A Radio Day

22 July 2014, TV = 832.3 hours

Radio station in the city of Khon Kaen, one of the major cities in Isaan.

Radio station in the city of Khon Kaen, one of the major cities in Isaan (from a previous trip of mine, not the one described in this post).

I just didn’t feel like reading. Instead, I stared out the windows as the bus made its way along the winding mountainous roads of western Loei. Even after we had descended to lower ground in Petchabun, mountain chains off in the distance to the east and west paralleled our route, demarcating on the horizons the flat expanse of land that the bus was moving south through. The eastern mountains looked to be closer and lower – this would be the Khorat plateau, specifically the provinces of Chaiyaphum and, further south, Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) – while the western mountains seemed both taller and further off: were they really the ridges that, way on the other side of the Chao Phraya river basin, massed on the border between Thailand and Myanmar?

I hadn’t intentionally pursued any Thai input over the last couple weeks – though I’d gotten a decent amount in a catch-as-catch-can kind of way; so I decided to use my return trip to Bangkok to get back into the swing of things by listening to the radio on my basic (i.e., non-smartphone) Nokia candybar.

I haven’t listened to a whole lot of radio in Thai, mainly because I prefer input with some kind of visual component. There’s also the matter of the kind of content you get on the radio. I don’t think music is all that great for language learning (see City Mouse / Country Mouse…), and haven’t really been grabbed by talk radio or news shows. Plus you’ve got to put up with all those commercials. I tend to think that the most compelling content is narrative, and what I’d really like to listen to are audiobooks – but that would be a story for another day.

But I’d recently started thinking about the potential of audio-only material after reading a couple posts by fellow bloggers about using what would usually be downtime to get more input; one of the posts was specifically about using radio. (See Rise of the Polyglot: Learning a language on the go? and Lady Of The Cakes: Project Trilingual: The Radio…).

I’m also intrigued by the idea of a less-focused kind of exposure to Thai. When I watch movies or TV in Thai, I pretty much try to focus all my attention on what I’m watching. But listening to radio or audio-only while doing other things (running errands, cleaning, stretching, etc) provides a different kind of experience – one that’s usually less strenuous (because you’re not “trying” so hard to pay attention) and in which what’s going to tend to stand out will be the words and language you know so well that you’d have a hard time blocking them out even if you wanted to.1

Maybe I think of this as being a more “impressionistic” kind of language input. (Or maybe just more “disengaged” – or plain old “spaced-out”!)

Anyway, I plugged my earphones in, turned on, tuned in, and let my attention flit between the mountains, the voices streaming into my ears, and my own meandering thoughts.

Problem: when you’re constantly in motion you always eventually hit a point where you’re moving away from whatever radio station(s) you’ve managed to tune into. Luckily my phone has an option for automatic tuning which when selected locates all the stations within range, so that you can then easily flip between them just by hitting a key on the phone.

But: a lot of the stations that I thus tuned into were “duds,” either unclear or staticky, or nothing but static – or silence. And manual tuning, slow and laborious, didn’t produce any better results.

Maybe this wouldn’t have mattered so much if there’d been a whole lot of stations, but throughout most of the trip – until hitting a more urban, more developed area somewhere around Ayutthaya – there would usually be only one or two listenable stations for the area I was passing through. And often there wouldn’t be any.

It seems that rural Thailand – or at least the area I was passing through, which was basically central Thailand’s eastern edge – is underserved with respect to radio.

So I was pretty constantly having to hit auto-tune, because whenever I found something to listen to it never lasted very long. It ended up being a kind of restless, irritating experience.

As for what I did find to listen to, it was…ok, but nothing all that compelling. And, my level of understanding was, on average, just-the-main-topic-with-some-scattered-details, which depending how you look on it can be either kind of cool (“Oh-hooo2, check it out! I’m listening to Thai talk radio and I actually get that the show’s about health issues and that the guy’s talking about renal disease and its symptoms!”) or dispiriting (“Man, three years of learning Thai and all I can figure out about this radio show is that it’s about renal disease and its symptoms!”)

Some stuff was way hard (read: incomprehensible), like political news3; while one of the easiest things to understand was a call-in interview with an elderly woman who was taking care of her grandkids and sick husband, as well as attending to her own health issues – I realized it was likely shaping up to be an infomercial for some kind of herbal cure, but flipped the station because I’d lost interest, but it didn’t really matter because the bus soon outdistanced that particular area of reception anyway.

And so it went, eastern-central Thailand’s landscape rolling by, me half-listening to whatever channel or two was available as it grew increasingly obscure before finally being submerged altogether in the radio-scape’s ubiquitous wash of static, my hitting auto-tune again, again, again, while stuffing my face with a bag of miniature cream-filled horns I’d gotten at the rest-stop and idly considering possible future travel itineraries…and then things changed.

We were no longer in the boonies. It was somewhere around Ayutthaya, and the rural landscape had given way to a much more developed look: we’d passed into what I guess you could call the “greater Bangkok” area. And suddenly I had about 20 to 254 radio stations to choose from, all of them coming in pretty clear.

By then, the last leg of an almost eight hour bus-ride which itself had been preceded by a four hour wait at Phu Ruea’s tiny bus station, I was pretty tired – talk about impressionistic, unfocused listening! – and did not want to listen to any more Thai being spoken on the radio. Maybe music would be ok.

So I spent much of the remainder of the ride to Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus station restlessly roaming through channels looking for a song that I’d like, or staring out the windows at the increasingly urban landscape and thickening Bangkok traffic. When I realized we were almost at Mo Chit I switched off the radio and unplugged the headphones, and gathered my things up into my small knapsack.

My radio day had come to an end.

* * *


1. For my experience with certain Thai words standing out while others remain incomprehensible, see my post Eavesdropping; I mused on the subject of paying attention in, well, Paying Attention.

2. I’m trying here to transliterate the Thai exclamation used to express surprise or playful mock surprise; but how could I possibly nail down in (English) writing the contrast between the abruptness of the first syllable and the drawing-out of the second, plus the particular modulations of the voice used?

3. Hardly surprising; see The Last Couple Months: A Look Back for my experiences watching political coverage on TV.

4. Actually, the number of stations I could tune into varied between 27 and 30, but usually several of these were duplicates.

7 thoughts on “A Radio Day

  1. ladyofthecakes

    Thanks for the plug 🙂

    You know what… I actually find commercials very helpful. I find that the brevity and repetitiveness make phrases and vocab stick. I agree with you re. music. I don’t find it all that helpful. Lyrics often use screwed up grammar, odd colocations and weird vocab to fit the verse.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Oh I agree that commercials can be good for learning. I still remember picking up the word for confidence (มมั่นใจ) from a deodorant commercial that was shown repeatedly on the skytrain, my first year in Thailand. 🙂 It’s just they can get annoying after awhile.

      And I didn’t really plug your blog, I was just referencing a post that I found helpful…anyways —

      Anyone interested in cultural-linguistic observations, language-learning experiences, colorful photos of cakes and cathedrals, and sundry odd and assorted topics ranging from egg timers to iberian stone carvings to the finer points of the food industry’s less savory practices would do well to check out the multilingual LOTC’s witty and well-written eponymous blog.

      There, that’s more of a proper plug. 😉

      1. ladyofthecakes

        Oh my, now THAT is a proper plug 😉

        Talking of deodorant commercials… there’s currently one running here in Spain for Axe Peace. Except, they insist on pronouncing it “piss” 😉

      2. adamf2011 Post author

        Well, there are people/cultures that believe urine can be used medicinally — either ingested or applied topically. Haven’t tried it myself; it would seem likely that dabbing it under one’s armpits probably would block out the smell of sweat, though….
        Language-related question: don’t native Spanish speakers have difficulty pronouncing that short-i sound that you find in English words like piss, bit, list etc? Or am I misremembering? I would have thought they’d be pronouncing piss as peace, and not the other way around.

      3. ladyofthecakes

        Urine components are used medicinally in virtually all countries, and I’m not talking bizarre home remedies. There are urea-containing creams available in pharmacies to treat severe skin dryness and other ailments, and Premarin (a hormone replacement drug) stands for Pregnant Mare’s Urine.

  2. adamf2011 Post author

    Interesting, I didn’t know that. Then again, that wouldn’t really be a selling point, at least not where I’m from. (Trying to imagine how advertisements with the slogan “MADE FROM REAL HORSE PISS!” would go over in the US 🙂 ).

  3. Pingback: Easy Listening | learning thai without studying

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s