If you’re learning Thai or interested in getting started, I think you’ll find this grammar guide really useful.
Though some similarities can be noted, Thai grammar is more straightforward than English.
With English, one is required to memorize numerous rules, and there are some exceptions that need to be considered to create flawless sentences, which also adds to the frustration of learning the rules. So it can be very daunting to many non-native speakers.
What’s amazing with Thai is that by just learning a principle or two, you can easily construct grammatically correct sentences.
Of course, some issues will still appear during learning, but compared to French or Spanish, I bet you can easily pick up the rules of Thai grammar.
So, if you have to get one thing from this lesson, it’s that the rules of Thai grammar are very easy to understand and you can learn them!
There are very few fixed rules, and just like English, the language, in general, is based on the use of subjects, verbs, and objects to communicate a complete thought.
So, if you’re ready, let’s dive in and explore.
Start with the Basics – The Thai Alphabet
Aside from the way the language sounds when spoken, another reason why many people think learning Thai is overwhelming is the alphabet.
We have our own distinct alphabet, which doesn’t make use of Latin letters.
Learning the alphabet comes hard at the start, as with any other tasks, but you’ll realize it’s not that difficult once you get the hold of it.
Don’t worry though, you can pick up some Thai words right away without knowing the alphabet.
However, the alphabet will prove to be beneficial if you’re planning to stay or study in Thailand long-term.
You can learn the Thai alphabet using my charts:
Practice Your Tone and Pronunciation
Like Chinese and Korean, the meaning of most Thai words is based on tone. Depending on the speaker’s tone, a word or phrase can mean something different.
Even foreigners advanced in Thai make tonal mistakes, but Thais can usually detect pronunciation issues and understand what you are trying to say, because much of the meaning is also drawn from the context of the conversation.
Often, Thais omit some words from a sentence, which can impact learners positively or negatively.
Positively, as it will be easier to construct sentences using fewer words, and negatively because when you learn formal Thai you may become confused to hear Thai people using much shorter versions of the sentences you have learned.
I recommend using a program like ThaiPod101 at home to start learning basic sentences.
Understanding Word Order
Fortunately, the basic sentence structure in Thai is similar to English, where we have the subject, followed by the verb and then the object.
If you haven’t noticed yet, it’s the SVO known in English linguistics. So in essence we have:
Subject + Verb + Object = basic Thai word order
ผม อยู่ กรุงเทพ
pŏm yù krung thep
I live in Bangkok.
Please note that transliterations may vary. For example you may see the above written as phŏm yoo krung tep, or another similar way.
(Transliteration gives the word from a different language in letters that you can understand so as to be able to pronounce it)
I tend to alter my transliterations a bit. This is because in my experience in England, and with foreigners in Thailand, I find that many of the standard transliterations do not sound the way Thai people and academics think they do.
Anyway, let’s continue…
As you can see, the simple sentence above follows the SVO word order.
Because of this familiarity, English speakers may have less difficult time adjusting and learning how to make simple sentences.
Here are some considerations to remember under sentence structure.
The Verb “to Be”
Regardless of the subject, the “be” verb used in a Thai sentence is ”
Like in English, it should always come after the subject.
ฉันเป็น – chan pbĕn ; or
ผมเป็น – pom pbĕn – for male; or
ดิฉันเป็น – chan pbĕn – for female
A little tweak from English grammar, Thais put an adjective after the noun it describes.
It is the exact opposite in English, where adjectives are placed before the noun they describe.
Regardless of the number of adjectives that describe a noun, the rule stays the same.
คุณ มี บ้าน สวย
khun mii bâan sŭay
You have house beautiful
(You have a beautiful house).
In English, the form of verb used is dependent on many factors: the person, number, tense, and even gender of the subject.
In Thai, however, you can drop those conjugation rules because the verb simply stays the same.
May the subject be we, you, I, he, or she, the verb doesn’t change.
เขา ชอบ สับปะรด
kháo châwp sàp-pà-rót
He/She likes pineapples.
เรา ชอบ สับปะรด
reo châwp sàp-pà-rót
We like pineapples.
Unlike in English where the placement of adverbs depends on their type, adverbs in Thai are always positioned at the end of the sentence.
เขา กำลัง กิน สับปะรด เร็วมาก
kháo gam-lang kin sàp-pà-rót reaw-mak
He/She is eating pineapples fast.
Following Tense Rules
If you want to indicate a tense, such as if the verb was done in the past, all you have to do is add a word before or after the verb (the position of the additional word will depend on the tense).
Actually, the Thai language doesn’t have a past tense. What we do is add a time word to communicate the tense.
There can be many words to indicate time in Thai, and it can be an exercise in vocabulary to memorize all of them.
เขา ชอบ สับปะรด เมื่อวานนี้
kháo châwp sàp-pà-rót mêua-wan-nee
He/She liked the pineapples yesterday.
Present Continuous Tense
To indicate a present progressive tense, e.g. the action is going on or happening right now, you simply add the word “gam-lang (กำลัง)” before the verb in your sentence.
เขา กำลัง กิน สับปะรด
kháo gam-lang kin sàp-pà-rót
He/She is eating pineapples.
Present Perfect Progressive Tense
This tense tells us of a continuous action that was started in the past and is still going on or something that has been completed at some point.
To communicate this tense in Thai, just add the word “láew (แล้ว)” at the end of your sentence.
เขา กิน สับปะรด แล้ว
kháo kin sàp-pà-rót láew
He/She has been eating pineapples.
To indicate that an action will happen in the future, merely add the word “jà (จะ)” before the verb in the sentence. This is done with or without a time word indicated that refers to the future.
เขา จะ กิน สับปะรด
kháo jà kin sàp-pà-rót
He/She will eat pineapples.
Ask the 5W1H
Another basic lesson in Thai grammar is forming sensible questions.
Since most of the time, what we do in an unfamiliar place is ask, this will be beneficial if you have plans to visit Thailand, either for work, study, or holiday.
When we ask something in English, the tone of our voice naturally rises at the end of the question.
This should not be the case in Thai, as it can be hard for Thais to decipher what you really mean. Remember, Thai is tonal.
The 5W1H, which stands for what, when, where, who, why, and how, are always placed at the end of the sentence.
Pay attention to the examples below.
คุณ ต้องการ อะไร
khun tâwng-kaan à-rai
What do you need?
คุณ จะ มาถึง เมื่อไหร่
khun jà maa-thŭeng mêua-rài
When will you arrive?
คุณ อยู่ ที่ไหน
khun yù thîi-năi
Where are you?
คุณ เป็น ใคร
khun bpen khrai
Who are you?
ทำไม คุณ โกรธ
tham-mai khun kròt
Why are you angry?
คุณ ทำ อย่างไร
khun tham yàang-rai
How do you do it?
Ask and Answer Conditional Questions
If you just want to ask a simple Yes or No question, just form your sentence and merely add the word “mái (ไหม)”, which is a question particle, at the end of it.
น้ำ เย็น ไหม
náam yen mái
Is the water cool?
bprà-têet thai rawn mái
Is Thailand hot?
In return, you can answer closed-ended questions by:
Repeating the verb or adjective used if your answer is yes;
Saying “mái (ไหม)” plus the verb or adjective if the answer is no.
When Asking Favors
To ask for something, such as water or tissue in a restaurant, just use the word “khăw (ขอ)” to begin the sentence, followed by the thing you’re asking for.
To make it more polite, add “noi (หน่อย)” at the end. “noi (หน่อย)” is similar to “please” in this context.
ขอ น้ำ หน่อย
khăw náam noi
Can I have some water?
To ask someone a favor, a similar rule applies: you just need to start your sentence with the word “chûay (ช่วย)”, which can translate to “help” in English but can be interpreted as “please”.
ช่วย ปิด หน้าต่าง
chûay pìt nâa tàang
Please close the window.
Of course, there are many other rules not mentioned here that are too complex for beginners, but I’m sure this is enough information for one day.
My advice is just to dive straight in and start learning words. You will surprised how quickly you can form sentences if you learn 1 or 2 word a day.
Please consider that English is not my first language. So if I have commented on the English language, or explained Thai incorrectly, please forgive me as I’m doing my best.