A woman and a boat

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’ve got home from school. There’s marking to do, and some work for my Master’s, but instead I google, again, ‘Learn Thai Apps’. And I stumble across Llingo, which has good reviews from CNN. Here we go again, I think. Download and check it out. I am encouraged by the fact that it originally cost $30 or so, although I don’t pay anything for the first few chapters.

I get started. A page of grammar rules. Interesting (I like a bit of grammar), but again, no context. I skim the page of grammar rules – and get onto chapter one. It instantly, again (no, please, no!) starts firing disembodied vocabulary at me. Woman. Girl. Man. Boy. Bicycle. Boat. A panic starts to rise – I can’t cope with endless bits of random vocab.

But then something interesting happens. The list of vocab stops with six words. The app presents me with the words in different combinations, including ‘and’ (lae), and this just gets me thinking in quite a different way. Not only that, but it’s actually quite clever: ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ turn out to be closely related words, and so are ‘man’ and ‘boy’. The word for boat sounds a lot like ‘row’ (as in row your boat). I find myself tapping quickly, and getting it mostly right. Something much more automatic is going on, and this is pleasing.

Image result for women boat thailand

ผู้หญิง  และ  เรือ*

*Thaidoesn’tputspacesbetweenwords, but Llingo has decided to be kind to me and let me have some.

So what’s going on here? Why is this app so much more pleasing?

It started with pictures, and I heard words. The words were clear and had a quality about them that stuck in my phonological loop. It emphased the aural, not the written. I had a multiple choice – something and something, I would hear, and I had to choose the the right picture. The fact that woman and girl sounded similar (‘girl’ is woman with a prefix), and man and boy followed the same pattern was helpful. Giving me ‘lae’ for and helped me segment the little streams of speech as I heard the same sound in the middle each time.

Even more astonishing was the moment when it gave me just written Thai, and I had to choose what on earth it said. This was very much based on whole-word recognition. I worked out that the words for girl and women ‘P̄hū̂h̄ỵing’ and ‘dĕk p̄hū̂h̄ỵing’ were the only ones ending in ng /ง. Boat is a short word which has a boaty little thing on the top of the middle letter. Strategy use kicked in good and proper – scanning to see if the two words looked similar, apart from a prefix, helped, as did looking to see if there were any letters that I recognised. I worked out that the word for bicyle was nice and long, but boat was pretty short.

I feel like I *am* translating, but it doesn’t feel like I’m wholly translating when I’m now hearing  P̄hū̂h̄ỵing. The route in my head is opposite. If I were translating I would think P̄hū̂h̄ỵing – woman – and then the construct of a woman would occur. Instead, this afternoon’s work has made me think P̄hū̂h̄ỵing – construct of woman – and then the English word. I am wondering why this is: perhaps because it was just pictures – the learning never once tapped into my English? The way in which my mind is mapping P̄hū̂h̄ỵing is very different – I am associating it with the Chinese concept of ‘yin and yang’ which I know can relate to men and women. I am seeing the letter. I am seeing the images that the app presented me with. All of this, very quickly, is making very different pathways in the brain than it would if the first link made was P̄hū̂h̄ỵing – woman.

There’s a theory in applied linguistics that explict knowledge can never become implicit (and vice versa). It’s a theory that never really made instinctive sense to me. But for the first time I can see how, as the very first elements of word knowledge are laid down, they can be laid down in different ways depending on the way in which the word is taught.

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Author: Kedi Simpson

I'm a teacher of modern foreign languages in a UK school and have nearly finished my Master's in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at Oxford University. Former journalist, doula and childbirth educator.

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