Acquiring New Words

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.

* * *

Pages from the Thai children's book กระต่ายน้อย ช่วยงานบ้าน

Pages from กระต่ายน้อย ช่วยงานบ้าน

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).

11 thoughts on “Acquiring New Words

  1. Andrej

    Thanks for this post, it’s always interesting to read about the acquisition process. I have to say that my experience is pretty much the same. There is no way to accelerate the acquisition of vocabulary other than getting more input. What I often did when I felt I needed to ‘work’ on a certain area was to seek out relevant input, trying to get a decent amount of variety. But the brain operates on its own time and will ignore or notice new words according to its own schedule.

    Even after 5 years, I still have the occasional ‘basic’ word which my brain has chosen to ignore all the time even though I must have heard it hundreds of times. This week I understood the word ทีเดียว for the first time even though I must have heard and read it thousands of times (and I remember that I often wondered what it means, sometimes I even got a bit frustrated but mostly just ignored it); it’s a pretty frequent word. Immediately after I got it (or at least one meaning, it still has to grow I guess), I caught myself using it in a conversation. The brain is a strange animal.

    With improving comprehension, new words tend to stand out more prominently. This doesn’t necessarily mean that those words will be acquired more quickly, but noticing is always a good thing. I usually let them slide by unless they are important in the conversation. With enough exposure, comprehension develops eventually, there’s nothing to worry about.

    Once you can read, you have more options, though. I often look up words in the Royal Institute Dictionary (which is monolingual and online), or sometimes on wikipedia or just do a Google search for pictures or usage examples.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Yeah, I think once I “really” learn to read, I’ll have a lot more options in terms of targeted input; and even reading at a fairly “low” level will be beneficial — I’ve noticed that a lot of Thai children’s books are educational and cover specific subjects — i.e. the human body, electricity, ASEAN countries, biographies of famous people — and presumably the associated vocabulary. In fact, I’ve already started down that avenue with a book on plants, another on fruit, and another on flood-pests. But then a lot of it is catch-as-catch can, with words’ sounds and meanings coming into focus in their own time — I’m mostly ok with that, though it can sometimes be frustrating.

      I kind of look at the acquisition process as like growing a plant: you give it water and fertilizer (i.e., keep getting input), but you don’t get to dictate how fast it grows or when it will bear fruit.

      Your observation, in a comment you left on my post Still Thinking About Learning To Read, that recognizing a word and understanding it aren’t always the same thing, really stood out because my experience is the exact same; sometimes I can recognize a word without understanding it for a long time before the meaning clicks — or occasionally I’ll just end up asking about it.

      Anyway, the whole process is, to me, very interesting — and quite an adventure! — and very different from my (by now fairly distant) memories of studying other languages by using flash cards to memorize words along with their English translations.

      1. Nick

        It’s very inspiring to observe the metaphors and phrasing you use when you describe your Thai language learning. In my experience, a lot of people studying this language give up in sheer frustration. If they took your approach of likening it to the growing of a plant, it would help them to shift their perspective from a product (with a static end state) to more of a gradual process. I now believe that these small distinctions really do go a long way in maintaining motivation, momentum and realistic expectations. Keep up the good work, and good luck with your adventure!

  2. Andrej

    Agree with Nick. Actually, likening the acquisition of a word to the growing of a plant is a key metaphor in ALG (Brown, Long). It’s a metaphor that immediately clicked with me, and obviously also with Adam :)) Another powerful picture from Brown or Long is that meaning grows in layers (picture an onion) through experience. It’s an organic process which has its own timetable but eventually results in full mastery (so to speak) of that word (and all the other words, given enough time and relevant input). When being exposed to comprehensible input or meaningful experiences, layers of meaning are added all over the place (but only when the semantic network is ready for that next extension). That’s one beauty of this approach: it’s highly parallel in nature. We just need to relax and trust that our brain does its job. Which it does, of course.

    This is completely different to the often-encountered tendency in learners to want to completely and precisely understand word X right now. Often, the semantic network which is needed to support this word, or specific meanings and uses of that word, is not yet in place, and the learning becomes artificial and may result in distorted or stilted speech patterns.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      “Often, the semantic network which is needed to support this word, or specific meanings and uses of that word, is not yet in place” — I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s probably true. Some of language learning might follow a fairly predictable pattern — you’re going to tend to pick up on common, tangible things (trees, cars, dogs) before the less tangible, less common things (bankruptcy, courage, decision-making). But maybe a lot of it just depends on the particular situations you run into — your particular history with the language and situations in which it’s used. And the result is some kind of “semantic network” which has the potential to easily acquire certain specific pieces of the language; whereas other pieces of the language are going to be (at least for the time being, until the network itself changes) out of reach?

      That’s an interesting way of conceptualizing language acquisition….

  3. locksleyu

    I completely agree with your stance about how to naturally learn a language, especially the part about how things happen at your own brain’s pace.

    I agree that the best source for new words is out in the ‘wild’, meaning in either real conversations or at least on some media (book, TV show, etc.) done by native speakers. And while I do try to understand by context and guess the meaning, usually I like to be a perfectionist and look up the word either the day I heard it, or at a later time.

    Often what happens is I hear it once and plan on looking it up and forget it, and then hear it again and it sticks better in my mind so I decide to look it up. Also, the fact that I’ve heard it more frequently means it’s probably more relevant to look up anyway.

    One reason I like to look it upon the dictionary is so I can learn how it is written (Japanese has Kanji but for Thai I guess you don’t have the same problem), and since I read a lot it helps to match up the spoken phrase to the written one.

    Also, even though I look up the word in a dictionary I don’t just store that phrase in my head, instead I just add that as part of the ‘experience’ so I can form a proper concept of the word using both experience and dictionary entries.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      I used to be a perfectionist and look up practically every word, back when I learned French in college; there was a kind of feeling of satisfaction that I was nailing things down and making progress, but maybe I was also driving myself crazy! Anyway, now I’m pretty close to the other extreme.

      But I think it’s always a question of when to seek explicit explanations, and when to let all that inchoate language-stuff just percolate away on its own; it’s a choice I still occasionally — well, pretty rarely at this point — face with my native language (English) too; with English I hardly ever look up words, but that’s sheerly out of laziness!

  4. elisamasschelein

    So nice to read your experiences, and fascinating to discover this intuitive method for learning Thai! We’re only in Thailand for a few months; obviously that’s far too short to master the language, even on the most basic level, but even we have discovered that our Thai vocabulary grows faster when we observe the students at our school with a quiet curiosity than when we make conscious efforts to learn new words using a dictionary 🙂

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      That’s interesting that you’ve picked up on this approach to language learning on your own…maybe it really is the “natural” way to learn languages. At least some of what you’re getting might be Isaan (northeastern dialect) — and I’m guessing that there aren’t too many formal avenues (schools, books) for studying Thailand’s regional dialects anyway.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting! 🙂

      1. elisamasschelein

        Then I feel really privileged to have the opportunity to learn some of this dialect! They definitely use a lot of loan words from Laos here – an interesting matter for language hybridity enthusiasts, I believe. Good luck with the rest of your linguistic adventures!

  5. adamf2011 Post author

    @Nick: I certainly look forward to having higher capabilities in Thai, but I’ve also learned to enjoy the process of learning. Also, you probably meant “product” just in the sense of something that gets produced, but I’ve sometimes wondered if expectations concerning language learning are influenced by the consumer-product model. As a consumer, you plunk down your money and get to take the product home right away: instant gratification. As a language learner, there’s currently a host of products/services that you can buy (or sometimes get for free) — books, software, classes — and I’ve sometimes wonder if there’s an unconscious expectation that the language can be acquired just as quickly and easily. But it really is (in my experience) more of a slow, organic process, and a social one as well — quite different than a consumer experience.


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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