Thai Study Diary: Week 1

I’ve decided to learn Thai, and in this series, I’ll be writing about my approach, resources I’m using, and what has worked for me and what hasn’t, as well as any other thoughts that are relevant to the Thai learning process and may be useful to other folks.

Why Thai?

The final motivator for learning Thai was an upcoming trip to Thailand. It’ll be a great opportunity for me to practice speaking the language and I like the feeling of being able to understand at least a little bit of the local language when I’m traveling.

Besides that, Thai is interesting to me for a few other reasons:

  1. It’s a tonal language that’s not Mandarin. I can speak passable conversational Mandarin with correct tones, but they’re still not entirely natural for me. I believe this may be because of the way I initially drilled them (with all the typically hand gestures and head nodding that Chinese learners love to rely on). As such, enriched by that experience, I’m excited to try my hand at acquiring a similar tonal system, but with a better methodology to have a more natural accent from the start with less effort.
  2. The writing system looks cool. I’m a sucker for writing systems (currently, I can read Latin letters, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese (all 3 writing systems), Chinese, and Greek), and it’s hard for me to resist learning another one.
  3. The grammar seems pretty straightforward (as it appears very analytical in structure with little conjugation/declension), especially coming from Korean, my current study target, and I’m curious to see how quickly I can reach the point of a simple conversation thanks to that.
  4. It’s been influenced a ton by Sanskrit / generally from the Indian sub-continent, and I haven’t learned any languages from that area, yet. Since I’ll probably eventually move on to languages from that region, it’ll be nice to see some familiar words (and possibly concepts).

So, with all that, I’m very excited for this challenge and plan to regularly report on what I’m up to. I hope this series is interesting to folks interested in how I learn languages, as well as folks learning Thai looking to acquire any wisdom I may gain along the way.


My trip will be in roughly a month or so, and naturally, I don’t expect to be fluent in the language by then. My goal for the next month will be:

  • Speaking: to be able to construct some simple sentences such as “where is the bathroom”, “I’m from the US”, “I like Thai food”, ideally with a solid accent
  • Listening: understand at least some of what’s said back to me
  • Reading: be able to read Thai letters (even if slowly)

In other words, I’m aiming for the basics of 3 key skills: speaking, listening, and reading. I won’t be focusing on writing, because I don’t think it’ll be very relevant for me for the time being.

Reference charts

I couldn’t find any useful reference charts that covered everything I wanted to know in one place, so I made my own described in this article.


It’s been a week since I started, and I now feel comfortable with the sound system (I understand how it works, what sounds exist, how they can combine together, and how to pronounce them). I’m also starting to practice basic sentences and hope to be able to string them together more quickly over the next week as I continue to practice identifying the letters and the tone of each syllable.

A couple things to point out:

  • I didn’t start learning any words until I was familiar with the sounds and how the writing system represents them
  • I invested a lot of time into just understanding the language overall (from reading Wikipedia articles, the reference grammar, the history, etc.). This helps have some context for future knowledge to attach to, and to know what to expect as learning progresses.
  • I was dissatisfied with existing resources around Thai pronunciation, so I consolidated everything I found into my own charts in a way that makes sense to me. Everyone learns differently, so it’s important to know what you need and to proactively take notes and try to understand things in your way, even if it’s not usually explained that way.

Full weekly log

Here, I list out what I did every day. This is meant to illustrate my process as I wade my way through the confusion of starting a new language. It’s a little raw, but it may serve as an interesting example of how I approach learning a language from day 1.

Day 1 (Aug 27, 2023)

  • Read the Wikipedia page on Thai, paying particular attention to the grammar and phonology
    • From this, I got an idea of what kind of language it is: an isolating, SOV language with no significant verbal conjugations or nominal declensions to worry about. It reminds me a lot of Chinese.
    • The phonology reminds me a little bit of Korean, due to its 3 consonant classes and presence of more complicated vowels than the typical /a/ /i/ /u/ /e/ /o/. There seem to be a lot of diphthongs and combinations, along with the presence of vowel length, so these will take some practice.
  • Scratched my head over writing system and tones. Looks like there’s some way to deriving tones from written words, but the rules look rather tricky.
  • Downloaded “Thai: An Essential Grammar”, but its alphabet section wasn’t helpful and I’m not ready to learn words yet, so I put it aside for now
  • Discovered “Learn to Read Thai in 10 days”, which looks like a great way to get introduced to the writing system.
    • Did day 1
    • While doing so, kept looking up the tones for each work and trying to wrap my head around it

In summary, Day 1 was full of finding good resources to start to structure my learning, with a heavy focus on the writing system and phonology.

Day 2 (Aug 28, 2023)

  • Just went through Day 2 of “Learn to Read Thai in 10 days”
  • Read about the tone rules online, but they still don’t stick.

This day was pretty lightweight, but I’m still scratching my head over how the tones and writing system are related.

Day 3 (Aug 29, 2023)

  • Did Day 3 of “Learn to Read Thai in 10 days”
  • Read about tone rules and writing system and after getting really fed up with this confusion, I made the big tone table above. After this, everything started to make much more sense.
  • I realized it’ll be helpful to learn the “Sanskrit” / original value of each sound to automatically know which “class” it’s in. This will let me effectively learn Sanskrit words for free, know how to transcribe foreign words more accurately, and understand the system better.
    • By this I mean that the retroflex and breathy letters never had a distinct sound value in Thai, but were originally created purely to represent Sanskrit and Pali words.
  • I also started work on an app to practice Thai letters, which I’ll be sure to release here once it’s ready!

Day 4 (Aug 30, 2023)

  • Day 4 of “Learn to Read Thai in 10 days”

Day 5 (Aug 31, 2023)

  • Finished up the practice app with all consonants and used it to drill them. So far, the labials are giving the most trouble.
  • I haven’t memorized all the vowels yet but will do so soon
  • Decided that it’s time to learn words and not let the script limit me, since I have a strong understanding of the phonetic system now and can clear up script knowledge as I go along
  • On Day 5 of the Thai script book. Currently, vowels are giving the most trouble. It’s not intuitive for me to have to look before, after, and above the consonant with lots of shared symbols.
  • I haven’t actually handwritten any symbols yet, but I’ll probably do that soon to help memorize them

Day 6 (Sep 1, 2023)

  • Finished skimming through “Thai: An Essential Grammar” (I’ve been browsing through it for the past few days). TLDR;
    • Pretty much like Chinese, with SVO, topicalization, serial verbs, lack of conjugations / tense
    • Like Japanese/Korean when it comes to pronouns / addressing people by profession, kin relation, etc.
    • Slightly unique in how much they like compounding, although that’s also like Chinese (but it’s more opaque in Chinese since it’s essentially all fossilized compounds but more transparent in Thai, so actually easier)
  • Now, the main challenge is going to be to just practice pronunciation and keep working on reading
  • App almost has vowels ready to go, just finalizing a transcription system
  • Now I need to find some kind of guided resource to help structure my learning, will look that up tonight/tomorrow
  • Note on thinking in TL: I’m gonna start “thinking in Thai” from the moment I know even just one word

Day 7 (Sep 2, 2023)

  • Working on adding full syllables into my app in addition to just separate consonants and vowels to practice identifying syllable tones quickly
  • Keep practicing vowels
  • I’ve gotten all the value I needed from “Read Thai in 10 Days” book, as I already understand the system and just need to keep drilling all the symbols.
  • Starting reading the textbook I’ve chosen, “Teach Yourself Thai”, and have started to learn words and shadow the pronunciation of the recordings the book provides. 
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