Understanding Spoken Thai — What Kind of Understanding? (29 Sept 2012)

29 September 2012; AT5 = 567 hours; total time = 1500 hours

Back half a year ago when I first started documenting my experiences learning Thai via ALG (automatic language growth), I wrote a fairly long section about my first thousand or so hours in the program (starting here), which gave an overview of how ALG works and how the program is structured. I ended by writing about some of my experiences at school, including things like how I focused my attention in class, how I dealt with not understanding what was going on in class, and how I evaluated whether or not I was actually learning Thai from the program.

So I would like to go back to that point and take up what I think is logically the next topic, which is the question of when I say that I “understand” spoken Thai, what does that really mean? And particularly, what does it mean for someone such as myself who is still learning the language and is far from fluency or native proficiency? How might this understanding differ from the ways that I understand things spoken in English, my native language?

My reason for wanting to explore this issue of “understanding” is that I think it can sometimes become a problem for someone learning a foreign language. Particularly problematic is the idea or expectation that you’ll understand the language you’re learning in the same way and with the same degree of clarity that you understand your native language. I think that that level of understanding is possible, but maybe only in the long run. In the meantime, I think that such an expectation is unrealistic and is actually an obstacle to learning the language. And I suspect that this is the big problem for a lot of the people who either don’t do well with ALG, or are unwilling to give ALG a chance in the first place.

What I would say is that the understanding of spoken Thai that I’ve been getting from the AUA program is an understanding that is sketchy, tentative, uncertain, incomplete; it is an understanding that is in process, and thus always subject to further growth and revision. I kind of alluded to this when, during the September 21st entry, I described my ability to follow what was going on in class during my early days in AT5 as being like “watching a video where the camera was so out of focus that everything would appear as big, flat, blurry silhouettes” and my perception of the sounds of Thai as being like “a jumbley string of blurred sound.”

For me, English speech is very clear, like a high resolution picture in sharp focus. This is a clarity of both sounds and words. I don’t have any uncertainty about what I’ve heard, and I understand both the general, overall meaning of a statement as well as the details, subtleties, and nuances. I have a word-by-word understanding, and if I could write fast enough I could note down every single word that was spoken. Even if there is something inherently ambiguous or unclear about what’s been said, I understand that too, and understand exactly what the ambiguity or lack of clarity is (for example, a word or phrase that could have more than one meaning, or that has been mispronounced; vagueness in what a pronoun or demonstrative refers to, etc).

By contrast, when I hear something in Thai, my understanding ranges from, I have no clue what was just said to, at the other extreme, I think I understand the main idea of what is being said, plus a fair degree of detail, and I have a good basic understanding of a lot of (or even on occasion, most of) the words used. In class, at this point, I can follow the main idea to a fairly decent level of detail, most of the time. But not only do I not understand every word I hear, there are also sounds that do not really resolve into words yet (the “jumbley string of blurred sound”) – sounds that go by and I’m not sure what I’ve just heard. Outside of class understanding often becomes more difficult – something I’ll try to go into another time. Usually the words that I’m familiar with and have already “figured out” stand out most sharply from the welter of sound.

There are different levels of understanding and familiarity – so it’s kind of an oversimplification to say that I either “understand” or “don’t understand” a given word. There are words that go by that don’t really stand out or register; they might not even seem to be words – just a stream of unclear sound. There are words that I recognize as having heard before, but have no idea what they mean. There are other words that I might have come to associate with a certain general subject or topic, but I can’t quite make out the specific meaning. Some words I have arrived at meanings for – the word seems to correlate with a specific object or concept or action, or whatever – but I could subsequently decide that I was wrong. Or my understanding of the word might end up being refined as I discover new meanings for it. For example, imagine someone learning English who concludes that the hard inedible thing in the middle of a peach is a “pit”. But they still have to figure out if that same word applies to the hard inedible thing in the middle of other fruits, such as cherries, apples, and mangoes. And then they run into the word “pit” being used in other ways: “he dug a pit,” “this place is the pits,” “she was pitted against a more experienced opponent,” etc. (And then there is the whole issue of sound: what about spit, bit, pituitary – are these the same word?)

The thing is, because ALG is a non-analytical approach, I don’t usually think about my level of understanding of Thai words. Occasionally I will be conscious of a word for some reason, say either because I’ve heard it often but still have no idea what it means, or maybe because now I finally understand it. But most of the time I just don’t think about specific words or how well I understand them, with the result that I am not usually conscious of the process by which individual words become clearer and more “understood.” This is because I am used to focusing my attention more on the overall meaning of what is being said, and less on the actual words being used. And although my ultimate goal is native-level proficiency in Thai, my immediate goal in any situation is simply to understand what is going on. If I can understand what is being communicated, then it doesn’t really matter to me whether this is because I understand the words being used or whether it’s because the person who I’m dealing with used body language or drew me a picture to get their point across. It doesn’t matter because the whole point of ALG as a method is that you don’t have to worry about the language – you just focus on the situation or the content of what’s being communicated, and you’ll pick up the language without having to consciously try.

Also it often happens that I understand a word at one point but then fail to understand it at other points. Perhaps the word hasn’t really “sunk in” yet, or maybe the meaning of the word, which seemed clear in one context, is unclear in another. And just because I may have some understanding of a word when hearing it doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to use it in speech – often I won’t be able to remember it.

There is another upshot to the fact that ALG is a non-analytical approach to language learning, which is that I never really understand why I don’t understand something, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. Take the above example, which happens from time to time: somebody is speaking, and I hear a word being used – it stands out from the other words and I recognize it as a word I’ve heard before. And I have the feeling that in the past I’ve understood what this word means, but now I haven’t a clue. If I wanted to be analytical, I could ask all sorts of questions, like is this word that I don’t understand really one that I used to understand? Have I simply forgotten its meaning? Do I not understand this word because it’s being used in a different context? Maybe it’s the same word but it’s being used in a different way? (cf “cherry pit” vs. “to pit against”) Maybe it’s a different word but sounds the same? (cf English “steak” vs. “stake”) Maybe it’s actually a totally different sounding word, and I’m simply not tuning into the difference in sound? (cf English “tea,” “three,” and “tree” – clear for a native English speaker, but the three words sound the same to Thai ears, or so I’ve been told).

To think about these questions in the general sense as I am doing here is, to me, kind of interesting: how does the process of language learning really proceed, how do we go from not understanding to understanding? But to try to think about these questions while in the situation of listening to someone speaking Thai would be worse than useless: as a distraction from listening to the speaker it would diminish my chances of understanding what they are trying to communicate – and accordingly would diminish my chances of learning more Thai. Besides which, my feeling is that in order to understand why I misunderstand things, I would need a higher level of understanding than I currently possess – and that if I had such a higher level of understanding, I wouldn’t misunderstand in the first place! What I mean is this: consider the example above of a Thai person with a fairly low level of ability in English who hears the sentence “they’re drinking tea near the three trees,” and to whom tea, three, and trees all sound the same. Let’s say this person has some understanding of what tea is, but not three or trees. They hear something about “tea” and “tea tea,” and it sounds like gibberish. They might ask themselves a whole bunch of questions about what’s really being said and how come they’re failing to understand it – but without a higher level of comprehension of English, they’re never going to understand what the problem is. And if they had that higher level of comprehension, they probably wouldn’t misunderstand the sentence in the first place.

The assumptions that I’ve been following, both in and out of the classroom, are that in order to learn Thai all I have to do is pay attention to the content of what is being communicated, and not the medium (ie, not the language itself); that analyzing Thai itself, trying to figure out how the language works, is not the best way to go in terms of language learning; and that therefore trying to figure out exactly why I don’t understand something is useless and counterproductive, as is worrying about lack of understanding.

Following these assumptions has worked, for me, as a language learning strategy. In less than a year and a half, I have gone from spoken Thai being completely meaningless to my current situation in which I “understand” a good deal of spoken Thai. I further assume that over time all those sounds and words that at present aren’t clear will continue to come into sharper focus. To what extent my abilities in Thai could approach my abilities in my native English, should I stay within a Thai language environment long term, is an open question.

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