Thai: taking the plunge

Like I talked about earlier this month, my Thai has had trouble getting off the ground since I started learning six weeks ago. I’ve been dutifully shadowing Hippo almost every day, but until last week could still count the number of Thai words I knew on zero hands. Granted, Terry’s version of natural acquisition is supposed to take a while to get going, but six weeks with exactly no tangible results makes me think I’m doing something wrong.

I had a choice: Either let Thai become another language I’ve tried for a little while and set aside; or try learning it another way. To be fair, I hadn’t really been using the Official Terry Method. I left out at least one important ingredient: real conversation in Thai. Duh.

So last week I had a couple hour-long lessons on Italki.

Lesson one

Maybe six weeks of ear training counts as some form of preparation, but I sure didn’t feel prepared when I started my first video chat with my new teacher, Pook. Incidentally, Pook is a monk.

I had cobbled together a list of sentences and questions I planned on saying, things like “I like learning languages” and “What do you do for fun?” Before I could consult my script, however, Pook started talking to me.

I nodded and tried to convey with an awkward smile that I both didn’t understand what he said and was embarrassed by this fact. Luckily, Pook was patient. He also knew some English, and using this he helped me piece together a few fragments of conversation. Our first exchange went roughly like this:

Pook: What do you do?

Me: I’m a… student.

Pook: What?

Me: I’m a chef.

Pook: Ok, chef – por krua. is – pen.

Me: Ok.

Pook: I am a monk. Pom pen pra.

Me: I am a chef… Pom… pen… por krua.

Pook: Good. You are a chef. Kun pen por krua.

Me: Pom pen por krua. Kun… pen… pra.

Pook: Right!

Me: Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra. Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra. Pom pen por krua. Kun pen pra.

Pook: Ok!

Unfortunately, this was one of our only successful conversations during that hour. The only other thing I remember is Pook trying to have us role play a restaurant situation, and my embarrassment at having nothing to contribute beyond “I like coconut.” When the hour was over, I was exhausted and relieved.

Lesson two

My second lesson was with a middle-aged woman named Ari. She spoke less English than Pook, but was abundantly patient. We got a lot of mileage out of material like:

“Will you go to Thailand? // I will go to Thailand. // Will you go to Thailand? // I will not go to Thailand.” and

“I like food. // What food do you like? // I like Thai food.”

I used Google Translate’s text-to-speech as a bug in my ear telling me how to say things, and Ari seemed amused by my earnest attempts to imitate her speech. Her amusement was reassuring, since one of my greatest fears in speaking a new language is boring my interlocutor.

When the hour was up, Ari even offered to keep speaking Thai with me off the clock. Exhausted, I did my best to politely decline. Still, this lesson with Ari was even more encouraging than the first with Pook.

What now?

If I could make this much progress with no vocabulary, doesn’t it stand to reason that I could do even better — maybe much better — with a foundation of basic vocabulary? Maybe, but it feels sort of like cheating. Also, I think one of the points of this exercise of learning Thai in this particular way is to get used to speaking without any preparation. It’s this mindset of willingness to learn a totally foreign language that’s the goal, and is maybe even more important than learning Thai in and of itself.

A week has passed since my first two lessons, during which time I meant to review the recording I made of my lesson with Ari, but didn’t.

I have to leave Taiwan to renew my visa in a couple weeks, and I decided to go to Thailand for a few days. Having made that decision, I doubled down and booked another lesson with Ari.

Lesson three

The second lesson with Ari was similar to the first, but I seemed to understand quite a bit more, even if this “understanding” involved a lot of guesswork. She asked me a question in which I only understand the word for “Thai” and I assumed she was asking me if I had studied during the previous week. I replied “No” and cringed, and she laughed. Does that count as speaking Thai?

Again combining Google Translate with Ari’s patience and hand gestures, and a few well-placed words of English, we were able to have exchanges in Thai that probably sounded something like this:

Ari: Will you go to Thailand?

Me: No. Uh… Yes!

Ari: Good! When?

Me: Nextmonth?

Ari: Huh?

Me: Next…

Ari: Oh! next month?

Me: Yeah! Next month!

We also covered subjects like:

  • I like to travel. What do you like? Do you like to travel?
  • What will you do today? I will go to the market. Where will you go? I will go to the cafe (coffee place).
  • Where do you live? Is it far from Bangkok?
  • I don’t like cars. I don’t have a car. Do you have a car?

This lesson was slightly less exhausting than the first two.

Afterward, Ari suggested (using more English now) that I try learning with her daughter, who is a professional trilingual translator and also teaches on Italki. According to Ari, her daughter said that after six hour-long lessons with her, I would be speaking Thai. It’s an enticing claim, even if a little vague. Imagine being able to get around in Thailand using only Thai!

From her daughter’s profile and reviews from current and previous students, it sounds like her lessons also involve speaking Thai from day one, but are more structured and have more supporting material (i.e. audio recordings and review lists). Her lessons are also twice as expensive. Still, the experiment might be worth the price.

Naming the problem in Language Acquisition

Several months ago I learned about Language Acquisition Theory through one of its major proponents, Stephen Krashen. The one-line summary is this: we learn languages through comprehensible input.

One of the key ideas beyond that is the concept of N+1 input. This means you’re getting input that’s a little above your level, so that it’s mostly comprehensible but you’re still being challenged. It makes intuitive sense to me that this should be the difficulty level that results in the fastest improvement. In addition, the input should be interesting, fascinating, even compelling, so that your brain actually gets engaged.

Language Acquisition has been relatively “known about” for decades now, and so I assumed (naively) that it would be easy to find good resources designed for Acquisition Learning, especially at lower levels where comprehensible input is hardest to find. It hasn’t. Finding low-level comprehensible input that’s also interesting has been one of the major ongoing challenges in my language learning for the last several months.

As recently as 2013, in an interview with Stephen Krashen, Steve Kaufmann of Lingq brings up this very problem. Namely, when you’re in the early days of learning a language, input tends to either be A) too boring, e.g. textbooks, miscellaneous lists of sentences, guided readers, mundane stories designed for bored children, or B) too incomprehensible, e.g. anything designed for native speakers. What is one to do, Kaufmann asks, during those first few months (or years)?

Kaufmann deals with the problem by slogging through those boring guided readers for the first two or three months, and then taking the leap into interesting but difficult material as soon he possibly can. He says that using Lingq to track progress and save words helps him manage the difficulty level when he’s still at low comprehension with the interesting stuff.

Krashen’s answer to Kaufmann’s question is vindicating, if not quite as helpful as one might wish. That is the problem of Language Acquisition, he says. The big challenge facing language learners and would-be educators today, assuming they acknowledge the efficacy of Language Acquisition, is to create the kind of material that is both comprehensible and compelling for beginning language learners. He does mention TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and Jason Fritze as good examples of the latest progress in this area, but says we still have a long way to go before we can expect to see anything close to ideal.

It’s at least a little encouraging to hear that I haven’t just been fumbling around in the dark for no reason — that some of the greatest acquisition proponents are still fumbling as well. In the meantime, I should probably check out Lingq and TPRS.

Making peace with the Hippo

I’ve been gradually and begrudgingly starting to work out how to get the most out of the Hippo audio for Thai. This is based on a few pointers I got from Terry Hsieh the other day.

I was spending too much time before shadowing the same track, thinking I would wait until I could shadow it perfectly before I moved on to the next one. Diversity is actually key. Hearing the same words repeated in different contexts is an important part of learning them. I had a small “a ha!” moment when I listened to the fourth track a couple days ago and recognized some phrases from tracks one and two. I still don’t know what they mean, but the fact that I recognized them means they’re starting to make an impression.

The story is another important point. No matter how mundane it is, following the story — instead of just hopping around, listening to random middle sections — will help my brain put what I’m hearing in context.

So my new daily practice for Thai is as follows:

  1. Listen to the next recording in Thai. If I listened to track 5 yesterday, I’ll listen to track 6 today.
  2. Listen to the same recording in German. I can usually understand about 80% of the meaning this way. Good enough.
  3. Listen to the Thai track again, on repeat, for about 10 minutes.
  4. Go back and listen to tracks from previous days, each once or twice.

By “listen” I really mean shadow.

Why do I listen to the Thai track once before I figure out what it means? Is this important? I think it’s probably valuable to grapple with the sounds in Thai first, to give my brain a chance to figure out the meaning before it has an official meaning that it’s “supposed to” hear.

Progress update: June, July, Thai, Italki’s challenge

Thai, Hippo, pivot

Thai month is over already?! But wait, I haven’t even learned any words yet!

Last month I took a class with Terry Hsieh, the polyglot who speaks 25 languages and founded the polyglot cafe here in Taipei. I decided to take it as an opportunity to start learning Thai.

I could probably get several posts just from what he talked about during those three two-hour lessons, but I left my notes at home today.

The homework for the class consisted of shadowing a track from Hippo Japan for at least 15 minutes a day. In the first week we were told not to listen to the translated version. This would help us focus on the music of the language instead of trying to convert it into words in our head.

Then we were asked to listen to the translation, and then listen again and try to figure out specific words. Somehow I missed this part. I listened to the Chinese version once and then decided I preferred not understanding what they were saying (Sonoko and I don’t always see eye to eye). Still, for the last month I’ve been dutifully listening and shadowing for 15 minutes a day, training my ear on the sounds of the Thai language.

This isn’t a good long-term strategy for learning Thai. In theory, I should be slowly picking out new words on each listen, my mind automatically associating sounds with meanings the way a child does with its first language. Again, I think the problem is that my mind doesn’t care about the mundane adventures of Sonoko and her white-bread hosts, the Browns.

Should I try to find a better story, or should I just give in and actually spend a little time studying? What would Terry do?


I think I can do better than just continuing what I’m doing. Is there some way I can stay true to Terry’s method (since that’s the exercise), but find better material? For a start, my friend sent me links to some hilarious TV commercials:

Maybe instead of spending 15 minutes shadowing Hippo, I spend 15-20 minutes on YouTube. If I do this, will I be able to pick up words from context? Maybe. We’ll see.

Another ingredient in Terry’s method — in pretty much any method, probably — is conversation. A similar question to the one posed above: can I learn words and phrases from conversation in Thai, starting from zero? There are a few community tutors on Italki with affordable prices. Hopefully I will soon know the answer.

Diversity Language Challenge

Italki is having a diversity language challenge next month, in July. They’re promoting learning languages that are in danger of disappearing by 2100. It’s a long list, and impressive if it means they have teachers or tutors for all those languages. Some attractive candidates:

  • Lithuanian
  • Icelandic
  • Burmese
  • Basque
  • Nahuatl
  • Gujarati
  • Xhosa
  • Blackfoot
  • Taiwanese Hokken is on the list too. One down, 2,999 to go!

If you count June, I have two more languages to go in my year-long language challenge (I skipped three months, though, so I guess I really have five languages left before I make it to 12).

Other, more common languages I’ve been considering:

  • Vietnamese
  • Portuguese
  • Italian
  • Polish
  • Quechua
  • Hindi
  • Hungarian
So many languages, so little time

The problem is I’m reluctant to give up my momentum in German, Japanese, and Taiwanese Hokkien. If this year has taught me nothing else, it’s that learning a language takes time, and while it’s plenty easy to waste time, there aren’t any shortcuts (Subs2srs notwithstanding).

I also have to admit something that seems obvious, but that I’ve been reluctant to admit for a long time: some languages are harder than others. I think the distinction one has to make is what level you’re at.

Once you get to a high enough level, say C1 or higher, one language really might be just as hard as any other — it’s just a matter of practice. But if you’re going from nothing to A1 or A2, having a lot of cognates, a recognizable script, familiar sounds, and/or intuitive grammar can give you a big head start.

So the language makes a big difference in the context of my language challenge, which is all about starting from scratch.

Suppose I want to learn a little bit of Portuguese this month. Enough to converse with my polyglot friend Alexander, for instance. That shouldn’t take too much time, right?

Then I’ll choose one of the above endangered languages and schedule a bunch of Skype lessons for July.