Learn A Little Thai

By Frank Leitz

(Those who are already klôrng in Thai need not read this.)


If there is one trait that marks a gracious visitor to a foreign country, it is the ability to use a little of the native language.  This can amount to as little as being able to say “hello,” “good bye,” “thank you,” or “excuse me.”  You really needn’t worry that the person you are talking to will assume any fluency on your part.  By the time you have stammered out Sa wut dee in a broad American manner, your conversational partner will probably have figured out that there are limits to your linguistic skills.


On a more pressing level, if you need the hông náhm and can follow the directions to it, you may still need to know that the Gents will be labeled Chai and the Ladies Yĭng.  Unfortunately these will be spelled in Thai letters.


Fortunately there are a variety of resources for learning Thai at bookstores and libraries.  Unless you are a really quick study or have a very obliging librarian, you may want your own copy.  Since Thai is a tonal language, an aural aid is very useful.  From a few trips in Denver, I have accumulated the following items, each of which has its own virtues.


Teach Yourself Thai, NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, (book only) ISBN: 0-8442-3872‑5, $17.95, (kit with two cassettes and book) ISBN: 0-8442-3873-3, $27.95.  This is probably the best investment for someone who wants to speak and read the language.  It includes how to write the letters, grammatical rules, etc.  You can work through it in about six months if you have some time to devote to it regularly.


Language/30 Thai, Educational Services, Washington D.C., 1993, ISBN 0-910542-71-6,  $18.95.  This consists of two cassettes with an accompanying booklet showing the text in English and Thai.  This is best for learning the language on the fly if you commute and have a cassette player in your car and have the ability to listen and drive at the same time.  Or you can use the tapes at home, which might be less distracting.  The Thai is pronounced at a reasonable speaking rate so you get used to the normal cadence of the language.  Each phrase is given twice, which helps enormously in comprehension.  Lacking much about grammar, the book leaves you with a tricky situation figuring out which Thai word corresponds to which English word.


Easy Thai, Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 2000, ISBN 0-8048-0159‑2, $12.95.  A short book with a focus on the written language.  If you want to learn the alphabetic sequence of letters in the Thai alphabet, this is for you.  The author tries to leave you with a working vocabulary of 200 words, but they are not what I would have considered the most useful 200 words.


Travel Talk Thai, Penton Overseas, Inc., Carlsbad, CA, ISBN 1-56015-647-3, $15.95.  This kit contains a phrase book and a single cassette.  On the cassette, both the English and Thai are pronounced with an emphasis on clarity, which makes the words easy to understand but doesn’t reflect the real cadence of either language.  The phrase book and dictionary is a treasure that should probably be bought separately.  It covers a lot of territory in a very small weight and volume, easily fit into the cargo pocket of the Venturing pants.  The only disadvantage is that the Thai letters are almost unreadably small (to me).  If you have good eyes, plan to carry this with you.


Conversational Thai in 7 Days, Passport Books, Chicago, 1992, ISBN 0-8442-4551-8, $8.95.  This book is a minimalist approach, but with some substance.  The "Days" are chapters so don't take the title too literally.


Thai, The Rough Guide, Dictionary Phrasebook, Rough Guides Ltd., London, 1999, ISBN 1-85828-608-5, $6.50.  This is a good, small dictionary, with a limited but useful selection of words.  It also contains a brief grammar.  Its outstanding feature, besides the cheap price, is that the Thai letters are printed in a nice legible font.


The Rosetta Stone Thai Explorer, Fairfield Language Technologies, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 2002, ISBN 1-58022-3, $19.99.  This language teaching program is on CD.  It requires a fairly up-to-date computer, Windows 95 or later or Mac OS8.1 or later, 4X CD-ROM drive etc., etc.  It operates by having the learner connect a picture to a written and spoken phrase or sentence.  Unless your intuition is better than mine, this would be a difficult way to learn Thai from scratch.  For example, does nók mean a bird or a swan (as shown in the picture)?  However, with a little background in the language and a good dictionary, one learns to hear the words in a Thai sentence spoken at a normal speaking pace.


Other things that may be available include the course developed by the Foreign Service Institute and now available from the Internet Language Company.  Level 1 consists of 11 cassettes and book for $225 and Level 2 consists of 17 cassettes and book for $225.  You can get both for the bargain price of $395.  FSI courses are for the serious student or for someone planning to spend a couple of years in the country. 


A fair amount of material is available on the web.  Sites containing information about Thai language include the following:





These sites have not been fully explored and heaven knows what else may be there.  Keep in mind that Thailand is a popular vacation destination and people go there for a variety of reasons.