Sunday, February 11, 2007


OK. I'm going to try hard to catch up a bit. December was a great month and there is a lot I should have been blogging about. The irony is that the more there is to post about, the busier I am, and thus the more difficult it becomes to blog. Anyway... I still don't have much time but I'm need to get this post up. It won't be polished, but hey, it's February already! So here we go.

First on the list: English Camp.

One of the most memorable, most fun, and just plain cool experiences I've had so far was helping with Kaplan's annual English Camp which was held back in December. This is an annual promotional event that Kaplan offers for FREE to 30 lucky university students. This year we had over 1,000 applicants and 80 interviews before the final 30 were chosen (and subsequently forced to wear pink life jackets).

That's some stiff competition! But I think you'll see why. First, it's free.

Second, it's held here. I'm guessing you understand the appeal. This is the view looking out from Goh Mun Ork (Island Furthest Out) at sunrise. (By the way, yes, I took this picture, and yes, this means I actually got up to see the sunrise one morning!)

The tiny island is located off the coast of Rayong province, about 3 hours from Bangkok by bus and another hour by ferry from this pier.

From the ferry you take a small boat to the shore.

And you arrive here.

You can see from the above that it is a small little spec of an island. In fact, Thursday afternoon of the managers and I rented kayaks, and we were able to circle the island in about half an hour. I also went running on a path that goes more or less around the outside of the island, and I circled it in just 12 minutes, and 4 times in under an hour. (It was just amazing, by the way, to run somewhere other than Bangkok... there were trees, and inclines, and no motorcycles or soi dogs anywhere! It was a lot like some of the running trails I used to go on with Joey back in Ithaca, or at least remarkably similar given the difference in location.)

We got there on a Wednesday if I can remember right, and stayed until Friday. Besides the scenery, English Camp, as you might imagine, involved different games and activities intended to help students improve their English. I ran a game called "The Tower and the City" and it involved building a domino skyscraper on a map of NYC. Students got dominoes for answering questions right and bonus points for the height of the tower when time ran out.

The real attraction though at Goh Mun Ork was the were peacocks and wild turkeys running around the island, and all the people running after them to take pictures.

Next up: Captain Zim!

Zim also came to visit in December. It was just great to see a familiar face, and have someone to show around to some of the places I've gotten to know. His four days here were over in a flash, and we both wished it could have been longer.

The highlight, at least if you ask me, was his last night here. We went out to dinner with my friend Heren from AUA, and on the way met Alex (the other white guy in the picture). Alex stopped us and told us he had been mugged earlier that night, and although I could already see in his face that he was serious, he also showed us the large, nearly split open bruises on his back to prove it. He'd been to the police but they just wasted his time, and after the run around there it was too late at night for him to go to the Swedish embassy for help. He eyes welled up as he said desperately that he'd asked dozens of people for help, but no one would help him.

I said not to worry, and instead of the restaurant we were walking to, we all got in a cab and went to a hostel near my apartment and I got him a room. Then, despite his protestations, we insisted on dragging him out to dinner with us. It was a fantastic experience and I'm so glad we could help him... and I say this even after Heren and I nearly fell asleep at dinner while Zim and Alex discussed with great passion various forms of air transportation.

Alex my friend, I hope you got home safely.

After dinner, Alex went back to the hostel and Zim, Heren and I headed to the bar at Sirocco for a drink. Sirocco might be my favorite place in the entire city and thus is more than deserving of its own post, so this photo (which really doesn't show much of Sirocco at all) will have to do for now.

Ladies, the line starts over there.

Ok. Last thing. Christmas.

My friend Ned (who's not a vampire, I promise) had the good sense to suggest a small get together for Christmas Day. This was good, because I would otherwise have been eating alone, and it was already weird enough to be spending Christmas in a place with no snow, no presents, and no family.

Nothing here was 100% homemade, but hey, there was ham and mashed potatoes and stuffing. Close enough for me! Plus, I brought some white sangria which actually turned out to be a pretty good Christmas drink since it's pink and festive looking as has lots of cinnamon, which is definitely a Christmasty spice.

Well there you have it. A month in the life of Dan, or at least some of the highlights. I'm out.

Attempting to Learn Thai 8

February 11, 2007
Months in Thailand: 7.5
Hours at AUA: ~590 (Level 3-4)
Other study: None since I started at AUA (before that, some minimal self-study and 6 very poor classes at another school)

In Class Progress:

Assuming I do the full 400 hours, I'm now just shy of being halfway through AT3-4. Things happen more slowly at this level, but I still feel improvements on a regular basis. There is only one hour that I have real trouble with, and it's kind of a boring subject with difficult names and is taught by teachers that I like, but who are notoriously hard to understand. (This isn't a criticism of the teachers by the way. It's good to get exposure to different styles of speaking, and you can hardly fault a native speaker for speaking, well, like a native.)

In every other hour, I rarely lose the gist of conversation. Overall, if I had to give it a number, I would say I have the gist 90% of the time. A fairly exact grasp of the finer details comes and goes... maybe 50-60% of the time? Hard to estimate.

Overall, it's sufficient to say I am continuing to notice progress in class, and it seems about right that I am halfway through AT3-4. I can definitely envision that as I close in on 800 hours total, my level of understanding of AT3-4 will be comparable to what I had in AT1 or AT2 as I finished those levels.

Out of Class Progress:

Volumes. A week ago I spent the day with a Thai friend who has studied English for years in school, but it was usually easier to communicate in Thai. (I'm not certain this wasn't the case, by the way, when I met her in December, which in itself is a great benchmark). Our conversation was pretty limited and often bumpy, but it was real conversation. Here's the difference between our abilities to communicate: while her English vocabulary is much larger than my Thai, she has a great deal more trouble making sense in English than I do in Thai, at least on easier subjects that I have the words for. She has very, very little grasp of how to say things natively, struggling with even putting the right words together.

It's all about exposure.

Today I listened in as some coworkers talked over lunch, and I was getting a lot of it. I never understand every word, but I was in tune with the most basic gist of it more than I wasn't, and I could often follow quite well. They weren't talking to me or dumbing it down either. To qualify though, the conversation was about simple, day to day stuff.

Lots of other small successes too. It's hard to put numbers to these things or fully quantify them, but it's definitely happening.

I thought of an analogy recently. Although it would be difficult, I think you could learn to play an instrument without any outside instruction, without playing with other people, and even without listening to other music. If you just sat in your basement with a guitar, and played around, given enough time and practice, you could eventually make some cool music. It might be weird and not fit into any existing family of established music, but it would be possible to make music that sounded good to other people.

Languages don't work this way. There is no "sounding good" or "sounding right" with a language outside the context of its native speakers. You cannot just put words together and express what you want to express. Language is convention and a whole lot of arbitrarity, and the only way to learn is to be exposed to native speech and writing. Supplementary study might be necessary if you want to learn, for instance, academic or specialized vocabulary of some sort, but merely studying of the components of language will never get you to fluency. I can see in my students. Those with English exposure (foreign parent(s), international school, exchange program, etc.) understand grammar and reading comprehension much more intuitively, and ones without much exposure sometimes scratch their heads over the simplest things.

I don't know about the finer points of AUA's method or the ALG approach, but based on my own experience with Thai and observation of my students, I'm 100% convinced about the necessity of continuous, saturating exposure if you want to really achieve a comfortable, intuitive fluency in a foreign language.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

(Or, "A Crappy Post With No Pictures Written Hastily at the End of Another Long Day.)

I suppose you’d like to know where I’ve been. Well, here’s the short answer:

Just after Christmas, my old roommate John came out for a week, and we visited Ayuttayha, Chiang Mai, and Mae Hong Sorn- three of Thailand’s 76 provinces. (So yes, this means I’ve finally seen some other parts of Thailand.) He left on January 5th and then I immediately headed into my busiest month yet at work, and also resumed Thai class. For the rest of the month, this meant being out of the house from 6:30am to 9:30pm (or more like 11:30 if I go to the gym after work!) during the week. Weekends were a little freer, but still busy since I had inevitably neglected friends, emails, errands, and most of all sleep, during the week. With all these things to catch up on, blogging just never happened.

Now, lest you start to feel sorry for me (as if…) or imagine that I’m working more than I am, I need to point out that this is all largely my own doing, the result of putting in a lot of hours at AUA. Even when work is busy, if I wasn’t studying Thai I would be as free as anyone working a typical full time job. Thai class is eating up all my free time and making my days very full, but, for the time being at least, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I plan to add another "Attempting to Learn Thai" post soon so I won’t go into the finer details of my progress itself, but basically it is just really freaking cool to be walking around IN THAILAND speaking THAI with people. I’m still months and months away from any semblance of fluency, but there is already so much I can do with the language. A few days ago, for instance, I spent the afternoon and evening with a Thai friend. Although she’s studied English for probably 10 years or more in school, she’s never really used it much (kind of like Americans with French or Spanish), it was actually easier for us to converse in Thai. It’s just cool to be able to do this, and it provides the impetus for getting up at 5:45am to squeeze in as many hours at AUA as possible.

Speaking of which, it’s nearly 11pm… so I better leave off here and get some sleep. Look for some better posts ASAP.