Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Attempting to Learn Thai 17

April 29, 2008

Months in Thailand: 22

Hours at AUA: ~1500 (Level 5-10)

Reading and Writing: AUA Level 4 (~8 months/~200 hours in class time)

(Not) In Class:

I haven't attended classes at AUA since the end of February. I didn't plan to stop at exactly this point, but as a result of a number of factors (i.e. life outside of AUA), what was meant to be a one week break turned into what is so far a two month one.

By the time I stopped going, I was only attending a few hours of Listening class per week, and doing so mainly out of habit and for their entertainment value. Level 5-10 was, by this time, usually helpful only in providing some specialized or unusual vocabulary, as I would normally understand 99% of the discussion and perhaps 95% or more of the words and grammar used. Additionally of course, classes still continued to give listening exposure, which, even when it is easy, never hurts. But there was little real benefit and I would definitely say that time spent with other sources of exposure- TV, movies, news, conversations, etc.- was by this time vastly more useful to me.

Please note, however, that this is not a criticism of AUA or its methods. Not needing to go anymore was always the goal, and really in terms of Listening class, this had already been the case for 6 months.


I took AUA's writing through level 4, and then repeated level 4 (most students do this), though with a number of absences, before I stopped going to class. Levels 4-5 are essentially just daily practice and do not have a linear progression through rules etc. as did levels 1-3, so "repeating" is just a matter of getting more practice. In class itself, Level 4 included reading outloud from (roughly speaking) elementary level passages, learning vocab and grammar from these passages and related excercises, and taking dictation of these passages to practice writing, spelling, etc. Homework involved writing sentences, paragraphs, or very short essays. I was getting lazy during level 4 though and as a rough estimate, only did about 30 mintues of homework per class.

Outside of class, I finished "Mee Why Pua Sap," the book of short stories that I previously mentioned, about 2 months ago. Overall, I was reading faster and with better comprehension as I progressed through it, though this would vary according to the content of the different stories. When I was reading with full attention, I'd say I had the most basic gist 80-90% of the time and understood the majority of the language used, but would still find many sentences and phrases that I didn't understand. And it still took something like 5-10 minutes on average to read a page.

I also read, back in January, a cartoon novel called "Firehead and Bean Sprout" (don't ask). The book had illustrations on every page but also large blocks of text, sometimes whole pages, written at a similar level as "Mee Why Pua Sap" that I mentioned above- so it wasn't really a kids book. Because of the illustrations I could follow this better, rarely losing the most basic gist but still constantly encountering words, phrases, idioms, etc. that I didn't understand.

Beyond these, I've read some magazine articles with varying success, understanding anywhere from 50-90% depending on the topic, style, and vocab. The newspaper though is still more like deciphering a code than "reading." Another interesting benchmark is my speed at reading Thai subtitles for English language movies has vastly increased. I remember typically only being able to read the first one or two words before the words changed, but can now sometimes read half or all of the subtitles before they disappear, dependent of course on the level of vocab and how quickly the text changes.

Out of Class:

Noticing progress from day to day is becoming impossible, but I still often have moments when I realize that I am speaking more fluidly, or more confidently, or just faster than I used to, or using vocab, slang, or structures that I previously didn't. Furthermore, though I can't really quantify it, I think in Thai more often now and in more extended, advanced ways.

I recently hurt a friend's feelings during a serious conversation by using a phrase that, while it had the correct meaning and was not strange to say, was just a little too direct and not exactly what a Thai would typically have said if they wanted to be sensitive about it. The difference really was slight, the sort of slip that occurs all the time with people speaking the same native language simply because someone doesn't think quite carefully enough before speaking, and so I asked her to cut me a little slack since after all, I'm speaking Thai.

In turn, however, she only got more insistent that I can't say things like this if I don't know the exact implication or level of directness implied. Then she told me that if another foreigner had said this, she would not have been upset, but because my Thai is so good she hadn't considered whether or not I had actually intended to be as blunt as I was.

Having said that, the more I hang out in 100% Thai situations in which I'm the only foreigner and no one is adjusting their speech on my behalf, the more I realize I have a long way to go. Just last night I went out with 4 Thai friends, one of whom speaks notoriously fast (his girlfriend doesn't even understand him sometimes), and while I followed some conversation 100% and participated easily, sometimes I was pretty lost. But whenever someone addressed me directly and we talked one-on-one, the confusion always cleared up. It's not even a speed issue actually, because talking one-on-one people who accurately access my Thai don't slow down much or at all. It's more about slang, idioms, and the sort of bad pronunciation that natives (of any language) use when speaking to each other. I mean, I sometimes don't even follow everything being said between two British guys. So in fact, it's parallel to what I see with my better students. I can talk to them directly without much trouble, even joking and speaking quickly, but if I start talking to them as if they were an American friend of mine, they get completely lost.