The strive for perfect pitch in tonal languages

You are sure to have encountered jokes concerning non-Thai speakers’ mistakes in their attempts to speak a tonal language. As funny as it may be, these jokes have a firm basis in real life since, from a tonal perspective, Thai is much more complicated than English.

Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, I acquired my first language two years before my second, so I consider Thai to be my mother tongue. Even for a native speaker like myself, and for the many immigrants who live away from their motherland, long exposure to another language or a prolonged period overseas can often affect pronunciation of the native tongue. Yes, you start speaking your native language with a foreign accent!

Growing up in a bilingual household, I was able to use both Thai and English in my day-to-day life. This enabled me to learn and retain proper pronunciation in both languages. Unlike languages in the Germanic family, Thai and English have no similarities, the only exception being words or terms used by Thai speakers that are borrowed from English because no Thai equivalent exists.

The official language for more than 70 million people (data as of 2023), and a recognized minority language in several neighboring countries, Thai is the national language of Thailand. Comprised of 44 consonants and 28 vowels, Thai has a total of 72 characters. To make matters worse, the consonants can be divided further into 3 consonant classes (low, mid, and high), 12 long vowels, and 16 short vowels; in this sense, English is much simpler.

Similar to Chinese with its four tones, Thai has five phonemic tones: low, mid, high, falling, and rising. Not every utterance may have a meaning, but in any case, at least two of the five can mean something, and you want to make sure that you have the correct tone when you speak.

Let’s look at an amusing example of using the “wrong tone.”

The syllable ‘ma’ can be pronounced with five different tones, and different tones of this syllable have different meanings.

mā         mà         mâ         má         mǎ

come     N/A       N/A      horse     dog

So, if a person asked the question, “Where have you been?”, take a look at this Thai translation and transliteration:

ไปไหนมา [pai naǐ mā]

As you can see, the word , if you change its tone, can have a variety of meanings.

If a person asks, “Where have you been?”, ma (come) needs to be spoken in the ‘low’ tone.

If one were to mistakenly use the raised tone , they would be addressing someone as a dog!

In addition to the tonal differences, the small but meaningful distinctions of this type of language include different sounds to convey emotions or certain feelings, depending on the audience.

I admire the courage and efforts of any language enthusiast who learns the subtleties of the Thai language. A great piece of advice is a quote from Oscar Aulig-Ice, who once said: “Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.”

Blog post by Ann H. (Jiraporn) Huynh. Contact:

Featured image (cropped) “Ayutthaya Thailand 2004” by user Evilarry at Wikimedia Commons; photo released by the author into the public domain. First text-body photo courtesy of blog author; second text-body photo “the pitch” by Ed Schipul at flickr, under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

8 thoughts on “The strive for perfect pitch in tonal languages”

  1. Sarah Pfefferle says:

    Oh, my goodness, thank you for your explanation, and for your skill!

    1. Jiraporn Ann H. Huynh says:

      Thanks Sarah! Sometimes the smallest things can really make a difference-in this case, a huge one.

  2. An important explanation on tones. I’m speaking as a non-tonal first language speaker who has struggled with tones in two dialects of Chinese. And the “ma” in Mandarin Chinese, with the wrong tone can also have an even worse meaning. Thank you

    1. Jiraporn Ann H. Huynh says:

      I totally know how that feels. I worked in a Chinese restaurant when I was in grad school and my attempt to say “two shrimp” was just beyond disastrous!


    What an educational and fun article to read. Thank you, Ann!

    1. Jiraporn Ann H. Huynh says:

      Many thanks James. The tonal in Thai maybe famous in the Thai speakers community but I cannot help myself with sharing it to our community here at Najit.

  4. Georganne Weller says:

    After 30 years working with speakers (and sometimes training them as interpreters) of Mexico’s indigenous languages, I greatly appreciate your article. Many of these native languages are tonal, especially those of the Otomangean family and the many different meanings the same word has, depending on the tone, greatly complicates the process of interpretation, but at the same time is fascinating linguistically, particularly when you have speakers of different variants of the same language in the classroom. How many variants are there in the languages you study? Mexico has 11 families, 68 languages and 364 variants altogether, quite a challenge!

  5. Jiraporn Ann Huynh says:

    Georganne, Thanks for sharing your input. Thailand is not a very large country and our language is pretty much specific to our nation, the only variety that we have is the four dialects spoken in the difference parts of the country: Central, Northern, Southern and Northeastern or E-sarn. While they are quite different but it’s not too hard to understand parts of it. Fortunately, the main and official language used is the Central Dialect so it saves many of us from the interpretation nightmare! Stay Calm and Keep Interpreting!

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