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.