21 October 2012; AT5 = 577 hours; total time = 1510 hours
I resumed classes the other day after my longest break yet from school: three weeks of only 15 hours a week (instead of my usual 30 or more) followed by four weeks off. I did this because I wanted a change of pace, a break from the routine of school, and to give my brain a rest from Thai.
I didn’t really get away from using Thai, though I ended up using it less than usual. Part of this was intentional – I watched a number of Thai movies with my extra free time; part was necessary – carrying out basic transactions like buying things and making travel enquiries. And some of it was chit-chat – short, casual conversations.
I used Thai the most during the 10 day period I spent at a couple rural wats (temples) in the province of Ratchaburi (about a two hour drive west of Bangkok). Only one person spoke English, so communication was of necessity mostly in Thai. Some of the conversation was strictly utilitarian – work to be done, timing of various activities, travel plans, etc – but a lot of it was the result of the Thais asking me questions about myself, my background, America, how I learned Thai, etc, as well as my questions to them.
In general, my understanding of what was being said was much lower than in the classes at school – a lot of fuzziness, a lot of blank spots, a fairly low level of detail, though I’d say that most of the time I got the main idea. This was similar to a lot of the conversations I have outside the classroom in Bangkok, but these conversations tended to be longer, and my interlocutors were often willing to restate or explain something that I didn’t understand.
As for my speaking abilities, I’d guess that my pronunciation is on the whole pretty good, because they usually understood me. My big problem in speaking is my limited vocabulary: there are a lot of words that I just don’t know, so often I have to find an alternative or roundabout way of saying something, or fall back on using gestures. Sometimes I would just trail off when I got to the part that I didn’t know how to say, and my listener would have to guess. Sometimes there would be no way I could answer a question that I’d been asked. And the kind of nuanced and detailed observations that I can make in English are absolutely impossible for me to make in Thai.
In general, I’ve noticed that it’s much easier to understand what’s being said when it’s directed at me – that is, I have an easier time understanding someone when they’re talking to me than understanding conversations between other people, or movies or songs. I’ve wondered if this is the result of my interlocutor gauging my level of understanding and adjusting accordingly (though not necessarily in the obvious ways of slowing down or annunciating more precisely), or whether there could be some kind of perhaps subliminal non-verbal communication between the two of us that facilitates understanding. However I mentioned this to a friend of mine – an American who speaks Thai – and he said that he finds it easier to understand a conversation that he’s not involved in, and harder to understand someone who’s addressing him directly; he thought this was due to feeling less on-the-spot and more at ease when he just listens in and isn’t expected to respond.