10 January 2015, TV 1042.6 = hours
AUA: advanced class = 1068 hours, total class time = 2006 hours
In my experience with learning a language on its own terms, from the inside — in other words, not going through other languages (i.e., not getting translations or explanations in English1), and a lot of the time not even asking what words mean, but just letting their sounds and meanings crystallize in my consciousness of their own accord — I think the acquisition process happens largely on its own timetable. The points at which I’ll start noticing a word, at which the sounds of the word become clear enough to discern, or when the meaning or use of the word comes into focus, don’t seem to be things I can predict or control, though I believe that continually getting more input is what keeps the process going forward.
I’d say that for most of the Thai words that I know, this learning process has been largely unconscious and unnoticeable — I have no memory of the first time I recognized or understood them; but with other words, some stage (or stages) of the process stand out.
If you’re learning a language by studying, you might be able to learn a new grammatical construction by looking it up in a book (or on the internet, etc), or by asking someone to teach you it; and for new vocabulary, you can just add some new words to your stack of flashcards. But if you’re pursuing a more natural approach to language learning like ALG, I think that there’s a limit to what you can do to hurry the process along. The new input that you get might not teach you the particular expression or words that your really want to know, and might not clear up those mystery words whose sounds you’ve learned to recognize, but whose meanings are still not clear.
Or, you can push things along by asking people specific questions: What does this word mean? How about that phrase? Or you describe a situation, and maybe use some nonverbal communication as well, to try to get the native speaker to give you the word(s) you want. That is, if you have access to a native speaker who will take the time and trouble to listen and try to understand and respond.
I’ve often wished I had a Thai language genie to hang out with 24/7, who would be willing to talk to me (in Thai, of course!) about any topic I chose, and who would themselves bring up interesting and useful topics; who would go places with me and discuss what we were seeing and doing; who would watch Thai TV with me and be willing to answer my questions about scenes (or language) that I didn’t understand; etc.
* * *
A few months ago, I got a children’s book about a young bunny rabbit who eagerly learns how to clean her room and help her parents with the housework (กระต่ายน้อย ช่วยงานบ้าน). I looked at it a bit, recorded a friend reading it aloud, and then pretty much ignored the book for a few months — instead, I’d occasionally listen to the recording. I revisited the book last month when I was making lists of Thai words for practice (see Steps Taken Toward Reading Thai).
I understand the book pretty well; in fact, I’d say that the overwhelming majority of the words used are ones I already know. But there are some words here and there that I don’t get. Anyway, at some point fairly recently (but when?), when listening to the audio version the word ชม would stand out clearly — a new word, its meaning clear from its place in the story being told.
But: a word that I don’t remember noticing when I first tried reading the book, nor later on when I started listening to the audio version. Something happened at some point for the word to become a noticeable word, one that stood out, whose sound and meaning was clear.
Then a couple weeks ago I bought a few new books, and one of them — two books in one, actually — is basically a list of things that children should or should not do.2 In the afterword to the yes-these-are-things-that-you-should-do section, the author encourages parents to ชม their kids for good behavior.
Well, I had had my friend record this new book as well, and as I listened to the recording while kind of reading the book3, I ran into ชม several times: already a word within my growing pool of recognizable, usable Thai words.
I guess it’s not that surprising that I’ve acquired this word recently, and that I’ve run into it in two of the books I’ve been spending time with. The children’s books that I’m reading all seem to have a didactic purpose — to teach kids to act in certain ways and not others. Simultaneously, a couple of these books, at least, teach the parents/caregivers to reinforce desirable behavior by ชมing their kids.
* * *
Then there’s the more active approach of just straight out asking about stuff. When I do ask, I tend to ask about words that have already begun to stand out — I notice them when I hear them, their sounds are clear to me — but their meanings are not.
Just a few days ago I asked my friend about รบกวน, a word I’d recently started noticing. She put forward an English translation, but then, more importantly, described the situations in which this word would tend to come up and how exactly it would be used. Then I could understand รบกวน’s meaning, and see that although the English translation that she had offered would often work, there would also be other choices of wording open to English speakers who found themselves in an analogous situation.
Then a couple days ago I’m watching ดอกส้มสีทอง (dawk som see thong), and come across this scene:
Fah and Khun Chai hanging out together, in New Zealand; from episode 5 of ดอกส้มสีทอง (dawk som see thong)
And there you go!
* * *
1. During the first phases of my learning Thai, I was getting what I learned almost entirely from classes at AUA and, with rare exceptions, the classroom was an all-Thai environment with no translating or explaining in English (see The First 1000 Hours, Part 4). But then as I got out into the “real world” I began interacting with (Thai) people who would sometimes speak to me in English, or give me English translations of Thai terms that I wasn’t understanding. If it was a formal language exchange situation — that is, if the whole basis for our being together and communicating was in order to teach each other our respective languages — then I might ask (often repeatedly!) the other person to stick to Thai. But if we weren’t in a “language-exchange relationship”, I wouldn’t try to dictate their choice of language, other than occasionally asking how something would be said in Thai. Even with language-exchange partners, whether or not I ask them to speak in Thai depends on a number of things, since what a lot of people are looking for is the chance to practice speaking English; often what it comes down to is, is this my time? (i.e., the conversation we’re having is now primarily for my benefit) or the other person’s (in which case I would tailor my speech to their language learning needs/goals).
In any event, if I am given an English translation or explanation for a bit of Thai, I always take it with a grain of salt: sometimes it turns out to be just plain wrong, or sometimes it might help point you to the basic meaning of the word, without actually being a good translation (i.e., it’s kind of clumsy or awkward). And then even a good translation has its limitations — or so I believe.
2. แบบนี้ต้องปรบมือให้! and the considerably more entertaining ทำแบบนี้ไม่ดีแน่ๆ!, which seem to be a translation from Korean, judging by the names of the writer and illustrator (Chao Bo-Geum and Kwant You-Jung, respectively).
3. As might be expected, I am an often slow and stumbling reader in Thai; when I simultaneously look at a text while listening to it, I’m not so much reading as just scanning or following along — just recognizing letters and words enough to keep up with the speaker. It’s pretty much the same as when I follow along with Pali chants at Buddhist temples, something I briefly described in Steps Taken Toward Reading Thai).