Ajarn Street

To use Thai or not to use Thai?

Why learning Thai has helped me so much in the classroom

When I made the decision to leave Australia and come and live in Thailand, one of the main reasons for choosing this country was that I wanted to learn a second language. I didn't need to learn Thai to allow me to live in Thailand, of course - it was simply a goal of mine.

I was not content to simply speak Thai; I also wanted to be able to read and write it so that I could eventually master the language and, more importantly, use it. I'm still a long way from being a fluent communicator and I have trouble understanding spoken Thai (especially on TV) but being able to read and, to a lesser extent, to write has been invaluable for my day-to-day life here.

As an English teacher I am constantly reminded that I am paid to do so because I am expected to speak English at all times in the classroom. I don't have any argument with this because by simply exposing students to listen to a native English speaker for 50 minutes per week is better than nothing.

Student difficulties

I must always be aware, however, of my speed when talking and to accentuate the sounds that we have in English but are not present in Thai. But if I did not know anything about Thai language, how could I know this?

My philosophy on spoken communication has always been that perfect grammar, extensive vocabulary and intimate knowledge of tenses are all totally worthless if the listener cannot understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.

Wherever I have taught in Thailand I have almost always been asked to teach ‘listening and speaking'. If I am very fortunate, I may be given a specific textbook to use that comes with a listening CD. These resources are typically very well written but they are never specific for Thai learners because they do not tackle pronunciation of the ‘English sounds' that Thai students need to make in order to be understood.

If you ask a Thai student to say, for example, "The dog" they will say something that sounds like "Duh dok" because they do not have the "th" sound in Thai and they do not end words with the voiced ‘G' sound as we do.

What they do (and I am guilty of this, too) is they transliterate English into Thai and pronounce the Thai words using the conventions of the Thai language. So in effect when you ask them to speak English they are really speaking Thai. Unless I knew something about the Thai language I would be totally ignorant of this.

Does perfect pronunciation exist?

This brings up a whole argument about the need to perfect pronunciation. I used to work with a group of Irish English teachers in Bahrain. I had never associated with Irish people before in any capacity and, as a language teacher, I was amazed to hear some of them pronounce the word ‘month' as ‘moont'.

I grew up watching Dave Allen and listening to Ian Paisley on the news but I had never heard ‘month' pronounced like this before. Also, these Irish teachers pronounced ‘the' exactly the same as Thai people do - ‘duh', as well as ‘dis', ‘dat', ‘dese' and ‘dose'.

I must admit, I had real problems with this when I first encountered it. I had left Thailand searching for greener pastures and came upon native English speakers who, according to my philosophy, did not speak English correctly!

Were the Irish correct or were they speaking ‘wrong'? Should I have one rule for the Irish and another rule for Thai people? I must admit, I didn't know what to do.

After a lot of thought I decided that I was obviously in no position to ask the Irish teachers (some of whom became very good friends of mine, by the way) to start changing the way they spoke and reverted to my philosophy that as long as the spoken language is understood by the listener then everything is OK.

When my Irish friends said, "I came here two moont ago", I knew what they meant. I'm sure that if they said that to a Thai person, however, the response would be "Arai nah?" (What?) Then the Irish person would have to explain again, perhaps in a different way, such as "I came here in July" or "I came here eight weeks ago".

When I speak Thai in my everyday life I am not satisfied unless I speak with correct pronunciation. To me, correct pronunciation means speaking the language so that it is easily understood with no confusion. If I get into a taxi in Bangkok and ask the driver to take me to "Future Park Rangsit" he will probably have no idea where that is. But if I pronounce it as it is written in Thai, "Fiw-jerr bark Rung-sit" the driver will take me straight there.

I constantly advise my students that if they think in Thai they will always speak Thai, not English. I then remind them that I have exactly the same problem. If I insist on speaking transliterated Thai I am not speaking Thai, I am merely speaking English. If I do that in Thailand with Thai people I am asking for trouble.

Another reason a knowledge of Thai is priceless

This brings me to the second most important benefit of knowing the Thai language as an English teacher: the relationship with your students, the bond, the rapport with them will be so much stronger when they know (a) that you have taken the time to learn their language and (b) that you encounter the same problems that they do.

Whenever I meet a class of students for the first time I always write my name in Thai on the board. I know I should write it in English but I do this for a very important reason that is immediately evident to the students. It shows that I know about their language and then I show them that the pronunciation of my name in Thai is not the same as it is in English.

Eventually they understand that to speak English they must think in English. When this breakthrough happens (and it doesn't happen instantly) it is a huge bonus when I teach thereafter. Then I can introduce the six sounds of English that are not part of the Thai language (yes, there are only six and one of them is French) and they can gradually incorporate them into their spoken English whenever we encounter them in class.

Sadly, I find that this aspect of teaching spoken English has never been taught to any of my students before because their Thai teachers invariably know nothing about English pronunciation and their foreign English teachers know nothing about spoken Thai so that the gap between the two languages is never crossed.

Ideally, I believe that this type of Speaking and Listening work should commence as early in a Thai student's life as possible but how many foreign English teachers know enough Thai to do so?

Another benefit of knowing Thai is that I can very quickly help my students understand something if I can say the word in Thai during a lesson. I find that most students know what the words ‘verb' and ‘adjective' mean but very few understand when I say ‘noun'.

If I then say the Thai word for noun there is a collective, "Ohhh..." and the lesson continues. The same with the word ‘consonant', for example. Many Thai students have never been taught the difference between consonant sounds and vowel sounds, not even in their own language, and to be able to quickly help them to understand by using Thai is a massive bonus.

An understanding of Thai language is not a prerequisite for teaching English in Thailand and some schools will not be happy to know that their highly-paid foreign English teachers are using Thai in their lessons but in my practice the sensible use of Thai as an aid to teaching spoken English is absolutely priceless.

I recommend learning to speak, read and write Thai because it will help any teacher to convey their message in class (if used correctly) and help them live their lives much more comfortably away from the school environment.

Tony Mitchell


ใช่. ฉันคิดว่าการสอนนักเรียนไทยโดยใช้ภาษาไทยเป็นสิ่งสำคัญ สิ่งนี้ช่วยให้พวกเขาเข้าใจภาษาอังกฤษเมื่อพวกเขามีความรู้น้อย

By Neil Maxwell, Rangsit (14th February 2023)

I once took a total immersion beginner French class where no English was used whatsoever. At first, I thought that would be a good idea, but it quickly turned into a frustrating experience and I quit shortly afterward. We couldn't even ask questions in English, and if we did the instructor just shrugged his shoulders as if he didn't understand. Then I took classes at Alliance Francaise, where English is routinely used for instruction (at least in the beginner and intermediate classes), and that suited me better. I hold steadfast in my belief that I made better progress at AF than if I would have stuck it out with the immersion program. Total immersion might be better at higher levels, but in my opinion not as a beginner. That is how I prefer it as a student, but for others total immersion might work just fine. Here in Thailand I've heard that if you speak some Thai in class then the students will be more apt to speak Thai than English. I guess it depends on how much Thai the English instructor uses, doesn't it? There is also the opinion that if you don't let on to the students that you can speak Thai then they will be free to talk amongst themselves, and of course you will be able to understand them without their knowledge. Sneaky, huh?

By Jimmy D, Youretops@yahoo.com (12th December 2013)

Want to hear some sound problems? I just did the Pimsleur 10 day course. I wasn't sure what I learned, so I made a YouTube video trying to speak everything I had learned in the course. Here it is...


I've been posting it in forums to ask for feedback, and I've been getting a lot of crap for my pronunciation. It's not perfect, for sure, but I don't think it's as bad as all these crazy forum posters make it out to be!

What do you think?

By Ryan in Thailand, Buriram (25th November 2013)

Just for arguments sake, and to be a smart alec, I will point out some of the more subtle differences between Thai and English consonants. 'จ', in reality, is actually and unasperated 'ch', which does not occur in English. As for 'ร', it is more of a trilled 'L', which, also, does not occure in English, hence many times people will get lazy and not give it that flip of the tongue causing it to be hear as an 'L'. It gets even more complicated when you begin looking at 'ช' which is softer than 'ch' but sharper than 'sh', thus, causing this phoneme to fall somewhere in between. And the 'g' phoneme that you referred to, or 'ก', is actually an unasperated 'k', which occurs in English when you say "skip", for example.
Noting my last example, many of the Roman spellings for Thai words are quite sound, taking into consideration that they may need to bend a few of our preconceived notions in order to get it to come out right, or as right as they can.

If you want to further look into this, I will refer you to the first chapter of Richard Noss's "Thai: Reference Grammar" published by the US Department of State: Foreign Service Institute

Available here:
http://www.thai-language.com/FSI/FSI - Thai Reference Grammar.pdf

Though I do warn it will make you sleepy :)

By Jason K, Bangkok (20th November 2013)

Hi Jason and thanks for your positive comment.
I don't want to get into a Thai sound argument or try to sound like a smart alec but the Thai language has a j sound (the big weekend market is pronounced 'Jutujuk' (not Chutuchuk as it is spelt), it has an r sound as in Rangsit and Chiang Rai, it has a ch sound as in beer Chang and it has a g sound as in the Thai word for chicken - gai.
Whoever is responsible for the English spelling of Thai place names doesn't know much about either language, it seems, so don't take any notice of them. Krabi is actually pronounced Grubby, Kanchanaburi is really Gunchunaburi, Phuket is actually Pooget, Trang is really Trung, etc.
Thai language has only a few sounds used for the ends of syllables, so they do not say 'dog' but 'doc'.
The book 'Thai for Beginners' by Benjawan Poomsan Becker is great for learning the differences between the languages.

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani (20th November 2013)

I think there are a few more than six sounds that English has and Thai does not; j, v, r, ch, sh, th( voiced and unvoiced), z, g (those are just the consonants and I may have missed a couple).
But still, very good piece. I agree with you 100% on the necessity to at least understand Thai structure in order to teach any second language to Thai students. And the ability to throw out a single Thai word in order avoid wasting five minutes of already minimal class time to explain the definition of a word like noun is indispensable.

By Jason K, Bangkok (20th November 2013)

Hello Joshua,
Yes, I'm on Twitter. My user name is @mitch_2209
Looking forward to bouncing!

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani (18th November 2013)

Tony are you on Twitter by chance? In my professional opinion as an educator as well as fluent speaker and resident of this country, I feel there are many more than 6 sounds. Further, many of the sounds that they do have are, as you mentioned, 'thought and pronounced in Thai'. For example, the R sound? Would live to chat a bit and maybe bounce ideas and theories off one another.

By Joshua, Korat (18th November 2013)

Schools do not want teachers teaching English talking Thai in Class PERIOD

By sam S, Bangkok (17th November 2013)

Consider that most NES teachers in Thailand represent a transient, backpacker community dedicated to getting wasted on booze for a coupla months - maybe extended to a year if the trust fund holds out - and you gotta be joking that teachers should learn Thai to be 'effective' teachers for that big $1,000 a month payout. lol

By Guy, Bkk (17th November 2013)

Thanks for this article!

Very interesting and timely as I have been battling with myself since the other day on how to balance accuracy and fluency. As I am more focused on accuracy (correct grammar, pronunciation etc).

Just to share, I usually start my class with a vocabulary expansion (given as their homework) of the words we'll be using for the day. This way we are on the same plane and makes the discussion go smoother.

Many thanks,

By Brian Arthur, Northeast Thailand (14th November 2013)

I agree with you on this 100%. The students also show a bit more respect when they see you are learning their language.

I teach the same way as you, but try this.....it's fun.....

take a tor tong and put an ear on it, in the inside, now call it a thor thong, get the students to say my mum has beautiful teeth. This can help for pronunciation of th.
next take a sala A and push it over to the right so it's lying down, call this a va voom, write it below for fun to make vor vun, below sor seua to make zor zeua and below jor jan to make the French j. This lesson is most effective and very quickly shows the different sounds we make.

By stephan cannon, hat yai (14th November 2013)

Hi Will,
Thanks for your comment. The six sounds are the unvoiced 'th' as in thin, the voiced 'th' as in this, 'z' as in zoo, 'v' as in love, 'sh' as in push, and the French sound in words like 'mirage' and 'confusion' (English doesn't even have a letter we can use to write it!).

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani (14th November 2013)

Excellent article and one that I agree with whole-heartedly for early learners.

Once they have mastered the basics (sounds etc) though I think Thai should be used less and less, as students will become over-reliant on using it in the classroom.

Out of interest, what are the six sounds that the English language has that Thai doesn't?



By Will Holloway, UK (14th November 2013)

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