With more than 35 million speakers in the world, a magnificently beautiful country with friendly people, and a vast international diaspora, there are plenty of great reasons for learning Thai.
Thai might take some time to learn, but it's not the most difficult language in the world. The main difficulties are the 5 tones and the relatively different vocabulary compared to English. The grammar is extremely simple, however, and while the alphabet seems exotic, it's phonetic and not too difficult to learn.
But let's dig a little deeper and have a closer look at some of the things that may or may not be challenging for someone who wants to learn Thai.
The Thai Alphabet, Isn't Too Hard To Learn
The Thai alphabet may seem a little intimidating and, sure, it has some things about it that make it quite a bit more complicated than our Latin alphabet.
It's got a lot more letters, for one thing. With 32 vowels and 44 consonants, the Thai alphabet will take some time to learn, but it's nothing like the brutal Chinese characters of which you need to learn thousands in order to correctly read or write.
Then there's the fact that Thai is written without spaces between individual words, which makes it really difficult to see where one word ends and another one begins!
The Thai script is phonetic, which means that words are pronounced exactly how they're spelled. In my opinion, this is a great advantage when learning the language, because you'll be able to figure out the pronunciation of anything without hearing the word in a conversation.
English on the other hand is quite a mess. How would a foreigner figure out how to pronounce "Arkansas"? Or "Leicester"?
Thai does have silent letters, but they're always marked with accents, or small symbols on top of the letter, which means that you'll always be able to figure it out. Similar kinds of symbols are used for indicating tone.
And while there are many letters in Thai, that you need to learn, they don't all represent different sounds. The น and ณ letters both have a similar "N" sound, and there are some 6 letters that all sound like "T".
So is the Thai alphabet difficult?
No, not really, you only need to learn a few extra characters than would be the case with the Latin or Cyrillic scripts.
I'd actually argue that it's easier than the Latin alphabet - at least when it's used for writing English because the fact that it's phonetic just makes everything a lot easier.
And as it's the case for most languages, alphabets are what beginner's focus on at first, because it's their first visual impression of a language. But in reality, it's (almost) always the easiest part. You can actually learn the Thai alphabet by heart in a matter of days.
Is Thai Pronunciation Hard?
Thai pronunciation is hard. Not because of individual vowels and consonants being difficult like it's the case with, say, Arabic, but because of other features that we aren't used to in English.
These are, tones, vowel length and unaspirated consonants.
Tones is a biggie. Like many Asian languages, such as Mandarin and Vietnamese, Thai is a tonal language. What this means is that the pitch with which you pronounce a syllable is important for distinguishing between different words.
If you're not sure what I mean, think of the difference in how you pronounce the word "really" when saying "I really like cheese" and "do you really?".
While the first "really" is pronounced with a sort of "neutral" or perhaps "high" tone, the second one is pronounced with a "rising" pitch which is commonly used in English for turning statements into questions. (Think of the difference in how you say "right" and "right?".)
In Thai, there are 5 different tones, and they're much more important than the pitch-differences we have in English because they don't just change the intention of a word (from statement to question) they change the meaning.
A fun example which illustrates this point is the phrase "mai mai mai mai".
For an English speaker, this looks like the same word repeated four times, and since the tones aren't annotated, it doesn't make much sense even to someone who speaks Thai either. But depending on the tone applied to each word, this phrase can mean "New wood does not burn", "Does new wood burn?", "Old wood burns", or simple "no, no, no, no!"
Hearing the difference between two tones, when pronounced separately, isn't that hard. But getting used to distinguish between them, learning each word along with its correct tones, and understanding fast-spoken Thai will be a struggle for someone who hasn't had any exposure to tonal languages before.
Next to tones, vowel length isn't a big deal, but it's another factor that you need to get used to. And along with the unaspirated consonants, they are part of a wide range of very subtle sound-distinctions that are very important in Thai but perceived basically as the same sound in English.
Lastly, Thai has a couple of consonants and vowel-sounds which don't exist in English. They aren't many, however, and while you'll need to dedicate a little effort to pronounce them correctly, they represent a minor challenge next to Thai tones.
Is Thai Grammar Difficult?
Here's some good news for you if you feel a little discouraged about learning Thai because of the tones.
Grammar-wise, it's really simple.
Many people will tell you that Thai basically has "no grammar". This is obviously not true, because a language wouldn't be a language without its grammar. But when you compare Thai to most other languages, English included, the grammar is delightfully simple and straight-forward.
Among the simplifying aspects of Thai grammar are:
- Thai doesn't distinguish between definite and indefinite articles like "the" and "a" and "an".
- There isn't any difference between singular and plural in Thai. If you want to indicate that there is more than one of a given object, you simply say the number.
- Thai doesn't have any verb conjugation, meaning that the verb remains in the same form independently of the subject being "I", "you", "he/she/it", "they", "we", and so on. Compared to English, this would just mean that you wouldn't need to add the "s" when going from "I sing" to "he sings" (it would be "he sing"). Compared to languages with more elaborated conjugation systems like French, the difference is much more staggering.
But if Thai is so simple grammatically, how will you be able to express yourself as precisely as in English? Wouldn't the details be lacking?
Not really, because Thai just expresses the details differently. Instead of a plural form of nouns, a number is added, instead of a verb-form for the future, a helper-word like "tomorrow" is added, and so on.
And while on the subject of helper-words, let's continue on to the subject of vocabulary.
Is Thai Vocabulary Hard To Learn?
While there are things about Thai vocabulary that I'd characterize as easy, generally, Thai words are hard to learn.
The easy part of the words is that they're generally relatively simple words of one or two syllables and that they're built up around a certain logic, where complicated concepts are described with "compound" words, or by combining simple words.
But then there are other words, especially loan-words from Sanskrit and other languages of which there are many, which don't really follow this simplistic logic.
And while many words in Thai are short and straightforward, they're very different from what you're probably used to from English or other European languages. You'll have a harder time making associations in order to remember new vocabulary, and you'll find that there are almost no cognates with English words.
Add to that that there are many words to learn.
As a beginner, you'll be able to get by with a small selection of words for speaking, but you need to be able to understand spoken Thai as well, and the system of honorifics in Thai will mean that people will use different vocabulary for communicating with you, depending on your (and their) age, social status and their relationship with you.
Because of these different challenges, I'd say that Thai vocabulary is, indeed, difficult for the average English speaker.
Conclusion: Is Thai Hard To Learn?
So is the Thai language hard to learn?
While Thai isn't the most complicated language grammatically, it's challenging for most English speakers because of its tonal system and its vast and very foreign vocabulary. Because of these things, Thai might take a while to master.
If you do decide to learn Thai, you'll notice, however, that Thai people are extremely patient and helpful, and it's a language that keeps giving.
Learning Thai is definitely worth these difficulties, there's no denying that it isn't the easiest language in the world!
If you're interested in how I recommend that you go about learning Thai, go read my article: How To Learn Thai By Yourself.