Thai vs. English Consonants

Updated 28-Jun-2024

Comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between two languages is an effective tactic for second language learners. Direct cognitive awareness of those differences, while engaging in recognition and production of the differences, is more effective than indirect trial and error. Instruction and exercises that highlight these differences are important for mastery.

> This is an actively edited page, and will expand into a full book chapter. Comments are welcome.

There are several consonants that are not identical to English consonants in sound and production of that sound. For learners of Thai, the main approach is to keep things as simple and uncomplicated as possible, in order to make forward progress, rather than get bogged down in the details. Therefore, what follows should not been seen as a starting point, but something to return to once some progress is made (for example, working with a teacher or tutor and getting through the alphabet in terms of reading, writing, speaking, and recognizing).

What follows may be important for some learners to know about what is being simplified. However, please avoid the all-too-common bad habit of trying to correct one's Thai teacher who is really trying to develop a skill in their students, with what follows, which is a technical and linguistic discussion.

English Consonant Sounds not in Thai

There are several English consonant sounds not found in Thai, including:

  • Th - this
  • Th - thigh
  • V - vowel
  • Z - zoo
  • R - right (Thai R is a different sound, a trilled R)
  • G - guy (Thai G is transcribed as K, a more uvular sound), there may be disputable
  • Ch and J are transcribed differently, but act as a related pair, and can be considered allophones
  • Sh (ʃ) - ship
  • Zh (ʒ) - vision

In-between Consonant Sounds

  • In Thai there are consonants with a b sound, a p sound, and an in-between b+p sound (a sound not in English). For English speakers, they will not necessarily recognize the bp sound as being distinct but hear it as a b or a p.
  • In Thai, there are consonants with a d sound, a t sound, and an in-between d+t sound (a sound not in English). For English speakers, they will not necessarily recognize the dt sound as being distinct but hear it as a d or a t.

Ng Sound Consonant

In Thai there is a consonant that is equivalent to an ng sound, as found in words like song and sing (and every -ing verb ending). While this sound is in English, it is usually only in "final consonant position", that is, with a consonant and a vowel before it. In Thai, this consonant can be in "initial consonant position" which can be initially difficult to hear and produce for English speakers.

Thai Consonant Sounds (Phonemes) not in English

There are four categories of Thai Consonant Sounds not in English:

  • Those sounds which have related sounds (allophones) which are intelligible (k-kh vs. g-k), (tɕ-tɕʰ vs. dʒ-tʃ). Since these are arguable allophones of a phoneme and each case roughly matches what we hear and produce in either language, it is simply the case that we should follow what is standard practice in the majority of Thai language courses. That is, yes there is a difference in manner and place of articulation (in some majority of cases), but the congruent consonant sound in the other language is functionally allophonic. K (gau gai) in Thai is G in English and Kh in Thai (kau khai, etc.) is K in English. This also makes sense of the K as final consonant sound, where we may "hear" an English K, this is due in part to the "final oral plosives are said to be accompanied by simultaeous glottal closure" (Tingsabadh & Abramson, 1993). That is, we don't hear the full sound, aspiration or otherwise, and so the sound is interpreted as a g or a k, by an English speaker.
  • Those sounds which can be confused with other sounds (that is, Thai has finer gradations and discriminations) (d-dt-t; b-pb-p)
  • Those sounds which have nothing related in English (with some exceptions), namely the glottal stop (represented by a character that looks like a question mark ʔ/?)
  • In the fourth category, the sound is in English, but it is used in a different way that can be confusing (ng)

The R Consonant in Thai

In Thai there is an r consonant (actually three, including two rare compound consonants), but they differ from an English R in several ways. First, it is predominantly spoken as an L rather than an R in most everyday conversation. Secondly, when it is pronounced, it is a trill or rolling form of r, similar to a French r, rather than an English r. Finally, in many fonts, the r character script looks like an English s, as well as the standard Thai ร.

Missing Consonant Clusters

Consonant clusters are not included in phonetic charts for languages, namely because the information for sounds are already represented. Unlike dipthongs which have a direction and therefore can be plotted, consonant clusters are seen as merely additive. However, for the language learner, recognizing (hearing) and producing (saying) those clusters requires practice as with the individual consonants themselves.

Final Consonant Sounds in Thai

Not only are there changes in what a given letter becomes (transformation) in the final consonant position (fewer sounds are possible in the final consonant position), but also the consonant sound is cut short or muffled in many ways. This has an impact not only on Thai learners unable to pronounce final consonants fully in English (especially the final S in plurals), but also certain final consonant sounds will be heard as a different sound, to match Thai phoneme patterns, e.g., path -> pap, ball -> ban.

Note on Minimal Pairs Training

Explicit training with minimal pairs is the most common drill-style method of learning the difference between two sounds and between two tones. Specifically, phonemic boundaries are being introduced (and re-established) for the second language learning, in order for them to hear more accurately the sounds in the target language. Minimal pairs can be very useful when used in a focused way, in terms of establishing production and recognition skills. However, in many cases adult learners starting out won't hear the differences, but that should not start some learning from getting underway.


> This paper aims to examine similarities and differences between Thai and English consonants. It determines areas of difficulties when Thai students try to pronounce English consonantal sounds. It is found that English sounds which do not occur in the Thai phonology tend to pose great difficulty for Thai students to utter. Those sounds include /g/, /v/, /T/, /D/, /z/, /S/, /Z/, /tS/, and /dZ/. Sounds which exist in Thai but can occur in different environment, i.e. syllable position, are also prone to be difficult to pronounce. Such examples are /f/ and /s/. To tackle the problem of sounds nonexistent in Thai, Thai students are likely to substitute Thai sounds for the English sounds. In addition, the phenomenon where /l/ and /R/ are used interchangeably in Thai tends to be transferred in pronouncing /l/ and /r/ in English with great challenges.