I went to a talk today from a very erudite applied linguist called Claire Kramsch. She was talking about the identity of foreign language teachers, and among other things, she discussed the extent to which language teaching should address the target-language culture during the lessons. Home I come, and fire up Llingo for a spot more Thai – and I can put into words something that’s bugging me: the stock photos.

I am learning Thai because I am going to Thailand. My motivation to learn is all tied up with my visit there and I will probably stop studying after I come back (unless I fall in love with the place and decide I want to go back again and again). I am excited about visiting and learning Thai is fuelling that excitement – deliberately.

But in the chapter I am working on now, the words are about the office, the factory, the car park, while in a roundabout way attempting to demonstrate use of the negative (the computer is not red, it’s black), etc. Honestly, it would motivate me more (and I’m motivated already), if the picture of the woman in the office who is sitting not standing, were of a Thai woman in a Thai office. Or even a non-Thai woman in a Thai office. Give me a tiny taste of culture by showing me this, rather than generic white woman in stock office photo. As for the car park – why do you have to show me something that looks like Banbury retail park on a Sunday morning? Show me a Thai car park, number plates! Give me a bit of culture. Just a tiny taste. Why could the stock photo of a computer not have had Thai lettering on it? These little differences in experience are one of the joys of travel, and although I accept that not everyone learns the language in order to visit the country, quite a lot do, and, crucially, it wouldn’t come at any extra cost.

Here’s a Thai car just to prove it: And do you know what? If you said to me ‘the car is white, not black, and is at the car park, not the bus stop.’ I would probably more or less get what you were saying.

Image result for thai number plate

But half the fun, the motivating factor, the magic of learning a language is in a picture like this. I see different lettering on the number plate. I see different types of window stickers on the car. The street furniture is different. There’s even Thai graffiti in the background!

It’s got me thinking about the text books I use when I teach as well – there’s no culture in them either. Generic pictures of people talking about generic things – the extent of the culture shown in the books is the names of the pretend people.

Now, I love learning languages. I like the intellectual activity, the cross-linguistic comparisons. But when I first went abroad at the age of about 10, it was the being there that was magic: the otherness of France, where the little details were different. I still get a kick out of it. I still get a kick out of bringing home a tube of foreign toothpaste or having a tin of foreign food in the cupboard. I wonder at its exoticness and how for peope from that place, the same thing that gives me a thrill must feel mundane, taken for granted.

Of course there’s masses more to culture than a bottle of shower gel with unfamilar wording or lettering, a picture of a car with a different style number plate. But it’s a start, and it’s an easy start at that, which can be delivered in the classroom or indeed the self-instructed online course at no extra cost at all. And who knows, it might start to open minds in the way that ‘my name is Pierre and I watch cartoons every day because they are funy,’ utterly fails to do.



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.

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!