MED Magazine - Issue 37 - April 2006

Different families, not distant cousins: comparing Thai and English
by John Anyan


Since the genesis of the Thai language is far more intimately connected with South Asian and East Asian languages, there are far fewer 'friends', false or otherwise, found between the languages of Thai and English than are found between Indo-European languages.

Thailand's official language is Thai as spoken and written in Central Thailand. Variants on this form are found as one moves from North to South in particular, where both vocabulary and tone values can vary.

In Thai the meaning of a syllable can vary depending on which of five tones is used to pronounce it. In central Thai there are five tones used: low, mid, falling, high and rising.

The difficulties posed by a tonal language

An illustration of the role of tones in Thai to foreigners is 'mai mai mai mai mai', meaning 'New wood doesn't burn, does it?' Not, of course, a phrase often heard, but one which emphasises probably the major difficulty in learning Thai for speakers of non-tonal languages such as English. It can be very difficult for speakers of these languages to separate how they use intonation in their own tongue from how tones are used in Thai. It is the natural inclination of first language English speakers to use tones to denote stressed words which is the prime cause of confusion here. Conversely for first language Thai speakers it can be difficult to use stress consistently to denote stressed words in English, and it can also be difficult to convey such emotions as surprise or interest via intonation.

Thai attitudes to English

Thailand seems to share little of the rest of the world's fear of the negative impact English may have on its own, native tongue. English is seen very much as the language of business and the vast majority of Thais learn the language almost exclusively because of a desire to better their career prospects rather than because of any intrinsic interest in the first language English speaking world. English is also perceived by many Thais, particularly younger urban Thais, as being fashionable, or even, as one learner described it, 'cute'. Interest in England felt by the average Thai male is unlikely to extend past the national passion for English Premiership football, which has given rise to a number of 'Tinglish' phrases such as 'backsai', the term used to describe the football position of left back, 'sai' being the Thai word for 'left'.

Orthographic interference

Football is pronounced 'footbon' in Thai, which leads us to a frequent cause of mispronunciation of English words, namely how the positioning of a letter in a word can alter its pronunciation. The Thai equivalent of the letter 'l' is pronounced as an 'l' at the start of a word, but as an 'n' at the end of a word. The Thai language gives equal stress to all syllables, and so words ending with a schwa such as computer are likely to have an 'overemphasised' final syllable which can be represented as an 'err' in computerr. Also, an 's' sound at the end of a word is not pronounced in Thai which means that plural nouns are frequently pronounced as singular, and there is also mispronunciation of the third person form of verbs. The fact that Thai makes no grammatical distinction between first and third person verb forms makes accuracy here particularly difficult.

Grammatical interference

Whilst the tonal nature of Thai presents considerable challenges to speakers of atonal languages, its grammatical structure is considered by most to be fairly straightforward. The principal difference is that verb forms do not vary to show first or third person forms, or to show differences between, for example the past or future. First and third person forms are generally understood by their context or by specifying 'I' or 'He' and markers are added to indicate tense. For example, 'ja' for the future or 'ma' for the past. Thus, 'Tomorrow he's going to see a movie' in Thai is 'Prung ni Khao ja bai duu nang' or 'Tomorrow he [future marker] go see movie'. Thai also has no articles as illustrated by this sentence. For Thai speakers of English this makes grammar, particularly aspect, a very difficult part of the language to master and there is frequently an over reliance on the present simple tense used in conjunction with a time phrase.

Lexical interference

One example of how Thai lexis can lead to errors in English has become a T-shirt design, 'Same Same But Different'. This comes from the way that words can be emphasised by repetition, 'Is the same as...' being 'Muang muang' in Thai.

English borrowed in Thai

Despite the completely different roots of the Thai and English languages, there are some words and phases which have been relatively recently borrowed from English. Hello has been adopted as the common way to answer the telephone, although the Thai version of this is more commonly a 'Hallo', with the second syllable extended and given a rising intonation. In a restaurant it is quite common to hear the phrase Cheque Bin, to ask for the bill. More rarely, a foreigner might be somewhat alarmed to encounter someone trying to attract their attention by saying Hey You! It's said that it was first picked up from GIs in the days of the Vietnam War. Second language speakers are almost certainly unaware that the phrase lacks the politeness which is so valued by many Thais in their first language.


There is relatively little concern in Thailand that the rise of the importance of English is threatening the existence of the Thai language. Thais are very proud of their cultural heritage and the fact that the country has never been colonised. English is seen more as a commercially desirable 'add on' to Thai than as any kind of threat. English is not often mixed with Thai in the way that one might hear, for example, Hindi mixed with English in India. Thais use English only to communicate with foreigners. The fact that the two languages are very clearly separated means that there are relatively few borrowings from English apart from the ubiquitous computer technology language. The greatest challenge encountered by Thais learning English and by English speakers learning Thai is to approach the language as something totally new, and to make sure the first language has as little influence as possible on how they use the second language.

Further reading

The last of these links includes a free downloadable e-book, 'The Fundamentals of the Thai Languag

Next in the series

In the next article you can read about Indonesian and its relationship with English.

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