Still Thinking About Learning To Read

13 June 2014, TV = 783.8 hours

Attempting a little self-evaluation a few posts back, I talked about my comprehension of spoken Thai, as well as my very limited ability to read – or maybe more accurately, to pick out a few words here and there.

A commenter named Jon wrote:

“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.”

I thought about this comment for awhile, since it brings up a number of issues that I feel are important; the reply that I was trying to write ended up getting so long that I decided to just make it a separate post – so here it is:

I agree with you that just attending classes at AUA probably won’t lead to complete fluency. As you note, there seems to be a considerable gap between their most advanced class and the wider world of “real life” Thai that occurs beyond the walls of the classroom. But as far as fluency in everyday spoken Thai is concerned, I’m not convinced that a supplementary program of more traditional study and practice is required. I think classes at AUA give you a kind of “foot in the door” to the Thai language, and that you can continue to learn and absorb Thai in ALG-style from “real life” encounters with the language.

As for the role of literacy, I’m sure that there are areas of Thai which are most easily accessed through the written word. I also think that being literate would provide me with new avenues for encountering the language, and would allow me to easily “target” certain areas on my own (i.e., if I wanted to learn the vocabulary used to describe the parts of a car, I could just read a book or article on the subject instead of having to either find a Thai person willing to give me a lesson, or passively waiting until I happened to encounter the vocabulary in real life conversation). So I’m sure that when I eventually learn to read, it will be useful for further learning spoken Thai.

For me it’s more a question of when. For a long time I’ve held onto the idea that I’d tackle reading only after I could understand basic everyday spoken Thai (whatever that really is) to a fairly high degree. Or, barring that, that I should be able to hear and differentiate between the actual sounds used in spoken Thai.

Well, as for the former, my understanding of spoken Thai is still only partial, and very variable at that (i.e., no problem understanding certain instances of spoken Thai, and at the other extreme there’s stuff that’s totally incomprehensible). As for the actual sounds of spoken Thai, I’m kind of unsure where I currently stand in my ability to fully differentiate between all of them. In terms of shortcomings, I suspect at the very least that there are some sounds where although I can hear some kind of difference between them, that difference remains kind of vague and unclear. It’s possible there are other differences that I can’t hear at all, but I’m unsure because the spoken Thai that I’m exposed to in TV and conversations doesn’t usually lend itself to direct comparisons of similar-sounding words (such as โจร and จน, mentioned in the original post).

Recently some Thai friends were having a bit of fun with me. They rattled off a string of words that, sound-wise, I think differed only in terms of their tones; I think it was tiger, mat, shirt, buy – and I can’t remember the other. They’d go rapid-fire through the five words and then ask me to repeat the list – which I couldn’t do. If they went one word at a time, I think I did an OK job of repeating back what was said, albeit I sometimes needed correcting and had to try a few times when repeating a particular word.

So did I correctly repeat all the words? I don’t know, because we were just clowning around, so no one gave me any kind of overt evaluation and I didn’t ask.

I was definitely picking up on differences in sound between the five words, though I think it was easiest to hear these differences between immediately “adjacent” words in the list (i.e., between #1 and #2) than between words further apart (i.e., between #2 and #5). Often these differences felt kind of vague, like, here are two words that don’t quite sound the same, but I’m not sure exactly how they differ. And sure it didn’t help that they kept reciting the list rapid-fire, all at one go, and wanting me to do the same (they were definitely teasing me a bit!), but on the other hand I think if the sounds of Thai were really firmly entrenched in my brain, the speed with which the words were repeated wouldn’t have mattered – after all, I don’t think that I would have problems hearing and repeating an analogous list in English, even if it were recited rapidly; maybe for example bear, beer, bore, bar, bur; or – to take some sound differences that I’ve observed native Thai speakers having problems with, tea, tree, three, thee.

On a practical level, it’s like there’s an area of the Thai language – i.e., a set of Thai words – that I know really well and don’t seem to have any problems hearing or pronouncing; whereas other words still remain vague or unclear, and if I need to use them in the course of a conversation I end up flailing around, because I’m not sure how they really sound. So is it that there are certain Thai sounds (or sound combinations) that are still problematic for me, that I still don’t “get”? Or do I basically have the hang of Thai’s sounds – at least as far as hearing them is concerned – and it’s just a question of gaining familiarity with individual, specific words, so I get to the point of remembering them well enough to use them myself?

If I already know all the sounds used in Thai, then maybe I’d go ahead and start learning to read. But if there are certain Thai sounds that my brain hasn’t yet decoded, then I think learning to read could be a mistake – how could I match a letter/character to a sound that I can’t yet really hear? What sound would I end up matching that character to?

I’ve wondered what my experience of spoken English was like when, at age five, I learned to read English. I suspect that at that point I was long familiar with all the sounds English uses, even if there were individual words that I didn’t yet understand. But, I can’t really remember.

When I was going to AUA, you were eligible to take reading and writing courses as soon as you started AT5, the advanced class; if you had started the program as a complete beginner, that would be at the point of having attended 800 hours of classes. (It seems like they have since come up with an introductory reading/writing course that students can take while at the lower, intermediate level – but I’m not clear if it was ever implemented, as it doesn’t appear on the current schedule).

But when I think back to my considerably lower level of understanding of outside-the-classroom spoken Thai when I first entered AT5, I’m glad I continued to focus on the spoken language and didn’t jump into learning to read.

Basically, I periodically think about learning to read, but have always ended up deciding to postpone doing so while I continue to focus on spoken Thai; but I still think about it. I do pay attention to written Thai and have been figuring out more and more of it on my own; the prospect of being able to really read is definitely appealing.

I’m curious as to what people’s actual experiences are vis-a-vis learning to read Thai and what impact literacy then had on their ability to understand the spoken language; and I’m especially curious about how this played out for students who learned Thai through ALG (i.e., no translating, no studying, no reading or writing in the early stages, etc).

In general, I haven’t read an awful lot about people’s experiences of listening to and understanding (or not understanding) spoken Thai; when people do write about their experiences with Thai, it seems that they tend to focus more on speaking and reading, but there’s not too much about listening or about how oral comprehension plays out in different “areas” of the language. (For example, see Catherine Wentworth’s Interviewing successful Thai language learners series).

To anyone reading this: If you are learning (or have learned) Thai, then whether or not you went to AUA or elsewhere, your comments would be more than welcome; I’d like to hear about your experiences, and especially in the areas of oral comprehension and reading/literacy/illiteracy.

9 thoughts on “Still Thinking About Learning To Read

  1. Nick

    I made the decision to learn to read Thai script very early on when I was learning the language, and although it was difficult in the beginning, the long term payoff has been immense. If you do it correctly, it can also reinforce correct pronunciation (it would help you a lot with the tiger/shirt/mat problem you mentioned). There is also a really good website I’d recommend called where you can keep a journal (in your target language) and in this case have native Thai speakers correct it.

    One slight drawback from learning to read is to watch out for ภาษาเขียน, literally ‘writing language’. You’ll be exposing yourself to a lot of new vocabulary and expressions, and your Thai friends will (should?) explain that its not natural to use them in a normal conversation.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Thanks for the input. Regarding ภาษาเขียน, I’d kind of suspected — based on things I’d heard — that there’s a bigger gap in Thai between the spoken and written registers than there is in English.

  2. Pingback: How I’m Using Written Thai Even Though I’m Only Protoliterate | learning thai without studying

  3. Andrej

    While I haven’t studied at AUA, living in Switzerland, I’ve tried to adapt ALG ideas to my self-study, and I was pretty strict about certain principles. In particular, I’ve observed a 22 month long silent period and learned to understand spoken Thai fairly well before attempting to read or speak. After 22 months of listening, and having gotten to a point where I could understand a fair bit of the language, I started speaking. The first year was painful, then it got better. Maybe at the same time, maybe a bit later (or earlier?), I started reading. Learning to read was so easy that I don’t even have any recollections of the process anymore. It is so much easier to read when you have the sound system solidly acquired and already know the language to some degree. One thing I remember doing is the following: I had had people record books for me (for instance children’s encyclopedias with many pictures and one or two sentences beneath each picture). I would start looking at the text underneath the pictures while listening to the recording, trying to ‘read along’. I also had educational DVDs for kids teaching the letters and the writing of syllables. I hadn’t watched that stuff earlier, but when I decided the time is right to learn reading, I watched those DVDs a few times; I believe they were for kindergarten kids. Then I just read, first very simple stuff, then books for kids, now normal books and on the internet. Reading was really painless. Looking back, I clearly have benefitted enormously from reading: I’ve learned many, many useful words from extensive reading (and chatting with friends), and seeing the written form of familiar words often clarified ambiguities for me. But I also would say that having the sound system solidly acquired (the 22 month long silent period) before trying to read was the best thing I did in my learning of Thai; I’m really happy with my pronunciation, much happier than with any other second language I speak, even if I’m much more competent in those (e.g., English or Swiss German). Words I’ve learned to recognize (and understand – which is not always the same since I still don’t use bilingual dictionaries other than in exceptional cases) in books will often be recognizable in spoken language, and vice versa. So, at least for me, reading really has a positive impact on my listening abilities

  4. Andrej

    Another thing that clearly has helped my spoken Thai was the ability to text chat with friends (or strangers) once I was able to read and write. Text chatting is pretty close to the spoken language for all I have observed. Similarly, discussions on forums will also often be pretty informal and close to the spoken language. While I would do the same thing I’ve actually done, i.e., delay speaking and reading until oral comprehension skills are good, I wouldn’t delay reading and writing much longer than speaking, maybe a few months to a year, but not more. Being literate is a great joy and a huge bonus in further improving all language skills including oral production.

  5. Andrej

    Me again, please allow me to shamelessly plug my website which you might find useful at this or a later stage. It contains about 10 hours of spoken Thai for which I had transcripts made. You can listen and read along, the transcripts are overall pretty accurate. It’s naturally spoken Thai, so relatively fast, but at some point on your journey you might find it useful.

  6. adamf2011 Post author

    Andrej: So, sorry for the long delay in my replies — I was away traveling, without access to the internet. Anyway, your experience sounds pretty interesting, because I’ve often wondered about using an ALG-type approach to learning languages in the absence of any kind of organized school program (like AUA). So were you just listening to Thai from audio/video sources, or did you have (native?) Thais who you could get input from?

    I’ve really delayed learning how to read, but I’m not sorry that I did. I am, slowly, going further along — over the past few months I learned the Thai consonants, started reading simple children’s books (a number of which I’ve made audio recordings of with the help of a Thai friend who reads them aloud for me), and am starting to move on to some magazines, plus I’m now trying to get a somewhat more active knowledge of the written language by practicing writing out the words. There’s actually a lot of stuff I’ve been doing in terms of learning reading/writing that I just haven’t gotten around to posting about — I’d like to, but: time/energy constraints.

    As for your website — plug away! It looks like a pretty valuable resource both in terms of oral comprehension and learning to read; I’m going to try to download some of the audio files to my phone and listen to them a bit, then at some point come back to the written versions.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful and in-depth comments — I’m really interested in how the learning process went / is going for you, so feel free to drop by and comment anytime.

    Just out of curiosity, what is (are) your native language(s)?

    Anyway, happy 2015!

    1. Andrej

      Thanks, and happy 2015 to you as well! Let me also take this opportunity to thank you for your blog, it’s great to read about ALG from a student’s perspective.

      Yes, I did have native Thais to get input from, in a structured way. I’ve tried to summarize what I did here:
      I doubt that just listening to videos (unless they’re custom made) will be very efficient. I’ve observed a number of proponents of the so-called TV-method (watch TV from zero to fluency) fail, and the reason clearly is lack of comprehensible input. In any natural language acquisition approach, comprehensible input, especially at the beginner and lower intermediate stage, is crucial.

      I’m glad you’re on your way to learning to read, and I’m sure it’ll be beneficial to your overall learning endeavor. It certainly was for me.

      As to my native language, I’m German but have been living in Switzerland for more than a decade.

  7. Pingback: Steps Taken Toward Reading Thai: 2014 Summary | learning thai without studying

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