journal

This is the journal I kept from March 2012 through late June 2013, at which point I started this blog. The journal is also posted on the blog in a series of 20 entries beginning here.

PART ONE: THE FIRST 1000 HOURS

mid-March 2012

1 introduction: the purpose of this journal

Early on in my study of the thai language via ALG (automatic language growth) at the Ratchadamri branch of AUA (American University Alumni), the director of the program, David Long, asked me if I would document my experiences. But the idea didn’t interest me, so I declined.

One of the reasons that I had chosen to study Thai via ALG, as opposed to more traditional language learning methods, was the claim that students who went through the program and stuck to the ALG methodology ended up with native (or near native) level fluency. The credibility of this claim appeared stronger and stronger to me as I progressed through the program and my comprehension of spoken Thai grew.

I’ve been struck by how few of the people I’ve spoken with seem to believe that you could actually learn a foreign language using ALG, let alone that using it would lead to native level fluency. When I get into a conversation with someone who has not used ALG as a learning method, the reaction is often somewhat negative.  The advice I’ve gotten in these conversations has been to either eschew ALG altogether in favor of a more traditional textbook-based, drill-oriented method of study; or to at the very least supplement the ALG program with more traditional study. Even at AUA, it is obvious from the considerable number of students who tote around dictionaries and take notes, that a lot of those attending the program do not have confidence in the ALG method and therefore do not practice it.

My own decision to give ALG a chance was influenced in part by a former student’s online blog describing his experiences with the Thai program (http://daninbangkok.blogspot.com/). However, this was really the only testimonial to ALG’s efficacy that I was able to find online, other than David Long’s own writings and videos.

As I’ve been approaching the 1000 hour mark at AUA Ratchadamri, my increasing appreciation for ALG as a language learning method, combined with my perception that it is neither well known nor (when it is known) trusted to actually work, has led me to want to document my experiences with the program.

(note: in September 2012, the Ratchadamri branch of AUA relocated to Chumchur. This is the only branch of AUA that teaches Thai via ALG).

2 ALG method in theory & practice

Information on ALG can be found online at several sources: http://auathai.com/ ,

http://algworld.com/  and http://www.youtube.com/user/algworld, but I will give a brief summary here of how ALG works and of how the program at AUA is structured.

ALG is a non-analytical approach to language learning that tries to replicate the way in which small children learn their native language. By non-analytical I mean that one does not try to understand how the language “works” in terms of some set of rules governing grammar, syntax, etc. So in ALG, you don’t learn the rules of how the language works, but you also don’t memorize lists of words, and you don’t translate between the target language (Thai) and your native language. In fact, you don’t focus on language at all; instead you focus on understanding the situations presented in class. In the beginning classes these are situations that are accompanied by language, ie, the situation is communicated largely through non-verbal means (gesture, pantomime, pictures, sound effects) and language is simply part of the mix; in the more advanced classes the situation is presented mostly through language (the teacher just talking), with the non-verbal components being fairly minimal.

What the student actually does in class is to focus on understanding the meaning of what is being said, and not the mechanics of how it is being said. So rather than trying to consciously figure out what a particular word sounds like or what it would translate as in one’s native language or rules of word order or how a particular verb is used, one just pays attention to the story being told, the topic being discussed, etc. In other words, you approach the language that you’re trying to learn the same way that you approach your native language: using it without thinking about it, remaining ignorant as to how it works.

Another difference between ALG and other language learning methods is the long period of time in which the student does not actively use the target language. So whereas in other programs one might be practicing speaking, reading, writing, and translating Thai right from the start, in ALG the student is discouraged from speaking Thai unless it is as effortless as speaking his native language. If you don’t know or can’t remember how something should be said, then you shouldn’t speak. Nor would you speak if, in trying to figure out how to say something, you find yourself getting consciously involved in or analyzing the mechanics of the language – again, you shouldn’t be thinking in terms of rules that describe how the language works, such as grammar or syntax; nor should you be translating from your native language. On the other hand, if when you want to say something, the Thai words simply come to mind automatically, then it is appropriate to speak. Otherwise, students can respond in class by using their native language, or through non-verbal communication such as gesturing.

AUA predicts that the average student will start speaking Thai “automatically” at some time around the 800 hour mark. Reading and writing are learned later on.

In practice, there are some departures, albeit fairly minor, from the theory outlined above; I’ll go into these later on.

The program at AUA is broken down into four different classes. AT 1 (the introductory class) is expected to take about 200 hours to complete, as is AT 2. AT 3-4 (usually just called AT 3) is expected to take about 400 hours to complete, while the most advanced class, AT 5, is expected to take about 1200 hours to complete.

The numbers of projected hours per level above are for westerners; supposedly, students who come from cultures that are closer to Thai culture should be able to progress through the levels in a shorter period of time. In actuality, moving up to a more advanced level depends upon an evaluation of the student by the teachers: the student is ready to move on to the next level when his or her “average understanding” is thought to be 80% or better. I’m a little unclear on what this actually means – I think it refers to the student’s understanding of the main idea or the general gist of what is being said in class. It certainly doesn’t refer to understanding 80% of the words that are spoken.

AT 1 relies heavily on non-verbal communication such as drawings and pictures, pantomime and gesture. The non-verbal component is severely reduced in AT 2, and fairly minimal in AT 3 and 5. As students progress through the different levels, the subject matter becomes more complex (ie, a lot of AT 1 is taken up by stories about bodily functions, naming parts of the body or different kinds of fruit, or descriptions of how to get from one part of Bangkok to another, all of this accompanied by copious drawing on the whiteboard; whereas by the time you get to AT 3 and 5, the topics tend become more complex and are often more abstract and less concrete, such as religious beliefs, customs, episodes from Thailand’s history, economics, current affairs, etc). As the levels progress, the language is spoken more rapidly and seems to become more complex.

In AT 3, teachers begin writing words in Thai on the board, but without any explanation concerning how characters are pronounced or rules of spelling (reading and writing is taught as a separate class, open to AT 5 students).

3 before arrival in Thailand

Before I describe my experience learning Thai at AUA via ALG, I should first briefly relate my experiences with Thai in the U.S. during the roughly year and a half period that ended with my arrival in Thailand in June 2011. When I first began to seriously consider going to Thailand, I did some research on language schools, and discovered AUA’s ALG program in Bangkok. I decided that that was the route I wanted to pursue, and that therefore I would eschew traditional book and practice-based study and instead simply try to get some exposure to the language. This was not easy given the limited materials that I was able to find, but I did watch a number of TV programs and listen to some music (sung in Thai), thinking that this would help me to at least start to tune into the sound system of the language.

I also watched some DVDs and VCDs of conversations in Thai; the VCDs included not only conversations, but a narrator/instructor who gave English translations of Thai words and phrases, as well as going over the numbers in Thai. However, I pretty soon gave up on the TV programs (because I couldn’t understand them and found them boring) as well as the DVDs and VCDs (which I also found dull). I continued listening to the music, which I enjoyed, but which I now tend to believe didn’t actually help me at all in learning the language.

A few months before coming to Thailand I bought Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s “Thai for Beginners” book and audio CDs, but then changed my mind and never touched the book. I did  however listen to the CDs quite a bit, but without trying to consciously memorize what I was hearing; nor did I try to practice speaking. I now tend to think that this had a negligible effect (if any) on my learning the language.

And so when I arrived in Thailand in June 2011, I knew hardly any Thai at all – maybe just the few phrases corresponding to such things as hello and excuse me.

4 the first 1000 hrs at AUA

I typically go to class for six hours a day, five or six days a week. About every two months or so I take a break from AUA for a couple weeks.

I started classes at AUA upon my arrival in Thailand in June 2011, beginning with AT 1. It’s now March 2012 and I have logged about 950 hours in all at AUA, and have recently moved up to AT 5 (at which level I’ve done 28 hours so far).

My memory of my first days of AT 1 is of often not understanding, or only dimly understanding, what was going on in class. But by the time I reached around 130 to 150 hours, something shifted and I was able to follow the main idea of what was going on pretty consistently, with only occasional gaps. At the 200 hour mark I asked to be evaluated; my “average understanding” of the class was rated at about 81%, and so I moved onto AT 2.

AT 2 seemed a bit more complex, with far fewer pictures drawn on the board, and at first I was really lost and had a hard time understanding what was going on. But things got better and then, again around the 130 hour mark, things kind of popped into focus and I was able to consistently follow what was going on in class most of the time. When I hit the 200 hour mark I felt as though my understanding of what was going on in class wasn’t quite as good as it had been at the 200 hour mark of AT 1, but I asked for an evaluation anyway. My average understanding was actually rated at slightly higher than it had been at the end of AT 1, but I was advised to stay at the AT 2 level a little longer. I stayed for an extra 49 hours, but felt as though my understanding hadn’t increased at all. I asked to be evaluated again, and my “average understanding” was now rated at a little over 82% (only about 0.5% higher than it had been at the 200 hour mark). I moved on to AT 3.

The first few classes of AT 3 that I took didn’t seem any different than the harder AT 2 classes, other than the fact that the teachers now wrote in Thai on the board. However, this must have been a fluke, because I soon felt really lost: in each class, long periods of time would go by where I had either absolutely no idea of what was going on or only the vaguest, most general idea of the topic being discussed. At some point well after 100 hours into AT 3, my ability to understand started to go up, but this proved to be only temporary as I seemed to slide back into incomprehension. In fact, it happened a number of times that I thought I had made somewhat of a breakthrough to improved comprehension, analogous to what had happened at the 130 hour marks of AT 1 and 2 (I say somewhat because it still didn’t feel as though I was following what was going on in class as well as I had after the corresponding earlier “breakthrough” points in AT 1 and 2). My comprehension, however, always seemed to decline again.

But when I resumed classes after a 3 week break (at about 265 hours into AT 3), my ability to follow what was going on in class was markedly improved and did not decline. At the 400 hour mark I still didn’t feel like my understanding was quite good enough to move on, though I was definitely following what went on in class quite well. Probably around the 450 hour mark I could have moved on – I was feeling like my understanding of AT 3 at that point was even better than my understanding of AT 2 at the point I had left AT 2 – but I was enjoying being able to understand class so well and so easily that I decided to stay a little longer. But finally I started feeling a bit bored and was wondering if I wouldn’t get more out of my time and money in AT 5; and so after 474 hours in AT 3, and with an “average understanding” rated at just over 82%, I moved on to AT 5.

The transition from AT 3 to AT 5 has actually been much gentler and less dramatic than the earlier moves to AT 2 and 3. My comprehension of what’s going on in class has definitely gone down: I feel like my understanding of what’s being talked about is just about always vaguer than it was in my last weeks of AT 3; and now there are again periods of time when I have either no idea or only the dimmest of ideas as to what’s going on in class. I do feel as though, comprehension-wise, I’ve moved back to an earlier stage of AT 3 – but it’s definitely not like those early overwhelmingly uncomprehending weeks of AT 3. I am also, at this point, only 28 hours into AT 5.

Throughout all of this I’ve stuck to the ALG methodology: I don’t use dictionaries or textbooks, don’t take notes, don’t consciously try to figure out what I’m hearing or how the language works, don’t use a tutor or do any kind of studying outside of class. I do speak in Thai outside of class, and have from day one, but that’s fairly unavoidable for anyone who doesn’t have a full-time bilingual companion to negotiate life outside the classroom for them.  What I have done is to pretty much keep my Thai speaking at a minimal and functional level, using it mostly when I need to buy something, and keeping to short phrases or single words such as yes, no, I want that, What is that?, Is (there something with) fish? However, in the last couple months I’ve progressed to things like I want a sour and spicy somtam [shredded papaya salad] – 4 or 5 peppers – without sugar. And, probably after about my first 3 or so months in Thailand, I have occasionally gotten into conversations in Thai with people who I’ve met, but these conversations were, of necessity, short and somewhat simple: I just didn’t have the ability to understand or say very much.

One situation where I really felt like I was being stretched beyond my abilities was a two and a half week period that I spent in a rural part of the country (in Isaan) in late December 2011 – ie, just before my comprehension abilities in AT 3 seemed to really improve. Few of the people I was around spoke any English at all, and to make matters worse, most of the people spoke in a local dialect which seemed quite different to me than the central or Bangkok Thai that AUA teaches. I needed to listen to and converse with the people in the community that I was staying in on a daily basis, but comprehension remained vague at best and I frequently didn’t understand – or misunderstood – what was going on. Then there were the less “utilitarian” conversations that occurred when people spoke to me and asked me questions out of friendliness and curiosity; even when I understood what I was being asked, I had a hard time answering: either I just didn’t have the words, or I didn’t know how to put them together to form a real Thai statement. I was being “forced” to say things that I didn’t know how to say. Sometimes I just winged it and made something up in order to communicate, but I suspected that what I was saying probably sounded like barbarically butchered Thai at best, and at worst was simply incomprehensible.

As for AUA’s sticking to their own (ALG) methodology: better than 99.99% of the time, by my guesstimate. However, teachers do sometimes say things in English, including giving translations of Thai words or phrases. They also sometimes, especially in AT 1 and 2, write Romanized transliterations of Thai words (complete with diacritical marks for the tones) on the board. This happens pretty rarely, though: I’d guess that on average it’s only one out of every several thousand words spoken in class that gets an English translation or a Romanized transliteration. (I have found the teachers’ occasional translations of Thai into English to best be ignored not simply because it “violates” ALG’s methodology, but also because their use of English sometimes seems “off”. For example there was one class where the topic was employment and the teacher was speaking in Thai about benefits – in the sense of health insurance, retirement pay, etc – but then translated the Thai term with the English word “welfare”).

Concerning the use of English at AUA: ALG is supposed to work via “crosstalk”, in which everybody can use their native language, or any other language that they are comfortable in, to speak in class (that is, until they get to the point where they can naturally and automatically speak in Thai). So the teachers speak in Thai, while the students speak in English, German, Japanese, Chinese, or whatever. However, what really happens is that the students all pretty much speak in English. This is undoubtedly owing to English’s role as a lingua franca in Thailand. All of the teachers at AUA seem to understand at least some English, and some of them seem to understand quite a bit. On the other hand, in terms of other languages, a few of the teachers seem to understand just a little bit of Chinese or Japanese, but that’s it. So in practice what happens is that if a student wants to respond (in a language other than Thai), they pretty much need to do it in English. Maybe this isn’t really a problem, both because most people know at least a little English, and also because speaking in class doesn’t seem to be all that necessary for going through the program and learning Thai. However, it is convenient to be able to occasionally make a comment or ask a question in class, and a lot of people seem to feel the need to at least occasionally say something – certainly, I’ve enjoyed being interactive in class at times. This leaves me wondering if English speakers have an advantage over non-English speakers, and whether English speakers overall feel less pressure to be able to begin communicating in Thai than do their non-English speaking counterparts. If so, the situation at AUA would just be a mirror of the situation in Bangkok as a whole, where it seems that, overall, there is a much better and more widespread use of English in Bangkok than any other foreign language.

I’d like to end this first part by going into some of my experiences in class.

As I’ve implied above, what you need to do to learn via ALG differs from what you need to do to learn via other methods. Other learning methods have you memorize and recall vocabulary words and grammatical rules; come to an analytical understanding of how the language works; and listen to and imitate the sound system of the language. You go about practicing these things in a very conscious and deliberate way, and you may well separate out different facets of the language for practice at different times, ie, you spend some time looking at flash cards to translate back and forth between the target language and your native language; at another time you listen to and repeat recorded words and phrases from a CD or a computer program; at another time you practice writing out translations of sentences to or from the target language; and at yet another time you practice a dialogue with a conversation partner. Sometimes you are only practicing one skill (for example, listening to words in the target language), sometimes you are trying to combine skills (for example, when you write out a translation of a sentence you need to recall both the translations of the individual words and the rules that govern things like conjugating verbs or how to string the words together into a sentence). You practice these different skills over and over in order to make them become internalized and automatic, so that at some point you can blend them together and use them without having to think about them.

Compared to all of that, ALG is actually pretty simple. However, it can take a while to “click into” the program, and some effort may be needed to “turn off” the mind’s tendency to analyze and try to figure things out.

I think that anyone who seriously wants to give language study via ALG a real try would need a willingness to try ALG on its own terms. This means being willing to go to class and follow the ALG methodology (ie, no dictionaries, no taking notes, no trying to analyze the language etc). I also think that, in terms of judging whether or not ALG is working, you need to use different criteria than what you might use for another type of program, given that when learning via ALG there won’t be such obvious signs of “progress” as passing test scores, lists of vocabulary words successfully memorized, or the ability (at least in the early stages of the program) to speak, read, or write. And, despite the fact that what you’re really building in the early stages of the program is pretty much exclusively the ability to understand spoken Thai, I’ve found gains in oral comprehension outside the classroom to be very, very gradual.

For example, at the end of AT1 I had put in 200 hours of class time and, at least from what I can remember, it didn’t lead to any appreciable increase in comprehension or ability to speak outside the classroom. I probably at the time couldn’t even have rattled off that many Thai words that I “knew”. And of the words that I did in some sense understand, I think most of them I could only understand within a larger context – in other words, I would recognize a word if it were being used within a story or conversation, but wouldn’t recognize it if I heard it in isolation. Nonetheless, I was satisfied and thought that the program was working because within the classroom I had gone from not really understanding what was going on to having a fairly good understanding of what was going on.

I found out that paying attention in class could sometimes be a struggle. You’d think that paying attention wouldn’t be that hard, but I sometimes found it difficult to do when I couldn’t understand what was going on – although I feel that this becomes more of an issue in AT3 and 5, where it’s possible to sit in a class with almost no non-verbal communication, listening to a lesson that employs a lot of unfamiliar/unknown words, where you have only the vaguest idea (if any at all) of what’s being talked about. I found that there were times when, not knowing what was going on, my mind wandered off: I had stopped paying attention to the class. Of course, not paying attention to the class pretty much guaranteed that I wouldn’t know what was going on. Fortunately, all I had to do was return my attention to the class every time I realized that I had wandered off. But if the class seemed uninteresting or incomprehensible (and the two were often the same), I needed to really be persistent in keeping my attention focused on the class, and not elsewhere. This was not always easy.

I found that sometimes I needed to make a conscious effort to focus more on the what (what’s being communicated, what’s going on) and less on the how (ie, less on the actual language being used). When I’m in class listening to Thai, it’s not the case that I’m totally unaware of the language being used – I am aware of words and expressions that are being used that I’ve heard before, that I in some sense recognize or know, but my awareness is more on the meaning that the words convey than on the words themselves. This is kind of hard to explain, but it’s not really that different than my experience with English (my native language): when someone is speaking to me in english, I’m aware of the words that they’re using, but I’m usually more focused on the meaning that the words convey. The difference is that in Thai, my understanding of the language is fuzzy, with huge gaps, and so the meaning is also often fuzzy, with huge gaps.

Anyway, I sometimes needed to direct my mind away from trying to analyze and toward just listening to (and watching) what was going on. Because sometimes there would be that voice in the back of my mind that would be trying out different translations into English of a particular Thai word; or that would be thinking, I’ve heard that word before, what could it mean? Even thinking, in English, about the content of what the teacher is talking about (“is she still talking about her friend’s experience on vacation in the mountains or has she moved on to a different topic?”) is, I think, not useful, because it turns your attention away from what is being said, and because it switches you out of “Thai mode” and into “English mode” (or whatever your native language is).

Again, this became more of a problem when I got to AT3, where the non-verbal component of communication is severely reduced, sometimes almost negligible, and almost everything going on in class is being expressed through language. There were times when I had little to no idea of what was going on, when my experience of the class was overwhelmingly of the language: a few words here and there that I would understand, a lot of words that I didn’t understand (or had only a vague feeling about, in terms of their meaning), and a lot of words that went by in a blur of sound that I couldn’t make out clearly. It may seem humorously self-evident to say so, but paying attention to the meaning of what is being said is very difficult when you can’t figure out the meaning of what is being said. These classes could be frustrating, but I’m sure that they would have been even more frustrating had I believed that I was supposed to understand what was going on. Over the long run, however, the issue resolved itself as described above: after about 450 hours of class time in AT3, I had become fairly proficient at understanding that level of spoken Thai.

AT1 200 hrs;  AT2 249 hrs;  AT 3 474 hrs; AT5  28 hrs as of fri march 9 for total 951 hrs

PART TWO:

5 May 2012; AT5  = 168 hours; total time = 1091 hours

AT5 has proven tougher than I initially thought. When I wrote the march 2012 entry, I had only just started AT5; as I noted, it didn’t seem like that big of a leap from AT3. But as I put in more hours I felt like it was actually getting harder to understand what was going on in class. About three weeks and 76 hours of class time into AT3, I took a 3 week break from AUA. Since starting the program, I’ve been taking a break of usually about 2 weeks roughly every two and a half months. It’s always been the case that in the period of time leading up to the break from school, I start to feel burnt out and my comprehension suffers somewhat. Usually the time away from AUA (and Bangkok) has a restorative effect and I return to school reenergized and class feels slightly easier than before I went away.

But not this time. In fact, when I returned after three weeks away I felt like it was even harder to understand what was going on in class – longer or more frequent periods of time when I didn’t know what was going on, and a much fuzzier comprehension of the details of what I was hearing. The first week back was the worst, the second week was perhaps slightly better. However with the third week (completed yesterday) I feel like my comprehension has gone up significantly – I no longer feel quite so lost in class (though I am certainly a long way from understanding everything).

I have no idea why this happened. Certainly I have had ups and downs all along; in particular, there was a long stretch of time in AT3 when I would periodically think my comprehension had improved, only to subsequently feel that it was declining again. At all levels of the program, some days can feel easier than others, and on any given day some classes feel easier than others. When I returned to AT5 after my three week break, the topics of the classes had changed; could the new topics have been harder than the old? It’s really difficult to say. However, although I found my seemingly decreased comprehension frustrating, I did not feel discouraged nor did I worry about what I was going through. I just assumed that things would work out eventually. And at least as of now, things seem to have gotten better again.

21 September 2012; AT5 = 567 hours; total time = 1500 hours

Well, I’ve let over 4 months and over 400 hours of class time go by without writing anything further. So first I’d like to describe what’s happened for me in terms of my listening comprehension.

I went through quite a stretch where, although I could follow the main ideas pretty well, the level of detail was quite low; an analogy would be watching a video where the camera was so out of focus that everything would appear as big, flat, blurry silhouettes. I felt pretty discouraged at the time. I never thought about dropping out of the program or giving up on ALG, but I did have the feeling of like, I can’t believe I’ve put in well over a thousand hours in the classroom and all this time in AT5 and my level of understanding is still this low and doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere.

Now, however, my level of understanding has definitely improved quite a bit – things are more in focus, less blurry. I still definitely don’t understand everything, but it seems like the gaps in my understanding are quite a bit smaller than they were 4 months ago. However, I am still very far from the word-by-word understanding that I possess in English. It’s hard to tell when my understanding improved – I think it was a pretty gradual process. But I remember when the class schedule changed in the middle of last month, I felt like I was understanding things better, and wondered if it was in part that the new topics were for some reason easier to understand. And then shortly after that, I began having some classes with a teacher who I hadn’t had since AT3, but who had always been, on average, one of the couple most difficult teachers for me to understand; and now I feel like this teacher isn’t particularly hard to understand.

Something else has happened, that I remember had happened at the other levels as well: even though I certainly don’t understand everything, my lack of comprehension here and there bothers me a lot less than it used to (earlier on in AT5). It’s almost like my attention is still being held even during the parts that I don’t understand, and I’ve wondered if it has to do with my mind engaging with and processing language that I still can’t consciously understand. Or maybe it’s simply that now I understand enough of the class overall that I get bored less and my attention wanders off to a much lesser extent. It’s easier to sustain an interest in the classes now that I understand so much more.

I couldn’t really say that I can read Thai, it’s more like I’ve begun to figure out how the writing system works – a little bit, at any rate. Here’s what happened:

In AT3 and AT5 the teachers write words and phrases on the board but don’t explain how the writing system works – they do that in a separate class dedicated to reading and writing, which I have not yet taken. But still, by listening to them speak and then looking at what they write, I have been able to figure out what certain characters sound like. Early on in this process, I think I was paying particular attention to the first character (or first few characters) of the written word/phrase. To illustrate, let’s say you were learning English this way. You’re sitting in class and the teacher is speaking – let’s say they’re saying the word “particular” and writing that word on the board (only it would look to you like a jumble of unknown characters). So you just look at that first letter “p” and you think, well maybe this corresponds to the initial sound in that word “particular”. If you’re listening to what may be a jumbley string of blurred sound and looking at a bunch of unfamiliar symbols, it’s easiest to just focus on the beginning points: what’s the very first sound that you hear in that jumbley string of blurred sound? And what’s the first character in the string of written symbols? Maybe the two correlate. (Actually, they don’t always correlate in Thai, from what I can see. But often enough they do). And as time goes by and this happens over and over again with different words starting with the letter p, it might start to sink in what the letter p stands for, or what sounds it corresponds to (well, there may be popcorn and pears, but there are also phrases and pterodactyls….) Anyway, at some point I started looking beyond the intial letter and more at the whole written word/phrase, as opposed to just the first character or two.

(By the way, I write “word/phrase” because I’m really not sure what in Thai counts as a word and what as a phrase. In English it is clear to me that “understand” and “become” are single words, whereas “take out” and “put down” are phrases – and this understanding is reinforced by our convention of putting a space before and after each written word – something that written Thai does not always do).

At any rate, I would say that I’ve figured out many (most?) of the symbols that correspond to the consonant sounds, and maybe a few of the other symbols – some of the ones that symbolize vowel sounds. A few months ago, when the new class schedule at AUA came out, I was able to pick out enough of the Thai characters to figure out who was teaching which class (for some reason, the schedule has the teachers’ names in Thai only).

Then over the past couple months I’ve occasionally been able to pick out a word here or there on an advertisement – again, I can’t read every single character, but I know enough of what the advertisement is about so that I have a context, and between knowing the context and being able to sound out some of the characters, I can take a guess as to what the word is. (Though I may have been wrong: I never asked a Thai person to confirm my guess).

About a week ago I was having a meal in the marketplace near where I live. I was seated near a beverage stand and was able to read most of the items on the menu. Again, I don’t understand every single character, but I had a context: I knew that what would be listed would be various beverages, mostly coffee and tea. And so I was able to make out on the menu the words for hot Nescafe, cold Nescafe, lemon tea, etc.

Although I have had the option of taking the reading and writing class since the point when I started AT5, I have decided not to. Perhaps this is partly because I am hyperliterate in English, and so I am kind of enjoying the experience of being illiterate in Thai. But mostly this is because my number one priority has always been the ability to understand the spoken language – I really feel like that is the foundation of everything else. There is still so much spoken Thai that I don’t understand, and it is perhaps more than simply a matter of not knowing the words: I feel like my brain may still not have fully “decoded” the Thai sound system. There’s still so much of the spoken language that goes by in a blur, and I’m really not sure what I’ve just heard. When you learn to read, you learn which written characters correspond to which sounds, and you get a version of the language in which sounds, words, phrases, sentences, etc. are presented in a very unambiguous, clearly defined way. That is actually the total opposite of how I’ve (mostly) experienced Thai so far. Listening to Thai being spoken is usually like being somewhat to very lost. There are always a lot of uncertainties: on a sound level, what am I really hearing? Even when the sounds are fairly clear, meaning can be hazy, tentative. I think that a writing system imposes a kind of clarity and unambiguousness, but at a cost, simplifying and obscuring the way the language actually sounds with ideas about the way it’s “supposed to” sound. And it was to avoid doing this that I decided to go with ALG in the first place.

Also, I think it’s going to be much easier to learn to read after I understand the spoken language pretty well. Like the way I’ve been “reading” so far: I can read a word only if I can decode enough of the characters to get some idea of what it might sound like and if I then recognize it as possibly being a word I already know from the spoken language. And for this I depend heavily on context, as in the example that I gave above of reading the coffee-tea menu. However, listening to spoken Thai too, I depend heavily on context to figure out what is being talked about and to distinguish between similar sounding words.

A lot of westerners seem to complain about the difficulties of the Thai writing system and make out that it’s very hard to read and write, but I have to wonder if a big part of the problem is that they don’t adequately understand the spoken language, and so they’re trying to learn to read and write sounds and words that they don’t already know, that haven’t yet sunk in on the listening level. Anyway, I have no plans to formally take up reading and writing any time soon – ideally, I’d like to wait until understanding the spoken language is pretty nonproblematic.

24 September 2012; AT5 = 567 hours; total time = 1500 hours

I was on a bus the other day, looking at some of the signs posted above the seating. What’s interesting is that the signs on the buses are all in Thai, whereas signs on the trains (the MRT, the underground; and the BTS, the elevated “skytrain”) are in both English and Thai. And in fact I’ll see plenty of obviously non-Thai people on the trains, whereas the bus passengers seem to be overwhelmingly Thai. The trains are all air conditioned, while only some of the buses are; the trains are also faster and more expensive than the buses, which tend to get bogged down in Bangkok’s notorious traffic. The bus system (or systems?) is much more extensive than the trains, which cover only a limited part of the city – though the parts that the trains cover include some of the more expensive, more developed, more cosmopolitan parts of the city, ie, parts heavily frequented by foreigners. These observations may seem a little off-topic in terms of language learning – maybe more along sociological lines – but riding the trains and riding the buses are quite different experiences, and are located in quite different environments, not only spatially and culturally / socially, but linguistically as well. These are very different aspects of Bangkok.

Anyway, looking at this sign, which consisted of a single line of Thai text – all characters and no spaces – I could make out what I thought was the word for sit toward the beginning, and what I thought was the word for disabled or handicapped at the end – though I couldn’t understand anything in the middle of the text. A similar sign nearby also seemed to start with the word for sit, but to end with the word for age.

So I guess the first sign said something along the lines of, this seat reserved for disabled people, or please give this seat to the disabled; with the second sign saying something similar but concerning elderly people instead. Again, I couldn’t say that this is reading, but I can pick out enough of the characters to get a rough idea of what sound is being expressed (analogous to say, being able to read only the consonants in an English word), and then use the context to come up with a word that makes sense given the situation.

A few more observations about writing / reading, as long as I’m on that topic:

There are some characters that I feel like I really understand quite well what sound they symbolize, whereas other characters I haven’t a clue. But in between those extremes are the characters that I seem to keep figuring out and forgetting and then refiguring out again and again. Maybe these are characters that appear somewhat less frequently so that I’ve seen them less often; and in some cases I think that they are characters that confuse me because they look so similar to one another. Then there are characters that seem to represent the same sound – for instance, there are a number of characters that represent the t (or is it d?) sound, a number that represent the s sound, etc. But do all the “t” characters really represent the same sound, or are there differences that I haven’t yet noticed?

Then there is the matter of font. The font or style of writing that is easiest for me to decode is what the teachers use in the classroom. I think that this is largely because the classroom is really the only situation I’ve been in where I see the words written and hear them pronounced at the same time, so this is the font that I’ve come closest to directly correlating with the sounds it represents. But it might also be because this font is in a middle ground of neither too ornate nor too simplified. Other fonts are harder to figure out.

There is what I think of as a kind of streamlined, modernized font, mostly used in advertising of the kind I see on billboards, and on posters and signs on the train systems. This font seems to have been modified to make it look more like the Roman alphabet used in English and a lot of other European (etc) languages. So the characters look a little less ornate, a little less baroque, than in other fonts; some of the detail has been eliminated, including the little circle (they call it a “head” in Thai) that a lot of characters start with. These characters look like they could be drawn on top of a very simplified grid to a much greater extent than the characters of some other fonts (see below). And some characters have really been squeezed or stretched to make them closely resemble actual letters from the Roman alphabet – s, a, and u come to mind – even though they don’t sound like those letters. (In fact there is a brand of laundry detergent whose name looks for all the world like “usa”). However the upshot of this is that I have more difficulty recognizing these characters – not only can they look quite different than what I see in the classroom, but some of the characters, due to the streamlining of detail, now resemble one another to a much greater extent, making it harder to distinguish between them. (I have to admit that I really like the look of this type of font. Maybe I’m prejudiced because it looks like the English alphabet, but this font has a kind of bold, punchy graphic design, and was one of the things that really struck me during my first days in Bangkok, as I took in all the really neat looking advertising on highway billboards, on the skytrain, in the big shopping malls, etc. All of a sudden advertising, which in English is an annoyance at best, seemed beautiful and exotic and mysterious!)

There are also other fonts, kinds that I often see on the shop signs of small businesses in certain areas – Chinatown comes to mind. They are more ornate, more script-like than the characters used by my teachers in the classroom. I wonder if these are older styles of writing; there seems to me to be a similarity, stylistically, to Indian and Chinese writing. And I find them harder to read– even harder than the “pseudo-Roman alphabet” font of modern advertising.

29 September 2012; AT5 = 567 hours; total time = 1500 hours

Back half a year ago when I first started documenting my experiences learning Thai via ALG (automatic language growth), I wrote a fairly long section about my first thousand or so hours in the program, which gave an overview of how ALG works and how the program is structured. I ended by writing about some of my experiences at school, including things like how I focused my attention in class, how I dealt with not understanding what was going on in class, and how I evaluated whether or not I was actually learning Thai from the program.

So I would like to go back to that point and take up what I think is logically the next topic, which is the question of when I say that I “understand” spoken Thai, what does that really mean? And particularly, what does it mean for someone such as myself who is still learning the language and is far from fluency or native proficiency? How might this understanding differ from the ways that I understand things spoken in English, my native language?

            My reason for wanting to explore this issue of “understanding” is that I think it can sometimes become a problem for someone learning a foreign language. Particularly problematic is the idea or expectation that you’ll understand the language you’re learning in the same way and with the same degree of clarity that you understand your native language. I think that that level of understanding is possible, but maybe only in the long run. In the meantime, I think that such an expectation is unrealistic and is actually an obstacle to learning the language. And I suspect that this is the big problem for a lot of the people who either don’t do well with ALG, or are unwilling to give ALG a chance in the first place.

What I would say is that the understanding of spoken Thai that I’ve been getting from the AUA program is an understanding that is sketchy, tentative, uncertain, incomplete; it is an understanding that is in process, and thus always subject to further growth and revision. I kind of alluded to this when, during the September 21st entry, I described my ability to follow what was going on in class during my early days in AT5 as being like “watching a video where the camera was so out of focus that everything would appear as big, flat, blurry silhouettes” and my perception of the sounds of Thai as being like “a jumbley string of blurred sound.”

For me, English speech is very clear, like a high resolution picture in sharp focus. This is a clarity of both sounds and words. I don’t have any uncertainty about what I’ve heard, and I understand both the general, overall meaning of a statement as well as the details, subtleties, and nuances. I have a word-by-word understanding, and if I could write fast enough I could note down every single word that was spoken. Even if there is something inherently ambiguous or unclear about what’s been said, I understand that too, and understand exactly what the ambiguity or lack of clarity is (for example, a word or phrase that could have more than one meaning, or that has been mispronounced; vagueness in what a pronoun or demonstrative refers to, etc).

By contrast, when I hear something in Thai, my understanding ranges from, I have no clue what was just said to, at the other extreme, I think I understand the main idea of what is being said, plus a fair degree of detail, and I have a good basic understanding of a lot of (or even on occasion, most of) the words used. In class, at this point, I can follow the main idea to a fairly decent level of detail, most of the time. But not only do I not understand every word I hear, there are also sounds that do not really resolve into words yet (the “jumbley string of blurred sound”) – sounds that go by and I’m not sure what I’ve just heard. Outside of class understanding often becomes more difficult – something I’ll try to go into another time. Usually the words that I’m familiar with and have already “figured out” stand out most sharply from the welter of sound.

There are different levels of understanding and familiarity – so it’s kind of an oversimplification to say that I either “understand” or “don’t understand” a given word. There are words that go by that don’t really stand out or register; they might not even seem to be words – just a stream of unclear sound. There are words that I recognize as having heard before, but have no idea what they mean. There are other words that I might have come to associate with a certain general subject or topic, but I can’t quite make out the specific meaning. Some words I have arrived at meanings for – the word seems to correlate with a specific object or concept or action, or whatever – but I could subsequently decide that I was wrong. Or my understanding of the word might end up being refined as I discover new meanings for it. For example, imagine someone learning English who concludes that the hard inedible thing in the middle of a peach is a “pit”. But they still have to figure out if that same word applies to the hard inedible thing in the middle of other fruits, such as cherries, apples, and mangoes. And then they run into the word “pit” being used in other ways: “he dug a pit,” “this place is the pits,” “she was pitted against a more experienced opponent,” etc. (And then there is the whole issue of sound: what about spit, bit, pituitary – are these the same word?)

The thing is, because ALG is a non-analytical approach, I don’t usually think about my level of understanding of Thai words. Occasionally I will be conscious of a word for some reason, say either because I’ve heard it often but still have no idea what it means, or maybe because now I finally understand it. But most of the time I just don’t think about specific words or how well I understand them, with the result that I am not usually conscious of the process by which individual words become clearer and more “understood.” This is because I am used to focusing my attention more on the overall meaning of what is being said, and less on the actual words being used. And although my ultimate goal is native-level proficiency in Thai, my immediate goal in any situation is simply to understand what is going on. If I can understand what is being communicated, then it doesn’t really matter to me whether this is because I understand the words being used or whether it’s because the person who I’m dealing with used body language or drew me a picture to get their point across. It doesn’t matter because the whole point of ALG as a method is that you don’t have to worry about the language – you just focus on the situation or the content of what’s being communicated, and you’ll pick up the language without having to consciously try.

Also it often happens that I understand a word at one point but then fail to understand it at other points. Perhaps the word hasn’t really “sunk in” yet, or maybe the meaning of the word, which seemed clear in one context, is unclear in another. And just because I may have some understanding of a word when hearing it doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to use it in speech – often I won’t be able to remember it.

There is another upshot to the fact that ALG is a non-analytical approach to language learning, which is that I never really understand why I don’t understand something, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. Take the above example, which happens from time to time: somebody is speaking, and I hear a word being used – it stands out from the other words and I recognize it as a word I’ve heard before. And I have the feeling that in the past I’ve understood what this word means, but now I haven’t a clue. If I wanted to be analytical, I could ask all sorts of questions, like is this word that I don’t understand really one that I used to understand? Have I simply forgotten its meaning? Do I not understand this word because it’s being used in a different context? Maybe it’s the same word but it’s being used in a different way? (cf “cherry pit” vs. “to pit against”) Maybe it’s a different word but sounds the same? (cf English “steak” vs. “stake”) Maybe it’s actually a totally different sounding word, and I’m simply not tuning into the difference in sound? (cf English “tea,” “three,” and “tree” – clear for a native English speaker, but the three words sound the same to Thai ears, or so I’ve been told).

To think about these questions in the general sense as I am doing here is, to me, kind of interesting: how does the process of language learning really proceed, how do we go from not understanding to understanding? But to try to think about these questions while in the situation of listening to someone speaking Thai would be worse than useless: as a distraction from listening to the speaker it would diminish my chances of understanding what they are trying to communicate – and accordingly would diminish my chances of learning more Thai. Besides which, my feeling is that in order to understand why I misunderstand things, I would need a higher level of understanding than I currently possess – and that if I had such a higher level of understanding, I wouldn’t misunderstand in the first place! What I mean is this: consider the example above of a Thai person with a fairly low level of ability in English who hears the sentence “they’re drinking tea near the three trees,” and to whom tea, three, and trees all sound the same. Let’s say this person has some understanding of what tea is, but not three or trees. They hear something about “tea” and “tea tea,” and it sounds like gibberish. They might ask themselves a whole bunch of questions about what’s really being said and how come they’re failing to understand it – but without a higher level of comprehension of English, they’re never going to understand what the problem is. And if they had that higher level of comprehension, they probably wouldn’t misunderstand the sentence in the first place.

The assumptions that I’ve been following, both in and out of the classroom, are that in order to learn Thai all I have to do is pay attention to the content of what is being communicated, and not the medium (ie, not the language itself); that analyzing Thai itself, trying to figure out how the language works, is not the best way to go in terms of language learning; and that therefore trying to figure out exactly why I don’t understand something is useless and counterproductive, as is worrying about lack of understanding.

Following these assumptions has worked, for me, as a language learning strategy. In less than a year and a half, I have gone from spoken Thai being completely meaningless to my current situation in which I “understand” a good deal of spoken Thai. I further assume that over time all those sounds and words that at present aren’t clear will continue to come into sharper focus. To what extent my abilities in Thai could approach my abilities in my native English, should I stay within a Thai language environment long term, is an open question.

21 October 2012; AT5 = 577 hours; total time = 1510 hours

I resumed classes the other day after my longest break yet from school: three weeks of only 15 hours a week (instead of my usual 30 or more) followed by four weeks off. I did this because I wanted a change of pace, a break from the routine of school, and to give my brain a rest from Thai.

I didn’t really get away from using Thai, though I ended up using it less than usual. Part of this was intentional – I watched a number of Thai movies with my extra free time; part was necessary – carrying out basic transactions like buying things and making travel enquiries. And some of it was chit-chat – short, casual conversations.

I used Thai the most during the 10 day period I spent at a couple rural wats (temples) in the province of Ratchaburi (about a two hour drive west of Bangkok). Only one person spoke English, so communication was of necessity mostly in Thai. Some of the conversation was strictly utilitarian – work to be done, timing of various activities, travel plans, etc – but a lot of it was the result of the Thais asking me questions about myself, my background, America, how I learned Thai, etc, as well as my questions to them.

In general, my understanding of what was being said was much lower than in the classes at school – a lot of fuzziness, a lot of blank spots, a fairly low level of detail, though I’d say that most of the time I got the main idea. This was similar to a lot of the conversations I have outside the classroom in Bangkok, but these conversations tended to be longer, and my interlocutors were often willing to restate or explain something that I didn’t understand.

As for my speaking abilities, I’d guess that my pronunciation is on the whole pretty good, because they usually understood me. My big problem in speaking is my limited vocabulary: there are a lot of words that I just don’t know, so often I have to find an alternative or roundabout way of saying something, or fall back on using gestures. Sometimes I would just trail off when I got to the part that I didn’t know how to say, and my listener would have to guess. Sometimes there would be no way I could answer a question that I’d been asked. And the kind of nuanced and detailed observations that I can make in English are absolutely impossible for me to make in Thai.

In general, I’ve noticed that it’s much easier to understand what’s being said when it’s directed at me – that is, I have an easier time understanding someone when they’re talking to me than understanding conversations between other people, or movies or songs.  I’ve wondered if this is the result of my interlocutor gauging my level of understanding and adjusting accordingly (though not necessarily in the obvious ways of slowing down or annunciating more precisely), or whether there could be some kind of perhaps subliminal non-verbal communication between the two of us that facilitates understanding. However I mentioned this to a friend of mine – an American who speaks Thai – and he said that he finds it easier to understand a conversation that he’s not involved in, and harder to understand someone who’s addressing him directly; he thought this was due to feeling less on-the-spot and more at ease when he just listens in and isn’t expected to respond.

28 October 2012; AT5 = 607 hours; total time = 1540 hours

I’ve had seven days of classes totaling 40 hours since my return to school; my speaking and comprehension abilities seem pretty much the same as before the break, but I feel reenergized and more enthusiastic about being back in class.

My perception of the sound of Thai continues to change. A few months back as I was listening to Thai being spoken, I had a shift in perception about a certain Thai word that I had already become familiar with. I had been perceiving the word as something like “see-en-dahm” (it means something like loud) and had even been using it in speaking, when suddenly I heard it as “see-en-dahn” with the final N being pronounced at the back of the throat, something akin to the N in English words like sing or think.            Anyway, over the last few weeks it seems like I’m noticing that I’m not always clear on whether the sound I’m hearing in certain words is (roughly the English equivalent of) N, or the N at the back of the throat (as in sing). This “confusion” mostly seems to occur when the N sound is at the end of a syllable (or is it the end of a word?). Like I’ll hear a word that I used to think used one of the N’s and now it will sound like the other N. Maybe I’m really hearing a variation in the way people pronounce the word, or maybe I haven’t fully developed the ability to distinguish between these two sounds.

There’s a similar process going on for the sounds that roughly correspond to English L and R.

I also realize something else about that back-of-the-throat N sound: without really thinking about it, I used to perceive it as being more like NG, whereas now I perceive it as being more like just N (like saying “sing” and not pronouncing the G at all). Even though I never used English to try to understand Thai – I’ve never read a description in English of what the various Thai letters sound like – I still have to wonder now if my perceptions of Thai sounds has been somewhat skewed by my familiarity with similar English sounds, as if I were unable to conceive of pronouncing the N sound at the back of the throat without adding in a consonant afterwards simply because that’s the way that English works.

There’s another sound that I just really noticed within the last week or so. It has to do with certain vowels (not the consonants), and it might have something to do with the tones that Thai uses, but at this point although I hear it, I don’t know how to describe what I’m hearing. But I wanted to note it down here and maybe at some point when things become clearer I’ll try to describe in more detail what I’m hearing and, if possible, the process by which my perception of this sound came more into focus.

I have to assume that my perceptions of the Thai sound system have been changing all along, given that at least some of what used to be an unclear blur of sound has “crystallized out” into distinct sounds – in some cases clear enough not only for me to perceive the sounds as words but even to use them in speech myself. However most of the time it’s a process that I’m not all that aware of. What I’ve written about here are some of the occasions when for some reason I was more aware of these shifts in perception than I usually am. If my descriptions seem kind of vague and sketchy, I think it’s because my awareness of these processes is vague and sketchy, and also because these kinds of changes are hard to describe, hard to put into words.

7 January 2013; AT5 = 764 hours; total time = 1702 hours; TV = 294 min

Today I’ll return to school having had a three week break while AUA was closed for Christmas and new year’s, during which I took a week-long trip through central Thailand. In my travels I got into several fairly long, involved conversations in Thai. As usual, my listening and speaking abilities varied quite a bit. It can be very frustrating when the topic of conversation exceeds my abilities – often this is simply a matter of my lacking the vocabulary necessary to reply to a question or express a thought. At other times my abilities in Thai declined simply due to fatigue after a couple of hours of conversation. All in all though, I’d say my abilities are vastly better than a year ago.

I remain frustrated by my comprehension abilities while watching movies or TV, listening to songs, or listening to other people’s conversations – all situations where the communication isn’t aimed at me personally, as it would be in a one-on-one conversation. Often I will understand a good number of the words that are used, but somehow things don’t come together enough for me to “get” the overall meaning of what is being expressed. Sometimes little patches of meaning will come into focus here and there, as when listening to a song and understanding a line here and a phrase there. With TV and movies the visuals provide a lot of information, of course; but say I’m watching a scene where the characters are just talking and it’s not clear from the context what they’re talking about – in this case my understanding often remains vague at best, nonexistent at worst.

However, things are getting a little better – the other day, listening to some Thai songs that I’ve had since before coming to Thailand, and that I hadn’t listened to in a number of months, I understood a good deal more of the lyrics than in the past.

I’ve decided to make a change in my learning strategy. I’m going to cut down on the number of hours I spend in the classroom each week, and make up the time by watching more movies and TV. I already started doing this when I got back from my trip a few days ago – hence the TV (“Thai video”) number of 294 minutes – almost five hours – from the three movies that I watched over the last three days.

I’ll be keeping a record of the time I spend watching Thai video. The “rules” are simple: what I watch counts as long as it’s in Thai, there are no subtitles, and I’m paying full attention as I would in class. (So casual TV watching in a restaurant while I eat a meal doesn’t count). I’m doing this because although I feel like I’m still getting something out of classes at AUA, I also feel like it would soon be time to “move up” to the next level. But there is nothing beyond AT5. Movies and TV in Thai feel like the equivalent of the next level.

Oh, for the record, I’d guesstimate that since coming to Thailand, but before I started tracking my “video time” a few days ago, I’ve probably watched something like 25 hours worth of subtitle-less movies, etc.

8 February 2013; AT5 = 812 hours; total time = 1750 hours; TV =  54.1 hours

I’ll start this entry by noting a couple things that I take to be signs of my making progress with Thai, and that actually happened around the time that I wrote the last entry.

The first was that I got through a ten minute phone conversation, all in Thai. I really dread having to speak on the phone in Thai; past telephone conversations have basically gone like this:

Thai person: blahblahblahblahblah (in Thai)

<awkward silence>

me: mai cow chai (Thai for “(I) don’t understand”)

This time though, I basically understood what the other person was saying, and they seemed to have no problems understanding me – the conversation went back and forth pretty smoothly, albeit with the other person having to rephrase every once in a while when I didn’t understand. Also, the subject matter was fairly simple – wishing each other a happy new year, my inquiring about a mutual friend, being asked about future travel plans, questions about America, etc. Still, I would consider any conversation that lacks visuals to be quite challenging, and this went well.

The other thing that happened was that I dropped in on a political rally that was going on in my neighborhood and found that I could understand the gist of a speech that was being given (basically, to use taxes to improve health care, education, and retirement benefits). This was a definite first, though I think it was actually the first time I’ve heard (or really listened to) a political speech in Thai. Also, it might be the case that the speaker was employing fairly easy-to-understand language; I say this because I understand a lot less in two situations that to me seem roughly comparable to listening to a political speech: watching the news on TV, and listening to a talk being given at a Buddhist temple.

So, I also recently took a trip to Laos, where I used some English, but mainly Thai, to communicate. Thai and Laos are related languages, and the Laotians seemed to have no problem understanding my Thai. My understanding of Lao, however, is way lower than my understanding of Thai, but I often did get the main idea of what people were saying to me.

Classes at AUA: I think it’s been a long time now since I felt totally lost in class; I can consistently follow the main ideas being presented, and to a fairly decent level of detail. Nonetheless, I feel like I’m still quite far from a word-by-word understanding of what’s being said; there’s still a lot of stuff going by that I can’t quite catch; I hear a lot of words that I either don’t know or only have a vague idea of what they mean – this includes words that I’ve been hearing for quite some time; and overall, my level of understanding still feels vaguer than what I remember having achieved at the end of AT3. I think there’s still a lot I can pick up from classes at AUA, so I plan to keep attending.

Things going on with the learning process itself:

Even though I’ve been immersed in ALG-style learning for over a year and a half now, there’s still that voice in the back of my head that pops up quite often and spits out English translations, either of individual Thai words, or of whole phrases and sentences. Basically, I just try to ignore that voice and disengage from it. It seems like sometimes I get really absorbed in the situation (ie, the class I’m attending or the movie that I’m watching) and then usually that voice isn’t there. I think that observing, analyzing, processing, and commenting on my experiences via English, my native language, is probably really deeply ingrained because I’ve been doing it for so long and because that voice is used to being “on” almost all the time. Even though ALG, unlike other language learning methodologies, not only does not try to take advantage of that English language voice (ie, via translation), but actually ignores that voice – even so, that voice just has a tendency to turn up, like an appliance whose faulty switch sometimes turns to the “on” position all by itself.

I suppose from the standpoint of ALG, the main problem with learning a second language is having a first language to fall back upon, instead of dealing with the second language on its own terms. I guess it’s only a problem insofar as you actually use your first language to try to get a handle on the language you’re trying to learn. However, I have noticed instances of “interference” between English (and other languages that I am somewhat familiar with) and Thai – I’d like to write more about this topic in a future entry.

25 February 2013; AT5 = 855 hours; total time = 1793 hours; TV = 68.3 hours

I just got back from having a meal at the marketplace near my house, and despite still not having started any kind of formal study of reading and writing, my ability to read the menu has definitely improved: I was able to read and understand the names of dishes that I’ve never heard of. (I was, however, already familiar with the individual terms/words that comprised those names, sort of equivalent to reading and understanding the English phrase “ham and cheese sandwich” and understanding it because you already understand and are familiar with ham, cheese, and sandwiches, though this is the first time that you are encountering this particular type of sandwich).

As for my TV and movie watching in Thai:

I haven’t been able to get in nearly as many hours as I’d wanted to. This has been partly because there have been a number of days that I’ve either been away from home traveling, or otherwise occupied; but also because I often find the experience tiring and/or uninteresting. The problem is the same as at the early stages of a new level of class at AUA: comprehension is low, so the ability to follow what’s going on is low, so the experience becomes uninteresting or frankly boring. There are some things that I’ve watched that I’ve understood so little of that I wondered if I wasn’t totally wasting my time. Then again, thinking back on my experiences at AUA, particularly with AT3 and AT5, I realize that I may have to watch several hundred hours of TV and movies before my comprehension abilities come up to where I currently am in AT5 (which itself is still a ways from where I want to be).

I also feel that a lot of the stuff I’m watching would not be terribly compelling even if I understood the language perfectly. Since the ability to absorb the language depends on paying attention, and since the ability to pay attention is related to the level of interest, this could end up being a fairly big limitation on using video as language learning material.

I’m also not getting in as many hours of video watching as I’d at first envisioned because I decided a couple weeks ago, strictly for financial reasons, to go for the bonus which AUA offers and which I’ve always gotten in the past: you get 50 free hours of class time if you manage to complete 200 hours within 8 weeks. So averaging 25 hours a week in class will leave me with a lot less time and energy for watching Thai language movies and TV at home.

So far, since the year started, I’ve gotten in an average of 1.25 hours of video per day (the actual number of hours for particular days has varied from one to over four and a half, except for the days when I didn’t watch at all). And despite what I’ve written above about boredom, I have managed to sustain a moderate level of interest for a lot of what I’ve watched, and have found a few things that were really interesting. So here’s a bit of a rundown on what I’ve been watching, how interesting I’ve found it, and what my comprehension was like.

I’ve watched more movies than TV, so I’ll start with TV.

I’ve watched news shows a number of times and I find them very hard to understand – I often won’t know much more than the general topic that is being covered, for instance, that the story is about water levels in the rivers, or about a drug bust. I’ve wondered if my low comprehension isn’t due at least in part to the style of delivery – news is read very rapidly with few pauses, and seems closer to monotone (ie, is less emotionally expressive) than many other instances of spoken language. Also, the visuals (whether video or still images) don’t seem to convey very much information vis-à-vis the subject matter.

I’ve also seen a couple shows that were more documentary in nature (concerning production of traditional Thai crafts and food products), and these were slightly easier to understand. One show that was really easy to understand was a show that taught small children basic safety, like how to cross the street, how to use a fire extinguisher – but it was so boring that I don’t know if I would watch this level of programming again. And then just yesterday I watched some of an American show (dubbed into Thai) about mining for gold in Alaska – but I understood little beyond the most basic generalities, was bored, and turned it off after a half hour.

Most of the Thai TV that I’ve watched has been lakorn – the Thai equivalent of a soap opera. It’s definitely easier to understand and more interesting than news and documentary shows. For one thing, the language seems closer to the way people usually speak than the rapid-fire near-monotone of the news. For another, I think it’s easier to guess what’s going on, in that the emotional level of interactions is fairly obvious, even if the content is not: for example, it’s easy to understand that two characters don’t like each other and that one is trying to snub the other, even if I understand little of the particulars of what’s being said. Also, both characters and plot seem fairly simple and straightforward.

I’ve basically been watching one particular lakorn, Maneesawat (มณีสวาท), which is on two hours a night, two nights a week, so familiarity with the story and characters probably aids my ability to comprehend what’s going on. And the fact that the show has elements that are specific to Thai society and culture probably makes it more interesting for me than, say, a roughly equivalent American soap dubbed into Thai.

18 March 2013; AT5 = 934 hours; total time = 1872 hours; TV = 101.2 hours

For what it’s worth, I just this week passed the 100 hour mark in terms of watching Thai video (movies & TV), and later today when I go to school I will hit the point where my hours in AT5 start to exceed 50% of my total time in the AUA program.            Since the last entry, my video watching has been entirely of one particular Thai lakorn, Maneesawat (มณีสวาท). In fact, the concluding episode aired last week, but I’ve been viewing the early episodes that I’d missed on YouTube, which – as long as I have a good internet connection – is actually better than on TV in that there are no commercials.

My understanding seems to be picking up a little bit, which may be in part due to familiarity with the show’s plot and characters. I also seem to be more engaged even when I don’t really understand what’s being said. This is interesting because I’ve previously experienced the same thing in classes at AUA: I would hit a stage where my language abilities were still inadequate enough for that level of Thai that there would be stretches of time when I couldn’t understand what was being said, but even though I couldn’t understand what was going on, I would still feel engaged and interested, my attention rapt.

I’ve wondered if this happens because I now understand enough of the show as a whole that when my comprehension fails, my curiosity as to what’s going on only increases. I’ve also sometimes felt as if there’s something – within the language I’m listening to – which I’m able to follow, able to pay attention to, but which doesn’t really translate into verbal meaning. Perhaps I’ve gained a greater ability to tune into the non-verbal aspects of the language being used, things like emphasis or intonation? Or could it be that my ability to process the language has increased but that it still falls short of the threshold of actual understanding?

26 May 2013; AT5 = 1031 hours; total time = 1969 hours; TV = 124.8 hours

I just yesterday returned from an almost four week stay in the countryside west of Bangkok; but before I write about that, I’d like to give updates on a few other things.

Video watching: as should be apparent from the numbers, my video watching has really slacked off – I’ve watched less than 25 hours of TV since my last entry, over two months ago. Of course, about 4 weeks of that time I was traveling and unable to watch TV or movies, but this is still a decrease. What happened was that after finishing watching Maneesawat (มณีสวาท), the thai lakorn (soap opera) that I’d become interested in, I tried watching a little of this and a little of that, but was unable to find another lakorn that I really liked. Maybe I was also feeling burned out on watching Thai TV/movies (plus putting in so many hours at school), because there was a roughly three week period when I hardly watched anything; instead, I indulged myself reading in English (mostly novels), which I really enjoyed – it was probably a good semi-break from Thai. Then in early april I started watching and became absorbed in a lakorn called Raeng Ngao (แรงเงา) which had aired on TV here last year (I’m watching it on Youtube). This lakorn had been discussed in class a number of times – I got the impression that it was a big hit with Thai audiences – so I knew a bit about the characters and the overall plot before I started watching it. (Plus I had actually caught an episode of it last year on an overnight bus ride). Anyway, it’s engaging enough that when I left Bangkok for my trip, I was at the halfway point (10 out of 20 episodes) and felt frustrated that I had to break off my viewing. Now that I’m back, I plan to watch the remaining episodes.

School: For close to a year now I’ve been here in Thailand on series of ED (education) visas – each one is good for 90 days, then I have to leave the country (I’ve been going to Laos) and apply for a new visa using paperwork provided by my school, AUA. In return my obligation is go to class for at least 15 hours per week, though I often do 25 to 30 hours per week in order to get the bonus of 50 free hours that AUA offers if you complete 200 hours within 8 weeks. All of this is no problem because I have plenty of free time for school and I find the classes enjoyable, plus I feel like I am still learning a lot in class. However, I decided it was time for a change of pace. So when my last ED visa expired back in late April, I decided to get a tourist visa as a replacement. The tourist visa is good for 60 days, and my understanding is that I can renew it here in Bangkok for an additional 30 days. I now have no obligation to go to class. So I pretty much haven’t been to school since 19 April, with the exception of one day when I went in to meet a friend and took an hour’s class just because I was there anyway. This way I get an extended break from school and more time for Thai outside the classroom, travel outside of Bangkok, etc.

Crosstalk: Since early march I’ve been meeting with a young Thai graduate student for “crosstalk”, which is the same method of communication used to teach Thai at AUA. I speak in English, she speaks in Thai, and the conversation is supplemented with visual communication, mainly pictures and gestures. Similar to AUA, I try to just understand what she is trying to communicate without focusing on the language being used and without using English to analyze or translate what she’s saying. There are however some differences for me between my experiences with crosstalk outside of school as opposed to what I experience inside the classroom at AUA. The obvious difference is that at AUA the communication mostly goes one way – from teachers to students – with the students giving only occasional responses, whereas with crosstalk it’s more 50-50 with both of us participating equally. I also feel that in the one-on-one crosstalk my conversation partner and I are more aware of each other’s level of understanding and adapt accordingly. So if I see she doesn’t understand what I am saying, I can try to figure out what the stumbling block is and adjust by rephrasing, increasing the nonverbal communication (ie, drawing pictures etc), or elucidating a concept by explaining it or giving examples. Because she is the only person I am focusing on, I can custom tailor what I am trying to communicate in order to get her to understand. Similarly, if I don’t understand what she is saying, she’ll either pick up on that or I’ll just tell her that I don’t understand what she’s just said. And I also think relating one-to-one holds my attention better than in class – my mind seems to wander off less. Usually when my focus slips it’s toward the end of a three to four hour conversation, and I’m getting pretty tired.

What do we talk about? Things that we’ve done or experienced recently, things that happened in our childhoods, family, life in Thailand and America; and sometimes stories drawn from literature or mythology. Sometimes it’s very conversational with a back-and-forth, sometimes it’s more like a class at AUA in that one person will speak for a period of time with the other person not saying much (this usually happens when telling a long story). Ability-wise, I think we’re fairly evenly matched, though I suspect her comprehension of English might be a bit better than mine of Thai, and that perhaps my ability to speak Thai might be a little better than her ability to speak English. Though I will occasionally cross over into Thai – it’s usually when we first meet or when we’re wrapping things up – for the most part I stick to English so that she will get English input; similarly, she sticks mainly to Thai, which I appreciate for the Thai input. After all, getting the input in the other language is the whole reason we’re doing crosstalk.

Anyway, I’ve had about 25 hours of crosstalk at this point; there’s some information available about crosstalk online at http://algworld.com/crosstalk

1 June 2013; AT5 = 1032 hours; total time = 1970 hours; TV = 149.4 hours

Earlier in the week I finished off the remaining ten episodes of Raeng Ngao (แรงเงา) in just three days, and I’ve since gotten four episodes into a new lakorn called Ruen Hor Ror Hean (เรือนหอรอเฮี้ยน) which, unlike the other two lakorns I’ve watched, is a comedy – a romantic comedy with vampires. I think I’ve followed the overall plots of these shows fairly well, but there’s still a lot that I miss. For instance, Raeng Ngao had a lot of scenes with two characters exchanging dialogue that I could barely understand, if at all. Many of these scenes were adversarial or confrontational, and I could understand that the two characters were exchanging threats or insults, as well as what was at stake, but the details of what was being said remained really sketchy.

One of the big advantages of watching lakorn is that a character’s intentions, motivations, and overall character are usually pretty clear, as are their relationships, at least on an emotional level, to the other characters. So even if the details of what’s going on drop out here and there – or even totally blur out – due to my shortcomings in Thai, I can still follow the story fairly well, and remain engaged and interested even during scenes where I can barely understand anything of what’s being said.

After finishing Raeng Ngao but before starting Ruen Hor Ror Hean I decided to watch a movie for maybe the first time since I really got into lakorn back in March. I picked a dubbed-into-Thai version of Hard Boiled, a Hong Kong action flick. I usually prefer Thai movies, both because I’m interested in Thai culture, society, etc, and because language-wise I find films dubbed into Thai offputting: the dubbed Thai voices often have an oddly stagey quality to them that sounds more theatrical than cinematic. But I’ve seen a few Hong Kong crime movies over the years that I’ve really liked – Infernal Affairs with English subtitles back when I was in America, and more recently, Thai language dubs (no subtitles) of Death Rim and God of Gamblers – so I decided to give Hard Boiled a shot.

Unfortunately I found it so boring that after 90 minutes (about three quarters of the way through) I stopped watching. I felt like I wasn’t really understanding a lot of what the characters were saying – there seemed to be something “fuzzy” or indistinct about the language – but nonetheless was adequately following the story, which seemed fairly straightforward; I’m guessing that even if I had watched an English language version, it wouldn’t have made any significant difference in terms of either my understanding or my enjoyment of the film. I just didn’t find the story that compelling, nor the characters, nor the lengthy and elaborate shootout scenes (which, because they were fairly wordless, probably didn’t do anything for me in terms of learning Thai). This isn’t to disparage Hard Boiled  – I know that it’s a highly rated film, and I think my tastes can be kind of idiosyncratic. Rather, I’d like to point out that the relationship between 1. understanding the language being used, 2. being able to follow the story, and 3. being engaged and interested by the film, is not a simple one.

For instance, there were a couple of Thai romantic comedies that I watched (Loaded Love [รักเกิน 100 โล] and Jenny [เจนนี่]) where not only was I able to follow the story, but I was able to understand a fairly significant amount of the spoken language. While watching these films, I realized that I was understanding things about the plot and characters that was obtainable only from what was being said. But although the films were interesting enough to watch all the way through, I doubt I’d have done so if I were watching them with English subtitles or dubbing. In other words, I understood them well, and they were watchable, but they weren’t really that interesting.

Then there’s a film like Midnight, My Love (เฉิ่ม), which tells the story of the relationship between a stoic, middle aged Bangkok cabbie, and a young prostitute. At first I followed what was going on pretty well, then towards the end I got totally lost. But it didn’t really matter: I was totally engaged by the story, the characters, the depiction of the grittier side of Bangkok, and the way the cabbie’s inner life is envisioned as scenes from old movies. Or there was Opapatika  (โอปปาติก เกิดอมตะ), a lushly atmospheric action thriller which alternated long monologues which I couldn’t understand at all with elaborate fight sequences between superpowered, supernatural characters. I had no idea what was going on and didn’t understand what the conflict was about, but somehow I found the movie compelling anyway and my inability to understand made it even more intriguing. These two are films that I’d definitely like to rewatch in the future, and hopefully by that point my Thai will have improved enough that I’ll understand them better.

A Thai movie that I found baffling and boring was – well, I’m not sure what the name is, the Thai title looks to be something like chatee sameeng nang pana, but that’s just a guess since I can’t really read and none of those are words that I recognize. If it had been an American movie I would have guessed it to be from the 60’s or 70’s just based on the way it looked (also based on the appearance of the cover art which accompanied the disk, and which I’m assuming is from the original movie poster) – but given that it’s a Thai movie, I don’t feel very confident making such a guess. The film concerns a group of armed people living in a forest village and fighting the (Thai?) army. Right away I’m lost. Are these people insurgents waging guerilla warfare? Or just common criminals? Is the film supposed to have a historical basis? – are the guerillas supposed to be Thai communist revolutionaries of the 1970s?

Much of the film seems to be about relationships and conflicts within the guerilla (?) group, and there’s a lot of conversation – which I didn’t understand at all. Most of the film seemed naturalistic, but takes turns a sudden supernatural turn toward the end, with one of the women turning into a costumed superpowered ninja-type figure; a mysterious woman asleep (or entranced?) in a cave; and a magic weapon used to incinerate people. These sudden supernatural twists seemed jarring and unexpected, but maybe that was because I understood so little of what was being said in the earlier parts of the film. What was interesting was that the reason the movie was so hard to understand was undoubtedly at least in part due to my not having any familiarity with a context or background in which to place its characters and events: who are these people, why are they waging guerilla warfare, and what are all the supernatural elements about? The other problem was that it was a very talky movie and I didn’t understand what the characters were saying. Although I’m intrigued in that I’d like to know what this movie was really about, I felt bored when I was watching it and I’m not sure I’d want to sit through it again, even if my ability to understand Thai were radically improved.

Or to take a non-Thai movie, the aforementioned Death Rim, a Hong Kong movie (I watched it with a Thai soundtrack) that I felt did a good job with a really old plot: the professional criminal who wants to get out of the game and go straight, but finds that it’s not so easy to leave his former life behind – with disastrous consequences for himself and his family. I had no problem understanding what was going on and getting the gist of what was being said, even though I felt like I understood hardly anything at all on a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase level.

For the record, some other Thai movies that I found really engaging and intriguing, even though my ability to understand is way far from perfect, included Bangkok Loco (ทวารยังหวานอยู่), Ghost Station (โกยเถอะเกย์), Who are you? (ใคร… ในห้อง), and Khon Hew Hua (คนหิ้วหัว).

What it comes down to is I’d rather watch something that I find interesting even if I can’t understand it very well, than a movie that I understand really well but am bored by. Of course, there are movies that I’ve found boring or dissatisfying probably largely because I understood so little of the spoken language, and the spoken language seemed to be really key in communicating the story (2499: Dang Bireley’s and Young Gangsters – 2499 อันธพาลครองเมือง – comes to mind). In fact, most of the movies that I’ve watched in Thai so far would for me fall within the “moderate” category: moderately interesting, moderately understandable.

5 June 2013; AT5 = 1032 hours; total time = 1970 hours; TV = 159.1 hours

I spent most of last month at two small rural temples in the province of Ratchaburi, a roughly two hour drive west of Bangkok. It was a pretty much all-Thai situation (my friend who speaks English left after ten days). Here are the Thai language highlights:

Near and Far: I’m finally getting the hang of these two Thai words. Up until this point they had sounded the same (sort of like the English word glide with the d sound lopped off: “glai”), and I was always afraid that I would be misunderstood as saying the exact opposite of what I wanted to say. It almost made me feel that there was some kind of joke going on, that the language would have two words that were opposite in meaning but undistinguishable (to me, at least) in their sound. But now I can not only hear but also reproduce the difference: the word for “far” has a more relaxed, drawn-out vowel sound than the word for “near”; there’s also some kind of difference in intonation – like the vowel in the word for “near” sounds higher pitched than the vowel in the word for “far”.

Insulting my friend: One day a friend drove me to Ayutthaya, the capital city of one of Thailand’s previous kingdoms, and gave me a tour. (Ayutthaya was destroyed by Burmese invaders in 1767 and has since been rebuilt; the city contains many ancient temples, and has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO). While thanking her and trying to tell her that she had been a very good tour guide, I accidentally called her a chicken – which in Thai is also slang for prostitute. (The words for tour guide and chicken both sound kind of like English guy, except that they have different intonations). Laughing, she pointed out my mistake and I corrected myself. What’s interesting is that I know the difference between the two words, and have no problem pronouncing them correctly; but somehow in the process of speaking it’s like the circuits got crossed and the wrong word came out.

Stupid, or just confused?: Commenting on my deficiencies in understanding, I would sometimes refer to myself as no (the n is in the back of the throat, like the n in the English word sing), which after awhile began to upset my friend (the same one I had accidentally called a chicken), who began giving me mini lectures / pep-talks about how I wasn’t no, but there was simply Thai that I didn’t yet understand. Actually, I was really fuzzy on what no means: sometimes I thought it meant “stupid”, sometimes “confused”. Then at a certain point I realized I was confusing no with non (again, the n sounds are all in the back of the throat, like the n in the word sing), the former being more like English “stupid”, the latter like “confused”. Then I remembered that I had actually known about and differentiated between the two words quite a number of months back, and I remembered sometimes seeing them being written out on the whiteboard at school (the spellings are distinct). But then somehow I confused the two words – maybe I hadn’t heard them in some time and only remembered no? Or maybe I somehow stopped hearing the difference between them, with the result that I attributed both meanings to the one word no?

And the confusion is still not completely cleared up, because I’m pretty sure there’s a difference in pronunciation beyond that of simply an extra “n”, but I’m not quite sure that this difference is yet clear enough to me for me to be able to pronounce the two words correctly and distinctly. Such confusion is typical for me – there are a lot of Thai words that I have not yet learned to differentiate out: they sound either the same or very similar. Sometimes if I hear these words one after another I can tell that the pronunciation isn’t quite identical, but can’t really put my finger on what the difference actually is. For example, the Thai words for “shirt”, “tiger”, “to buy”, and “mat” all sound pretty similar, as do the words for “egg” and “to sell”. I think I can usually understand these words when other people use them, because the context makes the meaning clear; and when I use these words, people in general seem to understand me, but I have to wonder if that too is due to context.

Related digression: One of the characters in Ruen Hor Ror Hean (เรือนหอรอเฮี้ยน), the lakorn that I’m currently watching, is a young woman who went to England as a child and who’s just returned to Thailand after years away, with the result that she now speaks a very imperfect Thai. Her heavy (English?) accent, and the tentative and off-sounding rhythms of her speech seem pretty obvious, while the other characters’ reactions to her make it clear that Nudee sometimes says things that are incorrect or inappropriate. (Also, her speech is larded with words from the Isaan [northeastern] dialect, and I suspect there’s a joke that I didn’t quite catch about how this came to be – perhaps along the lines of her having learned Thai from the servants?). Anyway, she’s quite a comical character, and I’m sure that most of her Thai-language bloopers go right over my head, but one that I did catch (kind of) was when toward the end of one particular scene she tries to excuse herself by saying that she has to pee but actually ends up saying that she’s going to ordain as a nun. I say I “kind of” caught it because both statements sound the same to me (“bawt chee”) and my understanding was based on both the context in which Nudee made the statement and on what happened later on in the show. Maybe if I got a Thai person to make both statements for me one after the other, it would be easier for me to compare them and I’d be able to tell whether or not they differ in sound/pronunciation. But I only occasionally try to elicit such head-to-head comparisons. The fact that I’m uncertain as to whether having to pee and ordaining as a nun sound identical or not in Thai to me suggests that this is language that I have thus far only partially assimilated: I know the sounds to the point where I can recognize what these phrases mean in context, but not with the full clarity that lets me distinguish between them if context is lacking or inadequate. I assume that with time the distinctions will become apparent, as they have with the words for “near” and “far”.

6 June 2013; AT5 = 1032 hours; total time = 1970 hours; TV = 160.7 hours

(ratchaburi trip cont’d) Official Thai vs. Passa Chow Ban; and: What do the words really refer to anyway?

In English I sometimes say that I’m studying Thai, but it would actually be more accurate to add qualifiers and say that I’m studying “standard Thai”, or “official Thai”, or “the national dialect of the Thai language”, or something to that effect. My understanding is that this standardized version of the Thai language is based upon the dialect of Thai spoken in Bangkok, and is used in schools, government, and the media. I think that for many Thais, it is acquired as a second language when they are young. For example, I once spoke with a woman from the south of Thailand, who had a university level education and had been living and working in Bangkok for some time. As we conversed in standard Thai, I asked her about the language she had grown up with and how she had learned the national language. She replied that she’d grown up speaking the local dialect of southern Thai, and had learned to understand standard Thai at school, but did not become proficient in speaking standard Thai until she was older because schoolchildren did not often speak in class.

Thais often divide their country into four main regions: central (which includes Bangkok), southern, northern, and northeastern; and similarly, they often speak of analogous regional variants in the language, ie, southern Thai as opposed to central Thai, etc. But even this is, I think, somewhat of a simplification. For instance, I’ve been told that the local variant of Thai spoken in Surin has a good deal in common with the language spoken just over the border in Cambodia, while the language spoken in Ubon Ratchathani has a good deal in common with the language in nearby Laos – this despite the fact that the two cities, which are both located in Isaan (the northeast), are only about 100 miles away from one another.

So the impression that I get is that the local language or dialect, what the Thais call “passa chow ban”, varies from place to place. Another example: one of my teachers at AUA, who grew up less than 100 miles from Bangkok and has lived in Bangkok for many years at this point, once said that she can only understand about 50% of the speech of someone from a distant part of the country. Likewise, I have heard that people from central Thailand have trouble understanding the local dialects from Isaan, the northeastern part of Thailand.

Within the classrooms at AUA, the teachers use “standard Thai” pretty much exclusively. Only on very rare occasions will they throw out a few words or phrases in one of the regional dialects, but I think this is not so much to teach students “passa chow ban” as it is to alert them to the degree of language variation within the country, as well as for amusement purposes (in the same way that I have, on occasion, and just for fun, broken out a heavy New York accent for some Thai person who’s interested in English language and/or America).

“Official Thai” may be based on Bangkok Thai, but I suspect that at least some of what I hear in Bangkok is provincial dialect. For one thing, my impression is that a large percentage of the people who live and/or work in Bangkok come from other parts of the country. I haven’t been able to find any online demographics for Bangkok that reveal what percentage of Bangkok’s population originated from outside the city, but Wikipedia’s page on Bangkok has a section on demography listing census data from roughly the last hundred years and showing a degree of population growth that I would guess could only be accounted for by migration (just to take the most recent figures, in the year 2000 Bangkok’s population was 6,355,144 whereas in 2010 it was 8,280,925 – a 23% increase in just 10 years).

(source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangkok#Demography)

My personal experience is that when I ask people where they’re from, it’s just about always from one of the provinces, not Bangkok. And in terms of AUA, I’ve had roughly 15 different Thai teachers and I think there are only three who I’m not sure where they’re from – so it might be Bangkok – but the others all come from the provinces. (Mostly from either Central Thailand or the Northeast; only one teacher that I know of is from the South, and none from the North).

All of which is to say that when I encounter someone who’s especially difficult to understand, I sometimes wonder if they’re speaking something other than “official Thai” – particularly if their Thai sounds somewhat unusual compared to what I’m used to. This is less about whether I can recognize and understand the words they’re using, and more to do with the sound of the language they’re using: standard Thai has a certain sound to it that I’ve gotten used to and which has become very recognizable, very familiar; at other times I’ll be listening to someone – and understanding them, to some extent – but there’s something different, less familiar, about the sound of the language they’re using.

But I’m never really sure in cases like that. Maybe I’m listening to someone speaking standard Thai, but they’ve just got their own unique or idiosyncratic way of speaking? Or they’re speaking an informal “sloppy” standard Thai, analogous to the way that I’ll tend to run sounds together and use a lot of contractions when speaking to another native English speaker, as opposed to the more “careful” English that I’ll use when dealing with a foreigner who doesn’t seem to speak English fluently. So it’s hard for me to tell what I’m really dealing with; all I really know is along the lines of, this person’s language sounds more like what I’m used to hearing, that person’s less so; I can understand this person fairly well, that person not so well.

I’ve also wondered to what extent there’s a Bangkok vernacular that differs from standard Thai (which, again, is based on the Thai spoken in Bangkok). Like what do native Bangkokites (Bangkokians? Krungthepers?) speak if they’re not well educated or if they’re being informal? Is it just “standard Thai” with a lot of slang thrown in and a lot of the formalities removed? Or something else?

During my recent stay in Ratchaburi (a province within central Thailand and only about 50 miles west of Bangkok), the person I probably spoke most with was the woman who gave me a tour of Ayutthaya, as described in the previous (5 June) entry. A successful local businesswoman, O. has lived in Ratchaburi her whole life. Friendly, curious, and sympathetic, O. made for a good Thai teacher and an ideal interlocutor given my current abilities in Thai, in that she was always willing to rephrase, restate, or explain things that she saw I didn’t understand, as well as to answer questions and expand on things that interested me (and not simply unfamiliar language, but unfamiliar cultural concepts and beliefs as well). Although I didn’t think to ask her at the time, I have since wondered if she has a fairly high level of education compared to some of the other local people who I spoke with who were more challenging for me to understand. My difficulties with some of these other people were twofold. For one thing, if I didn’t understand what they’d said the conversation would tend to grind to a halt; it was as if they lacked a certain ability to explain things or to restate the same idea in different words, as if they could only think of one way to say something. The other difficulty was related to what I wrote above about some people speaking a Thai that just doesn’t sound familiar, doesn’t sound quite like the “standard Thai” that I’ve picked up at AUA, and often hear being spoken around me in Bangkok. So perhaps these people had what in America would be described as a heavy (regional) accent; maybe they were speaking very casually, something like the way English speakers (at least in America, where I’m from) will run sounds together or drop them out altogether (ie, “what are you doing?” becomes “watcha doin’?”); maybe this was Ratchaburi Thai instead of Standard Thai. Again, my Thai is still too rudimentary for me to be able to answer such questions; all I really know is, this person’s Thai is kind of unfamiliar sounding and is much harder to understand than that person’s Thai, which sounds more like what I’m used to.

This goes back to the other reason O. was relatively easy to understand: the Thai that she was speaking sounded familiar, sounded like the standard Thai that I’ve gotten used to. So was she speaking standard Thai? That would seem to be the case, but she would sometimes say something and then tell me that the expression she had just used was “passa chow ban” (ie, the local dialect), and go on to “translate” it for me into standard Thai. The “passa chow ban” expressions that she used didn’t sound different than the rest of her speech, didn’t stick out as being obviously different from standard Thai, and to me it just sounded like more (standard) Thai, albeit language that I was unfamiliar with and didn’t understand (like so much of the Thai that I hear). Was she basically speaking standard Thai but occasionally throwing in some local expressions? Or was what she was calling “passa chow ban” actually just informal idiom, maybe not even specific to Ratchaburi?

One thing that I did pick up on was that at least sometimes, what would be pronounced KW in standard Thai would turn into F in Ratchaburi. This really threw me for a loop on a previous trip to Ratchaburi – the whole story is too complicated to be worth explaining in detail, but the KW to F change, in combination with another alternative pronunciation that I’d not encountered elsewhere, led me to think that one of the monks at the temple was telling me that he was taking a trip to the dentist, when in reality he was just asking me to summon one of the other monks!

As I’ve noted a number of times in other entries, it’s usually easier for me to understand someone who I’m speaking with than to understand other people’s conversations that I’m overhearing but not participating in. I think this is because in the first case the person is often to some extent adjusting their speech, based on their perception of how well I understand, in order to successfully communicate with me, plus to a greater extent I might be aware of the context within which the conversation is occurring (ie, discussing plans for later on, or asking me about life in America, etc); whereas in the latter case (just listening in, not participating) the people who are speaking are not gearing their speech to me personally, and I’m often less aware of the context or what the general topic is.

Anyway, one day I was on a long car ride, about three and a half hours each way, going from Ratchaburi to the adjoining province of Kanchanaburi (just to the north), with two other people who, I never inquired, but I’m sure had been living in Ratchaburi for a long time if not their whole lives. The two of them did a fair amount of talking; every once in awhile they would address me specifically, usually pointing out and commenting on something that we were passing, but for the most part they spoke to each other without making any attempt to explain things to me or include me in the conversation. I would sometimes pay attention – I of course wanted to be able to understand what they were saying, but without much success my attention would usually wander off to the passing scenery or unrelated thoughts.

This wasn’t the first time that I was in such a situation – I’ve listened in on Thai conversations before, have been on long car rides with Thais before, have been out to Ratchaburi before. And I’d known these two particular people for a number of months, and had listened to and spoken with them on a number of occasions. So at some point – I don’t think I was even listening really attentively – but at some point I started to understand the general drift of the conversation. Mostly they were talking about agriculture, about the crops being grown at the side of the road. I could never catch that many details; it was kind of like being back at AUA and just having “moved up” to a higher class, listening and understanding what the general topic was but not much more than that.

Of course, whatever difficulties may have been posed by this being, to some extent, the local vernacular as opposed to standard Thai, and by it being conversation not directed at nor tailored to me specifically, there’s the further problem of the unfamiliar topic. Most of my life I’ve lived in cities or suburbs, and even during the times that I’ve been in rural areas, I’ve never farmed or engaged in agriculture; in fact, I barely have experience gardening. And I’m probably even less familiar with the plants and crops grown in Thailand than I am with the ones in America. So the things that they were talking about were unfamiliar to me, things of which I have no experience and little knowledge. Had I been in an analogous situation in America – taking a ride through farm country with knowledgeable local people and listening to their conversation in English – there might still have been a lot that I wouldn’t have understood, if they were referring to techniques, equipment, crops etc. that I was unfamiliar with, using specialized language specific to farming (whether slang or jargon), or alluding to things so basic to agriculture and farm life that they would feel no need to explain it unless talking to an outsider.

I think about this in relation to a health care profession that I’d been in for several years before coming to Thailand. It was a rather specialized profession, and some of the conversations that I had with my colleagues would probably have been largely incomprehensible to most people without a medical background; but I suspect that even some of my fellow health care workers from other fields would not have fully understood these conversations, because the language that we used was heavily laced not only with the kind of standard medical jargon used throughout a lot of health care (such as names of diseases, medications, procedures, etc), but jargon particular to our specific profession (which to really understand would require a lot of highly specialized knowledge), as well as medical slang, a lot of which which I was uncertain as to how far widespread it was beyond our particular hospital.

The problem in understanding is one not only of unfamiliar language, but of unfamiliar customs, beliefs, ways of relating, etc. – ie, it’s not just the words, but what they refer to. What happens when the words refer to things that have no equivalent in the culture that you come from?

I don’t think anyone visiting Thailand, even for a short period of time, would fail to notice the many “shrines” that can be seen in public places. I think one of my travel guidebooks called these “spirit houses”, and they can be seen outside of buildings (private homes and apartment buildings, but also hotels, banks, etc) and sometimes at the side of the road. They come in different sizes and styles, some are more elaborate than others, some look fairly new while others look like they’re ready to fall apart. Usually there are little figurines of people and animals placed inside and out, as well as offerings such as fruit, soda, flowers and incense. People often pause in front of these shrines and wai (place their hands together palm to palm). What would the American equivalent of all this be?

While driving past some of these “shrines” at the roadside, I pointed them out because I was curious if O. would tell me about them. I incorrectly called them “ban pee” (which might mean something like “haunted house”) and O. laughed and corrected my Thai (I think she called them “saan”). She told me a bit about the entities they housed – I think these would be different types of “tewada” (deities or gods). I didn’t really catch all of it but I got the impression that different shrines have different occupants.

But what does it really mean to wai at these places? Even waiing people is kind of complicated, because the manner in which you wai someone (or “receive” someone else’s wai), or even whether you wai them at all, depends on the relationship and what I would describe as the “status” relative to each other of the parties involved. In general, the wai seems to be a respectful greeting, but differing statuses seem to merit different amounts (or types?) of respect, and thus different wais.

So when people wai at a shrine, I’m assuming they’re offering a respectful greeting, but are they also asking for something specific in a manner analogous to petitionary prayer? Or are they merely reaffirming a relationship? Are there expectations or hopes about that relationship, about how the occupant(s) of the shrine will behave toward the person who wais?

Even if I knew all this stuff – if I learned the relevant Thai words and also understood people’s feelings and attitudes – I think it still wouldn’t have the same meaning for me as for the Thais who wai and make offerings at these shrines, given that I’m agnostic about the existence of the shrines’ occupants, don’t have any particular emotional feeling about relating to such entities (should they exist), and (since I’m a foreigner) don’t feel any social pressure to (if nothing else) go through the motions of offering respect to the shrine.

15 June 2013; AT5 = 1036 hours; total time = 1974 hours; TV = 196.2 hours

Yesterday I finished my fourth complete lakorn, the 12 episode Sawan Bieng (สวรรค์เบี่ยง) (2008 version). I felt like I was understanding a significantly greater amount of the dialogue between characters than I had in previous lakorns; in fact, there was a lot of information that I was getting in terms of plot development, relationships between the characters, etc, that was available only from the dialogue.

I’ve ended up watching a few movies over the last week or so at times when my internet connection was down and I was unable to watch lakorns on YouTube. I note once again that movies are generally harder to understand than lakorn. I’m guessing there are three main reasons why this is so. One is the sheer length of a lakorn, which means that as you watch it you’re building up an ongoing context – what’s going on plotwise, motivation and relationships between characters, etc – that makes it easier to figure out what’s happening. Whereas the typical movie is only an hour and a half to two hours long, the lakorns that I’ve been watching have ranged from 12 to 20 episodes of about 95 minutes each. In terms of time, at the point that a movie is ending, a lakorn is just getting started; in the time that it takes to watch one complete lakorn, you could probably watch at least a dozen movies, but the movie-watching would be a more discontinuous experience – with each new movie, it’s a whole new situation, whereas with a lakorn it’s the same situation being developed slowly and repetitiously over a long stretch of time.

The second reason relates to the hyperemotionality of lakorns. The high degree of emotion can help you understand what’s going on (ie, how is this character reacting, how are they relating to the other characters?) and can also help sustain interest even in scenes that are incomprehensible in terms of the language.

The third reason is that characters in lakorns are fairly obvious in terms of their nature, motivations, and intentions with regard to other characters. It’s easy to see things like, this person is jealous of that person, these two people hate each other, x is in love with y, a is deceiving b, and so on. This goes back in part to reason two above (the emotionality of lakorns – and their characters), but it also relates to a style of acting in which the actors use facial expression to telegraph their characters’ true feelings and intentions to the viewer. Also, you can often tell whether someone is “good” or “bad” just by looking at things like hairstyle, makeup, and how they dress.

All of this helps make it easier to figure out what’s going on, and to remain engaged with the show even when you can’t understand what’s being said.

I’m starting to realize that lakorns present a very different language situation than do AUA classes, and this has to do with lakorns consisting mostly of dialogue between characters, whereas AUA classes – at least at the advanced levels – consist of monologue.

I’ve heard that in theory AUA classes are supposed to always have two teachers, but at least since I’ve been there they’ve never had enough staff to do this. The lower level classes (AT1 and AT2) tend to get two teachers, but the more advanced AT3 and AT5 usually get just one. This means that students in AT3 and AT5 don’t get much exposure to conversation between people. It’s something that I’ve never really thought about with regards to English, but the language that you use when delivering a monologue isn’t quite the same as the language used when engaging in dialogue. (However it’s entirely possible that some of the new language I’m picking up from lakorns is stuff I’d never get in the classroom even if AT5 were always taught with two teachers).

A few examples occur to me. One is asking with concern if something’s going on, akin to asking “what’s the matter?” or perhaps “is anything the matter?” in English. Another is politely excusing yourself when leaving others – this coming specifically from the many (many!) scenes in Sawan Bieng that take place in the hospital after someone’s been injured or had an episode of what seems to be stress angina after confrontation with another character; etc, etc! Anyway it’s the doctor who, after giving a quick update on the patient’s condition, formally excuses himself before walking away. And the other bit of language that I’m starting to get has to do with certain ways of referring to someone else – I guess these are pronouns? (The ways that you refer to people in Thai differs markedly from, and is much more varied than, the English “equivalents”, and it’s one of the things about Thai that I’m really fascinated by). Anyway, there are some words that the characters use to address one another that I’m hearing over and over in lakorns that I hadn’t heard, or at least hadn’t noticed, elsewhere.

I’d hesitate to use some of these new words / terms at this point – they’re still kind of unclear for me, I feel uncertain as to when they’d be appropriate or not – but they’ve come up on my radar and I’m hearing (and starting to understand) them now.

In contrast to my lakorn watching, there’s class at AUA. Since going on a tourist visa back in late april, I’ve basically been taking a break from school, but this week I did a few hours of class just for a change of pace. It’s hard to tell if anything has really changed for me – I follow what’s going on in class fairly well and hardly ever get lost in terms of the overall meaning, but there are still plenty of words that I don’t know; but that’s been pretty much my experience in class for a number of months now. What I have noticed is that the language in class feels somewhat less “dense” than the language in lakorns. By “density” of language, I mean a feeling of the words being crowded together, being literally dense. Obviously this is a very subjective feeling, and I think it’s coming partly from speed – literally, how fast is the person speaking – but also from the proportion of language being used that I don’t know or don’t really understand. My overall impression is that compared to AT5, the language in lakorns is both faster and has a higher proportion of words that I don’t know. In other words, it’s a more advanced language situation.

Also, I think I’m finding the lakorns more interesting than class at this point; they’re certainly more dramatic (though I have suffered through some that really dragged – I found the last three to four episodes of Sawan Bieng increasingly boring, and there are other lakorns that I’ve sampled but stopped watching because they just didn’t hold much interest for me).

As a kind of experiment, I recently watched about 15 to 20 minutes of an AT3 class that’s posted online (starting with http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcdKEd2Rwms and then watching some of part 2 as well). If AT5 language is less “dense” than lakorn language, the language used in this AT3 video was pretty “thin” (undense, uncrowded) in the sense of both being slower paced and containing very few unknown words. I understood virtually everything, with the meanings of some words that I didn’t know being completely clear due to the surrounding context. This is similar to what I remember of my experience watching an AT2 video at some point early on in AT5.

On a side note, and probably only of interest to AUA students: AUA changed the names of the classes a few weeks ago. Instead of AT1, AT2, AT3-4, and AT5-10, there are now Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced level classes, all with further subdivisions (ie Advanced levels are A1, A2, A3, and A4). I’m kind of fuzzy on how this works, I think that the subdivisions are being used to more precisely rate students in terms of language proficiency; but in practice, only the Beginner level class is occasionally broken up into two separate classes (B1-B2 sometimes being separate from B3-B4), and the Intermediate and Advanced levels are often combined. Just looking at the current schedule – the first that uses the new scheme – I don’t see any real practical difference in terms of how classes are held; I’m guessing that B1-B2 is the same as AT1, B3-B4 is AT2, Intermediate is AT3-4, and Advanced is AT5-10. If anything, this schedule seems to have more combined classes (ie, B1-4, or Intermediate+Advanced) than previous schedules, which I’m guessing is due to there not being enough teachers. In any event, I now attend the Advanced class instead of AT5 (or sometimes the Intermediate-Advanced class instead of AT3-4+AT5-10), but for simplicity’s sake I’m going to continue to use the term “AT5” when referring to the number of hours that I’ve done at the current level.

16 June 2013; AT5 = 1036 hours; total time = 1974 hours; TV = 202.7 hours

I think I’ve pretty much decided not to formally study reading and writing any time soon, and some recent experiences have made me feel that this is the right decision.

When I was in Ratchaburi, both my friend O. and the abbot of the temple I was staying at gave me short, impromptu “lessons” in reading. These weren’t lessons in the sense of explaining the rules of spelling or pointing out which symbols correspond to which sounds; this was just me reading a short text aloud while they would correct my pronunciation and try to explain to me what I was reading. In the case of O. the short texts were quotes from the King of Thailand that were posted on some billboards; in the case of the abbot, the text was a poem (well, I think it was a poem, based on the text’s appearance on the page). The billboard quotes I was largely able to understand, especially with O.’s explanations, but understanding the poem was completely beyond my abilities.

The problems were manifold. For one thing, I haven’t figured out what all of the symbols in the writing system sound like. I think I’ve roughly figured out most of the symbols that correspond to consonants, but very few of the other symbols, the ones that correspond to vowel sounds – and maybe other things?. Another problem is that written Thai doesn’t necessarily have spaces between the words, so there’s not always a clear indication of where one word is ending and another’s beginning – which of course makes it harder to figure out which words you’re dealing with. Then there’s the problem of lack of context.

I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the menus posted at the food stalls in the local marketplace. Most of the words that are used are ones that I already know from the spoken language, so I know both how they’re used and how they actually sound. Phrases on the menu are fairly short (“iced lemon tea”, “sautéed mixed vegetables” etc) so lack of spacing isn’t a problem. I match the sounds that I can figure out (from the letters/symbols that I know) with words that make sense given the obvious context (food or drink) – so for example, on a menu guy is likely “chicken”, and not “tour guide” or “body”, while pok makes sense as “vegetable”, not “to stay”. So reading is actually a kind of process of guessing-recognizing words that I already know. I actually think that this is a good way of reading, because it limits me to words that I really know from the spoken language, and prevents me from reading words whose meanings and pronunciations I don’t know.

The problem, as I see it, with sitting down and learning how all the symbols in the writing system are pronounced, is that I still haven’t fully gotten the hang of the Thai sound system. (See the 5 June 2013 entry for examples of sounds that I’m still not clear on). My concern is that if I learned symbols for sounds that I can’t really hear, every time I read those symbols I’d be mispronouncing them – substituting a different sound – and that over time the mispronunciation would become lodged in my mind to the point where it would preclude my hearing the real sound. (Of course, actually hearing the real sound is a precursor to pronouncing it correctly). In fact, the desire to avoid this problem was one of the main reasons I chose AUA’s ALG program.

You can hear this if you listen to people with foreign accents speaking English. Of course, some accents are “heavier” than others – with some people the accent merely marks them out as a non-native English speaker; with others it can make understanding difficult. For example, it seems that some non-English speakers have problems pronouncing English’s short i sound (as in words like pin, brick, wit) – they tend to change it to the vowel sound heard in “wheat”, “seen”, “creek”. I suppose some people might have difficulty in pronouncing “bit” and “beet” as distinct words, or “grit” and “greet”. My feeling is that this would be even more of a problem in Thai because – and this is just my subjective impression which could change as I get to know the language better – I think Thai probably exceeds English in terms of the quantities of words that can sound fairly alike to a non-native speaker who hasn’t fully “tuned into” the complete range of sounds that the language uses. Besides, I’d rather have as minimal a foreign accent as possible.

(An analogous example of the Thais’ problems with English: A number of the people I met in Ratchaburi were interested in English and frequently asked me how to say things. One day someone remarked on the hot weather and asked what to say in English. But when I told him, he was unable to pronounce “hot”, instead saying “haas” [rhyming with the first syllable in “pasta”]. We went back and forth a number of times, with me saying “hot” and him saying “haas”. My point isn’t so much that he couldn’t pronounce the word as that I don’t think he was able to hear himself mispronouncing it; I suspect that in some way he never really heard the actual sounds of the English word “hot”. The Thais would sometimes complain that their pronunciation difficulties with English stemmed from a “stiff tongue”, but I think that that was maybe only part of the problem. I suspect that the main problem was that they hadn’t yet really absorbed the set of sounds that English uses to the point where they could really recognize them, let alone use them in speech).

So back to the problems I had with reading the short texts in Ratchaburi. The texts contained a fair number of words that I didn’t know in terms of both meaning and pronunciation; I was trying to guess at pronunciations for words I didn’t know without even being certain of where in the run-on chunk of text a word began or ended; and lacking an obvious context – what’s this text about? – made it harder to recognize/guess  at words. (Of course if you know enough of the language, what you’re reading can itself provide the context). Actually, from what I remember, I did much better with reading the billboard quotes than the poem because I was able to recognize a fair number of the words used; but I read so slowly, and my attention was so focused on “decoding” the words, one after another, that I had difficulty holding in mind what I had already read, and thus difficulty figuring out the overall meaning of the text I was reading.

But I’ve had a couple new types of successful reading experiences since my return from Ratchaburi three weeks ago.

In a mall I stopped to look at a movie playing on the TV at the DVD store. It was obviously an American or European movie, although the corresponding DVD box was all in Thai (which was strange, because they usually have the English title in addition to the Thai; could I have missed something?) I can’t remember if I realized what the movie was before I read the Thai, but based on the visual appearance of the movie (and the DVD box) I was able to read Sao Mawk Dang (rhyming with English “wow, hawk, rang”) – and realized, this is how you say “little red riding hood” in Thai, except that it’s not the literal equivalent of the English, it’s literally more like “maiden hood red” or, to put it back into English, “red-hood(ed) maiden”. Actually, I’m not really sure how you’d translate sao, I think of a sao as being a teenage girl or maybe young woman, sort of high school to college age, roughly. “Maiden” is the best I can come up with, though that’s not a word you ever hear anyone using in actual english conversations. And in the past I’d heard mawk referring to hats (motorcycle helmets, too, I think), I didn’t know it could refer to a hood – unless they don’t have hoods in Thai, and the literal meaning is something like “maiden with red hat”?

Reading a three word phrase might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but what was interesting was being able to read it even though it wasn’t what you’d expect if your expectations were based on the English title; and even though mawk was being used in a slightly different way than I’d previously encountered.

Then just a few days ago I had a text message exchange with O., who sent me three text messages in run-on (no spaces) Thai (I texted her back in Thai transliterated into Roman letters, which she had a lot of trouble figuring out).

The first message was three lines long, consisting of 16 words (though I could be wrong, there’s a lot of stuff in Thai that I’m not sure if it’s a polysyllabic word or a phrase consisting of several monosyllabic words). I understood a lot of it on the first reading, but on subsequent readings I realized I understand basically all of it (there’s only one word I’m uncertain about, but either way it wouldn’t change the overall meaning of the message). All of the words are words I know from spoken Thai, though I think a lot of them I may have never seen in writing before.

The second message was a little longer – about four lines of text, of which I totally understand the first three quarters. The last roughly 25% is problematic, as some of it I can resolve into potential words and some of it I can’t; if my guesses at the “potential words” are correct, then I understand the gist of what O. is saying in this last section, though some of the details drop out. But the problem is that there are enough “holes” in the text (in terms of things I totally can’t figure out) to make me uncertain as to the correctness of my guesses.

The third message was just three words long – a half line of text – which I fully understand: CowChaiLew, O. was telling me she understood my second text message, which was in part a clarification of something I’d written in my first text message, but that she hadn’t understood and had re-asked in her second text.

So this was really a new experience in a number of ways. First, these were the longest texts that I’ve read and understood. Second, it was strictly a reading experience – no one read the messages aloud for me, nor were there any pictures or non-visual cues as to what the messages were about. Third was that there was fairly minimal context – I suppose knowing who O. was was of some help; in terms of specifics, there were a couple things I’d learned during my time in Ratchaburi that related to, and provided somewhat of a context for understanding, what she texted me.

I don’t have any real time frame in terms of when I would want to formally study reading. I’m curious how proficient I could become at reading simply by continuing to figure things out on my own. I like the idea of doing that because it means that I will stay focused on the real-life spoken sounds of Thai, with reading abilities being gained only in areas where I’ve already gotten proficient in the spoken language. I suppose there could come a point where I feel like I’ve pretty much resolved my issues with spoken Thai, and decide to get explicit help with the written language.

(In the following section I continue to reflect on my observations regarding my abilities in Thai vs. my abilities in my native English. After I wrote it I realized that it contains some elements of speculation in terms of what it means to have really learned the sounds which a particular language uses. What is speculative is my assumption that someone who is completely fluent in a language will be able to differentiate between words based merely on how they sound, apart from both a context in which those words are used as well as the meaning(s) that those words possess. I suppose that it’s possible that this is not the case, and that even native speakers of a language continue to rely on context and meaning in order to differentiate between at least certain words [I am not talking here about homonyms such as English bin and been which, obviously, could not be distinguished without context; I am talking about words that may sound similar but are not identical, such as file and fire, or desk and desks]; perhaps this could be tested experimentally. Although I think my assumption is warranted, I just wanted to give the reader fair warning by explicitly pointing it out and brining up the possibility that it might not always hold to be true).

Again, I feel like the most important of “my issues with spoken Thai” comes down to the sound system that Thai uses – that is, the set of sounds that Thai uses to make words, to communicate meanings. This set of sounds is obviously different than the set of sounds used by my native English, and I don’t think there are real equivalents – I think that even certain Thai sounds that are “kind of like” certain English sounds, aren’t really the same, and certain other sounds are very different. There are also the habitual ways of putting the sounds together – like when Thais pronounce English words, they tend to make certain changes, presumably in line with what they are used to hearing and saying. Sometimes this is a shift in which syllable gets stressed – for example, when Thais say “computer” (which in English has a bit of stress on the second syllable, ie computer) they change the stress to the last syllable: computer (there also seems to be some kind of change in intonation as well, which I can imitate but not describe). Or they have problems putting certain sounds at the end of a syllable, so that they habitually change L to N: football becomes foot-bawn (change in syllabic stress, too).

I think I’m most aware of my deficiencies in perceiving and differentiating Thai sounds where it comes to words that sound very similar, but I can’t tell what the actual difference between them is (or it’s possible that in some cases the pronunciation really is the same, like English break and brake – but I’m not certain). In spoken language, sound carries meaning, and the ability to differentiate between different sounds is a key to understanding. After writing the 5 June 2013 entry, where I had discussed this issue and gave examples of both cases where I was able to make such distinctions (the differences between glai near and glai far had become clear) and cases where I was unable to do so (ie what if any are the differences between kai sell and kai egg), what I started to think about is how my familiarity with and ability to perceive Thai sounds doesn’t seem to be across-the-board or systemic for the language as a whole – it’s more like I’m just dealing with individual words.

Take the English words bat, crack, slap, has. It’s not only that I know the sounds of these words well enough that I recognize them when I hear them and correctly pronounce them myself, but I also recognize that it’s the same vowel sound appearing in all four words (at least, this is the case in the dialects and accents of English that I’m familiar with). I also don’t confuse this particular sound (the a in bat) with other English sounds, (for example, the u in but or the e in bet). And this is true for all the sounds English uses. My familiarity with English sounds is so complete that I can easily compare any two words and know in what ways they employ the same sounds and in what ways they employ different sounds. Of course, the way that I sort through sounds in English is intuitive and automatic – there’s no deliberate or conscious effort. I automatically know that far and bar rhyme perfectly, but bar and bur do not, and I automatically differentiate cap from caps, clap, crap, cab, cop, cap, map etc. In other words, I grasp the sounds of English in a systematic way, and I think that it’s this ability that allows me to distinguish between and understand words even when they appear out of (or without a) context – for example, someone reading a list of random words that don’t form any kind of coherent communication or utterance.

In contrast, with Thai I’ve gotten fairly familiar with certain words – I think I’m even pronouncing them (more or less) correctly – but I lack the kind of intuitive, systemic grasp of the Thai sound system that would enable me to clearly know the samenesses and differences, sound-wise, between different words. For example, two Thai words that both sound kind of  sound like English “guy” are the words for “chicken” and “tour guide”, except that they don’t sound the same when it comes to the vowel part. (Actually, although I don’t hear any difference in the consonant part – the g sound – I wouldn’t say that I’m 100% certain they’re the same). I can hear that the vowel parts of the two words are intoned differently. But I’d be at a loss to say what other Thai words use the same intonation as guy “chicken”, or what other pair of Thai words differ from one another in the same way that guy “chicken” and guy “tour guide” differ from one another. In other words, I can’t really compare sounds across words, the way that in English I know that map and mop differ only in the vowel, while map and cap differ only in the initial consonant, and map and mob differ only in the final consonant. In Thai, I sort of have the feel for how certain words sound, but don’t grasp the sound system as a whole.

My guess is that when I get to the point where I know the sounds of Thai so well that I can clearly perceive the differences and samenesses (sound-wise) between any two words, analogous to the above example for English map, mop, etc. – I think it’s only at that point that my issues with understanding spoken Thai will have been resolved, that there won’t be any more “blurriness” in the sound of the language, nor confusion as to which words I’m hearing. I’ll probably still have deficiencies in vocabulary – encountering words that I haven’t heard before or whose meanings I’m not clear on – but that’s a different issue, in the same way that there are words in English that I don’t know the meanings of, but I have no problems hearing the sounds that compose those words.

I think I’d also like to get to that point before taking lessons in reading, though in the meantime I’m fine with continuing to just figure things out haphazardly. The way I see it, reading and writing really depend on the kind of systemic grasp of a language’s sound system that I’ve discussed above, with the symbols of writing being a visual way of pointing out which sounds in different words are identical and which are different, and of depicting the precise sounds that compose a particular word. (Granted that in English there are the added complications of a not-so-straightforward relationship between the letters of the alphabet and the actual sounds of the language, plus there are words that really don’t sound the way they’re written; but even so, writing is still a way of explicitly showing which sounds are in which words). I’m proceeding on the ALGesque  assumption  that it’s better not to force things, that all I need is enough exposure to Thai in situations where I can get at least some idea of what’s going on, and that over time as I become more familiar with more and more words and gain a greater ability to differentiate between words that I currently cannot differentiate between, at some point my familiarity with the sounds of individual words will start to become a more systemic grasp of the language’s sounds as a whole, and I’ll start to intuitively recognize when the sounds of different words are the same, and when (and how) they are different.

One thought on “journal

  1. Pingback: An Omission Corrected | learning thai without studying

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