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.

Deciphering Glyphs and my Journey Locating Conditioner.

I should probably start by acknowledging that Thai characters are not glyphs. Thai has forty-four consonants (Thai: พยัญชนะ, phayanchaná), fifteen vowel symbols (Thai: สระ, sàrà) that combine into at least twenty-eight vowel forms, and four tone marks. (Pilfered from Wikipedia)

It turns out it isn’t exactly an alphabet but an abugida or a system in which ‘a consonant-vowel sequence are written as a unit.’ And I am not entirely sure what that means.

Now back to the point of this post.

Desperate not to use too much of my kids’ extortionate fragrance-free shampoo, and in desperate need of conditioner, I thought picking up a couple of bottles at our local Tesco Lotus would be relatively easy. Silly me.

I get to the hair care aisle only to face hundreds of bottles of different products, all in Thai. Had there only been two options, I could have just grabbed a bottle of each and figured it out through trial and error; sadly a variety of different hair treatments were added into the mix.

Twenty minutes later, after carefully studying a large section of bottles -and wandering through a few alternative aisles in the hopes of finding an expat-friendly section with things in English- I found pieces of my Rosetta Stone and I was able to figure out that the bottle on the left with the shorter text and letter resembling a ‘W’ at the end is the shampoo while the one on the right is the conditioner.

This is the hardest I’ve ever had to work for clean hair and apart from an immense sense of satisfaction at locating what I needed, it dawned on me that there are different types of reading. Of course, if you take it out of context such as letters printed on a white piece of paper, I probably could not pick out ‘shampoo’ or ‘conditioner’. Well maybe after the time spent tweaking the pictures I could make an educated guess but that is neither here nor there. However, if I had to run into a shop and quickly grab a bottle of one or the other, I’d have no trouble now that I have a block image of what each word looks like.

How ever tenuous the strand (pun intended), I am going to believe that I’m one step closer to reading Thai.

P.S. I am going to ignore the fact that if I plug both shampoo and conditioner into google translate, it gives me an entirely different set of characters… Boo.