Some Bumps In The Road

24 January 2014; AT5 = 1063 hours; total class time = 2001 hours; TV = 485.7 hours

Maybe I’ve been having some problems speaking Thai?

After being away from the country for a couple months, speaking Thai sometimes felt kind of awkward – but then at some point without my even being very aware of it, that awkwardness wore off. (See previous post Back in Thailand, Back to Thai).

Then during a recent stay in the provinces I ended up using a lot of Thai. During this time there was a week or two where I felt like I’d lost my ability to make Thai sounds: sure the words coming out of my mouth were Thai, but didn’t they sound like they were assembled from (American) English phonemes?

After that things got better – somewhat. I managed to sound more Thai, but I’d hear myself mispronouncing words left and right. I’d say something and then hear the correct pronunciation as a kind of after-echo in my mind.

But although my Thai sounded “off” to me, my ability to make myself understood didn’t seem to be suffering. Was I simply becoming more sensitive to deficiencies in pronunciation that I’d had all along? Was my accent slipping at the same time that I was maintaining a pronunciation clear enough to be basically understood?

As for why this happened, I suspect it had to do with being in very social all-Thai situations which often compelled me to push my speaking abilities beyond their current limits. It seems harder to maintain Thai-sounding pronunciation even for language that I’m already well familiar with, when I’m tripping over words whose sounds I don’t have a firm grasp of, or trying to figure out how to say things that I don’t yet know how to say.

In contrast, ordering noodle soup or telling someone where in the US I’m from – conversations I’ve had dozens of times already – is fairly effortless, so it’s a lot easier to keep the sounds sounding Thai.

I’ve never practiced Thai in the sense of repeating the same thing over and over trying to get it “right”, or in the presence of a teacher who’s going to correct me. My practice is just speaking Thai in real-life situations. Nonetheless, since certain real-life situations seem to get repeated over and over, I have in effect practiced certain areas of the language more than others.

Plus when I’m speaking Thai, if I’m using words that I’ve really assimilated, I usually have a feeling as to whether the pronunciation is on or off the mark. On the other hand, trying to use words that I haven’t yet assimilated, haven’t yet really gotten the hang of, is like groping around for something in the dark – and not really finding it.



The ALG approach is not to speak unless what you want to say comes out fairly automatically; and maybe in an ideal world, I’d still be able to get away with that. I followed that strategy pretty closely for most of my first year in Thailand, hardly speaking at all; but since the time I did start speaking, I often find myself pushing ahead and saying things that I really am not yet ready to say. Sometimes the person I’m speaking with can follow what I’m saying, sometimes I’m met with a look of total incomprehension. I often have to give a much simpler, much briefer account of things than I’d like to, and sometimes if what I want to say requires too many words that I don’t know or can’t manage, I have to forgo saying it.

I try to minimize speaking forays into areas of Thai that are still unclear: trying to say things that I’m not yet ready to say is both frustrating and exhausting. But social situations sometimes impose demands, and the ability to use crosstalk techniques can be limited by the abilities, understanding, expectations, and level of patience of my interlocutors, as well as by the actual physical situation (ie, do I have a means of drawing pictures/diagrams?).

I was recently in a group conversation (in Thai) whose modus operandi seemed kind of dinner party: ask questions, don’t stay with any one topic too long, keep the conversation light, keep it moving, use one topic as a means of springing off into another. I would be asked a question but would only get part way through an answer before someone would ask me a different question. In English this wouldn’t be a problem, but at my level of Thai part of speaking is strategic: finding simple ways to answer that don’t go beyond what I’m capable of, taking time to build up to an answer, trying to solicit from the other person a Thai word that I don’t know but need – all of this takes time and energy.

The other people didn’t seem to realize that I was operating in a different mode than they were – or maybe they didn’t care, they were just enjoying the ebullience of flittering from one topic to another – and I found myself not only increasingly frustrated, but progressively more tired and less able to keep the conversational ball up in the air. I started to feel angry: If you really wanted to know the answer to this question, why don’t you let me finish instead of cutting me off with a completely different question?

Sometimes I perceive myself as a “conversation liability” to the Thais: speaking with me is going to require more time, patience, effort, and even strategy than would an ordinary conversation with another Thai, and there are still going to be dead-ends and frustrating areas of murkiness or outright incomprehension on both sides. Some people like me enough, and are interested enough in my experiences, that they’ll spend the extra time and effort, whereas other people might not even have the ability to do so.

I really appreciate it when people do take the extra time and energy to speak with me; but sometimes, when my energy is running low or my speaking and listening abilities are being pushed beyond their limits, it can be a drag: frustrating and tiring. And, not that anyone shows it, but I wonder if it’s sometimes a drag for them too, having a conversation partner of such limited abilities.


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