Why I Don’t Want to Learn How to Read Any Time Soon (16 June 2013)

16 June 2013; AT5 = 1036 hours; total time = 1974 hours; TV = 202.7 hours

I think I’ve pretty much decided not to formally study reading and writing any time soon, and some recent experiences have made me feel that this is the right decision.

When I was in Ratchaburi, both my friend O. and the abbot of the temple I was staying at gave me short, impromptu “lessons” in reading. These weren’t lessons in the sense of explaining the rules of spelling or pointing out which symbols correspond to which sounds; this was just me reading a short text aloud while they would correct my pronunciation and try to explain to me what I was reading. In the case of O. the short texts were quotes from the King of Thailand that were posted on some billboards; in the case of the abbot, the text was a poem (well, I think it was a poem, based on the text’s appearance on the page). The billboard quotes I was largely able to understand, especially with O.’s explanations, but understanding the poem was completely beyond my abilities.

The problems were manifold. For one thing, I haven’t figured out what all of the symbols in the writing system sound like. I think I’ve roughly figured out most of the symbols that correspond to consonants, but very few of the other symbols, the ones that correspond to vowel sounds – and maybe other things?. Another problem is that written Thai doesn’t necessarily have spaces between the words, so there’s not always a clear indication of where one word is ending and another’s beginning – which of course makes it harder to figure out which words you’re dealing with. Then there’s the problem of lack of context.

I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the menus posted at the food stalls in the local marketplace. Most of the words that are used are ones that I already know from the spoken language, so I know both how they’re used and how they actually sound. Phrases on the menu are fairly short (“iced lemon tea”, “sautéed mixed vegetables” etc) so lack of spacing isn’t a problem. I match the sounds that I can figure out (from the letters/symbols that I know) with words that make sense given the obvious context (food or drink) – so for example, on a menu guy is likely “chicken”, and not “tour guide” or “body”, while pok makes sense as “vegetable”, not “to stay”. So reading is actually a kind of process of guessing-recognizing words that I already know. I actually think that this is a good way of reading, because it limits me to words that I really know from the spoken language, and prevents me from reading words whose meanings and pronunciations I don’t know.

The problem, as I see it, with sitting down and learning how all the symbols in the writing system are pronounced, is that I still haven’t fully gotten the hang of the Thai sound system. (See the 5 June 2013 entry for examples of sounds that I’m still not clear on). My concern is that if I learned symbols for sounds that I can’t really hear, every time I read those symbols I’d be mispronouncing them – substituting a different sound – and that over time the mispronunciation would become lodged in my mind to the point where it would preclude my hearing the real sound. (Of course, actually hearing the real sound is a precursor to pronouncing it correctly). In fact, the desire to avoid this problem was one of the main reasons I chose AUA’s ALG program.

You can hear this if you listen to people with foreign accents speaking English. Of course, some accents are “heavier” than others – with some people the accent merely marks them out as a non-native English speaker; with others it can make understanding difficult. For example, it seems that some non-English speakers have problems pronouncing English’s short i sound (as in words like pin, brick, wit) – they tend to change it to the vowel sound heard in “wheat”, “seen”, “creek”. I suppose some people might have difficulty in pronouncing “bit” and “beet” as distinct words, or “grit” and “greet”. My feeling is that this would be even more of a problem in Thai because – and this is just my subjective impression which could change as I get to know the language better – I think Thai probably exceeds English in terms of the quantities of words that can sound fairly alike to a non-native speaker who hasn’t fully “tuned into” the complete range of sounds that the language uses. Besides, I’d rather have as minimal a foreign accent as possible.

(An analogous example of the Thais’ problems with English: A number of the people I met in Ratchaburi were interested in English and frequently asked me how to say things. One day someone remarked on the hot weather and asked what to say in English. But when I told him, he was unable to pronounce “hot”, instead saying “haas” [rhyming with the first syllable in “pasta”]. We went back and forth a number of times, with me saying “hot” and him saying “haas”. My point isn’t so much that he couldn’t pronounce the word as that I don’t think he was able to hear himself mispronouncing it; I suspect that in some way he never really heard the actual sounds of the English word “hot”. The Thais would sometimes complain that their pronunciation difficulties with English stemmed from a “stiff tongue”, but I think that that was maybe only part of the problem. I suspect that the main problem was that they hadn’t yet really absorbed the set of sounds that English uses to the point where they could really recognize them, let alone use them in speech).

So back to the problems I had with reading the short texts in Ratchaburi. The texts contained a fair number of words that I didn’t know in terms of both meaning and pronunciation; I was trying to guess at pronunciations for words I didn’t know without even being certain of where in the run-on chunk of text a word began or ended; and lacking an obvious context – what’s this text about? – made it harder to recognize/guess  at words. (Of course if you know enough of the language, what you’re reading can itself provide the context). Actually, from what I remember, I did much better with reading the billboard quotes than the poem because I was able to recognize a fair number of the words used; but I read so slowly, and my attention was so focused on “decoding” the words, one after another, that I had difficulty holding in mind what I had already read, and thus difficulty figuring out the overall meaning of the text I was reading.

But I’ve had a couple new types of successful reading experiences since my return from Ratchaburi three weeks ago.

In a mall I stopped to look at a movie playing on the TV at the DVD store. It was obviously an American or European movie, although the corresponding DVD box was all in Thai (which was strange, because they usually have the English title in addition to the Thai; could I have missed something?) I can’t remember if I realized what the movie was before I read the Thai, but based on the visual appearance of the movie (and the DVD box) I was able to read Sao Mawk Dang (rhyming with English “wow, hawk, rang”) – and realized, this is how you say “little red riding hood” in Thai, except that it’s not the literal equivalent of the English, it’s literally more like “maiden hood red” or, to put it back into English, “red-hood(ed) maiden”. Actually, I’m not really sure how you’d translate sao, I think of a sao as being a teenage girl or maybe young woman, sort of high school to college age, roughly. “Maiden” is the best I can come up with, though that’s not a word you ever hear anyone using in actual english conversations. And in the past I’d heard mawk referring to hats (motorcycle helmets, too, I think), I didn’t know it could refer to a hood – unless they don’t have hoods in Thai, and the literal meaning is something like “maiden with red hat”?

Reading a three word phrase might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but what was interesting was being able to read it even though it wasn’t what you’d expect if your expectations were based on the English title; and even though mawk was being used in a slightly different way than I’d previously encountered.

Then just a few days ago I had a text message exchange with O., who sent me three text messages in run-on (no spaces) Thai (I texted her back in Thai transliterated into Roman letters, which she had a lot of trouble figuring out).

The first message was three lines long, consisting of 16 words (though I could be wrong, there’s a lot of stuff in Thai that I’m not sure if it’s a polysyllabic word or a phrase consisting of several monosyllabic words). I understood a lot of it on the first reading, but on subsequent readings I realized I understand basically all of it (there’s only one word I’m uncertain about, but either way it wouldn’t change the overall meaning of the message). All of the words are words I know from spoken Thai, though I think a lot of them I may have never seen in writing before.

The second message was a little longer – about four lines of text, of which I totally understand the first three quarters. The last roughly 25% is problematic, as some of it I can resolve into potential words and some of it I can’t; if my guesses at the “potential words” are correct, then I understand the gist of what O. is saying in this last section, though some of the details drop out. But the problem is that there are enough “holes” in the text (in terms of things I totally can’t figure out) to make me uncertain as to the correctness of my guesses.

The third message was just three words long – a half line of text – which I fully understand: CowChaiLew, O. was telling me she understood my second text message, which was in part a clarification of something I’d written in my first text message, but that she hadn’t understood and had re-asked in her second text.

So this was really a new experience in a number of ways. First, these were the longest texts that I’ve read and understood. Second, it was strictly a reading experience – no one read the messages aloud for me, nor were there any pictures or non-visual cues as to what the messages were about. Third was that there was fairly minimal context – I suppose knowing who O. was was of some help; in terms of specifics, there were a couple things I’d learned during my time in Ratchaburi that related to, and provided somewhat of a context for understanding, what she texted me.

I don’t have any real time frame in terms of when I would want to formally study reading. I’m curious how proficient I could become at reading simply by continuing to figure things out on my own. I like the idea of doing that because it means that I will stay focused on the real-life spoken sounds of Thai, with reading abilities being gained only in areas where I’ve already gotten proficient in the spoken language. I suppose there could come a point where I feel like I’ve pretty much resolved my issues with spoken Thai, and decide to get explicit help with the written language.

(In the following section I continue to reflect on my observations regarding my abilities in Thai vs. my abilities in my native English. After I wrote it I realized that it contains some elements of speculation in terms of what it means to have really learned the sounds which a particular language uses. What is speculative is my assumption that someone who is completely fluent in a language will be able to differentiate between words based merely on how they sound, apart from both a context in which those words are used as well as the meaning(s) that those words possess. I suppose that it’s possible that this is not the case, and that even native speakers of a language continue to rely on context and meaning in order to differentiate between at least certain words [I am not talking here about homonyms such as English bin and been which, obviously, could not be distinguished without context; I am talking about words that may sound similar but are not identical, such as file and fire, or desk and desks]; perhaps this could be tested experimentally. Although I think my assumption is warranted, I just wanted to give the reader fair warning by explicitly pointing it out and brining up the possibility that it might not always hold to be true).

Again, I feel like the most important of “my issues with spoken Thai” comes down to the sound system that Thai uses – that is, the set of sounds that Thai uses to make words, to communicate meanings. This set of sounds is obviously different than the set of sounds used by my native English, and I don’t think there are real equivalents – I think that even certain Thai sounds that are “kind of like” certain English sounds, aren’t really the same, and certain other sounds are very different. There are also the habitual ways of putting the sounds together – like when Thais pronounce English words, they tend to make certain changes, presumably in line with what they are used to hearing and saying. Sometimes this is a shift in which syllable gets stressed – for example, when Thais say “computer” (which in English has a bit of stress on the second syllable, ie computer) they change the stress to the last syllable: computer (there also seems to be some kind of change in intonation as well, which I can imitate but not describe). Or they have problems putting certain sounds at the end of a syllable, so that they habitually change L to N: football becomes foot-bawn (change in syllabic stress, too).

I think I’m most aware of my deficiencies in perceiving and differentiating Thai sounds where it comes to words that sound very similar, but I can’t tell what the actual difference between them is (or it’s possible that in some cases the pronunciation really is the same, like English break and brake – but I’m not certain). In spoken language, sound carries meaning, and the ability to differentiate between different sounds is a key to understanding. After writing the 5 June 2013 entry, where I had discussed this issue and gave examples of both cases where I was able to make such distinctions (the differences between glai near and glai far had become clear) and cases where I was unable to do so (ie what if any are the differences between kai sell and kai egg), what I started to think about is how my familiarity with and ability to perceive Thai sounds doesn’t seem to be across-the-board or systemic for the language as a whole – it’s more like I’m just dealing with individual words.

Take the English words bat, crack, slap, has. It’s not only that I know the sounds of these words well enough that I recognize them when I hear them and correctly pronounce them myself, but I also recognize that it’s the same vowel sound appearing in all four words (at least, this is the case in the dialects and accents of English that I’m familiar with). I also don’t confuse this particular sound (the a in bat) with other English sounds, (for example, the u in but or the e in bet). And this is true for all the sounds English uses. My familiarity with English sounds is so complete that I can easily compare any two words and know in what ways they employ the same sounds and in what ways they employ different sounds. Of course, the way that I sort through sounds in English is intuitive and automatic – there’s no deliberate or conscious effort. I automatically know that far and bar rhyme perfectly, but bar and bur do not, and I automatically differentiate cap from caps, clap, crap, cab, cop, cap, map etc. In other words, I grasp the sounds of English in a systematic way, and I think that it’s this ability that allows me to distinguish between and understand words even when they appear out of (or without a) context – for example, someone reading a list of random words that don’t form any kind of coherent communication or utterance.

In contrast, with Thai I’ve gotten fairly familiar with certain words – I think I’m even pronouncing them (more or less) correctly – but I lack the kind of intuitive, systemic grasp of the Thai sound system that would enable me to clearly know the samenesses and differences, sound-wise, between different words. For example, two Thai words that both sound kind of  sound like English “guy” are the words for “chicken” and “tour guide”, except that they don’t sound the same when it comes to the vowel part. (Actually, although I don’t hear any difference in the consonant part – the g sound – I wouldn’t say that I’m 100% certain they’re the same). I can hear that the vowel parts of the two words are intoned differently. But I’d be at a loss to say what other Thai words use the same intonation as guy “chicken”, or what other pair of Thai words differ from one another in the same way that guy “chicken” and guy “tour guide” differ from one another. In other words, I can’t really compare sounds across words, the way that in English I know that map and mop differ only in the vowel, while map and cap differ only in the initial consonant, and map and mob differ only in the final consonant. In Thai, I sort of have the feel for how certain words sound, but don’t grasp the sound system as a whole.

My guess is that when I get to the point where I know the sounds of Thai so well that I can clearly perceive the differences and samenesses (sound-wise) between any two words, analogous to the above example for English map, mop, etc. – I think it’s only at that point that my issues with understanding spoken Thai will have been resolved, that there won’t be any more “blurriness” in the sound of the language, nor confusion as to which words I’m hearing. I’ll probably still have deficiencies in vocabulary – encountering words that I haven’t heard before or whose meanings I’m not clear on – but that’s a different issue, in the same way that there are words in English that I don’t know the meanings of, but I have no problems hearing the sounds that compose those words.

I think I’d also like to get to that point before taking lessons in reading, though in the meantime I’m fine with continuing to just figure things out haphazardly. The way I see it, reading and writing really depend on the kind of systemic grasp of a language’s sound system that I’ve discussed above, with the symbols of writing being a visual way of pointing out which sounds in different words are identical and which are different, and of depicting the precise sounds that compose a particular word. (Granted that in English there are the added complications of a not-so-straightforward relationship between the letters of the alphabet and the actual sounds of the language, plus there are words that really don’t sound the way they’re written; but even so, writing is still a way of explicitly showing which sounds are in which words). I’m proceeding on the ALGesque  assumption  that it’s better not to force things, that all I need is enough exposure to Thai in situations where I can get at least some idea of what’s going on, and that over time as I become more familiar with more and more words and gain a greater ability to differentiate between words that I currently cannot differentiate between, at some point my familiarity with the sounds of individual words will start to become a more systemic grasp of the language’s sounds as a whole, and I’ll start to intuitively recognize when the sounds of different words are the same, and when (and how) they are different.


7 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Want to Learn How to Read Any Time Soon (16 June 2013)

  1. SlyAnimal

    Was just reading through a few posts on your blog, and got to this one (About why you don’t want to learn to read Thai).

    First up I’d like to say good work on learning what you have, it sounds like your Thai is at a pretty solid level, and you’re really getting the most of living in Thailand as a result.

    I’m pretty much self taught, via simply living in Isaan for the past 3 years, which has forced me to learn Thai in order to communicate with people (As I sometimes tell Thai people, when they ask why I can speak Thai but other farang can’t “I live in Isaan and I like to eat, but if I can’t speak Thai, I can’t eat”). It has been a bit detrimental to my listening though, since people often speak Isaan or even when they speak Thai, they pronounce a lot of words incorrectly (e.g. Rs turn into Ls, or sometimes even Hs), I always enjoy how easily I understand people from Bangkok when they are speaking Thai, as they simply pronounce their Thai a lot more clearly.

    One of the first things I learnt, was how to read Thai. I’ve been a bit lazy with continuing to practice reading/writing, mainly because once I learnt enough vocab to get by, I simply got lazy at actively learning Thai (Although am still always learning new words which I hear in conversation and am curious about). This laziness is the reason why I’m coming to BKK next year to study Thai (probably initially at AUA, which is how I got the link to your blog)

    However I think learning to read Thai is one of the best decisions I made, as it gave me the ability to recognise the Thai sounds properly. Because I didn’t learn at a proper course, my tones are still out, and there are a few constants/vowels which my mouth simply can’t make the sound for (I hope they’ll have a “trick” to these sounds when I do a proper course) but in general my pronunciation is pretty reasonable as a result of learning to read, even for words which I’ve never seen written, as I can usually hear the letters in words. For you, your listening & pronunciation will be great because you’re learning via listening, but I think you’d find they’ll get even better if you learn to read and write. It would also assist you with differentiating the difference between words like chicken, guide and body (chicken/guide are the same but a different tone, however body is a longer + slightly different vowel).

    Also when you learn to read, you open up another sense with which to increase your learning. As you are constantly surrounded by Thai words, words which you can understand the meaning of easily (e.g. a sign in a museum next to a fragile vase, will probably say “do not touch” lol), and thus learn new words. Don’t be too concerned that from the written language, you might not be able to pronounce the word properly, as written Thai is a lot more specific than English. There are a bunch of rules which change the sound pretty drastically, but you’ll learn these if you study via a proper course. However in general, an alphabet with 44 constant, 32 vowels and additional tone markers etc as well, is reasonably specific regarding the pronunciation. And don’t be too intimidated by the number of letters, they are relatively easy to learn, particularly when you can associate them with the signs/menus etc around you, and turn these into understandable words. Think about how much enjoyment and sense of achievement you felt when you first noticed that you could understand sentences, and that people could likewise understand you, you’ll feel a similar sense of achievement when you are reading street signs or even just writing down your order at a restaurant for the waitress.

    Anyway, that’s just my 2c. I’ve been enjoying reading a few posts in your blog, and thought I’d try and offer some encouragement towards learning to read/write. As you seem like someone who is really enjoying learning Thai, and I think you’d get even more out of it, if you were also able to read/write. Maybe I’ll see you next year at AUA 🙂

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Well, you might be right. AUA allows students to start studying reading/writing as soon as they begin the Advanced class (AT5) – a point that I passed long ago. Certainly being able to read would open up a whole new area of input and would probably allow me to be more deliberate in my acquisition of vocabulary, both in terms of being able to select specific topics (or genres) and their associated vocab, and in terms of being able to reread and focus on individual words of interest.

      However I don’t think I’m going to go that way any time soon. A lot of words continue to be “blurry” for me in terms of both sound and meaning, and I’m content to let them come into focus at their own pace. I’m wary of the idea of trying to force clarity by matching symbols (letters) to sounds that I still don’t really hear or haven’t fully differentiated from other sounds. I’m also interested in seeing how far I can go in learning spoken Thai on its own terms, without aid from a writing system.

      Plus, learning to read would cut into my lakorn-viewing time :P.

      Still, your observation that learning to read early gave you “the ability to recognise the Thai sounds properly… even for words which I’ve never seen written, as I can usually hear the letters in words” is an interesting one and I’d be curious to know more about your experiece of spoken Thai in terms of what’s clear or unclear, comprehensible or not, as you move through different situations in which the spoken language is used. I’d also be curious to hear about your experience with the Isaan dialect – when I hear it, it sometimes sounds really, really different from standard Thai, and brings to mind the old joke about a language just being a dialect with an army! (Or would it in this case be more like a dialect being a language without an army?)

      Anyway, feel free to pitch in another 2c any time – I was quite interested to read about your experiences with Thai. Also, feel free to shoot me an e-mail if you don’t run into me at AUA (thaiwithoutstudy@gmail.com).

      UPDATE: I no longer have the gmail account; click on my gravatar to see my current contact information.

      1. SlyAnimal

        Yeah that’s a pretty fair point.

        Isaan is quite similar to Thai, with a lot of basic words the same, and other words very similar (e.g. Bai Nai = Bai Sai, Mai Chai = Bor Man (And likewise Mai = Bor), Mai Pen Rai = Bor Pen Yang). The sentence structure etc is pretty much the same as well. A lot of westerners learn around half a dozen words in Isaan, and then because it’s quite similar to Thai, can sorta “get by” in basic Isaan conversations. Although the similarities mostly finish outside of basic conversation, e.g. when my gf and her friends speak in Isaan, I can’t really understand anything (But usually can roughly follow the conversation if it’s in Thai and I’ve got a little bit of the context).

        I haven’t learnt any Isaan other than the really easy stuff, I don’t really know any westerners who can speak it well (Well except one guy, but he lives in Lao not Thailand lol). As pretty universally everyone I’ve met opts to focus more on Thai instead, since it can be used everywhere. One of my mates knows a bit, mostly as his “party trick” so to speak, he did a speech in Isaan today at our school’s ASEAN Day celebration which got everyone pretty excited though (Just a short 3 liner, I did it’s equivalent in Thai).

        For most people in Isaan, Thai is their second language, and so unless they’ve spent a lot of time in Bangkok, they speak with a bit of an Isaan accent. For example, the Lao alphabet doesn’t have an R sound, it often uses an L or H sound instead for the same words. e.g. Ron is Hon in Lao, and when speaking Thai Farang turns into Falang (Bak SeeDaa is the Lao word). There are other differences as well, but I’m not familiar enough with Isaan to really go into detail. Do you notice the same thing from your Thai teachers who come from Isaan? Although the more time they spend in Bangkok, the better their Thai gets (my gf studied in BKK for a few years, but she still says some Thai words “Isaan style”, although significantly less so than people who have only lived in Isaan).

        It’s frustrating learning Thai here, as by default most conversations outside of school (And a lot of the ones inside school too), are in Isaan not Thai. Although most people will usually switch when they realise I’m speaking Thai not Isaan to them, but only if they’re directly talking to me. Sometimes it’s funny though, as I’ll go out with my gf’s friends for dinner, and a couple of times they’ve said to me (In Thai), “You should learn Thai so that you can speak with us”, to which I reply back (In Thai) “I can speak Thai, but you are speaking in Isaan, if you speak in Thai I’ll try to listen and speak, but listening to Isaan gives me a headache” lol. As I find that listening to an Isaan conversation between 3-4 people for more than around 10-15 minutes just leaves my brain exausted, and I usually have very little understanding of it either lol (If they spoke slowly, I might be able to work out a bit more though). They’ll then usually switch to Thai for around 10 minutes, before reverting back to Isaan lol.

  2. adamf2011 Post author

    @SlyAnimal: Well, I’ve had that problem with standard Thai too – listening to Thais talking amongst themselves and not really having any idea what they’re saying.

    All the teachers at AUA speak standard Thai in the classroom, including the ones from Isaan. There’s one teacher from Isaan who will occasionally launch into speaking in Isaan, but just for a few seconds as a kind of schtick. He says that when he first started teaching at AUA, many years ago when he was fairly newly arrived in Bangkok, he couldn’t speak Thai – but I’m guessing this is a joke.

    In general, I haven’t noticed any deviations from standard Thai in terms of accents or regionalisms – other than short and intentional demonstrations of such (i.e., a teacher “doing” a Suphanburi or whatever accent) – but I’m not sure I’d pick up on such things unless they were pretty obvious. But definitely no one’s teaching classes in passa chow baan.

  3. SlyAnimal

    Yeah I can’t pick an Isaan accent when they are speaking Thai, but I just always find it easier to understand people, and be understood, when I’m speaking to people in Bangkok, rather than in Isaan. Which makes me think there must be quite a difference to it.

    Just checked with my gf about the difference, she said that the actual accent is reasonably difficult to pick when Isaan people are speaking Thai. But, that it’s easy to pick that someone is a native Isaan speaker because unless they have been in Bangkok for a long time, they’ll often use an “Isaan style” or sorta structure their sentences the same as what they would in Isaan.

    Much the same as what most westerners do do when speaking Thai (e.g. I often say things which are understandable to Thai people, but not the way that they would say them. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, because I try to correct them when my gf points them out to me, but I use words like “but”, “want” and “think” a lot when I speak, however don’t hear these words used as frequently in Thai. Although some of these I use a lot because I use them as substitutions for bigger words which I don’t know lol).

    As you’ve learnt via listening, do you find the same thing at all? e.g. you structure sentences in an “English way”, but just say them in Thai. Or did you generally pickup on how they usually phrase their sentences?

    Also how have you been finding the tones? Can you differentiate them when you are listening? This is something which I could envision happening more in the AUA style of course, since you would have a bit more practice at listening, and I imagine they’d probably try and teach you a little about them at the advanced levels.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Accents: I sometimes get the feeling that someone’s speaking with an accent, just because there’s something different or “off” about the sound of their language (compared to the standard Thai that I’m used to). Recently I watched Jam Leuy Ruk, a lakorn that was set largely in the south; sure enough, a number of the characters, including the pa-ek, sounded kind of funny (and were harder to understand). Without the context though, I would never have guessed it as being a specifically southern accent.

      “I just always find it easier to understand people, and be understood, when I’m speaking to people in Bangkok” – I’ve actually sometimes had the opposite experience: when provincial Thais speak standard Thai to me, they are sometimes easier to understand than Bangkok residents. I’ve wondered if they’re being very deliberate in the way they speak because standard Thai is (sort of) a foreign language for them too.

      Do I ever structure sentences in Thai in an English way? This is a hard question to answer because I feel like my Thai isn’t good enough to step back and analyze my own speaking patterns and compare them to native Thais. I suspect that the answer is either “no” or “very minimally so” because of the way that I’ve learned. I don’t translate from English to Thai and the language that I’ve learned has come strictly from listening to real native speech. My guess is that if I anglicize the syntax or word order etc. of Thai, it would probably most happen when I’m trying to say something that I don’t really know how to say. When I don’t know how to say something in Thai, it’s because I either haven’t yet heard it said in Thai, or I have, but not enough times for it to sink in. Sometimes my need to communicate means I end up floundering around and making stuff up off the cuff – I usually get this feeling like “this doesn’t sound right to me, but I’m gonna say it anyway because I need to communicate.”

      An example that comes to mind involves choice of words rather than word order. I’d been in the country I think maybe less than a year, and my Thai was at a much lower level than it is now, when I saw a man fall to the sidewalk and get injured. When the ambulance crew came and I told them what happened, I used the word tok to describe his fall (as in fun tok, it’s raining). I don’t think I really thought it out consciously, but just assumed that tok meant something like “fall” because fun tok must mean something like “rain falling”. So if rain could tok, then a person could tok too, right? The paramedic corrected me: the man had lom, not tok. So, this is an example of English-language-logic influencing Thai usage. But of course, just because it works in and is natural to English, doesn’t mean it’ll make sense in Thai or any other language.

      The tones: I haven’t fully sorted them out yet. I sometimes can hear that two words have a difference in intonation, and sometimes what that difference actually is can be fairly clear, and at other times not. I definitely do not have the ability to name the tone of any random word that you give me. Actually, I know that there are five tones, high, middle, low, and whatever else, but I’ve never sat down and gotten an explanation of what’s what or been given explicit examples of which words are which tone. So, like I wrote, I can hear the difference between guy chicken and guy tour guide but have no idea what the names of those tones are. And I pretty much couldn’t say that two particular words have the same tone, although….

      I’ve actually just recently started to get a feeling about certain words like, “hey, the intonation of this word sounds kind of like the intonation of guy chicken” – like, when I think about it, law handsome sounds intoned the same way as guy chicken; I’m not totally confident that that’s right though. Anyway, this is a new development – in general, I lack a systemic grasp of the tones, the kind that would enable you to identify the tone of any randomly given word.

      That’s kind of what I was trying to get at toward the end of the blog entry above when I wrote things like “I lack the kind of intuitive, systemic grasp of the Thai sound system that would enable me to clearly know the samenesses and differences, sound-wise, between different words… In Thai, I sort of have the feel for how certain words sound, but don’t grasp the sound system as a whole.”

      As for teaching the tones at AUA: they don’t. (Well, maybe they do in the reading/writing class, but I’ve never taken that so I wouldn’t know). Teachers might sometimes correct a student’s pronunciation and, in doing so, compare two words that differ in terms of the tones. And occasionally you’ll get the teacher who’ll rattle off a string of words that differ soundwise only in their tone – like the words for diamond, spicy-hot, duck, etc. But I feel this is more of a tease – yo! check out how difficult this language is and how masterfully I speak it! – than any serious attempt to teach the tones in an explicit and systematic way.

      In general, one of the major premises behind AUA’s ALG method is to not get involved with linguistic facts about the language or the mechanics of how the language works; the focus is always on the subject matter or content – i.e., the teacher telling a story from the Ramakien or about the 2010 protests or whatever – and not on the language itself in the sense of, these are the 5 tones or this is how you specify how many of something there is.

  4. Pingback: Progressing Or Not? | learning thai without studying

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