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Pronunciation rules – how important is it to learn them at the start?

Pronunciation / sound change rules are often introduced at the first few introductory chapters of a foreign language textbook after the writing system. They are probably the last hurdle to cross before you are able to dive into the individual lessons proper (and learn how to say hello and introduce yourself), which I’m sure all of us are very eager to start on.

The (long) list of pronunciation / sound change rules are already probably daunting enough.

X group of consonants + Y group of vowels = Tone 1

X consonant + Y vowel = X pronounced as Z

After braving through these, you still have to deal with the exceptions.

X consonant + Y vowel = X pronounced as Z (except for words a, b, c where X is pronounced as ZZ)

You get the idea. It can be very scary and overwhelming to the new learner.

Are we supposed to memorise all these at this point (absolute beginner)?

I don’t know about you, but I used to hate skipping things when I’m learning stuff. I like to make sure that I fully understand a part before I can move on to the next and I like to do things chronologically. While this is a good habit in general, I have learnt that when it comes to studying foreign languages, sometimes it’s more effective to have a broad understanding, and JUST MOVE ON (just remember to come back to it).

Especially when it comes to sound changes and rules. It’s gonna be a super painful process if you feel very compelled to learn them all by heart and have them all in your head (and apply them correctly) before you feel that you can move on. Cos there’s a high change you will just get so fed up or overwhelmed that you will never be able to go past that chapter.

While I appreciate that all these sound rules are introduced all in one chapter so it’s easier to refer to it, it can really be a huge hurdle for the beginner learner. There’s just too much to remember.

And so, my advice is to go through them once and understand the concept. Don’t feel compelled to remember them all. It’s ok if you don’t remember anything afterwards, but get a broad idea of what kind of sound changes there are. And just move on.

Learn by listening, not reading

As you come across words by listening, you will realise that there are some words that are not pronounced the way it’s written. Every time you come across such words, you can then refer back to these sound rules again and sooner or later, you will naturally get it. Learn by listening, not reading.

This was how I learnt Korean. I actually don’t quite remember what are the sound rules (as in I cannot list them out for you offhand), but after spending some time with the language, you will naturally get the rules and apply them. Our brain is more amazing than we think it is. Rote memorisation is not the only way to learn. If I had insisted on memorising the rules, I would definitely find Korean a very hard language to learn!

Applying that to Thai

I’m applying the above method to learning Thai too. Right now, I’m working through the chapter on tones and the tone rules and omggggg 救我 (save me). hahaha I generally get the concept that there are a couple of factors affecting the tone: (a) types of consonants; (b) whether the ending is dead or alive; (c) whether there is a final consonant; and (d) whether there is tone mark. But nope I refuse to memorise which consonants belong in which group (low, mid, high).

Even working through the chapter (not memorising) is daunting enough. But! I must emphasise that there is no need to feel (overly) overwhelmed and more importantly, there is no need to feel compelled to KNOW EVERYTHING at this stage. Learn as you progress. Learn by listening more.

So I’m going to practice what I’m saying here. I’m going to learn words by listening and not by trying to work out all the different rules and exceptions.

Move on, and come back to it later.

The same goes for learning grammar too. I used to find the concept of ~던 rather difficult when I was learning Korean and I kinda developed a mental block towards it. So I happily skipped it and move on. The next time I come across it, strangely it was like the bulb lighted in my head and I could finally understand it (perhaps with better explanations from another source).

So yes, it’s ok to move on! It’s ok to not understand everything 🙂 Language learning is supposed to be fun. But of course, not saying that you should just half-understand everything and just keep moving on.

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