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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A woman and a boat

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’ve got home from school. There’s marking to do, and some work for my Master’s, but instead I google, again, ‘Learn Thai Apps’. And I stumble across Llingo, which has good reviews from CNN. Here we go again, I think. Download and check it out. I am encouraged by the fact that it originally cost $30 or so, although I don’t pay anything for the first few chapters.

I get started. A page of grammar rules. Interesting (I like a bit of grammar), but again, no context. I skim the page of grammar rules – and get onto chapter one. It instantly, again (no, please, no!) starts firing disembodied vocabulary at me. Woman. Girl. Man. Boy. Bicycle. Boat. A panic starts to rise – I can’t cope with endless bits of random vocab.

But then something interesting happens. The list of vocab stops with six words. The app presents me with the words in different combinations, including ‘and’ (lae), and this just gets me thinking in quite a different way. Not only that, but it’s actually quite clever: ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ turn out to be closely related words, and so are ‘man’ and ‘boy’. The word for boat sounds a lot like ‘row’ (as in row your boat). I find myself tapping quickly, and getting it mostly right. Something much more automatic is going on, and this is pleasing.

Image result for women boat thailand

ผู้หญิง  และ  เรือ*

*Thaidoesn’tputspacesbetweenwords, but Llingo has decided to be kind to me and let me have some.

So what’s going on here? Why is this app so much more pleasing?

It started with pictures, and I heard words. The words were clear and had a quality about them that stuck in my phonological loop. It emphased the aural, not the written. I had a multiple choice – something and something, I would hear, and I had to choose the the right picture. The fact that woman and girl sounded similar (‘girl’ is woman with a prefix), and man and boy followed the same pattern was helpful. Giving me ‘lae’ for and helped me segment the little streams of speech as I heard the same sound in the middle each time.

Even more astonishing was the moment when it gave me just written Thai, and I had to choose what on earth it said. This was very much based on whole-word recognition. I worked out that the words for girl and women ‘P̄hū̂h̄ỵing’ and ‘dĕk p̄hū̂h̄ỵing’ were the only ones ending in ng /ง. Boat is a short word which has a boaty little thing on the top of the middle letter. Strategy use kicked in good and proper – scanning to see if the two words looked similar, apart from a prefix, helped, as did looking to see if there were any letters that I recognised. I worked out that the word for bicyle was nice and long, but boat was pretty short.

I feel like I *am* translating, but it doesn’t feel like I’m wholly translating when I’m now hearing  P̄hū̂h̄ỵing. The route in my head is opposite. If I were translating I would think P̄hū̂h̄ỵing – woman – and then the construct of a woman would occur. Instead, this afternoon’s work has made me think P̄hū̂h̄ỵing – construct of woman – and then the English word. I am wondering why this is: perhaps because it was just pictures – the learning never once tapped into my English? The way in which my mind is mapping P̄hū̂h̄ỵing is very different – I am associating it with the Chinese concept of ‘yin and yang’ which I know can relate to men and women. I am seeing the letter. I am seeing the images that the app presented me with. All of this, very quickly, is making very different pathways in the brain than it would if the first link made was P̄hū̂h̄ỵing – woman.

There’s a theory in applied linguistics that explict knowledge can never become implicit (and vice versa). It’s a theory that never really made instinctive sense to me. But for the first time I can see how, as the very first elements of word knowledge are laid down, they can be laid down in different ways depending on the way in which the word is taught.