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").

 

Pronouncing the Vowels

It is absolutely essential to pronounce the vowel sounds accurately in order to be understood.

Thankfully, the vowel sounds in Thai are very consistent, they do not change depending on your region, as in English. There are regional dialects in Thailand, of course, but if you pronounce the vowels in particular the ‘standard’ (middle-country) way then you will be universally understood.

There are only nine vowel shapes in Thai. All the vowels are made up of short (cut-off) or long versions of these sounds, or of two vowel sounds pronounced in sequence (“dipthongs”). This article is a summary for your reference and practice.

If you haven't already watched the videos on youtube then watch them now.

Exaggerated 'farang' version and explanations The normal Thai way of pronouncing the vowels

Here are the nine shapes.

Practice them in an exaggerated way until you develop a muscle memory for the feeling of each shape. Stretch your muscles so that they feel tired after a minute or two (otherwise you're not doing it right)! It may feel a bit silly to talk in such an exaggerated potato-in-mouth way (in fact, it should!) but it's normal for Thai people, just like it feels quite normal and natural for us to stick our tongues out when pronouncing "th" in English. We need to train our mouth muscles so that these shapes eventually feel normal and comfortable if we want to be able to enunciate Thai clearly.

If a Thai person compliments you by saying พูดเก่งนะ then they're just being polite: "hey, good effort (but I still don't understand you)!" However, if someone says พูดชัด then you know you've arrived: you speak clearly enough that they can actually hear what you're saying.

 
Stretch your mouth sideways
 เก
 เกม
 เวลา
 เห็น
 
Stretch sideways and open wide (push your tongue out slightly)
 แก่
 และ
 แล้ว
 แฟน
 
Open wide, like at the dentist!
 อาหาร
 จะ
 ทำ
 น้ำ
 
Make a large O with your mouth.
 รอ
 ขอ
 จอ
 เกาะ
The shortened "ao" vowel (as in เกาะ) is the short, cut off version of this sound.
Make a smaller O with your mouth.
 โทร
 โต๋ะ
 อก
 ผม
The "invisible" vowel (as in ฝน) in is a short, cut off version of this sound.
Blow a kiss!
 ดู
 รู้
 สุด
 ขุด
 
Stretch out your mouth into an inane grin.
 กีต้าร์
 ตี
 สิ
 อิ่ม
 
Keep your mouth in a smile (maybe not as much as before) and clench your teeth slightly while saying the "birdy" vowel sound.
 คือ
 มือ
 หนึ่ง
 อึ
Americans, keep your tongue out the way to avoid making an "r" sound - for all the "birdy" or "dirty" vowels.
Relax your mouth and drop your jaw.
 เปิด
 เกิด
 แฮมเบอร์เกอร์
 เงิน
 
Two vowels: "dirty" plus "chiminey"
 เคย
 เลย
 เนย
 
 
Two vowels: "dirty" plus "puppy"
 เพื่อน
 เมื่อ
 เหลือ
 เชือ
 
Two vowels: "chiminey" plus "puppy"
 เบียร์
 เสีย
 เปลียน
 เงียบ
 
Two vowels: "balloon" plus "puppy"
 วัว
 ตัว
 เกลัว
 ขวด
 
Two vowels: "puppy" plus "hook"
 เกา
 เขา
 เรา
 เดา
 
Two vowels: "puppy" plus "igloo"
 ไป
 ไคร
 ใจ
 ไม้ ไม่ ม้าย ไหม
 
 

Vowel/shape Comparisons

"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

How to pronounce องุ่น

There are several words that start with อ fused together with another consonant letter. So how do you pronounce a silent letter with another consonant letter?

Well, it's the same as any two 'unpronouncable' fused letters. You must open your mouth wide to jump from the first sound to the second, i.e. by making an sound.

So องุ่น is pronounced อะ-งุน, just like is สบาย pronounced สะ-บาย or ขนม is pronounced ขะ-นม.

Obviously, there are a few two-letter words that start with and have no vowel (in which case it's the invisible or default 'o' vowel), like อก (chest/breast), อม (to suck), อบ (bake), อด (refrain from) and องค์ (organ/bodypart).

And don't forget the four words where changes the ladyboy (ย) back into a boy for tone purposes:

อย่า
อย่าง
อยาก
อยู่


Note: For tone purposes, it's the first consonant that determines the sex of the word (or compound syllable in this case). But also note that this only applies if the second consonant is a ladyboy (which it is, most of the time, anyway)...

So องุ่น is a dead boy (sad).

ขนม is a singing girl (question)

But in สบาย, the second consonant in the fused pair is a boy - so we don't give precedence to ส and so the sex for the whole thing is a boy:   (i.e. singing boy = no tone).