My Thai language study is going very, very slowly. While the grammar is quite simple, learning the written language is incredibly difficult.
In Thai, there are 44 consonants, 24 vowels, and five tone markers. The tone markers are neutral, low, falling, high and rising. We joke that a Western baby says:
Gaa, gaa, gaa, gaa, gaa
But a Thai baby says:
……………….. a ……………….Gaa
Gaa ……….. G a ……… G a ……..
……… Gaa ………………. a ……….
It’s impossible to represent the tones using English letters – it’s much funnier when you say it out loud!
To make matters more complicated, some letters have a number of different symbols to represent them. For example, there are 5 different symbols for the sound “k”, and six different symbols for the sound “t”. I haven’t quite figured out when you use which one yet.
And also, some symbols change their sound depending on whether they are used at the start of a syllable or at the end of a syllable. For example, some of the symbols for the sounds “s”, “j”, “ch” and “d” are pronounced as “t” if they are used at the end of a word. (I guess that means that there are effectively 14 different symbols used for the sound “t”).
Vowels are no easier. Vowels can be written before, after, above, below, or before and after the consonant in the syllable. Also, sometimes the vowel is omitted from the written syllable, but the particular combination of consonants indicates which vowel sound to use.
For English speakers, it gets worse! Thai written language does not indicate any gaps between words, so a sentence is just a row of letters with no spaces. This makes it very difficult to determine which vowels attach to which consonants and where each word starts and finishes!
There is also no consistent transliteration into English letters. In other words, different English speakers (and books) ‘interpret’ the Thai sounds into English letters differently. So some people write the Thai greeting as “sawatdi” and some write “swasdee”, etc. None of these variations are actual words, and a Thai native speaker will not understand them at all. They are just tools for English speakers to represent the Thai sounds without knowing the Thai symbols. If you show a Thai taxi driver a map with English transliteration of place names, they will have no clue what anything means.