21 September 2012; AT5 = 567 hours; total time = 1500 hours
Well, I’ve let over 4 months and over 400 hours of class time go by without writing anything further. So first I’d like to describe what’s happened for me in terms of my listening comprehension.
I went through quite a stretch where, although I could follow the main ideas pretty well, the level of detail was quite low; an analogy would be watching a video where the camera was so out of focus that everything would appear as big, flat, blurry silhouettes. I felt pretty discouraged at the time. I never thought about dropping out of the program or giving up on ALG, but I did have the feeling of like, I can’t believe I’ve put in well over a thousand hours in the classroom and all this time in AT5 and my level of understanding is still this low and doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere.
Now, however, my level of understanding has definitely improved quite a bit – things are more in focus, less blurry. I still definitely don’t understand everything, but it seems like the gaps in my understanding are quite a bit smaller than they were 4 months ago. However, I am still very far from the word-by-word understanding that I possess in English. It’s hard to tell when my understanding improved – I think it was a pretty gradual process. But I remember when the class schedule changed in the middle of last month, I felt like I was understanding things better, and wondered if it was in part that the new topics were for some reason easier to understand. And then shortly after that, I began having some classes with a teacher who I hadn’t had since AT3, but who had always been, on average, one of the couple most difficult teachers for me to understand; and now I feel like this teacher isn’t particularly hard to understand.
Something else has happened, that I remember had happened at the other levels as well: even though I certainly don’t understand everything, my lack of comprehension here and there bothers me a lot less than it used to (earlier on in AT5). It’s almost like my attention is still being held even during the parts that I don’t understand, and I’ve wondered if it has to do with my mind engaging with and processing language that I still can’t consciously understand. Or maybe it’s simply that now I understand enough of the class overall that I get bored less and my attention wanders off to a much lesser extent. It’s easier to sustain an interest in the classes now that I understand so much more.
I couldn’t really say that I can read Thai, it’s more like I’ve begun to figure out how the writing system works – a little bit, at any rate. Here’s what happened:
In AT3 and AT5 the teachers write words and phrases on the board but don’t explain how the writing system works – they do that in a separate class dedicated to reading and writing, which I have not yet taken. But still, by listening to them speak and then looking at what they write, I have been able to figure out what certain characters sound like. Early on in this process, I think I was paying particular attention to the first character (or first few characters) of the written word/phrase. To illustrate, let’s say you were learning English this way. You’re sitting in class and the teacher is speaking – let’s say they’re saying the word “particular” and writing that word on the board (only it would look to you like a jumble of unknown characters). So you just look at that first letter “p” and you think, well maybe this corresponds to the initial sound in that word “particular”. If you’re listening to what may be a jumbley string of blurred sound and looking at a bunch of unfamiliar symbols, it’s easiest to just focus on the beginning points: what’s the very first sound that you hear in that jumbley string of blurred sound? And what’s the first character in the string of written symbols? Maybe the two correlate. (Actually, they don’t always correlate in Thai, from what I can see. But often enough they do). And as time goes by and this happens over and over again with different words starting with the letter p, it might start to sink in what the letter p stands for, or what sounds it corresponds to (well, there may be popcorn and pears, but there are also phrases and pterodactyls….) Anyway, at some point I started looking beyond the intial letter and more at the whole written word/phrase, as opposed to just the first character or two.
(By the way, I write “word/phrase” because I’m really not sure what in Thai counts as a word and what as a phrase. In English it is clear to me that “understand” and “become” are single words, whereas “take out” and “put down” are phrases – and this understanding is reinforced by our convention of putting a space before and after each written word – something that written Thai does not always do).
At any rate, I would say that I’ve figured out many (most?) of the symbols that correspond to the consonant sounds, and maybe a few of the other symbols – some of the ones that symbolize vowel sounds. A few months ago, when the new class schedule at AUA came out, I was able to pick out enough of the Thai characters to figure out who was teaching which class (for some reason, the schedule has the teachers’ names in Thai only).
Then over the past couple months I’ve occasionally been able to pick out a word here or there on an advertisement – again, I can’t read every single character, but I know enough of what the advertisement is about so that I have a context, and between knowing the context and being able to sound out some of the characters, I can take a guess as to what the word is. (Though I may have been wrong: I never asked a Thai person to confirm my guess).
About a week ago I was having a meal in the marketplace near where I live. I was seated near a beverage stand and was able to read most of the items on the menu. Again, I don’t understand every single character, but I had a context: I knew that what would be listed would be various beverages, mostly coffee and tea. And so I was able to make out on the menu the words for hot Nescafe, cold Nescafe, lemon tea, etc.
Although I have had the option of taking the reading and writing class since the point when I started AT5, I have decided not to. Perhaps this is partly because I am hyperliterate in English, and so I am kind of enjoying the experience of being illiterate in Thai. But mostly this is because my number one priority has always been the ability to understand the spoken language – I really feel like that is the foundation of everything else. There is still so much spoken Thai that I don’t understand, and it is perhaps more than simply a matter of not knowing the words: I feel like my brain may still not have fully “decoded” the Thai sound system. There’s still so much of the spoken language that goes by in a blur, and I’m really not sure what I’ve just heard. When you learn to read, you learn which written characters correspond to which sounds, and you get a version of the language in which sounds, words, phrases, sentences, etc. are presented in a very unambiguous, clearly defined way. That is actually the total opposite of how I’ve (mostly) experienced Thai so far. Listening to Thai being spoken is usually like being somewhat to very lost. There are always a lot of uncertainties: on a sound level, what am I really hearing? Even when the sounds are fairly clear, meaning can be hazy, tentative. I think that a writing system imposes a kind of clarity and unambiguousness, but at a cost, simplifying and obscuring the way the language actually sounds with ideas about the way it’s “supposed to” sound. And it was to avoid doing this that I decided to go with ALG in the first place.
Also, I think it’s going to be much easier to learn to read after I understand the spoken language pretty well. Like the way I’ve been “reading” so far: I can read a word only if I can decode enough of the characters to get some idea of what it might sound like and if I then recognize it as possibly being a word I already know from the spoken language. And for this I depend heavily on context, as in the example that I gave above of reading the coffee-tea menu. However, listening to spoken Thai too, I depend heavily on context to figure out what is being talked about and to distinguish between similar sounding words.
A lot of westerners seem to complain about the difficulties of the Thai writing system and make out that it’s very hard to read and write, but I have to wonder if a big part of the problem is that they don’t adequately understand the spoken language, and so they’re trying to learn to read and write sounds and words that they don’t already know, that haven’t yet sunk in on the listening level. Anyway, I have no plans to formally take up reading and writing any time soon – ideally, I’d like to wait until understanding the spoken language is pretty nonproblematic.