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Why does adding spaces help in reading Thai?

Learning to read Thai never seemed like it was going to be an easy task, and it certainly didn’t start out that way for me.

My textbook did its best to kill my initial enthusiasm by flatly informing me that there are no spaces between the words, and moving on to long lists of letters, rules and exceptions to memorize instead.

After waking up, I started to seriously wonder if this was going to be possible to learn at all. What about English without spaces, wouldthatevenbepossibletoread?

Hmm, OK, maybe that wasn’t so bad. But then in English, I already knew all the words. In Thai, I was just a beginner with a limited (=tiny) vocabulary.

How am I supposed to know where one word starts and another ends, if they’re words I don’t already know? But then, how can I improve my reading vocabulary without being able to read first?

It’s not exactly a catch-22, but it’s not far off it. If you’re learning to read Thai, chances are high that you’ve run into a similar problem too.

The solution is to start with short, simple and common words, and you can gradually build up from there. Before you read even a single word though, you need to get to grips with the Thai alphabet.

Well, what’s difficult about the Thai alphabet anyway?

First off is the size of it, with 44 consonants. Some look just similar enough to each other that at small font sizes you’re going to need a magnifying glass to distinguish them. A bunch of them are obscure enough that you’re going to forget them multiple times. A few have the dubious honor of being both confusingly similar and vanishingly rare.

The real world doesn’t make things any easier either, as “stylish” fonts used in advertising minimize differences between the letters down to practically a single pixel.

That’s just the consonants too. Vowels in Thai can be written before, after, above and below the consonants, and frequently in some combination of that too. So even if you were able to read non-spaced English with scanning back and forth, you won’t be able to avoid it in Thai.

The method in the madness

It turns out the seemingly crazy positioning of the vowels is actually your lifeline in learning to read. There are specific rules about where consonants must be positioned in relation to the vowels and tone marks, vastly reducing the potential ambiguity of where syllables start and end.

(At least, if we overlook the complication of inherent vowels for the moment).

So that mostly takes care of where the syllables are, and from there you can use simple trial-and-error to see which possible combinations of syllables result in real words. Over time, you gradually expand vocabulary, learn to recognize more and more words, and the whole process eventually becomes quicker and easier.

At least, that’s what I had to do.  Thai2english is intended to spare you some of this same pain!

We’ll automatically add spaces between the words for you.  This lets you focus instead on the more important things – remembering the letters of the alphabet, the vowel positioning, improving your reading speed and expanding your vocabulary.

It’s all much easier to do when you don’t also have to calculate where the words start and end. That comes almost naturally later once your vocabulary is large enough.

(As you get better at reading, you might grow to prefer it Thai-style with no spaces in there. We don’t have an option for turning off the automatic spaces yet, but it’s on our list.)