Master Thai Pronunciation to Speak Like a Native

The more you sound as close as native speakers do, the more they are likely to understand you. This article is expected to help you MASTER THAI PRONUNCIATION in order to help you sound like a native speaker. 

Note: This article focuses on speaking skill. So, all the Thai sounds will be represented by ‘phonetic symbols’ to be used for learners who have not yet learnt to read Thai alphabets.

I have come across many people who know enough words and structures to talk, but the conversation was not productive. One big reason is Thai did not understand their pronunciation. Therefore, it will be beneficial for you in the long run to build a good foundation of the Thai sound systems and master Thai pronunciation.

What do I need to know to master Thai pronunciation?

Here is everything you need to know. All the sounds are categorised into five groups based on their function. You can learn and practice each of them from the table below.

  1. Initial (Consonant) Sound
  2. Vowel Sound
    a. Single Vowels
    b. Mixed Vowels
    c. Vowels with Final Sound
  3. Tonal Sound
  4. Final (Consonant) Sound
  5. Clustered (Consonant) Sound

To form a word in Thai language, you need at least a combination of the initial consonant sound and the vowel sound.

For example: the word ‘crow’ in Thai is ‘kaa’ this word is composed with ‘k’ as the initial consonant sound and ‘aa’ as the vowel sound. While some words have all components. For example: the word ‘muscle’ in Thai is ‘klâam’ which you can see all the five sounds exist.

Now let takes a look at each of the sound systems starting from The Initial (Consonant) Sound.

21 Initial Sounds

There are 44 consonant letters in Thai language, but only 21 sounds. It is because some of the consonants share the same sound. Below you will see a table containing all the initial sounds in phonetic symbols based on English alphabets and IPA (International Phonetic Alphabets), the audio buttons, and Thai letters.

Phonetic SymbolsSoundsAudioThai 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
Note: ʔ symbol is not pronounced when you read the transliteration. It is there to represent letter อ in Thai script. Since Thai vowels cannot stand alone in writing, we need the help of this อ letter to form a word.

e.g. The word ʔìm > อิ่ม = to be full (from eating)

ʔ   >   อ   /   i    >     ิ   /   ̀   >    ่   /   ม   >   m

More example words:

ʔaakàat = weather

/

ʔaahǎan = food

ʔarɔ̀y = delicious

/

ʔûan = fat



Therefore, when you start learning from the transliteration, you do not need to worry about this ʔ symbol. Just ignore it. Some teachers also avoid using the symbol.

For example:

aakàat = weather  / aahǎan = food /  arɔ̀y = delicious / ûan = fat

Unfortunately, there is yet a single standard transliteration for Thai language, and you may see different way of writing it. (Read more about alternative Thai Transliteration)

I personally use only one way of transliteration which is based on the first table with every student. I use other options only for students who find those symbols are too difficult for them to read.

However, sticking to one pattern is more efficient so you do not get confused with all the sounds.

Vowel Sounds

First of all, do not get scared after you finish counting how many vowels exist in Thai language. There are 27 vowels sound in Thai language with 27 phonetic symbols.

That means one symbol only represents one sound. So, if you can memorise well of how each symbol is pronounced, you can make sure that you will never pronounce any words incorrectly.

The variety of the pronunciation you can do on letter ‘a’ when you read English.

Now I will give some examples of English words that have letter ‘a’ as a vowel. The first part shows how you pronounce them correctly in English.

  • banana = bə nɑː nə > letter ‘a’ in the middle has a different sound from the first ‘a’ and the last ‘a’
  • fat = fæt > letter ‘a’ in this word has a different sound from all the ‘a’ in the word banana
  • macadamia = mæ kə deɪ miə > the third ‘a’ in this word also produces the different sound from all the rest of the ‘a’ mentioned in this example.

Therefore, you can see that when you see letter ‘a’ in English words, you have to know which sound should be pronounced. On the other hand, when you learn Thai by using ‘a transliteration’, letter ‘a’ can have only one sound.

The only one way you can pronounce letter ‘a’ in Thai transliteration

Now let’s imagine that we do not know how to pronounce the below words in English, and think of them as Thai words which are transliterated. You will see and hear that letter ‘a’ represents only one sound. 

  • banana  = bʌ-nʌ-nʌ
  • fat = fʌt
  • macadamia = mʌ-kʌ-dʌ-mɪʌ

The transliteration use in Thai language has a similar purpose like ‘Hanyu Pinyin’ used in learning Mandarin (Chinese mainland language) and also ‘Romaji’ used in learning Japanese. (Read more on Transliteration System in Thai Language.)

The length of the vowel sound is also important in Thai. That is why there are short vowels and long vowels. When you pronounce ‘a’ in a short length it is considered one vowel, and when you pronounce ‘a’ vowel by prolonging the sound a little longer, it is considered another vowel.

Below is a table containing all Thai vowel sounds written in both phonetic symbols and Thai script, together with audios.

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

ay
ไ - / ใ -
aw
เ - า
Note:

1) circle and hyphen symbols should be replaced by a consonant to form a word.
e.g. ด + ี = ดี > d + ii = dii

2) ʔ symbol in short mixed vowels is there just to indicate that it is a short vowel. You do not need to pronounce this symbol.

Before we move on to the third component of Thai sound systems, test yourself whether you are able to pronounce words below correctly. These words are combined with ‘the initial sound’ and ‘vowel sound’

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

Tonal Sounds

This is the fun part of learning Thai language, the TONES. Thai is one of the tonal languages with a complex tone system among 88 languages all over the world according to The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. 

If your native language is one of them, you will not find it so difficult to pronounce Thai words correctly. However, if you are not used to speak tonal languages, you will need some training for your ears.

If you already know what a tonal sound is and how important it is in speaking tonal languages, then you can skip the following paragraph and jump to the 5 TONAL SOUNDS TABLE to start learning them. But if not, please keep reading a bit more before practicing.

Your pitch changes, the meaning changes

The pitch of your sound plays a vital role in tonal languages like Thai, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, and so on. It distinguishes the meaning of the word you pronounce. Let takes the word ‘maa’ as an example.

When you pronounce ‘maa’ in middle flat tone, it means ‘to come’. Then when you change your pitch into ‘high tone’ and pronouncing this same word máa, the meaning changes into ‘a horse’. That is still not enough to play with this word. Try to pronounce mǎa in a little sassy way, which we call ‘rising tone’ and you will say ‘a dog’. 

So, let start singing Thai with the following tone table.

Name of the TonesSymbolsExample WordsSounds
Middle Tonemaa
Low Tonelow tonemàa
Falling Tonefalling tonemâa
High Tonehigh tonemáa
Rising Tonerising tonemǎa

Do not rush yourself to master these sounds in a single time! Normal progress would be that you will be able to hear the difference among these five tones. Later, you will be able to pronounce and recognise what tones you are pronouncing. 

Working more on tones by listening and pronouncing below words to get yourself familiar with them. 

yaa = medicine

yàa = do not

mày - new

mây - no, not

phîi = older person

phǐi = ghost

sɨ̂a = shirt

sɨ̌a = tiger

phɔɔ = enough

phɔ̂ɔ = father

Final (Consonant) Sounds

This sound refers to the last consonant of the word which is very common in almost every language. However, there are few final sounds in Thai language which are not pronounced in the same way as in English. 

Although there are 37 final consonants, it produces only 8 sounds because some consonants that share the same sound.

Follow the table and listen to the audio to hear how all the final consonants are pronounced in the language.

PHONETIC SYMBOLEXAMPLE WORDSSOUNDSTHAI LETTER
- kmâak
ก, ข, ค, ฆ
- prîip
บ, ป, พ, ฟ, ภ
- tpə̀ət
ด, จ, ช, ซ, ฎ, ฏ, ฐ, ฑ, ฒ,
ต, ถ, ท, ธ, ศ, ษ, ส
- ŋyuŋ
- nrian
น, ญ, ณ, ร, ล, ฬ
- msǎam
- ykhuy
- whǐw

Final – k, – p, and – t are not pronounced in the same way as in English. Some people misunderstand that we do not pronounce them at all because they cannot hear them. We do, but we do not prolong the ending sound.

Listen to more examples to get familiar with the sounds.

- 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

Clustered (Consonant) Sounds

This is the last component of all the necessary sounds to master Thai pronunciation. This is also common in many other languages. Clustered consonant sounds occur when two consonants exist before a vowel. 

In Thai language, there are 3 consonants used as clustered sounds which are l, r, and w. The word ‘khráp’ ,which is a male polite final particle, can be an example of a clustered sound.

1st Consonant2nd ConsonantVowel + ToneFinal ConsonantFinished Word
khrp

khráp

If you click on the word ‘khráp’ from the table you will hear how to pronounce this word properly. However, in casual conversation, Thai people usually drop the clustered ‘l’ and ‘r’ when speaking. Therefore, you will hear Thai men saying ‘kháp’ instead of ‘khráp’ more often.

The following are words which have clustered sound. So you can practice listening and pronouncing with the audio. You will hear the proper pronunciation of the word along with the lazy way that we do.

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

Conclusion

There are a variety of ways and methods to learn to speak Thai. You can learn Thai sounds from its original character or the transliteration. Either way is good. You just have to make sure that you can pronounce correctly when you read from them.

To master Thai pronunciation, you should practice all these sounds including 1) initial (consonant) sounds, 2) vowel sounds, 3) tones, 4) final (consonant) sounds, and 5) clustered (consonant) sounds. They are the keys for you to pronounce like the natives do. It does takes some time to work on it but you will not regret spending time mastering them.

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