Attempting to learn Thai the natural way

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.