Am I smarter than a [Thai] fifth grader?

The short answer is no.

I’ve been studying the Thai alphabet for the last 4 weeks. Thai has a lot of letters.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:


  • There are 44 consonants
  • Only 42 are now in use. I still haven’t understood what happened to the other two, and given all the things I am trying to assimilate, I am just having to let go of this one.
  • The consonants are broken down into 3 groups: Middle Class, High Class and Low Class.
  • Some consonants have totally different sounds at the start and end of words—if you can figure out where they end since there is no spacing between words.


  • I think there are 32 of them.
  • The first point isn’t exactly true. There are 28 vowel forms (no don’t ask me what that actually means as I can’t tell you) and 4 tone marks.
  • I only know 24 at the moment, and of those, 12 are short and 12 are long.

The difference between short and long:

goal by Alan Rossiter via Flickr

Unlike English vowels,  short and long in Thai don’t refer to types of sounds but the actual length of time you say a vowel. An  example would be a British football sports commentator shouting:


vs. a Latin presenter shouting:


In English, irrespective of the length, the word has the same meaning. Not so with Thai.

And since I’ve decided to  harp on this topic, in my quest to figure out how many vowels Thai has, I came across a great response on a language chat board:

 I think you’re comparing apples and oranges. In English there are 5 vowel characters ( a e i o u and sometimes y) (“AAaa!! Some people say there are 5 vowel characters in English and others say 6 … etc.” :-) But anyway, there’s a lot more vowel sounds than just those 5 (or 6) because you can combine them to form words like “ceiling” which might as well be spelled “ceeling” or “sealing” or so don’t kid yourself kids.

NOT ONLY THAT, but the sound of the vowel very much depends on the consonants in the word too. Getting scared? You will be: a in “hat” is hardly the same as a in “later”. There are dozens and dozens more.

At least in Thai when you see a vowel (or vowel combination) YOU KNOW what it’s gonna sound like. :-) 28 vowels really means 28 sounds. No hidden charges, no small print.


Cheers Chanchao wherever you are. This is a brilliant point and it is one of the reasons learning to write Thai actually helps beginners master the pronunciation.

If you are scratching your head at this point, you will understand why I decided to take an extended break from my lessons when our future in Thailand was temporarily up in the air.

Now that we are definitely staying—Yay—I need to get back to the books, and sounding out basic letter combinations like a first-grader. The road ahead is long and steep but I’ve invested in some good orthopedics and crampons.

4 thoughts on “Am I smarter than a [Thai] fifth grader?

  1. I completely understand what you mean! It is challenging, but so rewarding! And, when you read your first road sign you feel like you’ve accomplished so much! All the best! I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog :)

  2. LOL what a brilliant analysis of the Thai alphabet, really made me giggle! Other alphabets are a source of magic & mystery… like the Twi one, which features a back-to-front letter ‘E’.

  3. No spacing between words? Does that mean there are no punctuations? Thai certainly sounds like a different and hard language.
    Glad you are staying put in Bangkok! although I’ve told friends I am likely to have a friend moving to Shanghai. Oh well …

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