Stephen Saad

How much Thai can you learn through Thai songs?

Every song can be a mini language lesson


I am certainly not the first foreigner who has learnt Thai and recommended Thai songs as an enjoyable alternative way of learning the language. I, however, may be the first, or one of the first at the least, to put this into more context and explain it in much more detail. 

Transliteration

Before we start in earnest, some quick notes on transliteration: the five tones are represented by – mid (no tone mark above the word), lòw, hígh, rĭsing (which sounds like a challenge to a fight “oh yeah” and fâlling (which sounds like “oh nooo” wail. Underlines indicate short sounding words; no underline is a more elongated vowel sound. Astrikethrough is just a way to differentiate the ‘eu’ vowel, which sounds a bit like ‘eewww’ when disgusted with something, as opposed to the ‘eu’ vowel, which sounds like ‘errr’, when confused. 

Thai v Western songs

All the Thai songs that I know, which is probably more than 100 I would guess, are from ten to fifteen years ago when I worked and lived in Thailand and several songs were around ten years old at that time i.e. released in the late 80s and 90s. The styles would map to equivalent Western songs, so there are boy band pop songs, soft rock and rock ballads similar to Air Supply or Bryan Adams songs, more recent guitar / vocal songs similar to Oasis and so on. For a list of some of the most instantly recognised and loved Thai songs, check out my book ‘Settling in Thailand’

The main difference between Thai songs and Western songs is Thai songs tend to be more literal and emotional while Western songs use more metaphor and abstract wording and are less often about love and betrayal and romantic angst and longing and the pain of being dumped etc. That is why Thai songs are so loved by Thai people and why they sing their heart out when they hear them in the club or at a Songkran festival. Because they evoke those emotions in the audience; almost everyone has loved or been dumped or been cheated on or experienced unrequited love and Thai songs are mostly about these topics. 

Contrary to popular belief, Thai songs are not mostly romantic songs in the sense that the singer is saying “I love you” to someone; many, possibly most, are the opposite i.e. betrayal, affairs and adultery, or, in many cases, where the singer is a romantic martyr, saying he will always love the girl even though she has left him and she can come back any time. 

In the West we would see a lot of this as corny nonsense but here it speaks to an idealised sense of romantic manliness. 

A single song line

Having said all this, let’s look at some words from a song to see how much can be learnt from a single line of a single song. The song in this case, is the 2004 smash hit ‘lên kăwng sŏong’ by Big Ass. The song was also the soundtrack to the Thai film ‘Season Change’, which is quite a decent film and has English subtitles. 

To explain how big this song is, if you were to just learn the first line (see below) and sing it out loud with gusto, 99% of people in Thailand would instantly know the song and smile in surprise that you would know it…(unless you are tone deaf and bodge the pronunciation completely, in which case, you will just embarrass yourself). Think how big Wonderwall was in the UK and you get the idea. 

Before we get to the first line, let’s look at the title of the song. What does it mean? Some readers of this article probably know the three individual words by themselves: ‘play’, ‘thing’ and ‘high’. So what does that mean??

Well, deungdutjai.com translates it as ‘playing with sacred things’, which, as is often the case with Thai to English translations, is a clumsy and overly literal translation due to the fact that the person translating does not know the equivalent expression in English. 

In essence, this song is a Thai version of the song by Billy Joel, ‘Uptown Girl’ and so, the non-literal translation is something like “going above my station” or “batting above my average” or, “she’s outta my league” etc.

So, let’s get to that unmistakable first line: “róo wâa sìang dtàe kong dtâwng kăw lawng”. 

How many things can we learn from this one short sentence about the Thai language: 

 1) The first thing to notice is that all five tones are represented across these eight words, making it an ideal sentence to practice your tone pronunciation. If you can switch between high to falling to low to mid to falling to rising and back to mid, you have passed a major hurdle in tackling Thai. NB. A quick tip that the ‘o’ in ‘kong’ is not like the ‘o’ in ‘King Kong’ but more like the ‘o’ in ‘note’ but the ‘dtâwng’ is like ‘Kong’ in ‘King Kong’, but with a short, emphatic sound because of the falling tone, like you would say “Off!”.    

2) The second thing is one of the most important, and for Thai learners, one of the most frustrating things, about Thai – there is no subject pronoun. You probably have all learnt ‘pŏm’ and chún’ if you have spent any time with anything to do with Thailand and to your dismay, hardly ever hear Thai people use these. This makes it almost impossible to know who is talking about who when you are listening to two Thai people talking, even when you have mastered basic Thai. The word ‘khun’ or ‘koon’ is used even less (I don’t mean in the sense of Mr. or Mrs, I mean in the sense of ‘you’).

Throw in the numerous alternative subject and object pronouns that Thai people actually use (when they choose to use them in the first place) and it really makes it very difficult to follow a Thai conversation involving three or more characters. NB. For those readers who have bought my ‘100 Thai words to make you sound Thai’ book at intermediate level, I will list many of these pronouns in the second volume that I plan to release at the back end of this year. 

As for how can Thai not use pronouns, the answer is actually quite simple – because it does not need to. It is obvious that the singer is the one singing the song so he does not need to say ‘I’ because we all know that the thoughts behind the lyrics are his.  

3) Next, let’s look at some of the words in the sentence: ‘róo’ means ‘to know’, ‘wâa’ means ‘that’, ‘dtàe’ means ‘but’, ‘dtâwng’ means ‘to need to / to have to’ and ‘lawng’ means ‘to try / to attempt’. Any efforts to speak Thai and communicate even simple concepts will probably require you to use these words so learning these from the song is instantly useful to the beginner…even if it is only in the sense that he can successfully pick out these words being spoken by Thai people around him on the skytrain or wherever. It’s a start.  

4) Many people already know that the ‘kăw’ means ‘to beg’ when used literally and is more commonly used when making requests e.g. if you have received your water but you now want ice. (Note, as many learners already know, you would use ‘ao’ for any ordering you want to do, so ‘kăw’ is for any other requests to receive something …although even then, you could use ‘ao’…and so, ‘kăw tôht’, which means ‘sorry’, literally translates as ‘beg to be punished’; ‘chûai’, which means ‘please’ is used for requests where you want to get somebody to do something e.g. turn up the air conditioning’).  

5) ‘sìang’ means ‘to be risky’ in an adjective sense and ‘to risk’ in a verb sense. The reason this word is interesting is because it sounds very similar to the word for ‘noise’ or ‘sound’, which is ‘sĭang’. To a Westerner, these two words are very, very similar and the chances are, when spoken by a Thai person, at speed, in a sentence, the Thai learner cannot identify which of these two words is being said, unless he can guess it from the context of the rest of the sentence. Tones are, for many learners, the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to studying Thai and ultimately cause most to give up learning in frustration. How many foreigners have meant to tell a Thai girl she is beautiful but, unintentionally, told her she is cursed or bad luck!

For those who have not yet given up, the important point to understand is that, for Thai people, there is absolutely no similarity whatsoever between these two words. The only reason we think there is a similarity is because of the English transliteration, whereby both share the letters s-i-a-n-g. In Thai though, there is no connection at all between these two words and it is inconceivable to confuse one with the other. Pronouncing the wrong tone in Thai is like totally misspelling a word in English i.e. if you meant to ‘hate’ but said ‘heat’, or even worse ‘hute’, which is not even a word.

Once you understand this fundamental point, you will probably not blow your top as often when you think you have said the word correctly, only to be met with a  blank look or worse, to have what you said repeated back to you, sounding exactly like what you said! Note: sometimes you genuinely have pronounced perfectly but the Thai person e.g. a waitress or service person, is so unprepared for you to speak Thai, especially a short blurted out request or query with no preceding context, that you get the blank look without having done anything wrong. The key there is to do less blurting and give some sort of hint you are about to speak Thai before you get to the important bit you want to say.

6) So, now that we have the translations for all the eight words in the sentence, what does it mean? Well, it is something like “I know it’s risky but I have to give it a go”. To be honest, ‘risky’ is not really the right word for this sentence and it is too literal a translation. It is more like “I know it’s a longshot” because, after all, the song is about going after a girl that is way out of the singer’s league. Again, if you read the full translation of the song on deungdutjai.com, tragically, the literal way every word has been translated makes the English version sound a little ridiculous.

This is the final lesson in this article – you cannot translate word for word from English in the word order of English and expect to speak Thai and vice versa, when hearing Thai and trying to understand it. You have to work out what the essence of what is being said from the individual words and you will almost always be correct because Thai, especially everyday spoken Thai, is all about saying things in the simplest way to get the message across so the grammar is often very simple indeed. That is why subject and object pronouns are omitted often, for example.

7) If you have understood the above and consider yourself at a basic level of Thai, see if you understand what deungdutjai means. To spell it out using my transliteration method, it is: ‘deung dòot jai’. Clue: it relates to the paragraph near the start where I talk about what makes Thai songs so loved by Thai people. If you have got it now and translated it correctly, you will understand perfectly why the site is called deungdutjai.com.  

Over and above the benefit of learning the language, listening to Thai songs will allow the learner to ‘get a feel’ for the country – how it thinks, how sentiments are communicated, the culture, the essence of being Thai, at least, in the context of relationships. As I said, because Thai songs are more literal than Western songs, they give more of a direct insight into the people and the culture than, say, in the UK or US, where you would be hard-pressed to understand British people from learning the words to Oasis songs. 

For anyone with a Thai girlfriend or spouse, learning some Thai songs will not just help in communication between the partners but also go a little way toward a more balanced relationship i.e. rather than only the Thai partner being expected to speak English and understand the Western male partner’s culture and background etc, the foreigner would show some indication that he is willing to be a part of his Thai partner’s world. Surely that can only be a good thing for those who want to have a long term relationship with a Thai woman, especially if they then decide to live in Thailand. 


Stephen is co-author of a great new book on planning a life in Thailand. 

Planning your new life in Thailand isn’t easy. There are many hurdles to jump and potential frustrations galore. From practicalities through to cultural issues, from finances to fitting in and making friends, there is so much to learn. Luckily, you will find all the basics explained in this 282 page book. 

Settling in Thailand takes a broad, insightful and balanced approach – neither too cynical nor evangelical, this book sets a precedent in terms of presenting a positive but realistic and non-judgemental description of Thailand life for foreign residents. 

Written by two British expats in Thailand, and with interviews with another 13 expats from around the world, you will get first-hand experience, advice and explanations of expat life in Thailand. With a combined 150 years of Thai experience this book is the ultimate guide to making sure your move and settling in Thailand goes smoothly.

Order now in e-book or paperback format.




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