Too much stuff

Sit down, hold on to your hat, there’s a rant coming.

Lesson 9: Introduction.

When my oldest (now sixteen) was about two, he would frequently appear in doorways, laden down with toys. There would be a teddy and a plastic toy microwave under one arm, a pretend washing machine and no doubt a series of wooden trains, metal cars, or goodness knows what else, under the arm. He would look at me forlornly and say ‘too much stuff.’

Well, Lesson 9: Introduction – too much stuff. Way too much stuff.

Before, single words carefully layered to build up learning while recycling previous vocabulary. All of a sudden: six phrases, with between three and seven words each. Some of the same words cropping up in different positions in different sentences. And, weirdness of weirdness, these funny strange icon-y things which are in some way supposed to explain ‘hello,’ ‘how are you’, ‘nice to meet you’ and ‘goodbye’ in diagrammatic form. Because the pictures were invariably stock photos of random people drinking tea or chatting.

OK, I thought, I can do this. It’s standard beginner language fare. How hard can it be?

Very hard, it turns out. I could not but could not get this into my head. I looked hard at the six phrases and tried to see some patterns: the learning outcome for this section appeared to be the different politeness article depending on whether you are a man (in which case you say khrap at the end of things), or a woman (ditto, kha). Cue looking hard at the speech bubbles and listening or looking out for khrap or kha, and narrowing it down. Cat in hell’s chance. Bloody impossible. Rubbish scores, adrenaline rising, me feeling lost again.

Now then, there is a form of language teaching called ‘communicative language teaching’ which, despite having nearly finished two years of a master’s on second language acquisition, I’m still not intimately acquainted with. But the idea goes something like – learn to communicate, don’t translate, don’t do grammar, and all will be well. It’s closely allied with the ‘input hypothesis’ which says that in order to learn a language, all you need is input (ie language) in an obvious context, and the rest will follow naturally.

These six phrases, it seemed to me, exemplified all that was wrong with these approaches. I think Llingo was trying to come over all CLT, all Krashen on us here. Hear the phrases, learn the phrases. Away we go. Er, no.

I thought I was going mad. I grabbed onto whatever I could of the phrases second time around. I thought – I’ll start with the first word of each phrase and that’ll help. But two started with Di-Chan. Two had ‘sa-bai’ as the second word – one of them was one of the di-chan phrases. Ah, OK, I am making a link now. Di-chan must be ‘I’. Sa-bai di is something to do with being fine, because it’s in ‘how are you’ and I’m fine thank you. Over I go again. Am I quite sane? I keep thinking: ‘I don’t think I’ve met this word before’ and blaming my ancient memory for not being able to keep the words in my head.

On my third pass I gave up. I wrote it all down, weird symbols and all. And lo – they taught me ‘di-chan chue than ya kha’ –and tested me on ‘phom chue mai khrap’. As if I was magically supposed to know that it was the same thing! Twas only when I decided to further demoralise myself with a round of Memrise (there are no decent learn Thai courses on Memrise) that I work out that there are two words for ‘I’, depending on whether you’re female (Di-chan) or male (Phom). Just mentioning that at the start would have made life a lot easier, dear Llingo.

As a learner, at this juncture I want to know what each word means. I want to know how Thai expresses these things. That way I am more likely to be able to internalise it. (I do accept that this isn’t always possible in a language class, especially a ‘communicative’ one where use of the learner’s L1 might be somewhere between frowned-upon and impossible).

So I take a trip to google translate where I attempt some sleuthing. Here, the unfamiliar alphabet and the lack of gaps between words creates even more problems but I have just about managed to work out a few more bits and pieces, although it now appears there are two words for ‘you’, and I don’t know in which circumstances one would use one or the other.

I scroll forward and the future lessons seem to revert back to single items of vocabulary. Llingo gets another chance. But this one was bloody horrible.

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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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