Knowing a Language: How Well Do You Know Your Native Language?

2 August 2013; AT5 = 1042 hours; total time = 1980 hours; TV = 294.7 hours

An aspect of Thai that seems to get a lot of attention – at least from English speakers – is the tones.

You can find tones in English too. Take the sentences “Are you ready?” and “I’m ready.” – or just the boiled-down version: “Ready? Ready.” The word ready is intoned in two different ways, one intonation signaling that it’s a question, the other signaling a statement of fact.

So English does sort of have tones, but Thai tones are used in a different way: different intonations of what would otherwise be the same word are actually different words with totally different meanings.

I definitely don’t fully have the hang of the tones yet. Sometimes I kind of notice a word’s intonation, but it usually doesn’t seem all that separate or distinct from the word’s overall sound. Or I’ll hear two words and feel that there’s some kind of difference in their intonation, but exactly how so remains unclear. Sometimes I’ll feel hesitant to use such words in speech – the shape and texture of the word’s sound feels hazy and unclear, and I realize I’m uncertain how to say it.

I’m not at all worried about this. For one thing, I think that the language that I really have assimilated I tend to speak fairly clearly, enough so that people usually understand me. And I’m betting that over the long run, with enough time and exposure to Thai, all the stuff that’s now hazy will become clear, and my comprehension and speaking problems will resolve.

What’s interesting to me is that non-Thai speakers really seem to zero in on this particular feature of Thai (the tones) as being especially interesting, exotic, and difficult.

But a feature of Thai that stands out for me probably more than the tones, and that’s been an area of some confusion for me, is final consonants. In Thai, consonants that occur at the ends of words can be pronounced so lightly that I’ve often been left wondering precisely what I’m hearing at a word’s very end. Like, is this word ending in a vowel, or is there beyond the vowel sound just the faintest trace of some kind of consonant, a sound so subtle that it’s almost not there at all?

This made me notice English’s contrastingly heavy-handed final consonants. Say the English words peck, sat, map, lab, beg, bad aloud, and you can usually hear an extra sound at the end, something that’s not noted in the spelling: sometimes it’s kind of like a puff of air (“map-hh”), sometimes it’s more like a very “quickly pronounced” vowel (“beg-a”). This “extra sound” at the end lets the final consonant stand out very clearly; if you try saying these words without the “extra sound”, the final consonant doesn’t get pronounced very strongly, and this less distinct pronunciation is closer to the way Thai handles final consonants.

I first started to notice the final consonants issue soon after I got to Thailand, in class at AUA. Anyone who takes AT1 (what they’re now calling the “beginner” class) quickly becomes familiar with the “census” routine at the start of class: how many students are there? Men vs. women? Different nationalities? The teacher goes around the class counting and asking questions. When asked where I was from I would reply (in English) “America.” Then I’d always be asked where in America, and I’d say “New York.” Whereupon the teacher would mockingly repeat my answer, gleefully exaggerating the K sound’s guttural clickiness, as well as the back-of-the-throat hiss-of-air that follows: “New Yorkkhh.” I quickly learned that the injunction not to speak Thai in class didn’t apply to names, and modified my pronunciation accordingly. Where was I from? “New Yaw(K).”

But it wasn’t till later on that I really started noticing this difference as being an across-the-board characteristic of the two languages, something intrinsic to the way they handle sound in word after word. And that didn’t happen until I started realizing that it was often the very ending of a Thai word that was unclear to me. I’d hear the word but wouldn’t be sure of what I was hearing. Was that a consonant sound at the end there, or not? Which one?

Something that fascinates me is the problem that Thais can have pronouncing English’s final consonants. Why, I wonder, would people who have mastered both recognizing and pronouncing the very subtle final consonants of Thai, then have problems with the very obvious, heavily-sounded final consonants of English?

Another thing I started thinking about is those “extra sounds” that English sometimes tacks on after a consonant, sounds that I’ve been using – hearing and pronouncing – my whole life but was never consciously aware of. Presumably if our spelling conventions noted these sounds I’d have been aware of them all along; but maybe the fact that these sounds have never found their way into writing just goes to show that we (English speakers) don’t consciously notice them.

I guess this is interesting because it flies in the face of what seems to be a major, though perhaps unstated, premise of language learning: that learning a language means becoming consciously aware of all its “features” and how they operate, i.e. the sounds that are used or the “rules” that govern things like tense or number.

The way that I’ve been learning Thai is pretty much the diametric opposite of this. Teachers at AUA sometimes point out and correct mistakes, but in general they don’t talk about the “rules” or “principles” by which the language operates. I’ve never had a class on formulating past vs. future, or on how to pluralize things in Thai.

I have not been assuming that I need a linguist’s understanding of the mechanics of Thai, of the how-it-operates, in order to be fluent in the language. But I now realize that I’ve been holding the tacit assumption that real fluency in a language would of necessity mean being consciously aware of all its features, of the what-there-is that constitutes that language. Now, however, I’ve become uncertain as to the extent of this assumption’s validity. After all, I used English for over forty years without being aware of those (only now) very obvious “extra sounds” that we stick onto the ends of certain words, and the only reason I’ve noticed this feature of English is because of my “difficulties” with a language that goes about doing things differently.

6 thoughts on “Knowing a Language: How Well Do You Know Your Native Language?

  1. Pingback: So, What Language Are We Speaking? | learning thai without studying

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  3. Andrej

    “But I now realize that I’ve been holding the tacit assumption that real fluency in a language would of necessity mean being consciously aware of all its features, of the what-there-is that constitutes that language. Now, however, I’ve become uncertain as to the extent of this assumption’s validity.”

    Isn’t that actually the idea of ALG, that you don’t need to be consciously aware of how the language works (be it grammar, pronunciation or whatever other feature), and that it is even detrimental to the acquisition process?

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Totally: AUA’s ALG teaching method is totally based on the idea that not only do you not need to know the details of how a language works (i.e., how do you construct the past tense? which words need to be altered to change a statement into a question?), but that you’re better off not knowing. After all, little kids everywhere learn their native language without being given lessons in grammar, syntax, etc, and native speakers everywhere often don’t have the foggiest idea of the “rules” by which their language operates (unless they’ve studied these rules or thought them out for themselves) — just try asking the average native English speaker how to know when to use a vs. the (and all the other terms you could put before a noun: book, a book, the book, some book, any book, etc).

      But what I discovered was that it’s not just a matter of my not fully knowing the explicit rules of how the features of English work, but of what those features are. So it’s not simply that I didn’t know some rule concerning, when do you tack an extra sound on after a consonant? — I didn’t even know that those extra sounds existed, even though I’d heard them (and spoken them myself) countless times.

      So, maybe the rule is — I’m just kind of making this up on the spot, it might not be correct — if an English word ends in an unvoiced consonant, you add on an H sound at the end (“bake” is actually pronounced something like “bake-hhh”). whereas if it’s voiced, you add on a kind of somewhat aspirated clipped vowel sound that’s a bit like the “a” at the end of “China” — so “bag” is actually pronounced more like “bag-hhuh”.

      But I spoke English for over forty years not only not knowing this rule, but not even consciously noticing these “post-consonant extra sounds”. And I think that if a few years ago someone had asked me about it, I would have said that though I might not know all the rules (etc) of English grammar, of course I knew what I was saying and hearing.

      So just to go back to Thai, with the tones for example, I think the way people usually learn Thai as a second language is to consciously study the tones: there are these five (or whatever number) intonation patterns, they go like this, then you practice them, and each Thai word that you learn you need to consciously learn and remember what the tone is so you can practice recognizing the word (when listening) and speaking it. But I think my experience is showing me that you don’t need to do that — the phonetic details are a level of language that you don’t need to consciously or analytically know; you can understand and speak without knowing these things.

      I suspect that a conscious awareness of these things can be naturally acquired later on — i.e., it’s a later stage of knowledge that evolves out of the earlier stage in which you are able to use the language without consciously being aware of all its features. With English’s “post-consonant extra sounds”, there’s really no benefit to be had from being consciously aware of them — which is probably why I never noticed them until I encountered Thai. With the Thai tones, I think you do need to know them (i.e., which intonation pattern a particular word uses) to become literate — to be able to read or write. I wonder to what extent illiterate Thais are aware of the tones.

      1. Andrej

        I fully agree that you don’t need that during the language acquisition phase, and that it probably is harmful. Neither in Thai nor in English or any other language. Once you’ve acquired the language, though, I don’t think there is any harm in having a closer look. Sometimes it’s even required, e.g., when Thai children need to learn the writing system which encodes the tones.

        On that point, how are your tones coming along?

  4. adamf2011 Post author

    I think it’s going well, but it’s hard to be very precise or write about it in detail — to do so, I’d probably already need to fully have the more conscious awareness of the tones.

    There are a lot of Thai words where I’m sure I get the tones right because I have no problems understanding or speaking them; but without having that more conscious knowledge that would enable me to answer questions like, what tone does this particular word have? Do these two words use the same tone or different tones? Which other words use the same tone as this particular word.

    That’s been slowly changing for a long time now. There are specific instances where I become aware that two particular words use the same intonation pattern; or that two words have different patterns. Sometimes I realize that I’ve been assuming that two words use the same sound (phoneme?), but then when I think about how those words sound, I realize that the tone is different. I think there are other cases, though, where things still remain unclear. And I’m not sure that the tones are more important or more difficult than other aspects of the Thai sound system.


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