The First 1000 Hours, Part 5 (March 2012)

March 2012

I’d like to end this first part by going into some of my experiences in class.

As I’ve implied, what you need to do to learn via ALG differs from what you need to do to learn via other methods. Other learning methods have you memorize and recall vocabulary words and grammatical rules; come to an analytical understanding of how the language works; and listen to and imitate the sound system of the language. You go about practicing these things in a very conscious and deliberate way, and you may well separate out different facets of the language for practice at different times, ie, you spend some time looking at flash cards to translate back and forth between the target language and your native language; at another time you listen to and repeat recorded words and phrases from a CD or a computer program; at another time you practice writing out translations of sentences to or from the target language; and at yet another time you practice a dialogue with a conversation partner. Sometimes you are only practicing one skill (for example, listening to words in the target language), sometimes you are trying to combine skills (for example, when you write out a translation of a sentence you need to recall both the translations of the individual words and the rules that govern things like conjugating verbs or how to string the words together into a sentence). You practice these different skills over and over in order to make them become internalized and automatic, so that at some point you can blend them together and use them without having to think about them.

Compared to all of that, ALG is actually pretty simple. However, it can take a while to “click into” the program, and some effort may be needed to “turn off” the mind’s tendency to analyze and try to figure things out.

I think that anyone who seriously wants to give language study via ALG a real try would need a willingness to try ALG on its own terms. This means being willing to go to class and follow the ALG methodology (ie, no dictionaries, no taking notes, no trying to analyze the language etc). I also think that, in terms of judging whether or not ALG is working, you need to use different criteria than what you might use for another type of program, given that when learning via ALG there won’t be such obvious signs of “progress” as passing test scores, lists of vocabulary words successfully memorized, or the ability (at least in the early stages of the program) to speak, read, or write. And, despite the fact that what you’re really building in the early stages of the program is pretty much exclusively the ability to understand spoken Thai, I’ve found gains in oral comprehension outside the classroom to be very, very gradual.

For example, at the end of AT1 I had put in 200 hours of class time and, at least from what I can remember, it didn’t lead to any appreciable increase in comprehension or ability to speak outside the classroom. I probably at the time couldn’t even have rattled off that many Thai words that I “knew”. And of the words that I did in some sense understand, I think most of them I could only understand within a larger context – in other words, I would recognize a word if it were being used within a story or conversation, but wouldn’t recognize it if I heard it in isolation. Nonetheless, I was satisfied and thought that the program was working because within the classroom I had gone from not really understanding what was going on to having a fairly good understanding of what was going on.

I found out that paying attention in class could sometimes be a struggle. You’d think that paying attention wouldn’t be that hard, but I sometimes found it difficult to do when I couldn’t understand what was going on – although I feel that this becomes more of an issue in AT3 and 5, where it’s possible to sit in a class with almost no non-verbal communication, listening to a lesson that employs a lot of unfamiliar/unknown words, where you have only the vaguest idea (if any at all) of what’s being talked about. I found that there were times when, not knowing what was going on, my mind wandered off: I had stopped paying attention to the class. Of course, not paying attention to the class pretty much guaranteed that I wouldn’t know what was going on. Fortunately, all I had to do was return my attention to the class every time I realized that I had wandered off. But if the class seemed uninteresting or incomprehensible (and the two were often the same), I needed to really be persistent in keeping my attention focused on the class, and not elsewhere. This was not always easy.

I found that sometimes I needed to make a conscious effort to focus more on the what (what’s being communicated, what’s going on) and less on the how (ie, less on the actual language being used). When I’m in class listening to Thai, it’s not the case that I’m totally unaware of the language being used – I am aware of words and expressions that are being used that I’ve heard before, that I in some sense recognize or know, but my awareness is more on the meaning that the words convey than on the words themselves. This is kind of hard to explain, but it’s not really that different than my experience with English (my native language): when someone is speaking to me in english, I’m aware of the words that they’re using, but I’m usually more focused on the meaning that the words convey. The difference is that in Thai, my understanding of the language is fuzzy, with huge gaps, and so the meaning is also often fuzzy, with huge gaps.

Anyway, I sometimes needed to direct my mind away from trying to analyze and toward just listening to (and watching) what was going on. Because sometimes there would be that voice in the back of my mind that would be trying out different translations into English of a particular Thai word; or that would be thinking, I’ve heard that word before, what could it mean? Even thinking, in English, about the content of what the teacher is talking about (“is she still talking about her friend’s experience on vacation in the mountains or has she moved on to a different topic?”) is, I think, not useful, because it turns your attention away from what is being said, and because it switches you out of “Thai mode” and into “English mode” (or whatever your native language is).

Again, this became more of a problem when I got to AT3, where the non-verbal component of communication is severely reduced, sometimes almost negligible, and almost everything going on in class is being expressed through language. There were times when I had little to no idea of what was going on, when my experience of the class was overwhelmingly of the language: a few words here and there that I would understand, a lot of words that I didn’t understand (or had only a vague feeling about, in terms of their meaning), and a lot of words that went by in a blur of sound that I couldn’t make out clearly. It may seem humorously self-evident to say so, but paying attention to the meaning of what is being said is very difficult when you can’t figure out the meaning of what is being said. These classes could be frustrating, but I’m sure that they would have been even more frustrating had I believed that I was supposed to understand what was going on. Over the long run, however, the issue resolved itself as described above: after about 450 hours of class time in AT3, I had become fairly proficient at understanding that level of spoken Thai.

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