Deeply Engrained

6 September 2013; AT5 = 1051 hours; total time = 1989 hours; TV = 348 hours



Sometimes teachers in the advanced classes at AUA will briefly slip into the AT1-style pantomime they call “action” (with Thai pronunciation, that’s acTION!). In AUA’s most basic class teachers will continuously act out what they’re saying so that even students who don’t know any Thai at all can understand what’s going on.

Certain basic concepts which are used over and over have gotten codified into what is, in effect, a kind of sign-language. For example: elephant is shown by pendulously swinging an arm, little kid by patting an imaginary waist-high head at one’s side, stop! by extending forth an arm with the hand upright and palm facing forward, driving by clutching and turning an imaginary steering wheel, and so on. Sometimes sound effects are used, with dog indicated by barking, getting married by singing the wedding march while ceremoniously pairing up one’s index fingers so they stand side by side like a couple, being born by crying while cradling and rocking an imaginary newborn, etc.

Though teachers rely heavily on acTION! to communicate in AT1, it’s used less in AT2, and pretty much not at all in AT3. By the time I hit AT5, I had long since reached the point of understanding the Thai vocabulary covered by acTION!

Nonetheless, I’ve sat through AT5 classes where the teacher will occasionally snap to attention and salute while using the word for soldier. The gesture is usually made in a fairly off-hand way, with none of the pointed demonstrativeness it would have in an AT1 class.

One of the teachers has mentioned the difficulty of going back and forth between teaching different levels of Thai in a single day. Sometimes, he’s said, he gets bored and puzzled stares from the AT5 students if he slips into the simpler topics of AT1 or starts acting out the material. At other times he inadvertently baffles AT1 students by employing the rapider and more complex speech of AT5 while forgetting to use acTION!

When I speak Thai outside the classroom I sometimes use physical gestures and drawings, but only to communicate words that I either don’t know or whose pronunciation I’m uncertain of. However there’s one particular Thai word that I long ago got the hang of but which I still have a persistent tendency to act out. It’s the word for the past, which I’ll often accompany with the acTION!-style gesture I picked up way back in AT1: motioning over my shoulder as if I’m indicating something behind me. Only this one word. Why?

Could this be an expression of the subtle uncertainty, or even frustration, of an English speaker deprived of the ability to make the kinds of nuanced distinctions with regards to the past that English habitually makes (I had been going vs. I used to go vs. I was going, etc), now that he finds himself trying to speak a language whose mechanisms for signaling temporality he is far from having mastered, and whose schema for indicating the past just doesn’t seem to possess the rich range of options that English has?

Or maybe it’s just a weird glitch in the software.



Thais often tell me that I have very clear pronunciation. In general, I don’t take Thai people’s professed evaluations of my language abilities as anything other than friendly encouragement – for instance, a Thai man recently told me that I speak Thai very well, but all I had said to him was literally three words of AT1-AT2 level Thai!

However, I tend to believe my pronunciation really is fairly clear for a number of reasons: as an evaluation it’s specific (as opposed to the more generic “You speak Thai very well!”), and there often seems to be a genuine note of surprise in people’s voices, more as if they’re spontaneously expressing what they’re really thinking than delivering a compliment called for by the protocols of civility and good manners.

More importantly, there have been times when my approach has been greeted by avoidance – people are physically hanging back and not fully turning to face me, sometimes I’ll even detect a certain anxiety – but then when I open my mouth and start talking they seem relieved and engage me without further hesitation. (I can sympathize. I think I’m pretty good at parsing out non-native English, which might partly be the result of having grown up in NY and being around foreigners from an early age. But sometimes someone will speak to me in what seems to be attempted English and I’ll have absolutely no idea what they’re trying to say. I’m OK with telling them that, but what happens when the next thing they say is equally unintelligible, and then the next? I end up feeling kind of bad telling someone over and over that I can’t understand what they’re saying…it’s almost kind of embarrassing).

Most important is the simple fact that people do understand me, and a real conversational back-and-forth ensues, in which what’s said often builds on or is in response to what was previously said.

(Of course, not all of my Thai interactions go nearly that smoothly. And the “clear pronunciation” characterization only holds for language that I’ve really gotten the hang of – my attempts to stumble my way through words that I’m still fuzzy on are another story altogether).

Nonetheless, I sometimes find myself mispronouncing words that I usually have no problem with – either accidentally substituting another, somewhat similar-sounding Thai word, or flubbing the pronunciation completely.

And then there are the mysterious though thankfully infrequent times that my ability to make Thai sounds seems to disappear altogether, and I’m left stumbling on through what I have to say with a big old American accent. You’d expect this to happen when I’m really tired, but it doesn’t. (When I feel really worn out there’s an overall decline in all my Thai abilities, and though pronunciation slips too there’s not usually a total collapse into Americana). Instead, it’s kind of random, like the wires getting crossed for no real reason at all. Maybe if I could actually call up the “Thai sound production department” of my brain at such times, I’d get a recorded message telling me the department is temporarily closed, please try again later.

However, I’ve noticed a tendency to misshape Thai sounds sometimes cropping up at greetings and goodbyes, sorry and excuse me. These are all very basic AT1-level expressions, and it’s not so much the case that I’m mispronouncing individual words as that I’m giving an incorrect intonation to the expression as a whole. I think I tend to drift toward an English intonation.

I also often hear myself doing this when I need to ask something: the pitch of my voice tends to creep upward, English-style, toward the end of the question. Sometimes it’s just an ever-so-slight upward creep, sometimes it can be pretty pronounced. At other times, the upward-creep seems totally absent.

With asking questions, maybe it’s like this: to the extent that I’ve really assimilated Thai words and sounds, I tend to reproduce them correctly in part because they’re so distinct from English – their very distinctness reduces my tendency to mix up the two languages. But asking questions is something common to both Thai and English, and I only started doing it in Thai fairly recently whereas I’ve been asking questions in English for over four decades. So maybe no matter what language I’m using, there’s a part of my brain that’s going, so if it’s a question ask it like a question – let’s push the pitch upward toward the end!

Maybe the same explanation – that these are situations which I have a long track record with in English, and relatively scant experience with in Thai – holds for hello, goodbye, and sorry / excuse me. But I’m also sometimes aware of feeling self-conscious in those situations, and wonder if my drift toward English intonation comes from a desire to send clear and appropriate signals when initiating and breaking off social contact and addressing (potential) relationship disharmony. Ironically, though this would be “clear and appropriate” for English, it is anything but so for Thai.

Perhaps one way to view language abilities would be as a set of habits, with fluency meaning that the habits are firmly established. Acquiring a new language would then mean developing a new set of habits and getting to the point where they, too, are engrained to the point of being automatic.

Traditional language learning methods rely to at least a certain extent on using one language to learn another via translation, explanation, and analogy. The way that I’ve been learning Thai basically eschews using other languages, so you would think my Thai would be free of English language habits.

Nonetheless, old habits have a way of occasionally popping up. In the long run it will be interesting to see whether the Thai “modality” comes to predominate when I’m in Thai language situations, or whether English habits and tendencies continue to assert themselves to some degree.

4 thoughts on “Deeply Engrained

  1. locksleyu

    Nice post with a lot of interesting ideas mixed throughout. One think you mentioned is the idea of degrading pronunciation when tired – I noticed that if I’m tired my pronunciation and the complexity of my sentences goes down. I’ve also been told when I’m drinking that my American access creeps in which is interesting since it shows levels of how our learned knowledge is layered, in a sense. Maybe I’ll write a post about this sometime.

    I haven’t studied Thai before but from this post I think you are saying that questions in that language don’t have a rising intonation. I’ve never really thought about that, and just assumed it was a natural thing in all languages – at least in Japanese it seems to hold true for the most part. But if Thai doesn’t have that I wonder how you indicate things are a question. I guess there is some grammatical construct. Japanese has a way to indicate a question grammatically but often that is omitted (か – the question particle).

  2. adamf2011 Post author

    Hi locksleyu, thanks for stopping by and offering your observations.

    Just for the benefit of anyone else reading this, locksleyu has a blog about his experiences teaching himself Japanese on which I’d left a comment (including a link to this post, which I thought was relevant); so in a way, this conversation is a continuation or spin-off of the one on his blog, if you are interested you can read his post and the comments at Thinking in a foreign language

    So, anyway: Questions in Thai. Thai also has words that you can add on to the end of a sentence to explicitly mark it as a question. But as to whether you actually do so or not…I think there are a lot of questions you could ask in Thai where if you added one of these “question words”, it would sound awkward/wrong.

    Without one of these explicit question words, you might recognize a particular sentence as a question because of the words used within that sentence – for example, Thai equivalents of how much, where, who, etc.

    But a lot of the time it’s just the overall context of the situation you’re in that would make a sentence a question as opposed to a statement – because what’s been said would make more sense as a question than a statement, given what the situation is and/or what’s previously been said.

    On a related topic: one of the marked differences between Thai and English is intonation. In English intonation is used for emphasis, or to communicate emotion, or (as you note) to make what would otherwise be a declarative statement into a question.

    But in Thai intonation is a built-in part of the words. Take the English word yes spoken declaratively (“Yes.”) and interrogatively (“Yes?”). That kind of difference in intonation in Thai would actually differentiate two completely different words, in the same way that changing a vowel would in English (for example, bat vs. bit).

    So that very marked rise in pitch that occurs at the end of an English question does not happen in Thai. On the other hand, I don’t want to say that Thai totally lacks variation in intonation (apart from that intrinsic to words themselves). It’s obvious if you listen to people talking in Thai that they’re not monotone robots, that the sound of what someone says varies with and reflects emotions and emphases. Exactly how so isn’t something I can really put my finger on, but I can recognize it when I hear it.

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