I can’t sing a rainbow

I caught up. I went over all the chapters where I hadn’t got 100% on the test. I kept on with them until I hit 100%. I felt proud of myself that things are sinking in. I appreciated the clever design of the course which meant that the new language was building up, carefully recycling the old stuff. Things were going well.

And then colours happened.

Six colours. Black, white, red, yellow, green, blue. And very little to hang their meanings on. OK, I saw the word ‘si’ at the start of each one, so I guessed that might mean ‘colour’ but that you have to say it all the time in Thai. I grabbed onto ‘si dam’ for black by thinking ‘damn, it’s dark in here’. ‘Si fa’ was blue – it was the last in the list and the simplest word, so I coped with that. The others were a big colourful mush in my brain. I could get the answers right when the options were clear – ie the noun being described was the only option, and I knew the noun. But when it was the colour on its own, they just wouldn’t go in in the same way. I wonder why? Were they too abstract? Bore little relation to anything else?

It got me thinking about when we teach vocabulary in topic areas, and whether that is always the most helpful way, when the words aren’t cognates? Sure, my mental lexicon has now put all the Thai colours in its own little box, but with the exception of blue and black, the box might as well be made out of six foot concrete because the words are only relating to each other, and not to any other words in my mind. And even those are only very tenuous – with–to looking back at Llingo, I can tell you the following:

  1. I think green is something like krueng
  2. Yellow might have some links somewhere with jaune – or that’s what I was trying to remember – perhaps it ends with a ‘n’?
  3. I made some association with red and blood but I can’t remember why.
  4. The word for white is easily confused with one of the other words.

But black is definitely ‘si dam’, and blue is definitely ‘si fa’.

When I get into a place like this with my language learning, I find it very frustrating and I feel quite lost. The sensation is akin to feeling adrift or out of control; it’s a struggling panicky feeling that is very uncomfortable. It’s hard to want to carry on when you feel lost like this; it’s demotivating. I wonder what I’m doing this for anyway. It makes me wonder how many of my learners feel like this a lot of the time. I am a ‘good language learner’ who is reflective and can make links between words and also I also know explicitly that I’ll get there. I have a wisdom of experience. But when you come to a teenager who’s doing it because they have to, I imagine that that out-of-control feeling might be amplified. Add to that the fact that when I am learning Thai, I can go at my own pace, but the out-of-control teenager is obliged to go at the same pace, roughly, as 29 other in the class… well that can’t be fun at all.

Which comes back to reiteration, revision, repetition. These things need to be gone over in umpteen different ways – like Llingo has done beautifully up to now. Build it up slowly. Come back to it. And then perhaps, slowly, the out-of-control feeling will fade away and I can puff about with pride again – and pick up the correctly coloured hire car when we are in Thailand.

Image result for thai colours

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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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