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BANGKOK 17 January 2019 17:59
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midas

Pronunciation Of Thai

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I would appreciate the feedback from one of the more proficient Thai language speakers that may be on this forum.

Why is it that as a novice I experience such difficulty getting the other person to understand my spoken word sometimes?

It seems to me that most of the time there is absolutely no room for tolerance in the actual pronunciation of Thai words.

For example when a Russian or a French person or a German person is speaking beginners English I believe regarding most native English speakers,

our brain will constantly have regard to the context of what is being spoken so that if the pronunciation happens to be below par here and there, we automatically search very quickly in our minds as to what could be the closest correct pronunciation within the context of the discussion.

In other words spoken English can still be very much below standard when spoken by foreigners and yet we are able to give them considerable

latitude for poor pronunciation and still be able to understand quite well.

In Thailand there seems to be absolutely no tolerance for this substandard pronunciation? I have found this quite frustrating. I can find myself repeating the word or phrase over and over again trying desperately to vary the tone but they still stare at me with a blank expression!

Don’t they ever think in their minds now what is this person trying to say within the context of our discussion?

I must admit this has had a drastic effect on my confidence in being able to speak Thai and my willingness to try and persevere.

Edited by midas

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Well, there are many others here who are far more proficient than I am, but I'll give you some input until one the big guns arrives. First of all, there are more ways for us to mess up the pronunciation in Thai than for other foreigners in English. There are the tones, vowel length, and pronunciation of the vowel and consonant sounds. If you make a mistake in one area you will likely still be understood, but multiple mistakes will doom you. I've had people tell me how great and clear my pronunciation is...then I heard a recording of myself and I was horrified! I was making very routine mistakes with tones and vowel lengths and yet I can sit and have a conversation for a few hours and have the person I'm speaking to understand almost everything I'm saying.

You didn't say how long you've been studying, so this may or may not apply, but if you've moved beyond just saying things out of the phrasebooks then part of the problem could be the way you phrase things. As an example, I bought one of those chicken wrap sandwiches and only wanted chicken so I said " gai tao nan" (chicken only). Made perfect sense to me but I repeated it 3 times and he couldn't understand me so I switched to English. I later found out that the correct way to order it would be "mai sai pak, mai sai sauce" (no vegetables, no sauce). I try to get the tones right, but I think that even if they were wrong I'd still be understood because it is the correct phrase.

Many times I've wanted to say something but didn't know the right word so I'd go home and look it up in the dictionary then try using the next time I was in a similar situation. My success rate with this was below 50%. Either the word would be too formal/obscure or there would be a more colloquial way of saying it. Now I ask a Thai person or on the forums and only use a Thai to English dictionary to help with comprehension, not to learn new vocabulary.

"I must admit this has had a drastic effect on my confidence in being able to speak Thai and my willingness to try and persevere."

This could be another problem. When I'm unsure about saying something I tend to speak it less clearly which makes it even harder to understand. I have a friend who has never formally studied and has very poor pronunciation and says almost everything in a mid tone, but he's one of those people who is totally unafraid to make mistakes and says everything with confidence...and Thais seem to be able to understand him even though the mistakes are so obvious that even I recognize them.

Are you self studying? What are you doing to try to improve?

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You didn't say how long you've been studying, so this may or may not apply, but if you've moved beyond just saying things out of the phrasebooks then part of the problem could be the way you phrase things. As an example, I bought one of those chicken wrap sandwiches and only wanted chicken so I said " gai tao nan" (chicken only). Made perfect sense to me but I repeated it 3 times and he couldn't understand me so I switched to English. I later found out that the correct way to order it would be "mai sai pak, mai sai sauce" (no vegetables, no sauce). I try to get the tones right, but I think that even if they were wrong I'd still be understood because it is the correct phrase.

Thanks very much for your response kikenyoy.

You see your example with chicken vendor is exactly what I am referring to :rolleyes:

I mean by the time you had repeated your request for the second or third time surely his or her brain would have

deciphered the practical meaning of your alternative expression despite the fact that it may have been gramatically incorrect?

I mean he could see you are a farang for Christ's sake :blink:

I don't know, maybe I expect too much of the Thai's in this regard but I have never experienced what seems to be a lack of tolerance

regarding incorrect pronunciation in any other language. Or it least in other countries I have never been made to feel so

uncomfortable about trying to speak their language as I do in Thailand.

Of course I am the first to confess that to some extent perhaps my own attitude has held me back somewhat because

somehow I can't reconcile what seems to be all this extra effort ( compared to learning other languages which I have done even

superficially like Russian when I was working in Moscow and Hindi when I was working in India ).

Being a language beginner in those two countries for example never seemed a big issue

because people allowed to the fact that I was a foreigner and they encouraged me to speak however poorly it was :lol:

The language I received my primary education in and in which I grew up with was Welsh and I can't help equating learning Thai

to Welsh. In other words both are parochial languages and Welsh is also a difficult language to learn for many but in

the end is also totally useless when you become a world traveller. At the end of the day you still don't have an international

means of communication with either language?

And it's not as if the Thai’s encourage you to speak Thai either when they can clearly see you are trying to master their language.

In so many instances they immediately revert to English and I've even had some say to me it's better for foreigners not try because

Thai’s don't like to hear their language spoken incorrectly. :blink: I don't know whether you have ever had this experience?

To answer your question about methodology, yes I have only ever self-studied.

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I think people take this all so personally and automatically assume its because Thais don't want to understand you. Thai is very precise, and in its own way, a very logical language. Once you grasp how it works, its actually pretty simple. The fact is, like other tonal languages such as Mandarin and other Chinese languages, if you mispronounce a word you are saying the wrong thing. They may be able to grasp it by context but if you are only using a word or two in the first place thats pretty darn difficult to do.

Your best bet is to get out there and listen. Ask a Thai person the name of a thing and repeat it until you hear it correctly. But you must listen. Watch tv, go hang out in Thai only places and listen, ask questions, and repeat it back until you get it right. Its how I learned my Thai and I have no difficulty in people understanding me (except of course if they aren't from the South and don't understand the Southern word I just used :P )

This reminds me of the time a girl came into our place and asked for magaw. DH said, excuse me? and she said "magaw, don't you speak Thai?" and he said "yes I do but I have never heard of a magaw". Turns out she wanted a papaya. But with no context and just a single word even my husband, who is a fluent English speaker and perfectly capable of guessing from context, had no idea what she was talking about. And frankly, neither did I.

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It's true that people such as the chicken vendor may not be widely travelled or used to communicating with foreigners. Hence they won't have developed strategies for seeing through to what the foreign speaker is trying to say.

People who are used to communicating with foreigners, however, often have remarkable ability in picking up the meaning of something said to them in a very strange accent - tones and vowels all over the place.

It's not just a Thai thing either. When I worked in Australia I often had otherwise intelligent and confident secretaries put phone calls through to me because they couldn't understand a caller's "accent". (I was the "bilingual resource" in the office.) Most times the caller didn't have a difficult accent at all, but the secretaries were not used to dealing with any foreign accent over the phone and would seize up as soon as they heard one.

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When I worked in Australia I often had otherwise intelligent and confident secretaries put phone calls through to me because they couldn't understand a caller's "accent". (I was the "bilingual resource" in the office.) Most times the caller didn't have a difficult accent at all, but the secretaries were not used to dealing with any foreign accent over the phone and would seize up as soon as they heard one.

Ha ha that's hilarious :lol:

as you say it's not so much that foreigners have a different " accent " in Australia, but it is that they simply don't communicate in the same

“ laid back “ kind of way as the Aussie’s. for example one of my favourite characters :lol:

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Several good, thoughtful replies above. I have learned Thai (I would say I was pretty much at a business level, albeit it has taken nearly 50 years of off and on study to get there) and Spanish (in my best days that are well behind me now I was close to business level). It took me about ten percent or less of the amount of time to learn Spanish (as a native English speaker) as it has Thai. I could make more progress in Spanish accidentally in a few months than I did on purpose in Thai in a few years! Most westerners, I think, underestimate the issue of tonality, which is central to Thai (and Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and some others), but completely alien to our language framework. Almost all the languages we westerners are likely to have learned before coming to Asia are Indo-European in origin (this even includes Hindi, btw, which the OP mentioned he/she had had some luck with). These languages are vastly different in many ways from each other but share an underlying conceptual framework. Thai has, at the conceptual level, almost nothing to do with these Indo-European languages (yes, there's a ton of Pali and Sanskrit in Thai, but the grammatical framework of the original language has been almost completely left behind in its journey to Thai). So we tend to have had some experience learning German or Spanish or French or something and we judge ourselves by how rapidly we mastered those languages. This is a huge mistake. You need to be much, much more patient with ourselves.My own strategy at the beginning in learning Thai was to stay away from Thais who could speak any English whatsoever (I realize this is much harder to do now than it was all those years ago, but it's still not that tough). This made me more comfortable with the baby-talk level of the language of which I was then capable and it removed the temptation to take the easy way out and just speak English. Everyone has their own experience, but I have found Thais to be 99.9999% unfailingly polite, patient and helpful in regard to learning their language--far more so, I would say, than many of my fellow-Americans (and cousin Brits, Canadians, Aussies, etc.), who tend to think, I fear, even when not in our own countries that the world owes it to us to speak English.Bottom line. Be patient with yourself. (And with the Thais).

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@midas

1) Some of the language aspects we Europeans are hardly aware of are crucial in spoken Thai -- the tones, of course, the different vowel lengths, the 'swallowed' final consonants and the rhythm of the language.

2) Many Thais will see a Western face and brace themselves for an English conversation, so perhaps you need to start with a standard greeting to alert them to the fact that you're going to be speaking Thai.

If its any consolation, both the aspects above are much worse in Vietnamese -- if you mess up a sentence by 5% or more, the VN person will screw up their forehead in bafflement, as though you were using the language in 'Mars Attacks'

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As an example, I bought one of those chicken wrap sandwiches and only wanted chicken so I said " gai tao nan" (chicken only). Made perfect sense to me but I repeated it 3 times and he couldn't understand me so I switched to English. I later found out that the correct way to order it would be "mai sai pak, mai sai sauce" (no vegetables, no sauce). I try to get the tones right, but I think that even if they were wrong I'd still be understood because it is the correct phrase.

เอาแต่ไก่ (aow dtae gai) would work too. แต่ (dtae) which means 'but' can also mean 'just/only'. aow dtae gai = I want just chicken. aow dtae gai tao nan could work too.

Things that make sense to you don't always work! But hey, you've learned from your mistake, and those lessons tend to stick.

I mean by the time you had repeated your request for the second or third time surely his or her brain would have

deciphered the practical meaning of your alternative expression despite the fact that it may have been gramatically incorrect?

I mean he could see you are a farang for Christ's sake :blink:

I don't know, maybe I expect too much of the Thai's in this regard but I have never experienced what seems to be a lack of tolerance

regarding incorrect pronunciation in any other language. Or it least in other countries I have never been made to feel so

uncomfortable about trying to speak their language as I do in Thailand.

Of course I am the first to confess that to some extent perhaps my own attitude has held me back somewhat because

somehow I can't reconcile what seems to be all this extra effort ( compared to learning other languages which I have done even

superficially like Russian when I was working in Moscow and Hindi when I was working in India ).

Being a language beginner in those two countries for example never seemed a big issue

because people allowed to the fact that I was a foreigner and they encouraged me to speak however poorly it was :lol:

The language I received my primary education in and in which I grew up with was Welsh and I can't help equating learning Thai

to Welsh. In other words both are parochial languages and Welsh is also a difficult language to learn for many but in

the end is also totally useless when you become a world traveller. At the end of the day you still don't have an international

means of communication with either language?

And it's not as if the Thai’s encourage you to speak Thai either when they can clearly see you are trying to master their language.

In so many instances they immediately revert to English and I've even had some say to me it's better for foreigners not try because

Thai’s don't like to hear their language spoken incorrectly. :blink: I don't know whether you have ever had this experience?

So to boil it down... it's a lot of effort, no one understands you when you speak yibberish, neither do they encourage/want you to speak Thai, and at the end of it all when you finally do master it - you are are stuck with a useless language.

You'll go far with that attitude!

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A few of the posts above have mentioned the importance of tones. This isn't really true. Thais can understand each other when whispering - and when whispering it's physiologically impossible to make tones. Similarly, some styles of singing don't incorporate tones, yet the singers can be understood.

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A few of the posts above have mentioned the importance of tones. This isn't really true. Thais can understand each other when whispering - and when whispering it's physiologically impossible to make tones. Similarly, some styles of singing don't incorporate tones, yet the singers can be understood.

Yes, context can help a lot. Reduced context makes correct tone more important.

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. Thais can understand each other when whispering - and when whispering it's physiologically impossible to make tones.

It seems possible to me. Where did you hear this?

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A few of the posts above have mentioned the importance of tones. This isn't really true. Thais can understand each other when whispering - and when whispering it's physiologically impossible to make tones. Similarly, some styles of singing don't incorporate tones, yet the singers can be understood.

I thought maybe I had a different definition of whisper than the OP, so I checked Dictionary.com and found:

whis·per

[hwis-per, wis-per] dictionary_questionbutton_default.gif Show IPAverb (used without object)1.to speak with soft, hushed sounds, using the breath, lips,etc., but with no vibration of the vocal cords. As a general matter, I agree that Thais don't exactly hear "tones" or think of "tones" the way we do. Words with different intonations are, for them, different words, not the same word intoned differently. But I can "whisper" in Thai and my "whispers" have, for lack of a better word, "tonality". Tone, as Westerners think of it, is critically important to Thai. Thai pronounced a-tonally is almost completely incomprehensible to both Thais and non-native Thai speakers (I have a harder time understanding thick farang accents than does significant other). Out of seven students in my Thai language class these many moons ago, two of us were "tone deaf" (could not carry a tune in a bucket as they say). Neither of these two students ever got to the place where they could communicate in Thai in anything like a normal way. (Interesting illustration of a poorly designed testing instrument--the Army had tested all of us for "language ability" before getting into Defense Language Institute, but the test was based on Esperanto, and did not test for tonal acuity.)

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Perhaps because if you use the wrong tone you are not just saying the intended word wrong but are saying a completely different word.

In English is someone couldn't say the word 'pass' you could still understand the phrase: "can you ____ me the sandwich".

But in Thai if you couldn't say 'pass' you might be saying: "can you punch me the sandwich" which could be rather baffling.

Someone should do a Thai course that only teaches you the mid-tone words. I'm sure there must be enough of them to get by in basic situations. Then we won't have to worry about it. Anyone got a list?

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In English is someone couldn't say the word 'pass' you could still understand the phrase: "can you ____ me the sandwich".

Can you part me the sandwich?

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