Missing Words

14 November 2013; AT5 = 1061 hours; total class time = 1999 hours; TV = 437.1 hours

When I listen to spoken Thai, what I hear are words of varying degrees of familiarity – some of which I understand to a greater or lesser extent – scattered throughout a stream of verbiage that is neither so familiar nor so understandable. I guess my ability to understand the meaning of what’s being said depends on things like the ratio of words that I can understand to those that I can’t, the extent to which the words that I do understand convey key (as opposed to secondary) information, my grasp of the overall context, and my ability to make guesses about which statements would make sense or be likely within this context.

A lot of the time though, what I end up hearing is a bunch of words that I understand, strewn scattershot in a mass of verbiage whose overall meaning is incomprehensible. In other words, I get a number (sometimes even a fair number) of the words being used, but have no idea what’s being said.

This can be frustrating.

I guess it’s largely a matter of missing vocabulary, though sometimes I get the feeling there might be syntax issues too, like I haven’t yet grasped the meaning that arises when words are put together in a certain way.

Of course, there are English words that I don’t know, too, though I usually only come across them in written form. However, my command of English is good enough and the words I can’t understand tend to constitute such a small percentage of what I’m reading, that I almost never run into statements that are totally incomprehensible – usually it’s just a matter of my understanding becoming temporarily somewhat blurred. To extend the visual analogy, it’s more like the resolution diminishing or the picture flickering slightly than it dropping out altogether.

I was reminded of this recently when reading English novelist John Le Carré’s 1974 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Whether because the novel was set in the England of 40 years ago or because it takes place within the milieus of British Intelligence agencies and political circles – settings that I have no real knowledge of – there were a number of words and expressions that I was either unfamiliar with or that were being used in ways I’d never seen before.

  • Although I’d never before heard of a harridan, given the context I get the basic meaning of the specific phrase that the word appears in (“the duty harridan from monitoring”) as describing someone whose job within the British intelligence service’s office involves receiving and/or monitoring communiqués, or perhaps some other kind of information; so perhaps harridan describes a rank within the organization?
  • A “Bible desk” is obviously a type of desk, but I have no idea of its specific characteristics.
  • Shirty is obviously an adjective since it’s used at one point to describe the response someone gives to a question – but given the context a number of different possible meanings suggested themselves to me, such as irritated, defensive, evasive, and suspicious, without my being able to narrow the choices down further.
  • With some words I really drew a blank – what does it mean to describe someone as rum or call them an owl? What is a pack-drill? Or boffins?
  • Thanks to my urban upbringing and lack of interest in things like gardening and bird-watching, I often have problems with names of plants and birds; for example, I have no idea what the difference is between a begonia and a hydrangea – both words summon up for me nothing more than generic flower images. Anyway, when one of the characters in the book compares her husband to a swift, I get that she’s talking about some sort of bird, but when she extends the simile with a description of swifts’ thermoregulation, she’s going into territory that’s totally unknown to me.

I almost never bother to look words up, especially when reading a novel – not only am I lazy, but usually I’m too involved in the narrative to want to break off reading. And it doesn’t much matter: the degree to which my understanding is diminished is usually small enough that it has no real impact on my overall understanding or enjoyment.

After finishing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I read the author’s introduction and was amused to learn that although Le Carré had invented most of the jargon used in the book (“lamplighter, scalphunter, babysitter, honey-trap” etc), a lot of the terminology had subsequently been adopted by real-life intelligence professionals. Some of these words I had been able to more-or-less figure out, others not at all. Le Carré is a good enough author to be able to convincingly sketch his world on the fly, and he doesn’t usually interrupt the narrative with definitions or heavy-handed explanations. So it’s up to the reader to catch what he can, and frankly, I didn’t catch everything – presumably someone with real-life intelligence experience would have understood better than I did both the situations described as well as the author’s neologisms.

What I really wish I had was a Thai tutor who I could get to talk to me about both certain words that I haven’t figured out and certain topics where I know I’m deficient in the vocabulary. I’ve been thinking about this specifically in relation to the news on TV, which I started watching again when I got back to Thailand late last month. News coverage of business and politics is especially hard to understand, and there’s probably something like ten to twenty words that really stand out – I hear them over and over again in these stories, but still can’t understand them.

Granted, even if I understood those words I think business and political news would still be really difficult, but maybe I’d at least understand something in cases where I now understand nothing, and something more in cases where I now understand just a little. That would be progress, I suppose, and might lead to a new crop of words becoming familiar enough to work their way into my awareness.

Sometimes I wonder if it would be worth it to learn to read. I think that targeting specific topics and their associated vocabularies is easier with written material than with TV and movies.


One thought on “Missing Words

  1. Pingback: Ordinary Lives: เด็กชายในเงา dek chai nai ngao | learning thai without studying

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