Very few languages present the same level of learning difficulty that Thai presents to speakers of English. It may not be easy for you to understand this difficulty without getting a personal encounter with Thai. Read on and discover the key differences between English and Thai that make it hard for Thai speakers to learn English, and vice versa.
1. Differences in the Way Tone Is Used
Thai is a predominantly tonal language in that a series of words can be spelled in the same way yet they have totally different meanings. Thai language has five tones ranging from low to rising. Thus, a word such as “mai” can have more than five meanings (“wood” or “burn”, for example). This rich tonality makes it very difficult for a speaker of English to learn Thai since in English tone is only used to denote which words are stressed or not stressed. In the same way, a speaker of Thai will also find it difficult to use tone to denote stressed syllables when he or she is learning to speak English.
2. The Absence of Plurals in Thai
Another major difference between Thai and English is that the former has no plural form of nouns while the latter has plural forms. This difference makes it very hard for someone who is not very fluent in both languages to translate a document from English to Thai (and vice versa). For example, a document in English language may have the phrase “six oranges”. The correct Thai translation (six orange) would appear very awkward to the English-Thai bilingual who has a limited grasp of Thai so he or she would attempt to “create” a plural form for the noun. A learner of either language would be totally baffled by the prospect of understanding how either language regards the issue of plurals.
3. The Infrequent Use of “Yes” and “No” In Thai
As if matters were not already difficult enough for the English speaker learning Thai (or vice versa), the way “yes” and “no” are used in either language presents additional challenges. Thai rarely uses those words yet they are considered a standard way to answer questions in English. For instance, if a speaker of English were to be asked, “Are you happy?” he or she would simply say “yes” or “no”. The Thai speaker would say “I happy” or “I no happy” because in his or her language “yes” or “no” are rarely used. You can now imagine the consternation of both parties when they evaluate each other’s response!
4. Differences in the Way “to be” Is Used
Thai does not use “to be” alongside adjectives the way English language does. That is why the Thai speaker’s response in the example above was “I happy” instead of “I am happy”. This difference in the way that verb is used can be a very serious barrier to effective translation of English scripts into Thai or vice versa. The difficulty becomes more pronounced when a speaker of either language tries to speak the other language since glaring mistakes will be immediately noticed by listeners.
5. Differences in the Written Form of Either Language
Another key difference between Thai and English is that Thai does not have upper or lower case variations of characters while English characters have lower case and upper case versions. Additionally, Thai orthography (writing) does not make use of spaces to demarcate the end of a word from the beginning of another word. The speaker of English who is learning Thai would therefore look at the script as one giant word that he or she cannot even begin to comprehend. Similarly, the Thai speaker who is learning to write in English would struggle to put spaces between the different words that he or she is writing.
6. Lack of Variation in Verbs (Tense or Person)
English has clear variants of verbs to show the difference between the past tense and the future tense. For instance, a speaker of English may say ‘We are going to hike through the forest tomorrow”. Thai has no future tense version of the verb “go” so the Thai speaker will utter a sentence similar to ‘We ‘Ia’ go hike through forest tomorrow” The “ja” inserted in the sentence is the marker for the future since the verb does not change. This example shows how it can be very hard for speakers of either language to learn the other language.
As you can see, anyone attempting to translate an official document from Thai to English or learn English when he or she speaks Thai has to grapple with the differences above since those differences make it very hard for him or her to grasp the rules that govern the language that he or she is trying to use or learn.