Process, not product

Did my strategy use just prevent learning? Acquisition? Or is it that the strategy use is bringing about explicit learning, rather than implicit acquisition? Let’s see…

Spurred on my my brilliant first chapter, and a glass of Friday-night Vermouth, I embark on chapter two, catchingly entitled ‘verbs’. The course-designer in me could see right where this was going – having learned ‘the woman’, ‘the girl’, ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’, it made sense that the next chapter was going to have these chaps actually doing stuff. And lo, I was right. Here they are standing, sitting, lying, walking, running and even jumping all over my tablet screen.

The app runs through the six verbs, and fast. On the first pass I don’t notice that the English is at the top, and was busy looking at the pictures, and listening and trying to read the Thai word. I wanted it to slow down so I could take in the new words a bit better.

And then I get a series of sentences, illustrated by one of six possible pictures, and I have to decide what it is. Is the man sitting, or are the boy and the girl jumping? That sort of thing.

I am a canny strategist. Does this make me a Good Language Learner or a less good one? Because I tell you what happened next – I totally ignored the new verbs that it was trying to teach me, and honed right in on who was doing it. I’m good at ‘man’, ‘woman’ and the rest of it now, and that gave me a pretty good chance of working out what was being done, because to start with the pictures had different people doing stuff. Later it got harder: the right choice of people but two choices of verb:  I knew they were talking about ‘a boy and a girl’ but I had two pictures of boys and girls, and had to decide whether the mystery sound said ‘running’ or ‘lying’. So I would guess – I had a 50-50 chance after all.

Image result for elephant jumping the beach

The fact that I don’t know the word for ‘elephant’ notwithstanding (it’s ช้าง / Cĥāng), course designers need to come up with pictures like this instead, and force me not to use inference as a strategy, but instead to begin to work on my new words. Using inference allowed me to comprehend, but I don’t know how much it allowed me to acquire. Of course, some kind of very basic word-knowledge might have been acquired – or so the theory says – but I can’t even sense where it is, and it’s higgeldy piggeldy. Let me tell you what I’ve picked up:

Jump is a long word and it’s got a double letter at the end – this one ค or this one ด.

Lie is a palindromic word of three letters and I think the first and last letters are น

Sit and one other verb both end in ง

I’m not always very good at telling from a picture whether someone is walking or running.

At the second pass I definitely concentrated on trying to ‘read’ the words – insofar as ‘read’ means try to look at the whole shape of the word and in some way, associate it with the meaning of the word. I wasn’t sounding it out – again it was very much about whole-word recognition. I also tried to listen hard to the verb, trusting that I knew the nouns better. But I had to (get this) come up with a conscious strategy not to use the easy strategy – ie to come up with a strategy not to comprehend (and get the right answer), but to learn. Process, not product.

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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.

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!