Sunday, 30 January 2011

Loooong vowels and six tones in Thai


Going to get back to Thai language related posts for a while. But plenty of craziness stored in my head for later.

I am not a great fan of reading much about a language when I start, or finding out about grammar, or any other technicalities. I find that reading about language related things before I have some kind of feeling for them isn't very helpful, Sometimes when I have a feeling for them I then don't need to read about them at all. I don't completely switch off from reading about the technicalities of the language though, they can help things drop into place or be useful for discussing the language with other people.

Thai has long vowels, I read about them recently, it was a little helpful, but there again I already knew about them. Here is an interesting video about Thai vowels (more related to the writing system but sounds as well:

Long vowels are important

It is quite clear when listening to lots of Thai that the long vowel sounds are important, whilst I suspect that with any language there are short-cuts and laziness there are many words that consistently maintain their long vowel sounds when Thais are speaking, I would even go out on a limb and guess that the getting long vowels correct is as important as tones when conveying meaning in Thai. These kind of affects are no where near as important in English (usually a similar difference in pronounced vowel length just becomes part of an accent).

Long vowels are not rocket science but reading about them when I first started would just have added to a huge pile of new stuff to think about, long vowels, unstressed syllables, tones, b's that are a bit like p's, d's that are a bit like t's etc. etc. That new information can't be processed in real-time for either listening or speaking. Initially there are just sounds, there is the sound of words spoken by a native speaker and eventually a feel for the acceptable range of sounds for that word spoken by many native speakers.

My sixth tone

I really didn't know that long vowels were part of the phonetic writing system until a few weeks ago, and it wouldn't have helped me prior to that, When I read about them there were lots of little aha moments all rolled into one and I spent a happy 20 mins or so with a dictionary (which I hardly ever use for Thai to-date) confirming that a bunch of words I already "knew" had long vowels were actually written that way.

I also realized that long vowels were responsible for my "sixth tone". There is a very distinctive sound made for most words that have a long vowel in the falling tone, So distinctive that usually it is clearly different from similar falling tone words without long vowels. Some examples: five "haa", nine "gaoo", like "choorb", speak "poot", able "daai" etc. etc. are very clear to hear right from the start (disclaimer: don't be too upset by my made up romanisation and definitions).

I don't expect you to believe that Thai has another tone, however I did a little search and was satisfied to see that some people have ascribed extra tones to Thai for this kind of reason also extra tones for Cantonese have been based on certain vowel sounds (and their effect on the overall tone). My Thai has six tones, I suspect it always will, maybe I will add even more later.

The main reason I am happy to add an extra tone though is that the "sixth" tone of Thai is by far the easiest to distinguish and reproduce right from the start (at least for someone from my background) so for that reason alone the sixth tone (a long vowel over a falling tone) deserves a special mention :)


As I have stated many times before, language is fundamentally sound, it is important to me to learn predominantly from sound.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Testing your language learning


There may be a lot of heated discussion about the best way to learn a language, but ultimately if you have a way to test the progress of your learning then anything that progresses you at a satisfactory speed is a valid learning method. You can decide what your goals are and use testing to ensure that you are on target. This applies to any kind of learning, the key thing is that the testing has to be valid, it has to be relevant. If the methods used to test your progress are not relevant then you may not have idea what progress (if any you are making).

This is somewhat fuzzy, words like satisfactory are imprecise, if however you are a self-learner than you are perfectly justified to define them for yourself (I would suggest that if are not a self-learner then it is equally import to define them for yourself and see how they map to the course you are on/following) many people are happy to entrust the whole thing to somebody else.

There are a lot of negative posts these days (ironically often in places where negativity is supposed to be bad, and everything is supposed to be fluffy and easy.....) telling you that you must do this, or you can't do that, or you are anti-social, self-deluded, an apologist, moronic, cretinous, for believing in/using method X. Some will even "feel sorry for you"(WTF!), but the purpose of this post is just to highlight one key difference between you learning as a child and as an adult. As an adult you are responsible for determining the effectiveness of your learning, most people can't afford in invest time and money into something that is not working.

keep it real for testing

Whether your learning method is based mostly on "real world" language or not your testing method should be. The best way to test your progress is against real use of the language. listening to real content, reading real content, talking with real people. Grammar tests, tests against numbers of flashcards learned, classroom tests, the number of audio lessons completed, all indicate some kind of progress, but don't guarantee the correct progress.

Testing against real world material requires some discipline, the material you use for listening comprehension, reading comprehension, the people you speak to have to vary and have to represent varying levels of difficulty, when you may be able to understand a childrens story you might only still get a few words from a news report.


I have been testing my learning against real world application for a long time now, not just for language learning. Hopefully as time goes by I will get better and better at language learning by constantly testing my progress and adapting my methods. When I learn anything I can go down false trails or do something that doesn't actually help, everyone does. There is no reason however why anybody should be able say "I tried method X for two years and made little progress".

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Why Language learning classes won't work


More cobweb cleaning ready to start a new year, people often bang on about teaching techniques and why traditional language teaching won't work, etc. etc. but it seems to me that the truth is simple that a class, in school, for learning a language will never work, it simply can't.

What I mean here is a class as part of the normal curriculum for teaching children at school, or a regular weekly class at a night-school. And when I say it won't work, I mean that even years of attendance is unlikely to result in being able to comfortably speak and understand the language despite successfully completing the classes and passing tests etc.

The Problem

The problem as I see it is that learning a language requires learning and effort on a lot of different levels. Often language learning is compared to sport or learning a musical instrument, I think that mastering a language is broader than most of these comparisons, there are a lot of facts (or near facts, more on that in a later post) to learn as well as the need to spend a lot of time on task (actually playing the sport / instrument or listening to music).

If however we are generous and compare speaking a language (whatever that actually means) to playing a sport or instrument well then consider the fact that the standard education system can't achieve either of these goals with sport or music (and doesn't really try). Music classes teach about music, and introduce music, maybe even inspire some students, but they do not make competent musicians out of the vast majority of students. Standard sport lessons introduce sports, give the students a little exercise, but they do not produce competent sports people. In fact nobody expects these music and sports lessons to do much more than they actually do.

The students that progress in sports and music are the ones that have extra lessons, the ones who join clubs outside or inside school, the ones that attend extra practice for their class or school team. Most of them can't progress beyond a very basic standard without this extra effort, and nobody expects otherwise.

There is only so much time available in education, standards in Maths and Mother Language achieve what they do in the time available, there is some variation due to talent and interest and method but the employees and further education establishments take what is produced and work with it. In this way though what is produced by language classes does not offer functional abilities in the language.

Basic to intermediate communication skills could theoretically be taught in the time available but then we have the other education system problem of testing and assessment. Educationalists are not going to be happy with just being able to say that 80% of students leave the system able to have a "reasonable conversation" and leave it at that, far easier to test them on predetermined content and their abilities to do things with grammar that might even baffle a native speaker. A bit like teaching students to strip down, clean and re-assemble a saxophone, with little to no ability to play the thing (easy to grade though).

The whole thing needs to be turned on it's head, we need to review what we expect from language education, maybe not even call French lessons by that name, just call it "Language Education". Change the focus and the expectation, French lessons are now the thing that you do extra (like guitar lessons and playing for the soccer team) you won't get good unless you put the time in.


Most adults would not expect to attend a saxophone class for a couple of hours a week, do an hour or so homework on it a week and get any good at playing saxophone this side of the next ten years (especially if they have no previous musical experience to build on. Yet countless people regularly take on classes in a foreign language on this premise.

Is it bonkers or am I? comments gratefully received.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

An Infinite number of languages


image by Stephen Begin

The End of a year and the start of new one, forgive the cluster of peculiar posts you will see here for a while whilst I clear out the cobwebs. A heavier focus on Thai will resume next year at some point.

Whilst it is not strictly true that every snowflake is different (especially when small) it is true enough for me to compare them to language. It is not true that there are an infinite number of languages either but as a starting point, in my view there are at least as many languages as there are people on earth who can speak. That is just a starting point you would have to add each extra language that anybody can speak.

Saying that the language someone speaks is French or German or Spanish is just an approximation, it is applying some criteria to the individual language that they speak and own, a criteria that gives you a good idea which other peoples individual language is roughly mutually intelligible (near enough that they can communicate with little difficulty).

This viewpoint comforts me tremendously (I don't see myself as having to reach a standard that is fixed). All I have to do is insert a "new" language in my brain that gets near enough that a bunch of other people of a certain background can communicate with me easily. The more people #I can communicate with and the smoother the communication the more progress I have made. Not a trivial task but fuzzy enough to not be so scary as an absolute standard.


Every person has their own set of associations for every word, including their mother tongue.
Every person has been exposed to each word in a different way, whilst in different moods, under different circumstances. Every person (Ok there may be the odd freaky verbal doppelgänger out there) pronounces every word slightly differently to anybody else that speaks the same language (different pitch, different harmonics, different speed). We all have our preferred adjectives, greetings, swear words, words we like the sound of, words we don't like the sound of. Sub-groupings of similar languages within languages are formed by age-groups, professions, hobbies, sexual orientation etc. etc.

Dictionaries are approximations (or sometimes self-fulfilling prophesies if people learn most of their words from them). You could write a distinct dictionary for each individual. Many entries would be same across various people but each dictionary would be distinct, some would be considerably smaller than others.

Here is a prediction, I just know it is true (it has to be). Spain and Portugal share a border, there just has to some people somewhere that daily speak something that would cause people to argue about whether it was Spanish or Portuguese they speak. I won't even look on the Internet I am so confident this will be the case.


Some people won't like this view, it won't sit well, they will feel that they need an absolute standard to work to. I feel liberated by it.