Isaan is a catch phrase for Lao varieties spoken by about 20 million people in North-Eastern Thailand. These languages are closer to Lao than to Thai, but due to Isaan being part of Thailand the influence of Standard Thai is substantial and sets Isaan apart from the Lao spoken across the border. Isaan, Lao and Thai itself are closely related and have split off and developed from one common ancestor language in the past.
Isaan has always been my favourite part of Thailand, both in terms of people and food. I’ve been learning Thai for several years and initially didn’t want to mix things up, but my Thai is now at a level where I feel comfortable, and I’m ready for something new. I was fortunate to find a speaker of Isaan (Ton) willing to work with me long-term, and so it started.
There is no *one* Isaan language, there is no standard which could serve as a reference. Actually, there are several varieties/dialects which have different tones and vocabulary. Currently, there is also no established writing system for Isaan dialects, and the Thai writing system, without adaptions, is not suited to represent Isaan pronunciation faithfully. Isaan and Thai tones have different contours, and Isaan varieties can have more than five tones.
There are a few books (in English) and webpages (mostly in Thai) for learners of Isaan. I’ve looked at the books but as I’m not a fan of textbooks, I haven’t worked with them. The Thai websites are pretty useless to me as a primary source because I can’t figure out the correct tone from the approximative Thai spelling. Learning a tonal language without getting the tones right doesn’t work for me.
So I started out making my own language learning materials. I’ve developed a set of illustrations for basic vocabulary and communicative functions, and I got Ton to record descriptions or questions and answers for these pictures. In the beginning, I only listened to the recordings, trying to understand what’s going on and getting a feel for the tones without analysing anything. Many Isaan words have Thai cognates, so I usually had enough context to guess and learn those words which were different.
After a few months, I added some pictures stories which were a lot of fun but also showed me that many basic words and the language used in real communication can be very different from Thai. There’s a lot I don’t understand at all. The listening phase was pretty casual, I didn’t spend too much time on it, but it was important to get a feel for the tones and learn to recognise some vocabulary.
End of last year, after about ten months of casual listening, I decided to take a stab at the tonal system of Ton’s language. As mentioned before, there are various Lao dialects in Isaan which differ in at least their tonal systems. Ton is from Khon Kaen province, and that’s the variety I’m learning.
There’s actually a pretty neat way to determine the tonal system of Tai languages (like Lao, Thai and other related languages). Due to their common ancestor and how the tonal system developed, all native Tai words fall into one of 20 categories. Words in each category have the same tone, and many categories share the same tone as well (so that Thai ends up with five tones, not 20). In order to figure out the tones of a new dialect, one only has to go through these 20 categories. This approach has been developed by Gedney and is sometimes called ‘Gedney tone chart’ or ‘Gedney tone box’. A corresponding illustration with 80 words which can be used to elicit these 20 categories is on my website.
I went through the Gedney tone chart with Ton. After a bit of back and forth, and also consulting with Luke who knows both Thai and Lao, I distinguish now six tones. They are all pretty different from Thai, and two of them may actually be just one underlying tone with a lot of variability. I’ve recorded the Gedney words and documented the analysis on my website; whoever wants to learn another variety can follow the same approach.
Once I’d figured out the tones, I realised that it’s actually possible to write the language with Thai characters by reinterpreting the tone rules. This is due to the conservatism of Thai spelling which makes learners’ lives difficult but is a huge boon for learning Isaan. For instance, words with ไม้เอก always carry a high tone (which, by the way, sounds different from the Thai high tone): ไก่ ไข่ ด่า พ่อ are all pronounced with a high tone in Ton’s Isaan. I worked through the Gedney chart and wrote down the tone rules, and so far I haven’t found a word I can’t spell with proper Isaan tones.
The writing system is obviously a private one which nobody else uses. I don’t even use it myself consistently when I text-chat with Ton and drop some Isaan because I know that he is more used to approximating Isaan tones with Thai tone marks instead of reinterpreting the rules. But for my learning it’s super useful because I can write all words with their correct tone. For 90% of the cognates, the Thai spelling already gives away the correct Isaan tone, and for the rest I can often figure out the tone from the Lao spelling. It’s a huge boost.
Now that I have a writing system, I can transcribe recordings. I love doing transcripts, I’m learning so much by doing this. When I’m just listening, I can gloss over words I don’t understand as long as I still understand the overall message, or even zone out a few seconds. When I’m writing a transcript, I need to catch every word.
This second phase in my Isaan learning journey consists of writing transcripts and seeing a lot of vocabulary and structures in context. I’m mixing slow and easy illustration-based recordings with much more challenging little stories à la ‘Thai Recordings’. Whenever I’ve worked through a recording, I put it on my website and integrate it into the little corpus I’m building up. It’s currently a lot of fun, and I’m seeing a lot of progress in my comprehension.
In order to keep track of the spellings and tones of the words I’m hearing and writing, I’ve started a little dictionary; it’s on the website. It’s a work in progress and constantly developing, but I hope that most of the entries have the right tones and are correctly translated. It’s currently pretty small and doesn’t live up to linguistic standards, but given the dearth of materials it might still be a useful reference, especially if it grows over time.
Who knows. I’m in it for the fun of it. I love languages, and I enjoy experimenting with language learning materials. I have quite a few plans with Isaan, but in the end it all comes down to whether I enjoy what I’m doing or not. It’s clear that all these recordings and transcripts don’t magically turn me into a good speaker of Isaan — in order to develop speaking skills, I need to engage in speaking. What I’m doing now is laying the foundation: acquiring vocabulary, getting ample exposure to structures, getting the tones right.
His article wanders around a bit so I’ll cover just the interesting bits. Basically, the idea is that burning money is painful so if you go along with the “burn or burn” method you will avoid at least one of the burns by sticking to whatever challenge you’ve set yourself. That’s if you are not a cheater. Cheaters need not apply.
This is how to “burn or burn”…
Decide what you are going to study.
Choose your study time(s).
Mark your study time(s) on a calendar.
Beg, borrow, or steal a crisp $100 bill.
Grab your man’s lighter.
Tape the $100 bill to today’s date.
Place the lighter nearby.
It doesn’t matter if it’s US dollars, Thai baht or UK pounds. Just make sure that it’s a large enough amount that it’d be painful to set alight.
I chose US$100 for two reasons. Reason One) The amount would matter to the man and the man matters (it’s all funny money to me). And Reason Two) US dollars are difficult to spend in Thailand so it’s not like I’ll find any old excuse to buy something with it.
Nir: Now you have a choice to make: Every day, when the time comes to do your routine, you can chose either option A and do the routine, which in my case was to feel the “burn” in the gym, or option B—literally, burning your money. You can’t give the money to someone or buy something with it, you have to set it aflame.
As radical as “burn or burn” sounds, there’s good science to support why it’s so effective: For one, it’s no surprise we hate losing money. But why not pay yourself for doing the routine instead of taking money away?
Tip 1: Instead of a paper calendar (who uses paper anymore anyway) an iOS app such as Don’t Break The Chain! will work just as well. I’ve used that app before and it’s a dandy way to keep track (and you feel just as guilty). If you have Android there’s Lift and others.
Tip 2: Tape your lighter and money of choice to an area you’ll see daily. I put mine on the wall right by the kettle. In that way I also get the ‘feel good’ of treating myself to a cuppa before I embark on my studies.
Tip 3: For emotional support, arrange for a Study Buddy to go with distance with you. I lucked out because my Study Buddy is far better at sticking to language studies than I am (I’m seriously caca). And an added plus, he’s not sympathetic to whining.
After much discussion the main course materials (Thai, French, and Italian) have been chosen and our schedule is set for three months. I’m quite chuffed because it’s all good (materials and time limit). I can do this.
The discussion of how I learn Thai is something that is kind of difficult for me to pull together. Usually, it ends up sounding really cluttered and disorganized. That’s because it is. A lot of people then say, “you must just really have a knack for languages”. This kind of irks me, and so I guess I will try to put it into words here with the hope of maybe inspiring others to try to incorporate my methods?attitudes?strategies? for learning foreign languages. Since people usually ask me about my accent, I will focus on that first.
Don’t be lazy early on. To build your skills for an accent, you need to get far away from your native language. Even if sounds appear to be exactly the same, just assume they aren’t. If you are good at recognizing differences in sounds to begin with you may not need this. For example, I didn’t realize until about year three of learning Thai that the ก sound I was saying was not really like a ‘g’ in English in most cases. However, while I had been clear enough before, the knowledge being formalized just helped me to further distance my accent from an American one, my native language.
When I started learning Thai, I was taking classical guitar lessons at the university. I had been playing guitar for about seven years already, and had been playing fingerstyle for about two years. I thought I was pretty good, but the prof I had just ripped my technique apart in his two-minute analysis of 10 minutes of my playing. I realized that many things which I found natural were actual inhibiting my progress and really slowing me down. Sometimes I built ceilings for myself that could only end in injury.
Fortunately, compared to playing guitar, foreign language lessons aren’t physically demanding. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have to focus on how each muscle moves when producing sound in our mouth and throat. With Thai, mimicking correct tonal pronunciation and observing how your mouth and throat move, not just “what it sounds like”, are very important to internalizing these sounds and separating them.
While I would like to tell you that I went through each and every sound in the Thai phonemic system and learned them in and out, like I kind of mentioned above, I started out without really analyzing anything that closely at all. I just wanted to learn how to say stuff and say it as naturally as possible. I always stood by this. Fortunately, my friend who taught me Thai at the time was great at making sure I pronounced things the way they were said and not how they ‘should’ be read. Whenever I had a question, I asked it. And I basically always had questions.
So to summarize: Be a blank slate when you begin, assuming no sounds to be similar to the ones you know – to add in, once you can identify that this อา is similar to “a” in at least some contexts, you can think of it as “a” as you want to, but try to be like “that weird open-mouthed ah” or something, don’t ever just think of it as “a”. Eventually, that thing you are referring in this round-about manner in order to differentiate will just become อา and u won’t have to think about how its pronounced
I try not to think too much in terms of vocabulary, although with words I have not mastered, I still do fall back on this. For most words which I actively use though, I always try to think of them in the contexts in which they appear. Below is a short summary of how I go about learning vocabulary by working with natural texts.
I watch one hour of television every night in my target language, and after one week of watching one genre, switch to another. I don’t worry about understanding everything for the first month or so, I just do my best. Then, whenever I’m ready, I start going back through all the stuff I watched and parse it for new vocabulary, etc. Then go back through it again with new knowledge. And voila, increased fluency!
Once again, the important thing is try to get far away from your native language, remembering words within contexts of small chunks. Also, by engaging with natural texts, you are likely to be able to pick up new flavors of words, as they are being used independently of prescriptive language standards or translations. You can work back towards your native language later, because eventually you will want to be able to have options for translation in mind if need be, but it shouldn’t be your focus when figuring out when and how to use the new words you are learning.
It may sound obvious but I feel so many people are too caught up in either:
Learning something until they have it perfect (usually not possible until you start working on harder things to challenge your skills. You will feel more comfortable when you go back to the easier stuff and you will be able to get closer to ‘perfect’).
They go through info too fast and say “I’m done with that”, not revisiting it later to really maximise the gain from each resource. Also they (the second type) tend not to be very good at learning about their own learning habits, because they leave less time for reflection.
Would you even WANT to survive Thailand’s polluted North? …
Until yesterday I was having serious doubts about my ability to stick it out in Chiang mai during the burning season. Last year wasn’t too bad, but this year, along with thousands of others, I’m suffering.
Every year the government publishes press releases on their meetings where they talk talk talk about cleaning up the air in North Thailand. Good grief all – it’s not rocket science, just quit burning already! Because of the very real health consequences, other countries outlawed open burning yaks ages ago. That’s right. There is a solution to this seasonal mess.
Yeah. I’m miffed. And Thais should be too. I went from gushing about Chiang mai and wanting to retire here, to wondering how quickly I could leave.
Asian Correspondent: Northern Thailand smothers under blanket of haze: Flights were turned away from Chiang Mai International Airport this week as Northern Thailand’s haze crisis deepened. ‘The Nation’ reported Tuesday that at least four pilots decided not to land their planes Monday as visibility was reduced to 800 meters due to the persistent smog.
For the past three weeks, due to a lack of being able to breath, I’ve been mostly housebound. You see, I’m asthmatic, but not seriously so (and I pity Northern Thais who are). My grandmother on my father’s side is though. She died of emphysema young, in her late 60’s. My father and older brother are also serious asthmatics (when I was growing up it was nothing to have an ambulance come and take my older sibling away). But get me around cigarette smoke (even on a walk by) and I’m puking, then coughing up gunk the long night long. Lovely.
What I’ve done to survive the burning North…
Because last year wasn’t too bad I started out ignoring the burning this year. Big mistake. Before I knew it my lungs were compressed, I was suffering from headaches, intermittent coughing kept me awake throughout the night, and the lack of oxygen replaced my energy with sore muscles.
As I wasn’t in a position to hightail it out of here for months at a time I needed to find a doable solution. And fast.
Chris and Angela, in How to Deal with Chiang Mai’s Smoky Season suggested a N95 grade mask (shown in the banner above) from HomePro. It works fine for running around, and along with hepa-filters in the car, on a good day I can get to the grocery store and back.
I already had three air cleaners (one from Bangkok and two bought last year) ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 baht. This year they were not enough. Worried, the man of the house found one that actually works, the Toshiba Air Purifier CAF-G50(P). And while 15,000 baht might sound expensive, it doesn’t need expensive filters (as does the 40 thou baht version) and does an amazing job of clearing the air. Live and learn.
Infact, the Toshiba is the real reason why I’m writing this post – I wanted to share my positive experiences with others who are also suffering due to the burning this year. Here’s what happened…
Several days ago the electric went out and I forgot to reset the Toshiba. A few (three?) hours later I was in serious trouble with my breathing. I became lethargic, my lungs were again restricted with the building pressure in my chest, and coughing was full-on. All it took to recover was to put the Toshiba on its Turbo setting. Six hours later the light went from red (dirty) to green (clean) and I could breath freely again. Relief!
Then just yesterday the Toshiba got switched to low (there be gremlins in my house). Once again I was in distress, only this time to the point of having a serious discussion about being hospitalised. Luckily I noticed the errant settings and flipped them to high again. Three hours later the light was back to green and I could breath. Problem solved.
I’m now confident about staying longer in Thailand’s polluted North. Only next year, I’ll get an additional Toshiba so’s I can live upstairs as well. Sleeping on the sofa hasn’t been too bad all these weeks but I miss my comfy bed.
Anyway, as I need to come up with a closing paragraph I’ll state what now seems to me to be the obvious. If you can’t leave the north of Thailand during burning season then there are few (logical) tips to follow: Stay inside as much as you can, wear a N95 grade mask when outside, cover your ACs (house and car) with Hepa filters, and buy an air cleaner with a known track record. And good luck!
Note: for useful vocabulary, phrases, and audio about the burning North, go to Hugh Leong’s post: Thai Language Thai Culture: Breathing in Chiang Mai. I took the video and photos used in the post just last week on a rare trip out of the house (it was the least I could do).
From day one I was excited about Paul’s quest. But to join, I first had to discover my own motivation to raise the stakes in learning Thai. No doubt, motivation in language learning is key.
You see, Paul and I are both introverts. It’s a personal attribute that gets in the way of becoming fluent in any language. A no brainer, to communicate by speaking, you really do need to be interested (motivated) in talking with people.
My Quest to Speak Fluent Thai in Six Months: I’ve lived in the country for thirteen years, so it is embarrassing to admit I’m still not fluent. There have been periods when I’ve put in the hours to learn the language. I can read Thai, and I’ve got a reasonably large vocabulary, but I just don’t like talking. My goal over the next six months is to rectify this situation.
Paul’s week three post gave that “ah hah!” needed to find a motivation that has a decent chance of sticking with me.
5 Improvements in My Approach to Learning Thai: It is my goal that within one year, I’ll be putting out videos in the Thai language as well as the ones in English. This is my dream, and I’m passionate about making it happen. There might not be even one Thai person interested in what I have to say, but I know it will give me so much pleasure to do this.
After reading Paul’s main reason for becoming fluent in Thai, I realised that my own motivating factor should also be something tangible, not mysterious, or just because “it’s the thing to do”.
Now here’s the thing. When searching for my motivation to join Paul’s quest I decided to switch to Italian. Because motivation-wise, it just so happens that everything fell into place for me to learn Italian (for the interim) before getting back to Thai.
This week I found out that I’m headed to Venice at the end of the year.
Also this week, Glossika launched their Complete Fluency Italian Course.
The clock is ticking. I have under 200 days to get my head around Italian and the pressure is creating a RUSH of motivation. VENICE!! YA! ITALIAN!! YA!
Then, after the New Year, with the Glossika Method fully entrenched (hope, hope), I’ll get back to my regular studies with the Thai materials at Glossika and jcademy.com. How’s that for a plan?
The guts of the language quest…
Paul will study with Glossika’s Complete Fluency Thai course (pssst: the pre-launch price is US$49). And at the same time, I’ll be tackling Glossika’s Italian course (already launched). The two courses are designed the same so we’ll have plenty to discuss.
As mentioned, Paul will be working hand-in-hand with Stu and jcademy.com. As a polyglot, Stu Jay Raj is an inspiration for learning any language so I’ll be quoting him often. Plus, his site includes posts on getting your accent just right – none of that superimposing your native language over your target language. IPA warning: I’ve succumbed.
The Glossika Method…
I’ve written about Stuart Jay Raj many times but Mike’s Glossika is new to this site. Other than to say that the method is centred around GMS (Glossika Mass Sentences) and GSR (Glossika Spaced Repetition), there isn’t room in this post to get into much detail. I will later though.
Mining sentences (finding sentences, getting the sentences approved by someone knowledgeable/trustworthy in the language, and then recording the sentences) is not effortless. But now there’s Glossika – and Glossika mined the sentences for us. So now there’s no excuse.
Until next time…
Please do read what Paul’s been up to during the first four weeks of his quest:
Taking Private Lessons? Who Should Your Teacher Be?…
After noticing a survey that declared that Swedes are the best learners of English as a Foreign Language (EFL), Catherine asked me for my perspective on why Swedes are so successful. Though there are many points to consider, one aspect of EFL in Sweden and other countries known for good English is that teachers there are generally non-native speakers of English and that all speak the local language. In the English teaching industry here in Thailand and in other developing countries, non-native speakers are considered unsuitable teachers of English. However, if the proficiency of English is high, it can be argued that a non-native speaker would generally make a better teacher since he/she shares the learning experiences and culture of the students and is the best possible model of a successful learner.
That Swedes are such successful learners of EFL may of course also depend on several factors unrelated to the use of non-native speaker teachers:
Swedish is closely related to English.
Much of the Swedish TV programming is in English with near perfect subtitles.
Swedes listen to a lot of English language music.
Swedes are frequent travellers, and few non-Swedes speak Swedish.
In these respects, people in Sweden learning English are quite different from Thais learning English or native speakers of English learning foreign languages in their home countries. Successful learners in other Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands have the same advantages.
Though linguistic closeness high exposure to English, and strong motivation to learn may seem sufficient explanation of why Swedes are so good at English, the use of non-native speakers to teach EFL puts Sweden and other successful EFL countries (including India) in direct conflict with the idea that native speakers are by default the best teachers of a language.
Unsurprisingly, in an industry dominated by native speakers the reliance on native speakers to teach English is strongly advocated and many international schools request teachers with experience of the UK or US educational systems. However, teaching of foreign languages in the UK is notorious for producing very poor results indeed. The same might be said about the US. If, teaching in the countries which are best at English as a Foreign Language is done by non-native speaker teachers of English, shouldn’t that suggest that they are better at teaching foreign languages than Americans and Brits? Indeed, it seems inescapable to conclude that being a language teacher from the UK or other native speaker countries is not a suitable criterion for selecting a good language teacher.
In the global English teaching industry, native speakers are held in high regard, with teaching positions often reserved exclusively for them. However, the faith in native speaker teaching abilities is based on theories on language learning that have been largely debunked; people do not learn a foreign language as they learn a native language and native speakers of a language are not necessarily the best teachers of it. Indeed, many native speakers have poor grammar and accents which are ineffective for international communication, which makes them unsuitable models to emulate. Non-native speakers with high levels of English proficiency (especially if they have same native language as their students) generally have deeper insight into the learning process and are more relevant models to emulate than even skilled native speaker counterparts.
So, if non-native speakers make better learning models, why aren’t they universally sought after as the best teachers? Well, the sad truth is that even though non-native speakers CAN be wonderful models of successful language learners with insight of what it takes to learn a foreign language, many non-native speaker teachers of English are poor models to emulate since their grasp of the English language is sadly limited. Even though specifying that teachers ought to be from certain countries does guarantee a certain minimum level of language proficiency (fluency of speech in particular), some non-native speakers may have outstanding proficiency and accents very suitable for successful international communication. Therefore, the exclusion of them from teaching jobs constitutes indefensible discrimination. Sadly, this discrimination is based not only on nationality, but also on race. The native speaker stereotype is Caucasian, and native speakers ‘of color’ are discriminated against because of factors unrelated to their competency as teachers just as surely as non-native speakers are.
For the readers of Women Learn Thai, this has bearing on whether hiring a native speaker of Thai is a must. Simply put, it isn’t. However, high proficiency in the target language is fairly rare amongst non-native speakers, which means that going to a Thai national for help is understandable, especially if one is only out to reach conversational fluency. For me personally, the implications for the highly discriminatory policies of English teaching institutions in Thailand are paramount.
In short, this is some of what we must consider when hiring someone to teach a language: Language proficiency and teaching skill are better predictors of suitability than any passport. When selecting a teacher, assess his/her ability to lead you to the level of proficiency you desire and do not dismiss anyone based on nationality or ethnicity.
If anyone wishes for further documentation supporting what I have written above (that the theories of Krashen were never supported by empirical evidence and have in fact been contradicted by such, that there is institutionalized national and racial discrimination in the English teaching industry, and that non-native speaker teachers may in fact be generally better suited to teach EFL), I will gladly forward my dissertation and other academic papers from my studies in Edinburgh.
Video: How to Learn a Language in a Foreign Country…
In David Mansaray’s latest video he asks interpreter and translator Robert Bigler for his views on learning a language in a foreign country. In the video, Robert also discussed how he actively studies languages.
This is one of the best videos on learning languages. It’s that good. Actually, this video is what I’ve come to expect from David. David’s How to Use Motivation Effectively video is brilliant.
How to learn a language in a foreign country…
My original intention was to share only the bare basics but I found so MUCH good stuff I asked David for permission to post the full list. Thank you for your generosity David!
And while I’m handing out thanks, thank you for introducing us to Robert too. He’s a jewel :-)
In the interview Robert gives advice on learning resources. I’ve added top favourites for learning Thai to the post below. I could easily add more but I ran out of time. If you have other suggestions, please do share them in the comments.
Talking points: How to Learn a Language in a Foreign Country…
Prepare yourself: get as much information about the country as possible, acquire enough of the language to have a basic conversation, be open-minded and interested in the language as well as the culture and people.
The bare essentials: a good dictionary with sample sentences, basic grammar book, self-study course with dialogs, a good phrase book.
Instead of buying ten books and merely glancing at each, take one small book to focus on.
Learn phrases you’ll use in discussions pertinent to your life: who you are, where you are from, what you do, how old you are, etc.
Have a basic set of structures: how to say what happened in the past, what is going on right now, what’s going to happen in the future.
Anticipate likely conversations, prepare your replies, talk to yourself in the foreign language, rehearse as if you are on stage.
When preparing for conversations on certain subjects write down repeatedly used words and expressions. Go through them. The words you lacked in previous conversations are the words you need to focus on.
If you hear a nice expression use it in your next sentence. Make sentences out of the words you’ve just heard.
When you have problems with expressing yourself, immediately look it up. If there is something you cannot say because you don’t know the word, look up that word.
Don’t learn words on their own without context. If you learn them in context you will get exposure to the words and structures. Exposure is the key.
You don’t need a lot of material but you have to be able to reproduce them automatically so it’s essential to actually speak the language. You need to get used to talking. Your muscles need to be trained.
How to listen…
Be a good listener. You will benefit from the wealth of knowledge received from the person you are talking to.
To get into the flow of the language listen to audio. Get a lot of exposure by listening. Listening helps to practice the language passively. Listen carefully and attentively. Don’t listen in the background.
Create a natural environment by getting involved in discussions of interest on TV and radio. Sitcoms are a great way to get use to structures that come up in everyday conversation. If you lack the words to get your point across in your fake conversation, look them up. Keep talking. Say something like, “I’m sorry I have to look up the word”.
For language exchange using email, you both choose the topics you are interested in. Each prepares text. Each corrects the other’s. You have the time to work with whatever tool you feel comfortable with (a dictionary, sentences from books, etc).
When going abroad for an extended period of time, try to meet people by: joining clubs, fitness clubs, playing sports, and doing volunteer work.
Volunteer work is the best way to actually live with the people and not just beside them or next to them.
Be honest enough to tell people that you appreciate being corrected. Encourage people to correct you. Ask them to help you out. But also ask them not to judge you. There is a major difference between correcting somebody and judging somebody.
But it’s not the mistakes you should be worrying about. It is not being told about your mistakes.
It’s very important, especially in the beginning stages, that you meet someone you feel comfortable with to talk to.
When you get to the stage where you are open enough to actually learn from others without feeling bad for making mistakes, then you will be really successful.
Making progress is why it’s very important to have somebody around you who is understanding, but is also honest enough to actually tell you what you are saying wrong.
How to deal with communication snafus…
There will be moments of frustration, even when you believe that you are well-prepared. When this happens, don’t give up. Keep practicing.
You will make a lot of mistakes and at first might not understand much of what they are saying. When you make mistakes ask people to help you out.
When you struggle in conversation, once back at home get out your dictionary and turn to the subject at hand.
A final word from David Mansaray…
When it comes to spoken language people are willing to let some things go, but when it comes to writing people are a lot more sensitive to mistakes. They are going to be a lot more honest when correcting your mistakes. Writing is a great tool for the shy because you don’t have to immediately deal with that confrontation, you can look at your own mistakes to see where to improve.
It’s really important to have someone that you trust to help you with your language. Who you practice language with is also very important. When going through the stages you can be physiologically fragile. If you are not corrected in a friendly way then you can lose confidence in yourself, and that can make you retreat.
Not long ago I was asked to write a post about language learning styles for Women Learning Thai. Having recently received my Master Degree and in the process of looking for a job, it seemed like the perfect time to engage with such a project. Even though I am not an expert in the neuropsychology involved in language learning, I figured I might reference my experience as a teacher and language learner to contribute something on the topic of how theories on learning styles can be applied by teachers and learners of Thai in the hope that it might stimulate the comments of other, more knowledgeable authors.
Learning is Variable…
As learners and/or teachers of foreign languages, we have tried different learning methods with varied degrees of success. Not only does what works for one person not always work for another, but the success of a single method may vary for the same person, possibly since no two learning situations are identical and the mind is ever changing.
By reading the stories of successful Thai learners on this site, thinking of how we learn ourselves, and observing the world around us, we can see how some learn by studying theory, some by listening, some by jumping in and doing, some by working by a computer, etc. Although no two situations are identical, it is commonly believed that there are different types of learners and that that a language student will pick materials up more efficiently if he/she is given the opportunity to use the learning style that fits him/her best. Today, this theory is a part of many, if not all, teacher educations.
The Proof is in the Pudding…
Though intuitively appealing, it has not been empirically shown that identifying a student’s learning style and teaching in order to accommodate that learning style will optimize learning outcomes. Not only has the efficacy of tailoring teaching to fit each individual student not been proven, but the categorization of different learning styles is anything but straightforward; suggested categories vary from model to model and take into account both internal and external factors related to leaning outcomes. Understandably, the possibilities for categorization are therefore quite a few.
That individual students learn differently is a theory that I personally do not doubt at all. The question for me is not which or how many learning styles there are, but rather how the realization that learning is quite complex and varied can be used to improve myself as a teacher and learner of languages.
How can theories on Learning Styles be applied?…
When it comes to understanding learning styles, I am primarily influenced by my own experiences of learning languages and by the training I went through to become a certified instructor of Songahm Taekwondo. The learning styles we studied during that training were Visual, Auditory/Aural, and Kinetic (VAK). In order to accommodate different types of learners, we were not taught to evaluate each individual student. Instead, we were taught to teach the same materials using multiple methods, thereby making the classes more varied and fun whilst giving students with different learning styles the opportunity to learn without dividing them into sub-groups based on learner type. Even today I believe that varying the method of instruction is the best way to incorporate knowledge of different learning styles into one’s classes.
When reading of different definitions of learning styles, it quickly becomes apparent that they differ depending on the source. Therefore, adopting a single definition as the ultimate truth is not advocable. However, even though the definitions may vary, they may all have merit and one can get ideas on how to vary the learning process by studying all the proposed definitions – the more the merrier – and trying to create learning situations based on them (individual vs. group exercises, written exercises vs. aural, translation vs. listening, etc.). All styles can appropriate, and the learning environment will be more stimulating with variation.
Identifying one’s learning style may help every language learner select the most useful types of input and exercises. I have even heard examples of people learning a language well by using a single method. However, I do not believe that one should limit oneself exclusively to one type of learning since other types of learning may provide new perspectives and increase retention, develop deeper understanding, prevent boredom and even work better in specific learning situations or as one’s mind develops.
Other Teaching Tips…
Other instruction skills I transferred from Taekwondo into the language classroom include setting direct goals, referring to the students by name, using positive yet realistic correction and reinforcement rather than criticism, building confidence, teaching the concept of personal victory, and having fun. As a very experienced instructor of PPCT (Pressure Point Control Tactics) once told me, ‘breaking things down into easily mastered components and giving the students an early experience of success increases retention and motivation’. Having witnessed such an approach being successful on numerous occasions, I am a strong believer in breaking even complex topics down into smaller segments that are easier to master and then letting the students experience success with the component parts, building confidence and enthusiasm, before combining them again.
An additional resource or challenge is related to the concept of ‘learning how to learn’. Many students may not have been exposed to multiple methods of language learning; while an unfamiliar method may be difficult at first, they may become better at using it with added exposure and a person’s preferred learning style may evolve over time. The changeable and varied process of language learning supports my belief that using different methods is a useful strategy to develop language skills. Other advantages are that multiple learning methods will reduce the chance of boredom and stagnation and that varied input may improve overall brain function or prevent degeneration for those of us who are approaching old age.
Taking the lack of evidence that teaching according to learning styles improves learning and that individual learning patterns are complex and varying into account, the advice I would give to those who wish to learn Thai is as follows:
Use a variety of approaches. Enter different environments, work alone, work in groups, use dictionaries, immerse yourself, etc. Sometimes, the penny may drop when you least expect it to. You will find the ways that work best for you and stimulate mental development by experimenting. It will also reduce the risk of boredom that so often interferes with continuous learning efforts.
Set limited goals so that you may experience success quickly and build confidence and enthusiasm by tracking specific improvements.
When finding suitable people to help you, use their ability to break language down into understandable and manageable components that don’t seem overwhelming so that you can focus on a few items at a time and build from a strong foundation.
Oh yes, most importantly… Don’t be afraid of mistakes and try to get feedback from people who aren’t afraid to point out things that you can improve, especially ones who can explain how and why. In Thailand, pointing out that someone is making mistakes is often considered rude, and people are generally very supportive. However, if your intent is to do better than simply getting a message across, you need to find out what and how to improve. People who do not want to point out that what you are saying sounds bad are doing you a disservice. If you get positive feedback even when making mistakes, habits will form which may prove hard to break later on, hindering your progress and possibly preventing you from reaching your full potential as a language learner.
I look forward to reading the comments to this article and deepening my own understanding of this topic.
Now that I have a twitter account dedicated to language resources, @LearnThaiRes, I’ve been adding my favourite tweet people, like David Mansaray @DavidMansaray. Recently David introduced me to Ed Trimnell’s YouTube account: etrimnell.
Ed’s commonsense statements on learning languages drew me to share the below video.
Opinion: Should language study always be fun?…
Ed Trimnell: You’ve no doubt heard a lot of people promise that you can learn a language “without books, study–simply by going out there and speaking.”
This video explains why the most effective way to learn a language is through a combination of immersion and traditional study/translation-based methods.
“This video does not exist”
… don’t you just hate that?
Anyway… what do you think? Should language study always be fun? Is immersion in your target language all it’s cracked up to be? Just what are the hard realities of learning a foreign language? Questions… questions…