Thai Tones

Thai has 5 tones:  Click on any of the example words below to hear a word spoken across the 5 tones.

It is a very common misconception that saying the tones wrong will create some ridiculous alternative meaning.  While not entirely impossible, the chance of this happening is so low that you shouldn’t waste any time worrying about it.   In general, it’s not the end of the world if you screw up a tone or 2.  Getting the last one correct will help a lot because that’s the one that tends to linger in people’s minds.  If you say an entire sentence perfectly and butcher the last syllable, it throws people off. Many learners tend to say things faster in the hopes that nobody will hear our mistakes, but this does nothing to help us improve.   Until you get good, just slow down a bit.  What’s the rush?

Practice Thai Tones

Ready to see if you can identify what tone a word takes?  Don’t’ worry if you don’t get it right away, it takes time and practice!

  • ไป
    ไป
    to go (MID)
  • บ้าน
    บ้าน
    home (FALLING)
  • ร้อน
    ร้อน
    hot (HIGH)
  • ถ้า
    ถ้า
    if (FALLING)
  • รู้
    รู้
    to know (HIGH)
  • ชอบ
    ชอบ
    to like (FALLING)
  • หนัง
    หนัง
    movie (RISING)
  • ข้าว
    ข้าว
    rice (FALLING)
  • ผอม
    ผอม
    thin (RISING
  • มาก
    มาก
    a lot (FALLING)
  • All Done!

Comparing Thai Tones

When you first start learning about tonality in a language, it can be very difficult to distinguish between different tones that are associated with sounds that are new to you.  This makes everything much harder than it needs to be so what I’ve always been an advocate of practicing saying the different tones using words in your own language.   This helps tremendously for 2 reasons: 1 – You are associating 1 new thing (adding meaning to tone) with 1 thing which you are already totally familiar with (the word in English).  I believe this approach has contributed massively to my success both in terms of language learning, language teaching and business.  So, divide and conquer folks.  It works.

 

How to Mastering Thai Tones?

Print out this sheet: Thai Tone Drills

  • Be aware that there are 3 groups of letters and the each have different rules.
  • First, practice with the 7 most common Middle Class Consonants first.
  • Once you’ve mastered the Middle Class rules, start on High Class, the 2nd largest group.
  • When you are comfortable with the High Class rules, spend a couple of days working out the tones of Middle and High class words mixed together.
  • When you can quickly determine the tone of a Middle or High class word then it’s time to learn the Low Class rules.  These rules are the most complex and are best saved for last.
  • Once you know all the rules, continue to practice them a few minutes a day until it becomes automatic.

How to Figure out the Tone of a Thai Word

This is an example of the steps you’ll go through to determine the tone of a Thai word:

Eg: เก็บ

  1. What class is first letter of the syllable? – Middle (say this to yourself every time even though all words you are currently practicing are mid.)  
  2. Does it have a tone mark?  – No
  3. Does it have a hard ending? – Yes – That means Middle Class with a Hard ending gets what tone?  -LOW

Thai Tone Drills Worksheet – Print this sheet out and tear it apart as you go through the classes.  Using the steps above to figure out each syllable’s tone and the attack plan below.  

The first time you sit down to do this, set a timer for 10 minutes.  Once you get into the rhythm and get the idea, drop it down to 5 minutes.  Attach this to some other daily routine you have.  Eg; Add an extra minute or 2 to brushing your teeth as you run through the drills, while walking your dog, sitting on the bus/train, smoking.  Find some window of 4-5 minutes in your day where you aren’t really doing anything with your brain and do this.  If that’s really hard, then just do it upon waking and/or right before bed. It’ll make you tired at night and wake up your brain in the morning.  

Stick with the Middle Class drills until you can get through all words in under 5 minutes.  

Every time you do the drills, start with a different word and go in a different direction.  Don’t go top to bottom, left to right as we don’t want to memorize the tones of the words, we want you to be able to work out what the word is automatically.  And even if you do know the word, go through the entire process each time.  

When you can do all the middle class drills in under 5 minutes, it’s time to move onto High class.  Since the rules are very similar, it shouldn’t take you more than a couple of days.  Don’t neglect the middle class.  Still do those once a day as a warmup before high except now set your timer for 3 minutes, but don’t stress if you can’t finish it.  It’s the repetition that we want.  When the high class drills become easy (under 5 minutes) move on to Mid + High.  You can stop doing the previous 2 at this point and just focus on this.  

What I discovered back when doing these drills myself many years ago is that by knowing the rules and being able to almost instantly figure out the tone of a word allowed my brain to assign some sort of meaning to the different tones which my ears were struggling to distinguish.  This combined with really mastering all the vowel shapes made Thai not only accessible, but actually pretty easy.  

The only way to really master it all is to learn the script and all the tone rules associate with the Thai sound system.  It’s totally possible to learn this on your own, but there are a number of rules to learn and it can seem very complex at first.  If you like my approach of dividing things up into bite-sized chunks you may want to check out my course, Read Thai in 2 Weeks, which covers everything you need to know in order to start reading and speaking Thai including the script, sound system and tone rules.

Showing Emotion in a Tonal language?

You will at some point wonder how you could show emotion in a language when intonation of each syllable is already associated with meaning.  Tonal languages generally use small words called PARTICLES to add what I’ve come to think of as emotional color to sentences.  Mastering these particles can take time as many of them tend to have multiple uses and I recommend trying to get a feel for them rather than trying to assign a concrete meaning to them in your mind.   You do this first by looking at examples, but then watching for how native speakers use it and then attempt to copy what they do.  Always pay attention to people’s reactions.  Thai people aren’t likely to tell you when you say something wrong, but they may twitch or make a face if you say something weird.

Here are a couple very common examples of Thai particles:

  • นะ – I call this one “the softener” it makes whatever comes before it sound soft and fluffy
    • อะไร vs อะไรนะ:  อะไร means “what” but in Thai, when spoken on it’s own can come across more like “Huh?” or a noncomittal/uncaring “Whaaat?”  By adding the นะ particle, it removes all abruptness and any possible confusion over the feeling behind your question.
    • If someone says something and you didn’t quite catch it, you can say อะไรนะ, which turns “Huh?” into something more like “Pardon” or “What was that?”
  • สิ (not found)
    – This is another fun particle that I think of as “the boss”.  Adding this particle to a sentence, particularly a verb, adds a level of urgency to whatever you are saying.  Let’s look at a common example:
    • Example 1:
      • A:ไปมั้ย – are you going?
      • B:ไม่แน่ใจ – I’m not sure.
      • A:ไปสิ – Go! / Just go! / C’mon, you should go! / You are going! (*How strong or forceful this particle is will depend on context, including both the situation and the relationship between the speaker and listener)
    • Example 2:
      • A: นี่กินอะไรอยู่เนี่ย – Hey what’s that you are eating?  / Oi, whatcha eatin there?
      • B: กินไอติม เอาป่าว – Ice cream. Want some?
      • A: เอาสิ  – Hell yea I want some. / Of course I want some (there’s is often a mild and friendly feeling of, why are you even asking me when you know I will want some)