Thai transcription

The Thai transcription is a set of written symbols representing all the sounds that are made in speaking Thai.

It helps a learner to start learning to be able to pronounce Thai words and sentences before learning to read the Thai alphabet.

On this page, you will see the pros and cons of learning Thai through transcription, and later on, you will learn how to use them.

If you want to start with reading the Thai script right away, go to Learn to Read the Thai Script.

Pros and cons of Thai transcription

Nowadays, people still question whether to learn Thai through transcription or the Thai script. Which way is better?

I’m not going to say which one is better because I have met people who are fluent in Thai from learning through either of those methods.

Instead, I will show you the pros and cons of Thai transcription so you can decide which way to go.

Pros of Thai transcription

1. It’s faster

Look at these words sawàtdii and สวัสดี. Both mean hello in Thai. So, you can make your way through reading the former one right away, but not with the latter one which is the Thai script.

The transcription helps you to start speaking and using words right at the first day of your learning.

2. It could make reading Thai easier

When people learn to read Thai script without knowing any Thai words before, it can be frustrating.

It is because they spend lots of their time memorizing the alphabet and understanding the rules. But later on, they find themselves being able to read everything but understand nothing.

On the other hand, if you have learned to say words via the transcription before, you’ll find it fun and motivating to learn to read Thai. Why? Because you understand what you read!

Cons of Thai transcription

1. It might have a bad effect on your pronunciation

I say it might happen because it doesn’t happen to everyone. Most of the symbols in Thai transcription look like English letters. You may accidentally pronounce the Thai word in the English pronunciation.

A very good example is how to call Phuket city. Some people mistakenly pronounce it as ‘foo-ket’ because it looks like it! But it should be ‘poo-get’.

2. There is no standard system

We do not have a standardized system to write the transcription yet. You may see the same word is written in various formats.

For example, the word hello could be sawàtdii, sawàddee, sawaddii, sa-wat-dee, sawutdee, etc.

It’s going to be hard for you to look up words online or anywhere. Even some of my Thai friends find it hard to read the Thai transcription.

To sum up

In my opinion, start learning Thai through transcription is good if you want to speak Thai as fast as possible. Also, if you just want to get around as a tourist, learning the Thai script will take too much time.

However, if you are not in a rush to speak Thai in a few months, starting with Thai script will do you good in the long run. It will help you with the pronunciation better.

You can also learn to read and speak at the same time. In this case, you will be using the transcription to write down new words you learn to speak while you are building up your reading skills.


Learn Thai transcription

If you are reading this right now, it means you have decided to use Thai transcription in learning to speak Thai.

You should know this before you start.

  • The following transcription is based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). You can check the sound of each symbol on the Interactive IPA Chart website.
  • Don’t let the English letters trick you! Think of each symbol you learn as a different language.

Table of contents

You will learn 5 groups of Thai sound including,

Initial sounds

There are 44 written forms of the consonants in the Thai language but there are only 21 sounds. Some of the consonants share the same sound.

Below is a table containing all the initial sounds in transcription with the audio tracks, and the equivalent Thai alphabets. You will focus on the transcription column and what it sounds like.

TranscriptionSoundAudioThai Script
phphɔɔ ผ, พ, ภ
ppɔɔ
bbɔɔ
ththɔɔ ฐ, ฑ, ฒ, ถ, ท, ธ
ttɔɔ ต, ฏ
ddɔɔ ด, ฎ
chchɔɔ ฉ, ช, ฌ
ccɔɔ
khkhɔɔ ข, ฃ, ค, ฅ, ฆ
kkɔɔ
ffɔɔ ฝ, ฟ
ssɔɔ ซ, ศ, ษ, ส
hhɔɔ ห, ฮ
mmɔɔ
nnɔɔ น, ณ
ŋŋɔɔ
rrɔɔ
llɔɔ ล, ฬ
wwɔɔ
yyɔɔ
ʔʔɔɔ

What you need to know about the rolling ‘r’ sound

We usually ignore pronouncing the rolling ‘r’ properly in casual conversation. We usually do not roll our tongues.

For example,

Instead of pronouncing rooŋ-rian, we pronounce it as looŋ-lian. This word means school.

Instead of pronouncing rew rew, we pronounce it as lew lew. This word means quickly.

What is this ʔ symbol?

ʔ symbol is called a glottal stop in phonetics. It is not a question mark. You can think of it as a vowel holder. Some teachers use it in their transcription but some don’t.

Here is how you pronounce a word with this symbol.

ʔaakàat or aakàat = weather

ʔaahǎan or aahǎan = food

ʔûan or ûan = fat

Vowels

There are 27 vowel sounds in speaking Thai. The length of the vowel sound matters because it changes the meaning of the word.

You will see all vowels divided into 3 groups including single vowels, mixed vowels, and vowels with a final sound. Listen to the sound of each vowel symbol.

Single Vowels
Short Vowels Long Vowels
SymbolsSoundsThai ScriptSymbolsSoundsThai Script
i - ิ
ii - ี
e เ - ะ
ee เ -
æ เเ - ะ
ææ แ -
ɨ - ึ
ɨɨ - ือ
ə เ - อะəə เ - อ
a - ะaa - า
u - ุuu - ู
o โ - ะ
oo โ -
ɔ เ - าะɔɔ - อ
MIXED VOWELS (DIPHTHONGS)
Short Vowels Long Vowels
SymbolsSoundsThai ScriptSymbolsSoundsThai Script
iaʔ เ- ียะ
ia เ- ีย
ɨaʔ เ- ือะ
ɨa เ- ือ
uaʔ - ัวะ
ua - ัว
VOWELS WITH FINAL SOUNDS
Short Vowels
SymbolsSoundsThai Script
am - ำ
ay ไ - / ใ -
aw เ - า

Let’s listen to how to pronounce these words.

Practice

pii = year

yaa = medicine

duu = to watch

ʔææ = air-conditioner

pay = to go

mɨɨ = hands

thee = to pour

cəə = to meet

too = grown up

cam = to remember

rɔɔ = wait

bia = beer

rɨa = a boat

wua = a cow

ʔaw = to take

Tones

There are 5 tones in speaking Thai and it is essential because it can change the meaning of the words.

For example,

When you pronounce ‘maa’ in the middle tone, it means to come but when you pronounce it in a rising tone ‘mǎa’, it means a dog.

Name of the TonesSymbolsExample WordsSounds
Middle Tone


maa
Low Tonelow tonemàa
Falling Tonefalling tonemâa
High Tonehigh tonemáa
Rising Tonerising tonemǎa

Let’s listen to how to pronounce these words.

Practice

yaa = medicine

yàa = do not

mày - new

mây - no, not

phîi = older person

phǐi = ghost

sɨ̂a = shirt

sɨ̌a = tiger

phɔɔ = enough

phɔ̂ɔ = father

Final sounds

There are 8 final sounds in the Thai language. The – k, – p, and – t endings have a soft ending sound. It is so soft that some people thought it was not pronounced.

Let’s listen to the final sound.

Practice
- k

rák = love

càak = from

nók = a bird

- p

sìp = ten

chɔ̂ɔp = to like

rûup = picture

- t

yùt = stop

phûut = to speak

nûat = to massage

Clusters

Clustered consonant sounds occur when two consonants exist before a vowel. In the Thai language, there are 3 consonants used as clustered sounds: l, r, and w.

We usually drop the clustered ‘l’ and ‘r’ in casual conversation. You will see both proper pronunciation and casual pronunciation in the following table.

Clustered Sound - Proper PronunciationClustered Sound - Casual Pronunciation

klàp = to return

k(l)àp = to return

khráŋ = time

kh(r)áŋ = time

plìan = to change

p(l)ìan = to change

triam = to prepare

t(r)iam = to prepare

To wrap up

Now, you have listened to all the sounds in speaking Thai through the use of transcription. Some symbols may trick you with the English alphabet sound, but don’t let it do that.

Look at these symbols as another language and learn the Thai sound attached to it. I’m sure if you learn and imitate the Thai sound well, your pronunciation will be good without learning the Thai script.

What should I do from now?

You can start learning Thai by yourself from a book or with a teacher. Pick the book that uses this transcription system or the one that has only a few different symbols.

If you prefer studying with a teacher, you can ask your teacher to use this transcription system. A professional teacher will be able to do it.

But if your teacher is using a different transcription system, that’s not a problem. You can use any transcription system as long as you make the sound right!

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