Should I learn to read the Thai alphabet?

by | Nov 4, 2020 | Thai, Tips

As a language learner (and a teacher) I can say that the Thai alphabet is difficult. By difficult I mean it takes more time and effort to master and read effortlessly than other languages.

There are 44 consonants symbols, at least 32 vowel combinations, and 5 tones. However, spending time learning the Thai alphabet will be well worth it in the long run.

The fastest student I’ve had took him one week to master combining consonants and vowels but still had problems with tones (I created a cheat sheet on mastering the tones). He was very diligent and worked hard using flashcards to try and memorize the alphabet. Another student, reading took him more than 3 months only practicing with me in the class once per week.

Memorizing the alphabet is like making a snowball. When you practice you are making a snowball. When you stop, it starts melting. It took him 3 months because he left the snowball still for 6 days after one day of practice with me. Anyway, he didn’t give up, and even with just 1 hr per week, he could read Thai pretty well. I think that’s better than not learning to read at all.

Why you should/must learn to read the Thai alphabet

1. Absorb and learn faster

Reading creates a strong base for language acquisition.

Thai Bookshelf

I had a discussion with my music teacher about reading music. I asked him how important it is to read well. He said that it’s not necessary because a passion for music can help you overcome that ‘handicap’. Through a lot of exposure and learning by ears and rigorous practicing, you can reach the level that you want to achieve. But, he said ‘you will absolutely learn faster if you can read well because every song old, new, every style, will be accessible to you by reading the notes’. He also added that he ‘wished he had put more effort into reading well’.

This really got me thinking about language learning. Who in the world wouldn’t want to learn fast? There are so many things to learn, maybe it’s another language or programming, art, music, etc. Why get stuck with Thai for 5 years if you can do it in 2 years. Reading will help you to have access to authentic materials that haven’t been simplified for non-Thai.

2. Know how pronunciation works

Since there are many vowels, no matter what your mother tongue is, you will find sounds that are impossible to express without knowing how to read. For example, อัว, อัวะ (ua · ùa). That is just a difference in short and long vowel.

Another example is อือ (eu). The sound this vowel makes is not a sound found in English. You have to learn this new sound. If you try using transliteration you might see eu but that’s still confusing and not accurate.

Additionally, 5 tones make it almost impossible to decipher the correct pronunciation. For many words, just the change in tone can change the meaning entirely. For example: เสือ,เสื่อ,เสื้อ (sĕua, sèua, sêua) tiger, mattress, shirt. If you don’t know how to read you might just pronounce these all the same.

You may be thinking “What about transliteration?” 🤔. is probably the best site to get the transliteration but sadly you have to waste time learning how transliteration work. Learning transliteration is easier than learning to read but it will pose 3 problems:

  • First, there are a few different transliteration systems depending on the site that you use.

  • Second, most likely your Thai teacher will not know the transliteration system because it’s a system made solely for foreigners.

  • Third, why waste time learning transliteration if you know that the best way is to learn the alphabet. I rather you invest time in learning the alphabet than in learning transliteration.

3. Traveling and eating with ease

Thai stop sign

In Thailand, the signs on the road, the menus in a restaurant, the bus destinations, etc, will be written in Thai alphabet.

If you can read, you can understand them and you will feel more comfortable getting around. You will feel more at home in Thailand. While traveling you will automatically learn Thai through reading signs, and things written here and there. Traveling and just getting around will be more exciting because it’s also like learning Thai but not in a class. It’s like a little puzzle to solve.

If you are someone like me whose focus is on learning as efficiently and as fast as possible. I highly recommend you to learn the alphabet. Spending the time to learn it will really improve and speed up your learning in the long run.

For reasons on why you should learn Thai, check out my article.

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