How I’m Using Written Thai Even Though I’m Only Protoliterate

30 June 2014, TV = 827.1 hours

How I’m using written Thai even though I’m still illiterate (or maybe, to be charitable, “protoliterate”): another step on the slippery slope to “scripteracy”1.

Despite not even being able to read Thai (well, not really being able to read Thai – see footnote 1 below for a bit about my abilities – or lack thereof! – and this post for the rationale behind my decision to not learn how to read), I’ve increasingly been using the written language over the last couple months.

It started back in April when I needed to write a short note in Thai, and discovered that I could use google translate in reverse to look up the spelling of a Thai word that I already knew from the spoken language: “I entered what I thought would be the english translation and then – success! – found the Thai word I had wanted on the resulting list.” (see A Very Short Message for the full story).

Then just a few days later I was leaving a comment on someone else’s blog – an American here in Bangkok – and decided to write part of it in Thai; I wasn’t sure if she would understand, but I figured her Thai fiancé could always translate.

So I wrote a short sentence in Thai using English transliteration, and posted it. But then I immediately realized that I could use reverse-look up on google translate to get the words in real Thai writing. In a way, it was even easier than my handwritten note, because all I had to do was copy-and-paste the Thai words into the comment box.

After that, I started using occasional Thai words in blog posts. I think Elegant! was the first post in which I used a Thai word (สีฟ้า) that I looked up via google translate – and for that post I also used wikipedia to look up the names of a street (ทองหล่อ) in Bangkok.

Actually, I’ve been using cut-n-paste Thai all along, for the names of lakorn.

And just recently I’ve started to connect online with Thai people interested in doing language exchange with English speakers. My real aim is in-person face-to-face conversation – I’ve had three so far2 – but the initial contact is done via chatting online. And in fact I’ve been engaging in some fairly extensive online chatting with a bunch of people, and who knows which ones I’ll ever actually get to meet.

The online textual chat is carried out in a combination of English, Thai, and “karaoke language” – i.e., Thai that’s been transliterated into English lettering.

I’ve tended to write everything twice, once in English, and once in “karaoke language.” This is primarily to try to make things clear to people who may have problems with English; the “karaoke language” itself is problematic for a couple reasons, one being that the (unmodified) English alphabet is really not up to the task of representing Thai sounds3, and the other being that, from what I can see, transliteration seems to be nonstandard and haphazard – i.e., I’ve often seen a word (or name) transliterated in multiple ways. Plus I don’t have a lot of experience with transliterating, so I’m just making it up as I go along. And sometimes the Thais who I’m messaging use transliterations that – at least to me, as an English speaker/reader – do not look anything like the way the actual Thai word sounds.

Just to pick one example – drawn from the world of transliterated lakorn titles – the word รัก seems to always get transliterated as ruk, but actually sounds closest to English rock; my instinct would be to transliterate it as rock or rok. So maybe there is some kind of system at work here which I don’t quite understand, in which certain English letters have been assigned sounds that don’t correlate with their actual English sounds?…there’s even quirkier stuff in the realm of “karaoke language,” but it hardly feels worth the effort to write about!

An interesting aspect of my dual-language messaging is that I often say something slightly different in Thai than in English – the Thai is often shorter and simpler, due to my limitations; presumably, a Thai who could understand both my English and my “karaoke” writing would get some idea of how far my Thai abilities fall short.

The people I’m communicating with by and large tend to use English only, with occasional transliterated Thai, and I started to get a little frustrated because I felt like I was spending considerable time and energy chatting, and not getting much out of it in terms of language learning. So in addition to occasionally asking for the actual Thai (not “karaoke”) spelling of a word or phrase, I started using some Thai myself, looking up the words with google translate.
Sometimes I end up mixing (real) Thai and “karaoke Thai,” sometimes I’ll write the whole sentence in Thai. Again, I know what I want to say – I’m not using google for translation, I’m just using it to spell the words out for me.

There are some words that I’ve failed to find; but the main drawback is that the process takes so much longer than writing in either English or transliterationese.

But I still feel that using real Thai is advantageous, because every time I look up (and then cut and paste) a word in Thai, I’m getting exposure to the written language; hopefully I’m starting to build up familiarity with the forms of written Thai. In effect, I’m getting practice at “reading” words that I’ve already learned from the spoken language.

Even when I use real Thai, I still tend to write out an English version as well, so that the other person will get English input. Unfortunately, although my use of written Thai has prompted some responses in kind, a fair number of the people I’ve been communicating with still haven’t taken the hint, and have tended to stick with English only. I may in the future start making some explicit requests for more responses using Thai.

I’ve also recently started to make an active effort to become more familiar with the Thai “alphabet,” and just the other day bought and successfully read a children’s book aimed at three year olds. But that’s more on the reading than the writing side of things – and might be the grist of future posts….

* * *


1. I hope the neologisms will be pardoned, but I really couldn’t find any words in English that would adequately convey my intended meanings.

There does seem to be a word protoliterate, but its use is archeological; I’m appropriating it here as a term to describe my very limited abilities to not so much read as to recognize what a word might roughly sound like and then match it up with a word that I already know (from spoken Thai) that might make sense given the context it appears in; in other words, it’s the ability to recognize-guess some written words, but it’s limited to words I already know from spoken Thai, tends to work better when I have a context, and in practice is useless for anything but the shortest of texts, such as menus, signs, advertisements, titles of books or articles, etc. If I try to start reading something longer like a book or article – or even manga (which I tried recently) – even if I can decipher a little bit, I inevitably run into stuff I can’t understand pretty quickly, and then give up because to continue reading would mean laboriously wading through a text riddled with long and frequent lacunae – not literal lacunae, but chunks of text that I can’t make heads or tails of – which overall I don’t think I’d understand (or enjoy) much of.

I’ve coined scripteracy because the word literacy doesn’t seem to distinguish between ability to read and ability to write, and I needed a word that means strictly the latter. So by scripteracy I mean the ability to write, not simply in the physical sense of tracing out the letters (or inputing them on a keyboard/keypad), but as the ability to compose phrases and sentences in writing.

2. I’ve also done a few video calls on skype, which I think isn’t nearly as good as face-to-face conversation even under the best of circumstances – but these calls were sometimes plagued by a poor connection that kept freezing up or dropping out altogether.

3. I don’t know anything about Vietnamese, but check out their writing system – the familiar Latin alphabet, its plainness transformed by a wide variety of diacriticals sprinkled liberally over the letters!


5 thoughts on “How I’m Using Written Thai Even Though I’m Only Protoliterate

  1. Nick

    I’m really excited for you! It sounds like you are well on your way to making a massive leap with your Thai proficiency! When you can out grow ‘karaoke Thai’ and have enough confidence to use proper Thai script, you’ll really get exposed to a lot more natural language. It is difficult to learn, but the long term payoff really is worth it! สู้ๆนะครับและขอให้โชคดี 🙂

  2. Melchor

    Adam let me recommend a good bood to learn thai alphabet:Thai -Reading for Speaking by Darryl Sweetland

    When I got a bit confident with reading thai I used the script and recordings of a very good and free website called “thai recordings”.
    But where my writting thai got a very big leap is when I met my girlfriend. We have been chatting using “Line” everyday for a year and a half. Its amazing how fast how I can type thai now. At the beginning I coulndt be bothered with propper spelling. If I didnt know exactly the spelling of a word I would just write it the way it sounds to me but using thai alphabet. For instance I would write พิเสต instead of พิเศษ.She would understand what I meant by the sound and context,but as the time went through, I started to learn the propper spelling by reading her messages.

    Very good blog and keep up the good work.

  3. Pingback: Killing Birds Efficiently — In Thai | learning thai without studying

  4. Pingback: Steps Taken Toward Reading Thai: 2014 Summary | learning thai without studying

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