Sawat di ka… again

It’s been a while. I have been in ‘essay hell’, finishing coursework for my Master’s in Applied Linguistics. But the worst is now over and the next deadline is in a month – which I know is very soon, but just this morning it feels like a liberated lifetime away. So over breakfast it was back on the llingo.

I think we underestimate the importance of revision in language learning. There are graphs out there that show us how you need to look at something x number of times in the first learning session, then space out the revision with longer and longer gaps, and then finally – hop! – the learning has made the jump from short term memory into long term, and I will be able to say the Thai words for ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘boat’ and ‘bike’ til my dying day.

So I went right back to the beginning today. The app had told me that I only had 96% accuracy, and that bugged me, so I did the first lesson all the way through and lo! I have now achieved 100%.

What do I notice the most today? The power of sound. Hearing the words, beautifully clearly, seems to me to be the most useful thing at this beginning juncture. I do look at the written forms, switching between the Thai versions and their transliterated alternatives, but what stays with me is that voice. I can hear it in my auditory memory for quite some time afterwards – certainly a lot longer than the two seconds quoted in the literature about phonological working memory. Something else is going on here – like it’s being auditorally imprinted. The sections where I’m expected to read and identify the pictures are working in a different way: I can tell the six words apart and tell you what they say, but their written form (not even the transliterated one) isn’t being imprinted on my visual memory in the same way at all. If you gave me a Thai written text, for example, I don’t think I stand a cat in hell’s chance of picking out those six words, even if they put gaps between the letters. But I might, just might, be able to pick out the words in a spoken stream.

I am struggling to think why this might be the case (and would welcome clever applied linguists’ informed hypotheses on this). At the moment, and off the top of my head, and without any theory behind it, is that hearing / listening, is a basic biological skill, whereas reading is a learned skill, a cultural construct. I hear a sound, I assign it a meaning, job done. I read a word, I pick out the letters, I decode, I get a little bit distracted remembering that ง says ng, which means that one must be ‘girl’ because has the ‘ng’ / ง at the end, and that น says n, so that must be ‘bike’ because it has the ‘n’ / น at the end… so much more to think about, and hence, inevitably, a slower process.

Am I contradicting what I wrote in the ‘can you write it’ post? Possibly. But that’s allowed because this is an exercise in musing aloud.

What does this mean for language courses which focus on writing from the word go? What are the implications on pronuciation of that kind of course? One person’s anecdote doesn’t equal evidence, of course, but it can equal hypotheses ripe for exploration.

Image result for thailand bicycle


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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