Learning to Read and Write Thai and Lao

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Thai and Lao are similar, related languages in the Tai-Kadai language family. Each has its own unique alphabet based on Sanskrit, and many words have a Sanskrit or Pali origin. Loanwords have also been taken from Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer (Cambodian), Malay, and other languages, including English.

For those interested in learning to read and write either language, it is vital to learn the alphabet with the aid of someone who already speaks the language. Unlike English, each letter represents a single sound, so if your pronunciation of that letter is correct, you can sound out most words without difficulty. While there are some exceptions to this, the exceptions are far fewer in number than pronunciation exceptions in English and can be considered virtually phonetic. Many of the exceptions follow a set of rules, such as when a combination of two letters is treated as the equivalent of another letter.

Vowels are likewise consistent in their pronunciation, unlike vowel sounds in English, which can be represented by many different combinations of vowels. So once an individual memorizes the sound each vowel makes, sounding out words is relatively easy.

One of the biggest challenges for English speakers in learning either Thai or Lao is the tonal nature of these languages. While learning a tonal language may seem daunting to a speaker of a non-tonal language, the rules can be memorized and this removes the guesswork from pronouncing words with the correct tone. It is, however, a vital part of fluent speech, since pronouncing a word with the incorrect tone in most cases results in speaking a completely different, unrelated word, which creates a great deal of confusion for the native speaker hearing the mispronounced word. Rather than realizing that there has been an error in pronunciation, a native speaker will hear the wrong word as it is pronounced and not realize that another word was intended.

Since the preliminary steps in learning to read and write...
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