Progressing Or Not?

21 May 2014, TV = 775.9 hours

Sometimes I feel disappointed that my Thai isn’t better than it is: not getting what someone’s saying to me, or watching a TV show and hitting a scene where my understanding drops precipitously, or wanting to say something and realizing that I have no idea how to say it.

I don’t get majorly discouraged like wanting to throw in the towel, it’s more like: why can’t I understand this yet, after all this time?

I thought about this the other day as I rode the BTS (the skytrain). Despite having listened to the canned announcements for close to three years now – stuff about upcoming stations, changing for another line, not leaning against the poles, etc. – I still don’t get every word. (Obviously, I’m talking about the Thai announcements – and not the accompanying English translation!)

I do ride the train less often since I stopped going to AUA regularly about a year ago – but still, haven’t I heard these same few sentences several hundred times? How come there are still parts that slip past me, where I can’t catch what’s being said?

* * *

But then there are signs of improvement as well.

I’m definitely getting better at hearing the difference between sounds that – to my English speaker’s ears – sound remarkably similar. For instance, a couple months ago someone pointed out that I was conflating two separate words; when they pronounced both words for me, I could hear the difference for the first time.1 (It hadn’t helped that I’d been perceiving a kind of “linkage” between the meanings of the two words, which I think served as a confirmation – mistaken, as it turned out – that they were the same word).

And then today at the market, I caught onto a new word that not only sounded very similar to another, more familiar word, but also had the same meaning – ie, the two were synonyms, and thus would have been really easy to mix up.2 I actually repeated the new word because I thought I’d misheard, but the woman who’d been speaking to me confirmed that I’d heard (and understood) correctly.

The other improvement has been in reading. (I’ve never really learned how to read, though I have been figuring it out – for example, see here and here).

Probably most of what I read are short things on posters, notices, and advertisements. Context is still a factor in helping me figure out the words, but I’ve been understanding writings where the given context is broader, isn’t nearly as much help in narrowing things down. For example, looking at a menu it’s pretty obvious that most of what’s written is going to be names of foods and drink; whereas a cell phone advertisement could say a lot of different things. And then there are ads (notices, etc) where the topic/context isn’t so obvious. (For example, see this recent post).

Maybe if I at some point have the time/energy/inclination, I’ll try to put together a post showing some of the writings that I have – and haven’t – been able to figure out.

* * *


1. โจร vs. จน

2. เปิด vs. เบิก

(Note: I think these are the pairs of similar-sounding words in question, but using written Thai is a fairly new step for me – and will probably be the subject of a future post!)


8 thoughts on “Progressing Or Not?

  1. missmichelle

    I think it’s amazing that you are taking on learning a language without formal schooling or even training, from what I understand. I have been thinking about doing the same thing by moving to France. I’ve been listening to podcasts that are designed to teach French, and doing a bit of duolinguo when I have the time. But I think immersion is far and away the best way to learn, but I know it must come with a unique set of challenges. I look forward to reading further documentation of your journey!

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Well, I got a lot out of my classes at AUA — I feel like they gave me a foot in the door to the world of Thai beyond the classroom. It’s true that the program might seem informal compared to most, in that there’s no traditional-style study and practice, but I do feel that the program is structured in terms of presenting different topics, concepts, and associated language, at different (and appropriate) points in the curriculum.

      As to how I would have faired without any schooling at all, simply immersing myself…I’m not sure. It seems like some people have learned languages that way, but I feel like the key to how effective immersion without school would be is a concept called “comprehensible input”: being exposed to language in situations where you can understand at least some of what’s going on, where non-visual communication and context bridge the language-gap, and where you hopefully have at least some people who are willing to alter their communication style to accommodate you.

      Looking forward to reading your blog about life in France — or maybe you could forgo the blogging and just occasionally pop a message in a bottle and chuck it into the sea 🙂 ….

  2. Jon

    Why don’t u write ur blog in Thai? Or at least some of it? This is how I got really good at Thai. Writing is such an essential part of a language learner s journey to fluency. Studying at AUA will never make u fluent. . . unless ur extremely gifted in picking up languages.

    A multiple method approach is much more effective (at least from my exp) and a lot of hard work on ur part. For me the whole natural approach with AUA was a fun supplement to structured classes and self study.

    With AUA s method (and some Thai TV, movies watching etc) it would have taken a life time to get to the level I am at today – I am able to speak fluently and read and write to an advanced level. As far as I have seen there are no Thai schools that offer proper advanced classes anywhere – the lectures at AUA are nowhere near advanced.

    Having said all that, I still think AUA style teaching has a place for Thai language learners who want to supplement their listening skills.

  3. Melchor

    There are two aha moments where I know that if I stick to it,one day I will get very fluent and will be able to understand at least 90% of what is being said.

    One is when I was about 7 years. I remember being seated in front of the telly when the news were on. Being 7 you wouldnt pay any attention to the news but I remember thinking ” being Spanish and watching the news in Spanish how come I dont understand a word he is saying?” of course that is uncommon for a child to reflect like this. But what I learnt from that is that when you are a child and you are living your life learning the language without noticing, you dont care wether you understand everything or not. As a child you dont get unxious or discouraged because you dont understand everything. Now as an adult I believe that it doesnt matter whether you understand 30% 50% or 80% per cent of what you hear. Just make sure you are constantly exposed to the language, like a child do, without worrying, and everything will look after itself.

    Another aha moment is when I started learning English. I remember watching a movie and being able to understand less than what I understand today in Thai. So, I tell myself, if you did it once, you can do it again.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Your memory of being seven years old and realizing you couldn’t understand the news, even though it was in your native language, is really interesting. My experience learning Thai has sometimes made me wonder at what age I acquired various parts of my native English — like how old was I when I finally understood what a “doorknob” or a “sunset” was? What about less obvious things like “whimsy” or “illegality”? I don’t have any memories of not understanding the spoken language, though I do remember reading an adult-level novel at about age six and running into words that were unfamiliar and that I didn’t understand; when I reread the book only three years later, I understood everything and couldn’t even pick out which of the words had been the problematic ones during the first reading.

      Anyway, your comment gives me hope that at some point in the future I’ll actually be able to understand Thai news shows!

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