Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Thai by the numbers

How can just listening teach you anything?, actually I am a little impatient I help the process on by combining real Thai with lessons in my mother tongue, I don't get out a pen and paper or practice, or think too much about the lessons. Language is full of numbers so I find them a good hook in during the early stages. Islands of numbers that expand are just like the other islands of words and meaning that expand outwards.

A Thai lesson on numbers above, if you follow the link back to Youtube you can see part two. I have made no systematic effort to learn Thai numbers yet (I haven't sat down with a book or a lesson etc. and any lessons I listen to I am doing something else) but I have both listened to a lot of Thai and a fair number of lessons on numbers. I let the lessons wash over me, I pay attention to Thai when I think numbers are involved and now I am pretty comfortable with Thai numbers. I have to say pretty comfortable with them, I think mostly in Chinese numbers now and will probably stick to that. Both Thai and Chinese numbering systems are simple logical and powerful (Chinese more so because of the Thai et and yi). There will be another post on numbers soon, the language you think in when you think about numbers makes a big difference, there is a real reason why many Asian kids are so much more advanced in maths than Western kids of a similar age and it not because they work harder.

When I was a child (and I suppose still) you could buy those "painting by numbers" kits, you had to fill in numbered sections with selected colours. If it was a complicated one you didn't know what it was going to look like until you had filled in enough of the blanks (especially if someone hid the box from you ;)). Listening to Thai is a bit like the paintings it is blank, there is data and information there but you don't exactly what it represents, every blank you fill brings it closer until finally you get the complete picture.

In my post summarizing the first two weeks of learning Thai I included a video, I noted this about the video:

Early on she says a number, five hundred and fifty three, the first time I watched it I heard fifty three, but then I found out a meaning for that roi sound I like so now I hear five hundred and fifty three. Of course she may be saying a bigger number I have not got that far yet, in fact I have not actually deliberately sat down to learn Thai numbers in any systematic way at all.

Now I know the number IS bigger, I was hearing similar numbers all the time now she is clearly saying "year 2553", I have managed to work out that Thailand measures it's own year aside from the international year. This mirrors the way other words are growing into phrases.

One example from many: I hear "len footbun hai sannook" In a Thai radio broadcast. I guess this means something like "play football for fun", I don't know for sure that hai can be used quite like this, if I am wrong I will find out at some point.

This is how it works. The phrases will get longer, turn into sentences etc. It will depend on material and time.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Grammar go home

Getting too serious around here so I though it was time for a little Monty Python language learning. As in this video some people seem to focus too much on grammar and miss the message. I am not going to worry about learning Thai grammar, I may read about it little after the event but I didn't study or learn grammar for Chinese and I will not deliberately study it for Thai. It is a waste of my time.

Some people may say that Chinese and Thai have a relatively simple grammar anyway (and yet the grammar books in various series of grammar books seem to be a similar size to other languages), I think that is is just that their grammar is different and we have a tendency to think about grammar in a western way (because we caught it from the Greeks and Romans). I won't know for sure until I study a European language though. This blog will not have any posts detailing how I am learning grammar for sure though, if it doesn't get adsorbed along with everything else I am in trouble... :)

Grammar is not even that important (yes you heard me correctly). if you get the pronouciation correct and the words right then for casual conversation in most language grammar mistakes will not stop you being understood (think about learners of your language you have talked with). Many languages it seems even the natives don't worry to much about their own grammar when talking.

If you think I am wrong then I would be happy to hear your opinion.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Firm conversation base


I have already established why I think conversation in Thai will be important to me, however it will only be a small (yet significant) part time wise. I don't live in Thailand, the easiest way to gain Thai language experiences is by being prepared to speak a little Thai (if you have other easy or even hard ways then please let me know).

Conversation also provides a firm base to build language around I can acquire words and concepts randomly via other input means but conversation provides a necessary focus to build a connected set of language.

Thai only meal

Last week on lunch-time I treated myself to a Thai meal at a restaurant near where I work, managed to not speak a word of English. The waiter helped a lot by not getting too chatty, but also by accepting that I speaking Thai and only using Thai. I managed to go outside the basics a little, asked where the toilet was (even though I didn't actually need it) also asked whether I could have the mussaman curry with chicken (the menu only said beef prawns and pork) but Chicken was fine. Actually I just said 'mee gai mai krap?' but it worked. Thai restaurants are going to be important, I expect to and am trying to build up a strong base of food and restaurant related language and then work out from there. Chinese was different, the menus are hard to read, the staff often don't speak Mandarin etc. for Chinese, Chinese medicine shops were a much better base. From the base, need to work outwards. Having had some success in Thai restaurants I can in theory (my theory of course) leave off the conversation until I have accumulated enough knowledge to strike up more interesting conversations with the staff. However sometimes an opportunity presents....

Local Thai opportunity

There is small Thai eating place just near where I work, I have worked out the following, in the evenings it opens just about the time I leave work. if I pick the busy Friday evening I can pop in for a coffee or beer, (can't regularly spend money on meals). There will usually be three Thai staff in there with nothing really to do until the customers pick up. They are happy to help me with questions etc. My objective isn't to speak only Thai (that dries up too quickly) but to ask questions, try things out etc. For example I know 'wan atit' is Sunday but occasionally hear 'atit' in things I listen to. I don't know if this is short for Sunday (often it seems not) or another word with the same sound and tones etc. etc. After asking it appears that is does actually mean sun (but usually combined with something else when talking about the sun directly). I am used to listening out for 'patet' to try to pick up country names but have a radio recording where the word 'patet' ends a sentence. I asked about this and the person I asked couldn't think of another word that had the same sounds or why this word would be on the end of sentence (although I am aware that when I get asked questions like these about English often nothing comes to mind until later). Since then I have head the word for abroad (I would understand if I heard it but can't quite remember, as I need a bit more exposure). I guess you could end a sentance with something like bai XXXXpatet "go abroad", there are probably other examples.

Wind up

I hope this continues to show how I will be using conversation to learn Thai, it is significant but I am by no means "talking myself towards fluency" I am as always mainly "listening my way towards fluency". There will be more no listening in my next post.

Also I have noticed that some preparation goes a long way, I didn't have to think or struggle to speak Thai in the restaurant, I had spare capacity to listen and concentrate on what the waiter was saying, having Thai sounds in my head doesn't guarantee that I speak perfectly but I can honestly say that so far in my Thai speaking experiments I have not been misunderstood once, not withstanding that mostly the scope for what I may be trying to say is fairly limited I am pleased about that.

Lastly and most importantly, I am using language to describe language, I don't actually believe that atit means sun or that patet means country. It is possible that they map exactly to those English words in connection with the internal meanings in my brain but highly unlikely, there is still a lot more to learn.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Knowing when to speak

This is going to be the last post in the eight weeks series, I have a lot more to say about conversation and a few more things about tones and reading/writing etc.but hay-fever has kicked, in, time runs out and a want to learn languages rather than write about what is happening. This post is a follow-on from my post: Doubting to speak Thai.

There has been quite a lot of controversy online recently about when to first speak the language you are learning, some say straight a-way, right at the beginning. There is a legitimate concern that some people are never ready to speak, never get over the nerves and insecurity of speaking a new language and never feel they have absorbed enough grammar, vocabulary etc. However going from this concern to "speak straight away" is a big leap and a rather lazy fix. In many fields of learning there is a possible "short sharp shock" approach to get over barriers of nerves etc. but usually they are discredited, you have to be careful sometimes it works, sometimes a phased approach to build confidence is better.

So how to work out when to speak, how to deal with the amorphous "when you are ready". Well for my case I have worked it out. Firstly I don't have as big a barrier to overcome as the first time, I know I can speak Chinese with people. In trying to speak Thai right from the start I found what made me uncomfortable what made it unpleasant and at what stage all that when away.

Firstly vocabulary, I don't expect to be able to say very much at all at first, but I do want to a basic set of common phrases that I "just know", that can come to mind without really thinking and that sound reasonably native in my head (so hopefully my pronunciation won't be too horrendous). I do not want to be suddenly forgetting how to say "sawat dee krap" etc. I do not want to have a little collection of phrases and words swimming around in my short term memory that I have recently "crammed there", that is uncomfortable.

I want to know that those phrases I know, I have a reasonable chance of understanding when I hear them, that I can recognise them in a radio broacast or TV program, if I can't do that how will I know that I can learn anything new. I should only be thinking hard to pick up or say new things.

I want to have a feel for variations and breakdown of the things I know, the person I am about to talk to has not "read the script".

For me with Thai, that took about six weeks, not a huge amount of time, if this was my first language then maybe 2 months, 3 months, but a finite goal still. But what if you HAVE to speak because of X or Y, then simple just speak after all you HAVE to. Maybe my criteria are not quite refined for the general population but it should be possible to come up with a better defined set.

If an individual chooses to not speak until later, if that is a choice not made by fear or indecision but a conscious choice because of belief that it will harm their learning, then that is fine of course.

There will be more on conversation, much more.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Does Chinese help me learn Thai?

Firstly it is clear that as other people have pointed out any new language learning after the first one is likely to be quicker. Your language learning abilities improve with practice it seems. I thought I was going to spend most of my time listening to uncompromisable Thai and getting used to the sounds of the language but that process kicked of much faster than I expected.

I have not noticed much in the way of conjugates, I have a small experience of Cantonese and it feels like there are more similarities between Thai and Cantonese than Thai and Mandarin. I am sure they are there but really even if a word sounds similar in Thai it will almost certainly have a different tone I guess and even a small difference in pronunciation means you may as well learn it from scratch particularly as it is likely to be a single syllable.

Sentences are usually constructed in a different order, I don't really focus on grammar though so lets leave it at that.

Thai feels like it has more sounds, also more multi-syllable loan words (I have read about Sanskrit words and found lots of English ones), that should make it slightly easier to target and absorb new words I hear. This combined with t he fact that I feel the range of Thai is a little smaller, what is called speaking in Mandarin with a "strong accent" can blur into speaking "a dialect" of Mandarin.

Having already got used to a tonal language is a big help, I know it will just take time, also I can usually remember the tone of words I hear. My brain has already cottoned onto the fact that tone is important.

Other elements like using word particles for questions, to soften meaning, to focus parts of a sentence etc. are also familiar already even if the details are different. I don't waste time getting used to this idea.

At this stage Thai people are easier to talk to in general and easier to learn from, this is probably offset by the fact that there are so many more Mandarin speakers in the world to track down and harass (I mean practice with).

The Thai writing system is simpler (looking forward to that :))

In summary Thai shares some characteristics with Mandarin which make for a smoother start. Nowhere near as close as Mandarin-Cantonese, English-German etc. though.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

A great resource, I came across this via Bakunin and decided to give it a go, I am glad I did. This website acts like a big cache of Thai TV/film and video feeds. You have to pay a fee to join and access the feeds but at £15 for ninety days, I think it is very good value so far.
The site has a lot of Thai video and films in many different categories a big choice for all ages and tastes it seems.

Technically the site works well there usually seems to be a choice of switching between US and UK servers and so far the performance has been good. Most of the videos I have watched have come in through a Flash player but a few have come via Windows codecs. This can be hiccough on Linux but in my case Firefox and the VLC mozzilla plugin step in as a substitute for Windows Media player. The site is mostly in Thai but there is just enough English in the categories etc. for even a beginner to find his way around. There may well be an English menus link but I don't mind, I like getting used to written Thai slowly.

As Bakunin has pointed out some childrens videos, travel, cookery videos etc. can serve as great ALG type sources. I agree and will certainly use them as such. Having said that I still feel they will be significantly less potent than the ALG lessons themselves. So far however in the short time I have been on I have mostly been looking around. I have also discovered the large amount of anime and cartoons some of which I already know so watching them in Thai is great, particularly as I know the names of the characters which helps to demark the Thai speech. As an observation I am pretty sure that some of the anime whilst unmistakably in Thai is deliberately dubbed in Thai with a Japanese accent (they sometimes do this in English also). I will look out a second opinion to make sure my Thai radar is developing properly. seems to be aimed at Thais, I wonder if they may get some mileage from targeting language learners also?