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.