How Real Does It Feel?

13 January 2015, TV 1045.7 = hours

AUA: advanced class = 1068 hours, total class time = 2006 hours

Years ago, as a college student, I took several semesters worth of French and then ended up spending close to a year in the country, getting to the point where I could understand, speak, and read the language to a decent level; but after graduation I found — and made — precious few opportunities to use French, and so it fell into disuse. From my current standpoint all these years later, it would be hard for me to assess precisely how far I got with French, but I did end up being able to more than just get by with daily life in France, as well as to get through some novels considered to be “serious” literature.

And just a couple months ago on an international flight, to my chagrin I understood the French version of the pre-flight review of the airplane’s safety features better than the Thai version — despite not having been in France for almost a quarter of a century! (I suppose I should rejoice that I’ve retained that much French, but I found it a discouraging reminder of how far I’ve yet to go with Thai).

But one thing that I remember even from the days of my height in fluency in French was a feeling that French was somehow not “real” in the way that English was — French words seemed weightless in comparison to their English counterparts, lacking in solidity. For some reason, French remained an abstraction.

Intellectually, I know that languages are social conventions; from an absolute point of view, there’s nothing that makes the thing I call “an egg” any more of “an egg” than “un oeuf”. In English situations I call one of the things I ride around in by the word “car”, but it could just as easily be labeled “voiture” — or any other of a countless number of human sound combinations.

I think it’s common to elide the language with the reality, to think that an egg is really an “egg,” a rose a rose; to muddle our (at least somewhat arbitrary) concepts about the world with the world itself. Such a mistake can lead to ascribing magical properties to language — as when people think they can effect changes to the world just by uttering words; it can also lead to unjustified feelings of superiority toward those who don’t speak one’s own language, and who therefore can’t possibly be “real” people.

But knowing something intellectually is one thing, what you feel is something else. I remember conjecturing that maybe I felt the way I did about French in part because of the way French sounded to me: often blurred and indistinct, the sounds all run together, words didn’t sound like “real”, discrete entities.

And yet English often does the same thing, and I’ve often had to spend time explaining to bewildered foreigners the kinds of elisions and contractions of sound that happen in real English — not just “I will” becoming I’ll, but how wutch’doon? actually springs from “what are you doing?” Real English can be a blurred streak of sounds too, but somehow it feels real, it feels solid; it feels to me like it means what it says in a way that French never did.

It’s interesting that I don’t find Thai “unreal”. Thai sounds still sometimes register as an indistinct blur rushing by; there are still reams of words out there that I have no idea what they mean; but even from fairly early on in my stay in Thailand, Thai has felt “real” to me in a way that French never got to.

And in fact, I’d say that some Thai words feel, if not more real, then at least more expressive, than their English counterparts: อ้วน sounds fatter than “fat”; saying or hearing อ้วก can provoke intimations of (but — thankfully! — not actual) feelings of nausea in a way that the various English alternatives fail to; ผู้หญิง somehow sounds more feminine and graceful, in an almost musical way, than English “woman”, which now strikes me as just a little too sturdy sounding (if that makes sense) or “lady”, which sounds dated and  affected to me.

I’ve wondered if it comes down to differences in the ways I learned the two languages. My first encounters with French were heavily weighted toward vocabulary lists with English translations, and rules of grammar and syntax (explained in English). My professor was not a native French speaker. We were studying the language, but the language wasn’t being used to express or communicate anything of real interest or value. My only experiences of the language in action were as short dialogues, which appeared both in written form in my textbook, and as videotaped scenes that we would watch a few times in class. I don’t think I got much or any “real” French till I got to France a couple years later.

In contrast, all my exposure to Thai has been in situations where the language was actually being used to communicate or express something — some kind of “real life” happening. And I would say that this holds true even for the classes I took at AUA.

Yes it’s true that the ultimate purpose of those classes is to teach language. I’ve also found a considerable gap between the Thai you get even in the most advanced of AUA’s classes, and most of the Thai that can be experienced outside the classroom; nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that the Thai heard in AUA classes is real Thai — in the sense that it’s the kind of stuff you do hear, the kind of language that Thai people really do use — but it’s also just a small subset of the vast Thai language, one particularly suited to the needs and abilities of those who understand little to no Thai.

But usually what is most prominent in AUA classes is what’s being communicated or expressed; the language is just the means of doing so, and it’s often not the only means. You might walk away from the class with a story, a bit of history, someone’s viewpoint on current affairs, directions for how to get somewhere in Bangkok, an idea of where to go for a really good bowl of noodle soup, or even the taste of something new and strange still on your tongue (pieces of pig intestine; toasted and salted insect larvae — I kid you not!). In fact, I’d say that on a conscious level you’re more likely to retain these things than language stuff like what some new word means.

And then there’s all the Thai I’ve gotten outside the classroom — the people using it aren’t for the most part concerned with language issues, they’re just using it as a tool to communicate, to express, to try to make things happen and get things done.

It’s not that I’ve learned Thai in exactly the same way as native Thai speakers do — I don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to recreate those circumstances; but my experiences of Thai have been by and large connected inseparably to real events, to nonverbal experiences (sights, smells, tastes, etc), to stories and narratives and information that’s relevant to me, to actual people, to Thai places and social spaces, and to experiences that go beyond an empty demonstration of language for mere pedagogical purposes.


9 thoughts on “How Real Does It Feel?

  1. locksleyu

    Excellent post, well written and I completely understand from where you are coming from – though I am not sure if I feel Japanese in the same ‘unreal’ sense that you do.

    Rather, I do realize that many of the words I know in Japanese have little to no emotional connection, or more importantly it is harder for me to read a passage in Japanese and be emotionally moved. This may be due to my somewhat academic-learning style though it could have to do with the language itself.

    Though it is quite a bit distant from conversational language, I really enjoy reading novels in Japanese written by famous, or at least good quality authors, because I know they are supposed to be able to evoke some emotional reaction. There is more metaphors, more rare words that are ultra-specific, and generally the authors is really trying to put you through a roller coaster or feelings (though of course it depends on the genre and work).

    I also like to think in terms of connotation for each vocab word I learn, regardless of whether its from the dictionary or from a live experience. What type of person would use this word (old person? young?), and what undertone is in the word. Is it harsh, or indirect? Is it academic or down-to-earth? Though this is a bit different from your ‘all natural’ style, I feel this helps me to really paint pictures in my head of the ‘tone’ of a passage, and to help me choose the right words when writing myself.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      That’s an interesting angle that I hadn’t thought of: that maybe my feelings that French was somehow “unreal” were basically a result of the language being less tied into my emotional life than English — it’s hard to have too many feelings one way or another about the language in textbooks and instructional dialogues, and I only experienced a real French environment for about 8-9 months.

      There was a study that was much in the news (and blogs) earlier this year, basically saying that people tend to make more rational, less emotional decisions when they’re using a second language than when using their native language; there’s an interesting article about the study here; note that the author of the article hypothesizes that this difference would not be seen in people who’ve basically been living in the second language for a long period of time — something I had wondered about when I first read of the study.

      In terms of connotations, I have this idea that each time we’re exposed to a word — whether in speech (or song) or in writing — our concepts of what the word means, how it’s used, what it feels like, what emotional overtones or subtle shades of meaning it has, etc, all get built up a bit further. Kind of like building up an image of an object by continually taking photos of it from different angles, at different distances, in different lightings, in different places, etc. I don’t know if that’s really an accurate model for how we get to know words, though.

      1. locksleyu

        I read about that study you mentioned and it was pretty interesting, though I didn’t make the connection to this topic at the time I read it before.

        Your concept of ‘building meaning’ makes intuitive sense to me and fits with my experience.

        Since I am more of a math/science minded person, I tend to think of it in terms of solving equations. If you imagine you have a bunch of equations, with several variables, each time you get a data point (two or more values of variables that apply to an equation) you are able to uncover more information about the remaining variables from deduction. Of course the type of data matters, if you get very biased data with only a few variables you can’t ever completely solve or understand the full set of equations.

        Similarly, if I hear an expression in Japanese said to me by 100 people in 100 different situations, I’m likely to have a great grasp on that phrase since I know the full range of what meanings it can express, who can use it, and also some of the nuances of what words are typically used in tandem with it.

  2. ladyofthecakes

    How interesting… I’ve never personally had the experience of perceiving a language as ‘not real’… however, I can draw parallels from my own experience, so I think I kind of get what you mean. I also believe that it is essential to build up these emotional and sensual connections you speak of, if you want to get anywhere with it. A language doesn’t become part of you until that is achieved. If learning is restricted to the textbook, the language remains a ‘foreign body’, which sits rather awkwardly in some recess of your brain, like a tiny tumour, and it has to be cranked up every time you want to get any use out of it. Also, it atrophies at an alarming rate if it’s not fed regularly 😉

  3. Dana (@WantedAdventure)

    What an interesting, thought provoking post! It sounds like your theory of how you learned the languages affecting how you feel about them being “real” or not makes sense. I think it’s quite common for people to feel this way about foreign languages though. I mean, that’s why it’s much easier for foreigners to curse in English. It’s not so crazy to play music with curse words in it in department stores because those words don’t carry the same weight — the same “realness” — as they do for native speakers.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      Well, it’s really hard to get a “feel” — on the visceral level — for what the “bad words” of a language are really like; hence all those Thai people I see wearing T-shirts that say all kinds of obscene or inappropriate things; Thai manners are in general fairly polite and nonconfrontational, and I’m not sure they’d wear those shirts if they knew what they were really saying.

      But I on the other hand am “insensitive” to what their swear words really mean. I hear a word that people say when they’re frustrated, and I wonder, is this the equivalent of “oh heck!” “goddamit!” or, how far up the scale do we go? Then I hear the word being used in a pretty G-rated collection of stories for kids — so it can’t be too bad. Then there’s another word/expression I hear in movies sometimes — I knew it was bad, but couldn’t tell “how bad.” So I repeated it for a friend of mine — not aiming it at her, but just mentioning that I’d heard it often when watching movies — and she got this look like I’d just slapped her in the face — “DON’T SAY THAT!” OK, so I found out that it’s a pretty strong word — at least to her.

      So that’s a further complication. Like in America, some people drop the f-bomb pretty casually, and to others its strictly verboten. So how bad of a word is it? Depends on context and company, I think.

      There are some words in Thai that I know are “strong language,” but they don’t press any buttons for me. Still, Thai feels more alive than French ever did, though my guess is that if I’d ended up living in France for a long period of time, the language would have acquired more emotional resonances, and have begun to feel more “real.”

      So they play (English) profanity-laced music in German (?) department stores? 😆

  4. Things That Never Made It Into Print...

    The thing I love about the French is that you ask them a question that illustrates a minimalist understanding of French, as in: Je suis Americain. Je ne parle pas Francais. (Did I get that right?) while in Paris, looking for a street that is elusive and has you wandering in a specific circle, and hitting that circle several times, without any understanding of how you keep ending up there, and you are desperate for directions, and the Frenchman is congenial and cooperative and responds to your desperation in French (emphasis) and with a smile, so there you are, back at the start of the circle!

    As for the language, the one thing I like about French is the universal approach to a word. You are not buying “one” cup of espresso. Rather, you are buying “some” of ALL the espresso in the world.

    1. adamf2011 Post author

      “…wandering in a…circle…without any understanding…and you are desperate…” — by Jove, you’ve really succinctly summarized the foreign language experience there! 😂


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