How I Finally Started Speaking Thai: No Magic Numbers, No Big Deal

14 September 2013; AT5 = 1051 hours; total time = 1989 hours; TV = 353.2 hours

Being able to speak seems to be a big deal for a lot of people. At AUA they basically tell you not to speak in Thai unless the words come to you naturally and automatically – which should happen roughly when you begin AT5 (the most advanced class). If you had started the program as a rank beginner in AT1, it would take about 800 hours to reach this point.

I was never obsessed with getting to the point where I would start speaking Thai. It’s not that I was totally indifferent to the idea of speaking – not being able to speak was certainly inconvenient at times – but I always viewed comprehension of spoken Thai as being both the more fundamental and the more difficult-to-acquire ability.

Over twenty years ago I was passably able in French. But it was almost always easier to say something than to understand the response. I’m finding that, even having gone through the ALG program, it’s the same in Thai. I think the reason for this is that when I speak I draw upon the small area of the language which I’m familiar with, whereas when a native speaker speaks, they’re drawing upon the much larger area of the language that they’ve mastered, much of which is terra incognita to me.

Anyway, my experiences with French impressed upon me the importance of being able to understand spoken language. What good is it to be able to say something if you can’t understand the answer? Also, I suspect that understanding others is the more important factor when it comes to more fully entering into, experiencing and understanding the world – in this case the Thai world. In that sense, if I had to prioritize or value one ability over the other, I would choose being able to understand over speaking.

Besides, I thought, once I got to the point where I understood native speech fairly well, I’d be so familiar with the language that speaking it myself probably wouldn’t be too difficult.

So during my early months in Thailand I pretty much stuck to the ALG guidelines of not speaking. But with a little bit of cheating, of course.

My too-early-by-ALG-standards speech mostly centered around politenesses and food – words for greetings and apologies; or things like telling a vendor that I didn’t want sugar in my som tam, or specifying the kind of noodles I wanted in my soup. Back when I was in AT1 or AT2 I got a Thai person to tell me the word that I’d need to order a bowl of noodles without the broth, then stumbled around and totally mispronounced the word, but it worked: I got my soupless noodles just as I wanted. Mostly though, with food, I’d just point at what I wanted: I had a clear preference for eateries where the food was displayed in the open.

Then there were the times I’d been in the country for a few months, long enough to have picked up a bit of the language, but not long enough to be very comfortable using it or to be able to say very much. But there were a number of times I was dealing with Thai people and needed to communicate; or when I was asked questions and felt that it would be unfriendly or even downright rude not to attempt an answer.

Sometimes I couldn’t resist showing off by using a few words here, a few phrases there. Like, Hey! I’m not just some tourist passing through who can’t even speak the language – look! I can speak a few words here, a few phrases there!

And at some point in AT3 I started saying a few things like yes and no in Thai instead of English – but it was natural and automatic by that point.

Overall though, I mostly stuck to English, non-verbal communication like pointing or gesturing, and the minimal Thai needed for basic etiquette and indulging a few culinary preferences.

The 800 hour mark came and went. I was in AT3 at the time, and my comprehension in class was pretty good, but not great. I ended up spending some extra time in AT3 (as I had done in AT2); I think I had about 920 hours of class time when I finally moved to AT5, instead of the predicted 800.

Meanwhile, aside from the exceptions outlined above, I still hadn’t started speaking Thai, neither inside nor outside the classroom. This was a deliberate move (or perhaps non-move) on my part. My thinking at the time was that if I was going to be reproducing Thai sounds in speech, I should “know” those sounds fairly well; surely I should be able to hear them clearly. But much of spoken Thai still sounded blurry and unclear to me, and though I had finished AT3 with a pretty good ability to follow what was being said in class, I was by no means understanding everything; my ability to “catch” distinct individual words was certainly limited to a subset of what the teachers were using. Outside the classroom, my ability to follow spoken Thai was even lower, and the language I was hearing sounded even blurrier and less distinct. Clearly I wasn’t ready to start speaking.

(A better idea of the kind of clear perception of spoken Thai that I wanted to have before beginning to speak can be gotten by taking a look at the end of my post Why I Don’t Want to Learn How to Read Anytime Soon; but basically I thought that the sounds of Thai should be more or less as clear and identifiable to me as the sounds of my native English, even if I still couldn’t understand a lot of the actual words. Although I ended up abandoning this as a criterion for when to start speaking, I’m still holding to it as a criterion for when to begin learning to read and write – at least as of now).

For probably about the first 200 or so hours of my time in AT5, I deliberately persisted in not speaking Thai. I think I was one of the only students who used English to respond to teachers’ questions – most of the others had already switched to Thai. I sometimes began to feel that there was an expectation that, now that I was in AT5, I speak Thai. This was probably just my own projection though – certainly nobody ever commented on my dogged use of English.

Even though not speaking in Thai was a deliberate strategy on my part, it’s also true that I didn’t feel any real urge to speak in Thai, nor do I remember full-blown Thai sentences springing automatically to mind and demanding to be pronounced.

Finally I raised the issue of whether to start speaking or not with David Long, the director of the Thai program at AUA. He told me I was ready and I should go for it, saying what I could in Thai and using non-verbal communication (and not English) for the rest.

The fact that I didn’t bother to note down when I finally made the decision to “go for it” and switch over to Thai probably just indicates how much of a non-event this was for me; but I think it was somewhere around nine to eleven months in Thailand, and 1100 to 1200 hours in the classroom. By the time I took a trip to Isaan in June or July 2012, I was already doing quite a bit of speaking in Thai. (June 2012 marked both one year in Thailand and one year of classes at AUA).

Still, I didn’t feel like I had crossed any magical threshold; no cartoon light bulb lit up over my head. Instead it was really just a conscious shift in communication strategy – whereas before I had kept my Thai speaking fairly minimal, now I usually chose to use whatever Thai I knew when communicating with Thais. What did happen over time however was that I found myself communicating – and speaking – with Thais to a greater and greater extent.

But it’s important to understand what “speaking in Thai” really means at these beginning stages (and though I’ve made progress since I started speaking, I would definitely still characterize my limited abilities as beginner level): what I can say in Thai is in no way comparable to the things I can say in English, because there are just so many things that I have no idea how to say in Thai: missing vocabulary, or even if I have the words, missing syntax: how would a Thai person phrase that?

My speech in Thai can be fragmentary, with holes in it where I trail off and switch over to non-verbal communication or pause to see if my interlocutor can guess at what I want to say. Or sometimes if I know the words but don’t know how what I want to say should be phrased, I’ll wing it and make something up, hoping that if it’s off I’ll be corrected and get to hear how it’s really said.

Deficiencies in vocabulary also mean that I typically give a much simpler and sometimes less precise version of things than I would if I were speaking in English. It also means that I lack the ability to express nuance and subtlety, and I’ve sometimes worried about coming off as brusque, impolite or insensitive, simply because I don’t know the niceties of phrasing.

Sometimes my lack of words means I have to be roundabout and circuitous, saying things like my brother’s wife instead of my sister-in-law, or the woman in the department store I give money to instead of the cashier. And whereas in English I could probably find many different ways to communicate one particular thing, in Thai my choices are very limited – I’m probably lucky if I can find a way to say what I need to say.

The ALG approach is not to speak if you don’t know how to say something or if the words don’t come to you as easily and naturally as they would in your native language. Whatever you don’t know how to say now, you’ll be able to say easily at some point in the future, after you’ve gotten more input in the target language. This totally makes sense to me: of course you’re not going to know how to say something until you’ve already heard it said enough times to figure out what it means and how it’s used, and for the sounds to stick in your head.

But the thing is, once you start communicating with people, you can’t usually just go silent or bail out or totally skip over the parts that you don’t know how to say. From the standpoint of maintaining relationships, getting things done, acquiring information, and just plain old keeping the conversation rolling so you can get more input, you’ve got to find a way through the gaps and barriers and missing language. Nonverbal communication may work, or not, depending on what you need to say and a number of other circumstances. Sometimes it can be frustrating. Sometimes I’ve run into barriers I couldn’t surmount. Fortunately for me, the consequences of mis- or non-communication are minimal, but I’ve heard stories from people who are really stressed out over work problems related to their difficulties with Thai.

None of this is meant to be a knock at ALG, which I view as an enjoyable and effective language learning strategy. Rather it’s meant to relay what my actual experience has been, that finally starting to speak Thai was just that: starting to speak, in a clumsy, limited, and often mistake-laden way. It was certainly not the case that I hit the 800 hour mark and suddenly had the resources and abilities of a native Thai speaker. I started speaking over a year ago and feel I still have a really long way to go before I reach the point where my ability to express myself in Thai even remotely resembles what I can do in English.

On the other hand, those areas of the Thai language that I’ve really absorbed and internalized, I really can use fairly effortlessly and naturally in a manner that, all the above issues notwithstanding, feels kind of like the way I use my native English. I don’t translate between Thai and English or need to recall rules or “facts” about the language, like which tone a word uses or how it’s spelled. My use of Thai is intuitive and has nothing to do with the kind of knowledge that linguists deal with. Also, my speech tends to be clear, or at least clear enough to usually be understood – though I’ve certainly mangled and mispronounced enough Thai to get my fair share of puzzled looks.

It’s fun speaking Thai, and it’s brought me friendships and taken me places that would have otherwise remained inaccessible, as well as made my life easier in the strictly practical sense.

But there’s another benefit that should have been obvious but that I never thought about until after I’d been speaking for some time, a benefit that relates to what I still regard as my fundamental priority: understanding spoken Thai.

Once I started speaking, I started getting more input simply because now there were a lot of people who were willing to talk to me who previously would never have spoken with me. (After all, how many people are willing to say anything, let alone speak extensively, to someone who they think can’t understand their language?) I also now get to direct the input that I get, at least to a certain degree, by asking questions or in general steering the conversation in certain directions.

Even a short exchange can be very beneficial – sometimes while buying food at the market, I’ll realize I’m hearing new words. Longer dialogue, the kind that gives me so much opportunity to listen and speak that I’m totally exhausted afterwards, often involves someone who is friendly, sympathetic, undaunted by the prospect of speaking with a person from a very different background, and even intensely curious about me and my experiences; generous with their time and energy and willing to work harder than they would with a fellow Thai, as when they have to explain or rephrase something that I don’t understand; and good-humored enough not to be put off by my sometimes clumsy conversational missteps or outright gaffes.

Fortunately, I keep meeting people in Thailand who are just like that.

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