The Farang’s Guide to Asian Languages

Which language characteristics are the most important for a traveller? What basic understanding of a language would improve a trip’s quality?

Nit Noy Phasa Thai ภาษา �

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on January 30, 2008

One of the main shocks awaiting the trepid traveler in Thailand is the Thai alphabet and language. After considering himself reasonably educated and capable of understanding the surrounding world, the traveler is instantly reduced into an analphabetic Marco Polo as soon as he sets his feet on Bangkok. The curly, elegant Thai letters convey to him only a pleasant aesthetic message, their content is lost.

The Alphabet

Unwilling to surrender, I tried to decipher the code with the help of bilingual street signs; they became my Rosetta stone. However, soon it became clear the basic logic of the alphabet was not Roman; more than one letter was used for the same consonant sound and the vowels were a mess.

Additional efforts solved the riddle and enriched my Thai experience. In this entry are the very basic facts needed to begin understanding and studying Nit Noy Phasa Thai ("A bit of Thai").

Surprising Links

Thai is an Abugida type of alphabet; that means letters represent a fixed consonant followed by a varying vowel, which is not always written. This fact is explained by its being a Brahmic type of scripture, which apparently was derived originally from the Aramaic.


King Ramkhamhaeng the Great modified the Khmer alphabet in 1283AC and created the Thai one. A close comparison would reveal many Thai letters are similar to the Khmer ones if the upper and lower parts of the last are removed. Since then, several redundant letters were removed, but essentially, Thai remained unchanged.


In Thai, words are written horizontally from left to right, with vowels arranged around the corresponding consonant. Traditionally there is no space between words, but this is rapidly changing.


The Thai alphabet has forty-four consonants representing twenty-one different sounds; luckily, there is only one set of letters, capital letters do not exist. Some of the identical consonants differentiate between words derived from Sanskrit or Pali.

The consonants are divided into three classes - low, middle and high according to the tone to be used for the following vowel; however, there are five additional tone marks: middle, low, high, rising and falling. Tone markers are placed above the initial consonant of a syllable or on the last consonant of an initial consonant cluster.

In addition, fifteen vowel symbols combine into twenty-eight vowel forms, written relative to a consonant and not as independent characters.

The Abugida characteristic means in Thai that when a consonant appears without an attached vowel, it gets an "A" sound after it if in an open syllable and an "O" if in a closed one.


Thai has its own numerals; nevertheless Hindu-Arabic numerals are the most common for commercial activities.


Despite the official Romanization system adopted by the Royal Thai Institute, in practice many different transliterations appear for the same word.

A related difficulty while trying to comprehend destinations lists is that where the transliterations read "Bangkok," the Thai reads "Krung Thep," which are the first two syllables of the city’s formal Thai name (the complete one has 144 syllables!). Similarly, Khorat and Nakhon Ratchasima are interchangeable and so on.


Certain Thai letters are very similar in shape; only the length of one of its lines or the location of a little bubble differentiates between them. Some of the groups to watch carefully at are:

บ (B) and ป (P),

จ (Ch), ฉ (Ch) and ง (Ng),

ฝ (F), ผ (Ph), พ (Ph) and ฬ (L),

ล (L) and ส (S),

ม (M), น (N) and

ก (K), ศ (S) and ถ (T).

The Language


The first thing to comprehend is that spoken Thai is tonal and related to other East Asian Languages; technically it is a member of the Tai-Kadai Language Family which originated in Southern China, the cradle of the Thai culture. However, its scripture was derived from the Sanskrit, through the Khmer. Hence, sometimes the pronunciation of a word is unrelated to its spelling.


The tones concept is hard to grasp at first for Westerners since we use tones to convey emotions and other collateral information. However, tone is an integral part of a word in Thai; regardless our mood or feelings, "Hello!" should always be pronounced the same way in Thai. Tones become blurred in the rapid Southern Thai dialect; learning the language elsewhere is recommended.

While addressing English speaking Thais in Thai, the tones problem does not exist since they do expect pronunciation errors from foreigners. However, in rural areas care should be taken since we can easily transform "mother" into "horse."

No Thai would refuse help to a foreigner trying to read Thai. However, most of them would be unable to explain accurately; they do not understand our difficulties with tones.

Different Sounds

Even sounds we seem to recognize are not exactly parallel to the Indo-European ones. The Thai "B" is not equal to the English one; the result is startling; at the end of a syllable we would hear a "P," due to the changing aspiration level of the letter despite the Thai having pronounced the same letter. Similarly a "D" sounds as a "T" at such a position, a "G" would sound "K" and the "L" and "R" couple would sound like an "N." The result is confusing especially since there is no a universally used transliteration system of Thai into Roman letters; these letters are often interchangeable in written names.

The "R" is clearly pronounced only in Bangkok; in other areas it often sounds like an "L," especially if placed next to another consonant.

The "H" added after a consonant in many transliterations only indicates the consonant preceding it is aspirated (a bit of air is puffed out after it).
"Pho" should be pronounced as "P"+"h" (a small puff of air)+"oh," and similarly the "Th" in "Thai" is not the English "Th" sound.

Combining Consonants

Where a combination of consonants ends a written syllable, only the first is pronounced; possible closing consonant sounds are limited to "K," "M," "N," "Ng," "P" and "T".

Vowel Sounds

Native English speakers should be careful; the single Latin vowels used in most transliterations closely follow Spanish conventions rather than English. However, diphthongs are closer to English conventions. The main thing to keep in mind is that vowels and diphthongs pronunciation is constant regardless the syllable they appear in.


A politeness particle – namely "kap" for men and "ka" for women – is usually added at the end of the sentence.

Good News

As it happens with other Asian languages, Thai verbs do not vary with person, tense, voice, mood, or number, making this aspect of the language one of the easiest to learn. Similarly, nouns have no gender, are not inflected and there are no articles.

Same Same

A sometimes comic characteristic of the Thai is its use of repetitions; duplications intensify the meaning. Hence, when a Thai says in English "same, same" (which is a rather popular expression) he means "exactly the same thing."


Despite the initial shock, commanding Thai letters at a basic level is easy; learning them was an entertaining and valuable task during long trips. Moreover, more often than not, locals valued my efforts and consequently the travel experience was vastly improved.

Thailand is the tourism hub of South East Asia. A basic understanding of its language provides glimpses into Lao as well. Moreover, for those of us with a fine ear, its links with other languages in the area are clear; after all Phasa Thai is transformed into toneless Bahasa Melayu just across an imaginary line.

Chinese 漢 or 中文

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on January 30, 2008

A few years ago I was a graduated student at an international science institute. Many students were Chinese; in my small research group there were two of them. Trying to improve our communications, I decided to learn a bit of their language.

The concept of radicals was clear to me since Hebrew uses "roots" in a similar fashion. The tones were difficult to learn and remember – there was no hint within the characters how they should be pronounced.

The grammatical structure – especially the verbs system – was pretty simple and posed no difficulties. However, the endless amount of apparently random characters finally discouraged me and I dropped the topic.

Years later, I reached China and stayed there for a couple of months. Moving between zones speaking different dialects turned my learning to speak an almost impossible task. However, written Chinese is the same in all the country and thus I found myself rapidly learning many of them.


Except for the simplest ones, Chinese characters fit a square frame. The clearest exception is one of the last characters adopted into the Chinese: the full stop; it is shaped as a hollow circle.

Traditionally, Chinese was written in vertical columns from top to bottom; while the columns were ordered from right to left and had neither spaces nor punctuation. Nowadays, texts usually follow Western conventions and are written from left to right and top to bottom; punctuation marks and spaces have been adopted.
Writing Variants

Pīnyīn is the Roman transliteration system’s name for Chinese; it solves the ambiguous pronunciation of traditional characters and is widely used for writing road signs, except for the far west.
Pīnyīn is easy to read once the diacritical marks for the tones are learned and the differences in the pronunciation of certain consonants are comprehended. The most obvious differences from Western languages are the "Q" which sounds like the "Ch" in "China," and the couple of "X" and "Zh" which roughly sound like an English "J." Hence, the "Qing" Dynasty should be pronounced "Cheeng."
The Pīnyīn was designed by the Communist government after the 1949 revolution in order to solve the analphabetism problem. However, in 1958 it was relegated to a secondary position after the simplified Chinese characters were adopted.
Since then, Chinese may be rendered in Classical Characters or the Simplified Characters. Nowadays, the simplified version is very popular in the Mainland, while Taiwan still uses the traditional characters.

Radical Mnemonics

Chinese characters are built up from basic radicals conveying a basic meaning and sound. Thus recognizing a radical within a character is a good way of getting a hint about it. For later stages of the learning, recognizing the radical is imperative, since Chinese dictionaries are usually arranged according to radicals.

Mnemonic techniques for remembering important – or recurring – radicals are easy to design; here are a few samples:

"山" is read "Shan" and means "Mountain," its shape reminds of a terrain elevation; it is part of a myriad of locations’ names.

"東" is read "Dong" and means "East;" it shows a "sun" (日) rising over a "tree" (木). Remembering that in China the east is the fertile part of the country and thus the sun rises over the trees makes remembering the character a breeze.

"人" is read "Ren" and means "Man." Doesn’t it look like a schematic walking man?

Compass Linguistics

By the end of my trip, in Kashgar, I was able to completely decipher a trains’ schedule table written only in Chinese. My feeble mind wouldn’t have succeeded in the task if it wasn’t for a very useful intrinsic characteristic of the Chinese culture. They give an unusual important to the directions – that’s the origin of Feng Shui. Just by learning four characters I became able to read halves of many names:

"北" is the "Bei" part of "Beijing" and it means "North."

"西" is the "Xi" part of "Xian" and it means "West."

"左 or 東" is the "Dong" part of "Guangdong" and it means "East."

"南" is the "Nan" in "Yunnan" and it means "South."

"中" is the "Zhōng" part of "Zhōng guó" (中國) the Chinese name for China (Literally the Middle Kingdom) and depicts an arrow hitting a target’s center.

Strict Order

Moreover, most Chinese cities order their streets in strict grids and name them accordingly: "West Avenue," "North Road."

Just by adding a few other characters to my learning list I became able to navigate the streets by myself. Parallel streets in China are usually distinguished by a number: 1 East Street is parallel to 2 East Street; learning the relatively simple characters used for numbers transformed whole cities into legible. The most useful characters in this category are:

道 Dào means "road" or "street."
路 Lù means "street" or "avenue."
街 Jiē means "road" or "avenue."
衢 Qú means "highway."

The lower numerals are also simple to memorize:

一 Yī 1
二 èr 2
三 sān 3
四 sì 4
五 wǔ 5
六 liù 6
七 qī 7
八 bā 8
九 jiǔ 9
十 shí 10

Ruling Chinese Streets

Typical Chinese cities have a central square and walls surrounding them. Two perpendicular avenues connect the square with the walls, at the center of each axis. The avenue running from the square northwards to the walls (or former walls’ site) is usually called Bei Lu "北路" or North Avenue, while its southern counterpart is called Nan Lu "南路" or South Avenue. The same is valid to the eastern and western sides of the square. Streets parallel to the main avenues are numbered and called "street" (or elated terms – see above) instead of "avenue."

Even cities which do not strictly follow the traditional grid, clues to the ancestral principles can be found. One of the main avenues in Kunming – Yunnan’s capital – is called Beijing Lu 北京路 instead of the expected Bei Lu. Beijing means the "Northern Capital;" accordingly, the avenue runs northwards from the downtown’s railway station.

Remembering these basic and simple principles makes navigating China independently an easy and very enjoyable task.

Khmer ភាសាខ្�

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If you do not see the Khmer characters in this article title, they can be downloaded at here; if the link has been discontinued, contact me and I’ll send the Unicode installation pack.

Cambodia is Campuchea

The variety of Cambodia’s name transliterations is baffling. It seems as if every one of the last regimes had changed the country’s name; however, the simple truth is that all the Romanization variants are equally faithful to the original name. Khmer is richer in sounds than most other languages; fitting an exact match to a Khmer name is difficult.

For example, the Khmer rendition of the name Cambodia consists of three complex characters. The first is a "K" – it even looks as a stylized "K" - and has no subscript vowel, thus it automatically receives an "ah." The second is an "M" and it has two subscripts, the first accounts for a "P" or a "B" and has a sub-subscript which fits an "uh" or "oh," creating thus a syllable that can be transliterated in several fashions "MPU," "MBO," and so on. The third main character fits a "D," a "J" or a soft "CH" and is joined by an ending diphthong which sounds like "IA" or "EA." Cambodia is thus Campuchea and we are humbled by a stronger, richer alphabet.


During my graduated studies, I was in contact with a research group studying the way brains perceive consonants. They used MRI related equipment for monitoring the brain response to carefully created sounds and compared the results between people from different cultures.

They found that a given sound can be perceived differently. Moreover, by studying a group of Mandarin-Chinese speakers, it was found that babies which were not exposed to foreign languages until the age of ten months lost their capability to differentiate between "L" and "R," unless later in their life took intensive speech laboratory classes.

Thus our incapacity to correctly transliterate and pronounce foreign – Khmer in this case - consonants should be expected. My best advice is to listen carefully to a local pronunciation and then trying to replicate the sound the way we heard it.

Moreover, Khmer has the most complex alphabet known. Thus transliterating foreign names into Khmer is easy, while the opposite leads to the biggest metaphorical minefield in the country.


Khmer is different from the other main modern languages in South East Asia in more than one aspect. First it belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of languages and not to the more common Tai-Kadai one and second it lacks tones and thus for Westerners it is easier to learn speaking Khmer.

Historically, this was the first language to adopt a scripture based on Sanskrit and Pali brought by Buddhist monks in South East Asia on the 7th century AC. Later, Khmer became the base for the development of the Thai scripture.


As Indo-European languages (a definition which includes the Sanskrit on which it is based), Khmer is written from left to right and then top to bottom.

In the far past even Latin was written with no spaces between the words; Khmer (like Thai and Lao) keeps this characteristic until now, so that reading it is quite difficult.


Khmer letters can be written in three styles, which make the learning even more difficult.

"Âksâr chhôr" is the default type and refers upright letters; this is the font used in computers.

"Âksâr chriĕng" are the slanted letters which were the favourite in the past but have been displaced by computers.

"Âksâr mul" are the round letters used in official texts and signs


Thirty-three consonants survived out of the original thirty-five Khmer ones. However, consonant clusters are united by subscript consonant marks which create the complex shapes of Khmer texts. The subscript cancels the inherent vowel of the preceding consonant, but a new vowel can be added as a sub-subscript.

Twenty-three vowels complete the letters list and some of them can change the shape of the preceding consonant by merging with it; adding thus yet another difficulty to the reading process.

Useful Phrases

Chum-reep su-or Hello

Sok sabay ta How’s it going?

Akoon Thank you

Som Please

Awt-tay No

Baat Yes, for man

Chaa Yes, for woman

Mao-pee-na Where are you from?


At least in Pailin, Angkor and Phnom Penh, Thai is widely understood at a basic level. Since Cambodians tend to pronounce it without tones, their Thai is easier to understand by Western ears than the original version.


Vietnamese is spoken by the large Vietnamese refugees minority on the Tonle Sap Lake floating houses, Phnom Penh and along the border with Vietnam. It is useful mainly in the abundant Vietnamese restaurants.


There is a significant Chinese community in Phnom Penh. Recognizing them is easy but guessing which Chinese dialect they speak is almost impossible. However pronouncing the friendly Xie-Xie (thanks) would assure a wide smile.


In a short leisure trip to Cambodia, expecting to learn reading Khmer is an unreal hope. Recognizing some popular word and phrases is however a doable task which holds an additional benefit to it.

More than any other people in South East Asia, Cambodians value travellers’ efforts to communicate in their language; maybe this is due to its relative insignificance, or due to their long years of isolation and wars. Regardless the reason, if the small gift of our (mis)pronouncing a few words in their language makes them feel relevant and worthy humans in a world that abandoned them in their toughest moments, then we should do every effort to accomplish that.

Lao ພາສາ ລາ

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Being Laos a small and landlocked country with its unique language, attempting to decipher its language during a trip in South East Asia would make no sense, if it weren’t due to the fact it is similar to the Thai.

Laotian letters are rounder than the Thai ones and the language is actually identical to the Thai dialect spoken in IsaanThailand’s north-eastern lobe. Thus, after having learned some Thai, catching the basics of Lao is easy, especially since its spelling system is more phonetic than the Thai one due to the 1960’s spelling reform.


It is hard to speak about Lao as one language, or to count the exact number of its dialects. There are between three and five similar dialects in Laos and another one in Thailand’s Isaan; the one originating in Vientiane is nowadays recognized as the formal Lao for official matters.

However, all the dialects use the same letters and are mutually intelligible. In any case, the language shares its history with Thai; both belong to the Tai-Kadai family of languages and their alphabets are similar.

Since most Lao people watch Thai television, Thai is widely understood in Laos.


As Thai, Lao uses tones; in Vientiane they reach their epitome with six different tones. However, the definitions are fluid, mainly due to massive populations’ movements in the last decades.

In Vientiane islands of different dialects and a variety of tonal pronunciations can be found. Since the language lacks any formal regulating entity, it is impossible to use a well-defined description.

The tones used in Vientiane are: Low, Mid, High, Rising, High Rising and Low Falling. Luang Prabang and other northern locations in Laos use a five tones system featuring Mid Falling Rising, Low Rising, Mid, High Falling and Mid Rising tones, though further north in the country – around Muang Sing – a six tones system re-appears.

The Alphabet

The Lao alphabet was created after the 14th century unification of the Lao principalities into the Lan Xang Kingdom. It was based on the Khmer alphabet and is similar to the Thai one; stripping out the upper and lower parts of Khmer letters results in symbols strikingly similar to the Lao and Thai alphabets.


Lao is an Abugida type of alphabet, meaning that vowels are implicit or added around the consonants – the main writing units; thus the main characters appearing in a text are basically syllables.

The tone of a syllable is determined by a combination of the class of consonant, the type of syllable (open or closed), the tone marker and the length of the vowel (see below).


Lao consonants are divided into three classes, which determine the tone of the subsequent vowel. Certain consonants’ sounds change when they are used at the end of a syllable. All consonants can be used at a syllable’s beginning but only a few can be used at the end.

After some redundant consonants were removed, nowadays the language features twenty-seven ones. Yet, even today, As in Thai, sometimes there is more than one letter depicting a certain consonant sound. That is the result of certain letters being used for words originating in Sanskrit, Pali, or to denote a different tone for the vowel being pronounced after it.

Spaces are not used between words, but only at a sentence’s end, though this is rapidly changing, especially on modern signs.


The vowels are added as diacritic signs around the preceding (in pronunciation) consonant. Modern Lao features twenty-nine vowels and diphthongs, many of them are similar in sound and used to denote the various tones.


Lao has its own system of numerals; however, on the money and all other official publications, the Hindu-Arabic numerals are used as well.

Latin Transliteration

Laotian complicated past shows up in the different Romanization systems in use for Lao names. Having been a French colony, many names follow French phonetics; however the recent opening of the country to Western tourists is creating a new trend to use English phonetics. Both systems coexist and neither of them has a coherent and comprehensive solution for the transliteration of the complex Lao sounds. Tourists’ attractions named in the past follow a French transliteration, while new or restored attractions follow an English spelling.

Vietnamese Tiếng Việt

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Vietnamese offers the mot fascinating linguistic puzzle in South East Asia; nowadays written in Latin characters, it is related with toneless Khmer, but have adopted tones and an extensive Chinese vocabulary.


Like the Khmer, Vietnamese belongs to the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austroasiatic Family of languages; however, the long-time colonization of Vietnam by China caused a significant adoption of Chinese vocabulary as well as tones.

In a fashion resembling the Japanese language, old Vietnamese used Chinese characters accompanied with specific modifiers, a system known as Chữ nôm, as well as the original Hán tự characters.

After being written in Chinese characters for roughly one millennium, the Vietnamese were happy to adopt an adapted Latin alphabet designed by a French Jesuit missionary named Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660) in the 17th century and based on works of the earlier Portuguese missionaries Gaspar de Amaral and António de Barbosa.

Thus, reading Vietnamese signs is relatively easy, speaking it is rather difficult. This system became the official one at the beginning of the 20th century, when it officially replaced Chinese as the administrative language due to the French colonization and the fact it was much more convenient and easy to learn that Chinese characters.

Hán Việt is the general name to the extensive Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary used for professional matters in topics from politics, through administration and ending in medicine.


There are four Vietnamese dialects, namely Northern, North-central, Central and
Southern Vietnamese; though they are mutually intelligible and of no concern for the traveller. They can be easily recognized by the different way they pronounce certain consonants.

Borrowed Words

Around seventy percent of the vocabulary contains mixed Sino-Vietnamese roots; other influences are French (the best known being đầm, from madame and ga, from gare), and English.


Vietnamese tones vary with the dialects, but the Hanoi one contains six tones: level, low falling, high rising, falling then rising, stopping and rising and finally the heavy one.


Twenty-fie consonants exist in Vietnamese, some of them are represented by combinations of two, like: "ph" for "f" and "gi" for "z."


Eleven vowels create a complex system of monophthongs, diphthongs and triphthongs and each one can be pronounced in the different regional tones.


Hindu-Arabic numerals are used and thus understanding written numbers is simple; the pronunciation of Vietnamese is also rather simple, with simple transition rules between the unit, the unit plus ten, and the unit times ten and between ordinal and cardinal numbers.

Good News

As in many other Asian languages, verbs inflections do not exist in Vietnamese; the tenses are denoted by specific time particles added to the sentence.

Bad News

Vietnamese nouns can be modified by a complex system of prefixes and suffixes. Duplication of one of the noun syllables can be used to intensify or diminish its meaning; the rules of the tones variation in such a case are quite complex and rigid. Certain special particles may be added to a noun according to its role in the sentence and several nouns can be added together, forming a noun phrase.

More Bad News

Vietnamese uses an especially complex system of classifiers; or words used to count specific types of nouns (like "pack" in "a pack of dogs").


Many Vietnamese would seriously tell the innocent traveller that their language is monosyllabic, while in fact over three quarters of it is disyllabic. The error lies in the fact that most words are still transliterated syllabic Chinese characters and that a space is used to denote different original characters.

Social Status

Used pronouns depend on the relative status of the people talking, like in Thai. That’s the reason for the many personal questions Vietnamese (and Thai) ask first while meeting a stranger – they just are trying to find a relative social framework enabling them to choose pronouns (even if they are speaking English – the custom is ingrained in their culture).

Tasteless Joke

A joke told time and again to every visitor showing some interest in the language is that the first word Vietnamese children learn is "ba-ba-ba." It sounds pretty close to "pa-pa," a childish form of "father" in many languages and thus it makes sense to the still innocent – but infinitely intrepid – traveller. However, "ba" means "three" in Vietnamese. What’s the pun? 333 is – of course – the name of the most popular beer in the country.

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