I typically go to class for six hours a day, five or six days a week. About every two months or so I take a break from AUA for a couple weeks.
I started classes at AUA upon my arrival in Thailand in June 2011, beginning with AT 1. It’s now March 2012 and I have logged about 950 hours in all at AUA, and have recently moved up to AT 5 (at which level I’ve done 28 hours so far).
My memory of my first days of AT 1 is of often not understanding, or only dimly understanding, what was going on in class. But by the time I reached around 130 to 150 hours, something shifted and I was able to follow the main idea of what was going on pretty consistently, with only occasional gaps. At the 200 hour mark I asked to be evaluated; my “average understanding” of the class was rated at about 81%, and so I moved onto AT 2.
AT 2 seemed a bit more complex, with far fewer pictures drawn on the board, and at first I was really lost and had a hard time understanding what was going on. But things got better and then, again around the 130 hour mark, things kind of popped into focus and I was able to consistently follow what was going on in class most of the time. When I hit the 200 hour mark I felt as though my understanding of what was going on in class wasn’t quite as good as it had been at the 200 hour mark of AT 1, but I asked for an evaluation anyway. My average understanding was actually rated at slightly higher than it had been at the end of AT 1, but I was advised to stay at the AT 2 level a little longer. I stayed for an extra 49 hours, but felt as though my understanding hadn’t increased at all. I asked to be evaluated again, and my “average understanding” was now rated at a little over 82% (only about 0.5% higher than it had been at the 200 hour mark). I moved on to AT 3.
The first few classes of AT 3 that I took didn’t seem any different than the harder AT 2 classes, other than the fact that the teachers now wrote in Thai on the board. However, this must have been a fluke, because I soon felt really lost: in each class, long periods of time would go by where I had either absolutely no idea of what was going on or only the vaguest, most general idea of the topic being discussed. At some point well after 100 hours into AT 3, my ability to understand started to go up, but this proved to be only temporary as I seemed to slide back into incomprehension. In fact, it happened a number of times that I thought I had made somewhat of a breakthrough to improved comprehension, analogous to what had happened at the 130 hour marks of AT 1 and 2 (I say somewhat because it still didn’t feel as though I was following what was going on in class as well as I had after the corresponding earlier “breakthrough” points in AT 1 and 2). My comprehension, however, always seemed to decline again.
But when I resumed classes after a 3 week break (at about 265 hours into AT 3), my ability to follow what was going on in class was markedly improved and did not decline. At the 400 hour mark I still didn’t feel like my understanding was quite good enough to move on, though I was definitely following what went on in class quite well. Probably around the 450 hour mark I could have moved on – I was feeling like my understanding of AT 3 at that point was even better than my understanding of AT 2 at the point I had left AT 2 – but I was enjoying being able to understand class so well and so easily that I decided to stay a little longer. But finally I started feeling a bit bored and was wondering if I wouldn’t get more out of my time and money in AT 5; and so after 474 hours in AT 3, and with an “average understanding” rated at just over 82%, I moved on to AT 5.
The transition from AT 3 to AT 5 has actually been much gentler and less dramatic than the earlier moves to AT 2 and 3. My comprehension of what’s going on in class has definitely gone down: I feel like my understanding of what’s being talked about is just about always vaguer than it was in my last weeks of AT 3; and now there are again periods of time when I have either no idea or only the dimmest of ideas as to what’s going on in class. I do feel as though, comprehension-wise, I’ve moved back to an earlier stage of AT 3 – but it’s definitely not like those early overwhelmingly uncomprehending weeks of AT 3. I am also, at this point, only 28 hours into AT 5.
Throughout all of this I’ve stuck to the ALG methodology: I don’t use dictionaries or textbooks, don’t take notes, don’t consciously try to figure out what I’m hearing or how the language works, don’t use a tutor or do any kind of studying outside of class. I do speak in Thai outside of class, and have from day one, but that’s fairly unavoidable for anyone who doesn’t have a full-time bilingual companion to negotiate life outside the classroom for them. What I have done is to pretty much keep my Thai speaking at a minimal and functional level, using it mostly when I need to buy something, and keeping to short phrases or single words such as yes, no, I want that, What is that?, Is (there something with) fish? However, in the last couple months I’ve progressed to things like I want a sour and spicy somtam [shredded papaya salad] – 4 or 5 peppers – without sugar. And, probably after about my first 3 or so months in Thailand, I have occasionally gotten into conversations in Thai with people who I’ve met, but these conversations were, of necessity, short and somewhat simple: I just didn’t have the ability to understand or say very much.
One situation where I really felt like I was being stretched beyond my abilities was a two and a half week period that I spent in a rural part of the country (in Isaan) in late December 2011 – ie, just before my comprehension abilities in AT 3 seemed to really improve. Few of the people I was around spoke any English at all, and to make matters worse, most of the people spoke in a local dialect which seemed quite different to me than the central or Bangkok Thai that AUA teaches. I needed to listen to and converse with the people in the community that I was staying in on a daily basis, but comprehension remained vague at best and I frequently didn’t understand – or misunderstood – what was going on. Then there were the less “utilitarian” conversations that occurred when people spoke to me and asked me questions out of friendliness and curiosity; even when I understood what I was being asked, I had a hard time answering: either I just didn’t have the words, or I didn’t know how to put them together to form a real Thai statement. I was being “forced” to say things that I didn’t know how to say. Sometimes I just winged it and made something up in order to communicate, but I suspected that what I was saying probably sounded like barbarically butchered Thai at best, and at worst was simply incomprehensible.
As for AUA’s sticking to their own (ALG) methodology: better than 99.99% of the time, by my guesstimate. However, teachers do sometimes say things in English, including giving translations of Thai words or phrases. They also sometimes, especially in AT 1 and 2, write Romanized transliterations of Thai words (complete with diacritical marks for the tones) on the board. This happens pretty rarely, though: I’d guess that on average it’s only one out of every several thousand words spoken in class that gets an English translation or a Romanized transliteration. (I have found the teachers’ occasional translations of Thai into English to best be ignored not simply because it “violates” ALG’s methodology, but also because their use of English sometimes seems “off”. For example there was one class where the topic was employment and the teacher was speaking in Thai about benefits – in the sense of health insurance, retirement pay, etc – but then translated the Thai term with the English word “welfare”).
Concerning the use of English at AUA: ALG is supposed to work via “crosstalk”, in which everybody can use their native language, or any other language that they are comfortable in, to speak in class (that is, until they get to the point where they can naturally and automatically speak in Thai). So the teachers speak in Thai, while the students speak in English, German, Japanese, Chinese, or whatever. However, what really happens is that the students all pretty much speak in English. This is undoubtedly owing to English’s role as a lingua franca in Thailand. All of the teachers at AUA seem to understand at least some English, and some of them seem to understand quite a bit. On the other hand, in terms of other languages, a few of the teachers seem to understand just a little bit of Chinese or Japanese, but that’s it. So in practice what happens is that if a student wants to respond (in a language other than Thai), they pretty much need to do it in English. Maybe this isn’t really a problem, both because most people know at least a little English, and also because speaking in class doesn’t seem to be all that necessary for going through the program and learning Thai. However, it is convenient to be able to occasionally make a comment or ask a question in class, and a lot of people seem to feel the need to at least occasionally say something – certainly, I’ve enjoyed being interactive in class at times. This leaves me wondering if English speakers have an advantage over non-English speakers, and whether English speakers overall feel less pressure to be able to begin communicating in Thai than do their non-English speaking counterparts. If so, the situation at AUA would just be a mirror of the situation in Bangkok as a whole, where it seems that, overall, there is a much better and more widespread use of English in Bangkok than any other foreign language.