Illiteracy Issues

7 December 2013; AT5 = 1063 hours; total class time = 2001 hours; TV = 467.5 hours

You’d think that being illiterate in a country’s language would present some major practical problems, like not being able to negotiate government forms, or menus or street signs. But the government forms I’ve encountered have all been bilingual English-Thai, and though it can be slow-going, my minimal reading skills are basically up to deciphering menus. As for street signs, if they’re all in Thai I can make out roughly what they sound like, though with Thai (mis)pronunciation, a miss is usually as good as a mile.

Not being able to read Thai, it’s little problems that crop up.

Someone recently pointed out to me that I was mispronouncing the word lakorn. As soon as he said the word, I could distinctly hear the difference between our pronunciations. Thinking about it afterwards I felt kind of stupid (“I’ve been totally mispronouncing this word that I use all the time!”), but thinking some more, I realized that though the correct Thai pronunciation of the word sounded familiar – so it’s not that it was just registering for the first time – my actual experience of the word has mostly been within English-language contexts: usually reading or writing, occasionally speaking. In fact, the conversation during which I learned of my mistake was in English, not Thai.

Using the word mostly within English contexts, I had unconsciously anglicized its pronunciation; for example I had shifted the stress to the first syllable (“LAKorn”) whereas in Thai there seems to be more of a slight stress on the last syllable (“laKORN”). In a way, lakorn has become more of an English word for me than a Thai one.

A related problem that I’ve run into again and again is not being understood when I need to use a word that I basically only know from having read it in English (transliterated) form. This often happens with place names, like the name of a street or a hotel. People just have no idea what I’m talking about, and then when they finally do get it and correctly pronounce the word in question, it sounds almost nothing like what I had been saying – no wonder they couldn’t understand! The English alphabet just doesn’t seem up to the task of representing actual Thai sounds.

I’ve had the reverse problem too: Thai words which I know only from having encountered them in written (Thai) form, for example the words that roughly mean “announcement / notice” and “direction of”, which I see over and over again on signs and notices. I know approximately how these words sound, but I don’t really know how to say them. From the standpoint of practical communication this doesn’t really matter, since these are words that I’ve never really needed to use in conversation. Maybe the Thais don’t really use them in conversation either – or maybe I’ve somehow just failed to notice them.

Then there are problems I’ve had with movie and TV watching. You’d think that illiteracy and movies/TV would be a good combination – and it usually is! – but how about all the times that the plot hinges on a newspaper headline or a sign or note, or even worse, on a whole long letter or article? Well sometimes there’s a voiceover reading it, and sometimes there isn’t. And sometimes I can understand a bit of what’s written, and sometimes I can’t.

Thai subtitles are also a problem. The films and TV that I watch for language learning purposes have their audio basically in Thai, but I’ve seen stuff where some of the characters speak in another language (often Chinese or Japanese), which gets subtitled into Thai. Then there are films I’ve seen where people are speaking Thai, but it’s a local dialect instead of standard Thai (for example sawan banaa, which I wrote about in a previous post) – that stuff too gets Thai subtitles.

Usually in the past I’ve just ignored the subtitles and accepted remaining ignorant of what’s being said. And a number of months ago, I bailed out of the most recent incarnation of คู่กรรม (Koo Kam) after realizing a significant amount of it would be in incomprehensible (to me, that is) Japanese with Thai subtitles.

But now I’m watching บุญผ่อง (BoonPong), a Thai PBS lakorn set in WWII Thailand. The characters are a mix of Thai civilians, Japanese military, and Allied POWs, with the corresponding spoken languages being Thai, Japanese, and English. A fair amount – I’m guessing maybe 30 to 40 percent – of the spoken dialogue is not in Thai, and these parts are all subtitled. (The foreign characters are often subtitled even when they speak in Thai).

Maybe it’s just my perception as a non-Japanese speaker, but the Japanese characters seem to get a lot of screen time! And though some of what they say is fairly simple – guards telling the prisoners to get back to work – a lot of it is not.

Anyway, this time around I am reading the subtitles, and fairly successfully. I think on average my understanding of the subtitled parts isn’t really less than my understanding of the spoken-Thai parts. I guess at words based on context and based on my very rough and imperfect understanding of the Thai alphabet, and I usually have at least some idea of what’s being said.

I’d say the breakdown of my understanding of the subtitles is really pretty similar to my understanding of the spoken-Thai parts:

  • statements where I understand every word
  • statements where I’m missing some of the words but get the overall meaning
  • statements where I’m missing a number of words but at least get some idea of what topic is being spoken of
  • statements where I get some of the words but it doesn’t add up to anything meaningwise – I have no idea what’s going on

And then sometimes I just get tired out and give up on trying to read the subtitle.

It’s slow-going though: I have to use the pause button, there’s no way that I could read the subtitles in real-time. It can be a bit wearying to go through a long all-Japanese scene.

But I’m learning things too: there are some words that I recognize from the spoken language, whose meanings I’ve started to figure out during the course of reading the subtitles.

And I occasionally read the Thai subtitles for the English-speaking parts, either out of curiosity or because the audio isn’t clear.

I find BoonPong itself to be a well made, compelling drama, and quite different from most of the other lakorns that I’ve seen; my interest in finding out what’s going on motivates me to keep slogging through the subs. If you want to check it out, here’s a playlist.

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3 thoughts on “Illiteracy Issues

  1. Nick

    Good post! I think it’s really good to hear about how the types of tv shows you watch tie in with literacy. I can read Thai, but sadly not at a good enough speed to keep up with subtitles. It can be frustrating, but I guess like any of these skills they just take time and repetition.

    Reply
  2. adamf2011 Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Nick, and sorry about the delay in getting it posted — I’ve been away from my computer for awhile. Anyway, I can’t keep up with Thai subtitles in real-time either — I need to hit pause, which definitely slows things down and interrupts the pacing of the show. I’m not sure I’d want to watch tons of TV/movies like this, but at least for this one show I don’t mind, and it’s kind of an interesting experiment / learning opportunity.

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

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