs where the loops (heads) were. And if something isn’t important then it’s simply left out. For example, ม and น and ห don’t bother with the “head” (the loop on the top left). The main distinguishing factor is where the loop changes – e.g., for ม it’s on the bottom left, for น it’s on the bottom right, for ห it’s on the top right.
You’ll get to recognize these very quickly. Sometimes if you’re not sure about a particular letter because it could be one of two possibilities (e.g. the ดletter, which could be either ด or ถ in a modern font) then you might have to find another example of the letter, or its counterpart, in the text (hopefully it’s a long enough text to contain more than one example of the same letter).
Sometimes you’ll see a word you recognize – and by a process of deduction you’ll figure out what the letter is. It takes a bit of practice, but after a while you’ll find that the modern fonts are actually easier to read. They’re cleaner and have fewer distracting lines and loops than the classic fonts.
Obviously, it also helps to have some vocabulary so that you can more or less guess what the word is likely to be from the context.
Below is a table that identifies the differences that you do need to know in order to be able to read the modern fonts. The letters in black are easily recognizable in the modern fonts, so just focus on the red and blue letters.
(For "snaggle-tooth" letter ธ refer to "rolling" ร below...)
The traditional fonts are in the left column. The next columns are the modern & handwritten forms. All that has happened is that the unimportant bits of the letter are left out, usually the extraneous loops. If you look at the 3rd & 4th letters down (ม and น) you'll notice that the essential difference between these is the loop at the bottom is either on the left of the right. So the loop on the top left can be discarded. No other letters looks like these, so it's safe to do so.
Note that when has no indentation, it defaults to the ladyboy version.
Clearly is looking inwards, showing that it is the girl version.
Some letters look quite different – and I've highlighted them in red. Some are only slightly different – and these are in blue. The blue ones just need to be noted and you'll recognize them easily.
The red ones can be understood when you know how Thai letters are written. They start from the main loop. So the letter ว is written starting from the loop at the bottom. In English, we'd normally write it starting from the other end. Try writing it the Thai way. Now write it again, but very fast. And again, dropping the loop. And again. Notice that it starts to look like a lazy backwards "C". So a good way to help you get from “c” to “w” is to think of “WC” – but backwards!
But keep in mind that it’s not always “w” – this is a tricky letter because it can be a vowel or a consonant, so make sure to spell out the idea in “long hand” in your mind: The waving ladyboy on her head shouting “ooh aah”… (In fact, even in English, the “w” is treated as a consonant but produced by making the “oo” vowel sound very quickly.)
Remember, all Thai letters are written starting from the loop. So what looks like an "S" is actually the ร written very quickly from the bottom, which eventually looks like our "S". Think of a snake rearing its head to give you the "r" letter.
The backwards "G" is actually the อ written quickly or stylistically. Very often, you will see it simply as an "O".
Note: ข is often identical in shape to บ but just a little thinner.
ช and ซ are very similar, it’s sometimes hard to see “slice” (the extra dent).
Finally, the "U" is simply the u-boat บ and the upside down "U" is the male chicken without its beak ก.(
Vowels & Tone Marks
As for the vowels, they're mostly easily recognizable in any font.
However, there are two or three vowels that are potentially confusing. The modern font for "puppy pizza topping" seems very similar to the "igloo" vowels. But by a process of elimination, it's the only one that has a stroke or bulge on the left side, while all the "igloo" vowels have some kind of feature on the right (or nothing at all for the plain "igloo" vowel).
Also, the "puppy pizza topping" vowel is sometimes confused with the "surfer" tone mark. Notice that the latter mark is more of a zig-zag, like a "2" or "Z".
And the "gag duct tape" could also sometimes be confused with the "surfer" tone mark. Notice which way it rolls. Besides, it's easy to guess from the context that it's likely to be a silent letter underneath than one with a vowel or tone mark on top.
And that's it, it's really that simple!
(BTW, if you haven't learnt to read with the Rapid Method then you won’t understand my reference to “puppies” or “chickens” or “ladyboys”, etc. in the notes because I’m referring to the terminology I’ve invented for teaching people to read Thai using an accelerated approach. You can still figure out how to recognize the modern fonts from the tables above.)
Why learn Thai?
Well, actually, you don’t need to learn Thai at all!
There are enough people who can speak or understand English – even (or especially) in business – that you can get by and live quite successfully in Thailand… for many years. Some expats have been here for 10 or 15 years and own or manage successful businesses, without speaking more than a smattering of Thai.
Besides, Thai is quite difficult and boring to learn – that is, if you go to a ‘traditional’ class or try to learn it the way it is conventionally taught.
Expats - Speaking Thai (not!) in Thailand
Thai is difficult to learn. Or is it?
The main trouble is that learning Thai is super boring and fiendishly difficult…!
Learning any language usually requires hundreds of hours of investment in time and effort. There are better things to do in life! Learning an obscure language like Thai isn’t one of them.
So why bother to learn Thai?
Nevertheless, there are subtle but significant advantages to being conversant and literate in Thai. The first quite simply is feeling confident about going out anywhere in Thailand without ever being afraid of getting lost!
The other is that you start to notice and understand and appreciate a ‘parallel world’ that is real Thailand – and you can start interacting with Thai people in a more personal way.