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.