I’ve been learning Thai for about two months now, but the writing still just looks like loopy squiggles to me.
When I asked my teacher if I should start learning the writing system, she counseled patience. She’s had students who learned Thai right from the start, and it ended up hindering their pronunciation and fluency: instead of using their ears to hear the way Thai was actually pronounced, they ended up speaking Thai the way they thought it should be pronounced, based on the spelling.
This makes sense to me. Hell, I didn’t start learning to read English until I’d been learning it intensively for two or three years. Then again, my brain was highly undeveloped during that time, so I probably missed out on a lot.
That said, not knowing the writing system can also be a hindrance when you’re trying to learn new things. A friend who has been learning Thai for a while recommended a song with relatively simple lyrics that I might be able to learn. Or I would be able to learn, if I had any way of reading the subtitles of the music video.
This is where transliteration becomes helpful. In particular, the site Thai2English.com gives transliterations that are remarkably easy to associate with the sounds of Thai. I don’t know if there are multiple standards for Thai transliteration, but the version on Google Translate just boggles my mind.
Another cool thing about Thai2English: it translates both the original text and the transliteration word-by-word when you hover over it, so you learn the words in context. This is way better than just spitting out the whole thing in English.
Ok, but isn’t this just as bad as learning the writing system? Won’t I become dependent on the written version, and stop hearing the actual sounds? It’s possible. But maybe keeping in mind that this is merely an imperfect representation of the sounds of the language, and not the official writing system, will make it easier for me to remember the distinction.
In the meantime, I’ll hold off until my Thai self is a couple years old before I tackle any loopy squiggles.