Up to now…

Before the internet, it would have been a ‘teach yourself’ book (I have several on the shelves. Serbo-Croat. Sanskrit…) Now the knee-jerk reaction is for an app.

And boy there are some rubbish ones out there. Having discovered that Duolingo doesn’t do Thai (why ever not?!), I’m on a mission to find something else that I know works.

First mission: learn the alphabet. My primary aim here is to speak and to understand, but I know that I will really enjoy picking out letters and sounding out words when I’m there, and so I have a secondary aim of having a rudimentary ability to read. (I’m not too bothered about writing!) Memrise seems to fit the bill well. There are various ‘learn Thai alphabet’ apps although I fall at a hurdle almost straight away – some of them involve typing and I have a qwerty keyboard, not a แป้นพิมพ์ไทย one. (OK, I’ll come clean – I have no idea what that says – I just thought it would look interesting.) I get around the problem by downloading a Thai keyboard on my phone, and simultaneously (and contradictorily) enrolling on a ‘no typing required’ course on the Thai alphabet on Memrise.

It is at this point that I discover various further stumbling blocks. Firstly, there are a lot of letters in Thai. Secondly a lot of them look really really alike. Thirdly there are a lot of consonant-vowel combinations that make letters – so kha says one thing, and khi says another.

So look at this, for example:

ข ช ฃ       คตดฅ

I am finding it really hard to see the difference between these letters. I can see the difference when they’re next to each other, but in isolation, forget it. I’ve got ง nailed pretty quick – it says ‘ng’ – and I can also cope with ก (says ‘ga’ – looks like a chicken). But the rest – oh dear. Memrise kindly offers me ‘mems’ – clever little aide-memoires (looks like a chicken), but there are too many of them. Over and over I fail. I need CONTEXT. But where to find it?

So now I’m on a journey to find apps which might teach me words. Google Play store. Four stars. Download. Try. Delete. Repeat ad nauseam. So many apps out there that seem to equate endless lists of vocabulary with ‘learning a language’. Is the concept of ‘building a few sentences’ utterly alien? Why would one spend all that time and effot making an app to teach you single words? Even the much-feted ‘learn Thai from a white guy’ actually appears to be an app to teach you the alphabet and nothing more. (I am reminded of a collapsed timetable day I ran with year eight once, where the aim was to ‘invent your own language’ and the vast majority invented their own alphabet and nothing more.)

I fix on ‘LuvLinguaThaiPro’, and learn yet more single words, with the odd phrase. It works for me for a week or so. I can pick out some of the letters, and ‘sawat dee kha’ is firmly embedded as a formulaic chunk. And I am recognising some vocabulary. Rice. Beef. Bread. Fruit. Railway station. Nowhere near producing it though. And it feels slightly robotic – I remember that there is a sound like ‘khan’ in the word for bank. That you have a ‘bruised knee’ when you go to the post office. That the word for water also appears in ‘tea’ and ‘fruit juice’ but not in ‘milk’.

Image result for luvlingua pro thai

But but but… still not a lot of context. It’s rote learning. And I am beginning to sense for the first time a real difference between ‘learning’ and ‘acquisition’. It feels like it’s going into the ‘explicit knowledge’ part of my brain,  but I would like it somewhere deeper, somewhere where it can be implicit, automatic. And really, really really, enough with the single letters, the single words. Give me sentences!

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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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