Learning Thai Tone Rules

Thai people do not learn tone rules per se, at least not until around the 3rd or 4th grade (age 10 or so). Even then, few get a firm understanding of the various rules for tones that adult foreigners are taught. Rather they know how to speak Thai correctly because they have learned the skill of speaking and listening, and then reading and writing in Thai.

That is, they learn tones by simply learning tones as they are spoken in the context of utterances, and later in terms of deciphering letters and words in reading and writing Thai. My eldest son didn't really get the hang of tones until around age 4. At age 5 (kindergarten year 2), he was taught to read Thai by the basic phonics sounds and sound blending. This is akin to Native English speakers learning English.

Childhood Language Learning Approximate Order

There is much overlap with these so it is not a discrete, step-wise linear process, but more or less, the order of language learning is as follows, and increases in the complexity of phonemic awareness:

  • Learn to recognize sounds (utterances)
  • Learn to speak (reproduce utterances)
  • Learn the alphabet song (Thai has one, though it is only for consonants)
  • Recognize alphabet letters (be able to recall their names out-of-order
  • Produce the sounds of letters (distinct from their names)
  • Sound blending to produce syllables, words, and phrases
  • Reading syllables
  • Reading for meaning
  • Learning new words, phrases through reading

We think of words, but there is much more than words at work in language. Sound patterns, word patterns, grammar patterns, and even punctuation. Any study of rhetoric produces a panoply of figures of speech.

Where in here are tones learned? For native language learners (children), tones are recognized as distinct along with sounds, and are learned as aspects of speech utterances. To be sure, tones have different qualities in terms of vowel length (discussed more below), and are a characteristic of consonants (and tone marks) in written Thai.

While utterances can be discussed in terms of sounds and syllables, it really is the utterance that is produced and decoded, and not individual letters, syllables, words, or phrases. Utterances have tone, and tone should be learned as an aspect of an utterance, at least initially. Why? Because that is how native speakers do.

Tones as difference

Tones in Thai are distinct from each other in at least two ways:

  • Contour (shape)
  • Length (duration)

While it is obvious to any Thai language learner that there are five tones, that is not quite accurate. Vowel duration is a meaningful distinction in Thai. As well, the tone contour of a short vowel and a long vowel are not identical. In addition, there are some intermediate length vowels, not quite short and not quite long.