Thai reference grammar review

Serious Thai language learners quickly exhaust the useful online learning resources available in YouTube for example. On the one hand, much material there is elementary, repetitive and little more than advertising for one language school or another. At the other end of the scale, there is plenty of authentic Thai language video material available, but it is of limited use to language learners without curating and support such as transcriptions and subtitles.

So it can be difficult to find language learning materials for intermediate Thai language learners. There are at least two issues, mastering the Thai reading/writing system and mastering the nuances of Thai grammar in complex extended clauses. A useful resource at this stage is the reference grammar, which covers grammatical structure in systematic detail and provides examples of usage, but is not a language coursebook. In other words, reference grammars are not normally designed to be read sequentially from cover to cover (though you can of course do this), but to be delved into as required a bit like a dictionary.

This post reviews three currently available Thai reference grammars in order to identify each text’s strengths and weaknesses, and the requirements of a great reference grammar overall. These texts are:

  • Higbie & Thinsan (2002): Thai Reference Grammar: The structure of spoken Thai. ISBN: 978-9748304960 (paperback)
  • Iwasaki & Ingkaphirom (2005): A Reference Grammar of Thai. ISBN: 978-0521108676 (paperback)
  • Smyth (2013): Thai: An Essential Grammar (2nd edition). ISBN: 978-0415226134 (paperback)

The texts are referred to below using the authors’ names rather than their titles.

Higbie & Thinsan

 

According to the authors, Higbie & Thinsan is intended to “give students of the Thai language information on the advanced sentence structure of the language, especially the spoken form used throughout Thailand“. The text does a pretty good job of this. While western grammatical concepts help organise the material, the authors do not subscribe to any specific grammatical theory or framework. Rather, the goal is a practical compendium of spoken language usage.

Higbie & Thinsan is most useful when you have a specific English or Thai language construct in mind that you wish to find a corresponding construct for in the other language. For example, a specific expression like different from, it seems that, in order to, to the extent that etc. Coverage of expressions such as these is comprehensive and arranged in broad categories such as Using Verbs, Expanded Sentences, Conjunctions, Quantifiers, Order of Events, Frequency etc.

Higbie & Thinsan also includes a comprehensive list of classifiers and good indexing in English, Thai and transliterated Thai. Finding what you are looking for is usually quite easy and efficient.

One downside to Higbie & Thinsan is the use of an idiosyncratic transliteration system and small Thai font. For example, the male polite particle ครับ which is usually transliterated as krap becomes krup. Consistent use of mediterranean language-style vowel correspondences (as in Spanish or Italian) would reduce confusion in this regard. This is probably a minor point and reinforces the need for students of Thai to wean themselves off transliteration as soon as possible as no transliteration system is entirely adequate.

Higbie & Thinsan also employ a unique system to transliterate syllable tone and length. While novel, the system works well enough and is not difficult to learn. Another downside is the Thai font used, which is too small to read easily, especially the diacritics.

According to some online reviews, Higbie & Thinsan contains occasional errors and omissions and some Thai expressions presented may have an unnatural English-influenced ring to them. I’m not in a position to comment, but can say that overall the text is a solid compendium of very useful information and examples.

Iwasaki & Ingkaphirom

 

This is a more academic text which explicitly sets out to “provide functional accounts of the grammatical phenomena of Standard Thai“. The intended audience is two-fold: intermediate to advanced students and teachers, and linguists who want to understand the structure of Thai from a functional linguistic point of view. The authors subscribe to a specific theory of language and grammar, and from the bibliography appear to be most influenced by the so-called West Coast school of functional linguistics.

Strengths of Iwasaki & Ingkaphirom include a better treatment of grammatical phenomena, and a more detailed method of presenting examples which includes a line parsing the transliterated expression into its semantic and functional components (or “parts of speech”). These are strengths for anyone with a linguistics background at least, but may not be considered so helpful by anyone just wanting to learn the language.

Functional linguistic perspectives definitely have a lot to offer language teaching in my opinion, enabling teacher and student to engage with grammatically complex structures from what is usually a simpler, more natural focus on how those structures are being used to get communicative “work” done in everyday social contexts.

Online reviews have pointed out that some errors in transliteration, translation and spelling exist. Such errors are probably inevitable in any printed text, and aren’t common enough in this text to detract from its usefulness in any way.

Linguist Mark Post of James Cook University wrote a review of this text from a serious academic linguistics perspective which concludes that it “is an excellent functional grammar of the Thai language, marred by only a few flaws of presentation and occasionally uncertain analyses. It should prove to be as helpful to its two target audiences as the authors intend, and should certainly be used as a model for the development of functional grammars for other Mainland South-East Asian Languages.

Smyth

 

This is the most compact of the three texts, so the most convenient for the traveller or commuter. The text is organised around a small number of basic grammatical categories (eg Nouns, Pronouns, Verbs, Adjectives, Adverbs, Sentences, etc), providing coverage of essential features rather than exhaustive detail.

Grammatical explanations are short and to the point, and a glossary of grammatical terms is provided. This text provides the best treatment of the Thai alphabet and writing system, and the font used is large enough to be read clearly and comfortably.

The main negative is that the transliteration really only works for speakers of British English: for anyone with what could be termed a “mediterranean” approach to vowel pronunciation, this text’s system is hard work. For example the word แล้ว, normally transliterated as something like laew, is rendered here as lair-o. The word วัน, normally rendered simply as wan (with mediterranean a) is rendered here as wun. Again, students should start reading the Thai script as soon as possible!

Recommendations

It is difficult to recommend one text over another, as learner needs vary and all texts have something to offer. The ideal text would perhaps combine Smyth‘s clarity, succinct readability and clear Thai font with Higbie & Thinson‘s detailed coverage and Iwasaki & Ingkaphirom‘s theoretical linguistic framework.

The ideal transliteration system? There is none. All three books use a different transliteration system, which is confusing and underlines the fact that the sooner a student can get past transliteration and engage with the Thai script the better.

If you are keen enough and can afford it, purchasing all three texts is a reasonable proposition: they are different enough in content and approach to ensure little or no duplication in the material presented. If only one text is possible, Smyth will probably serve the needs of more intermediate learners than the others. It’s also a lot smaller if you’re travelling.