Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Bit About Thai

My dear friend Karen posted a comment on the last post about my Thai language learning. Here is a (lengthy) response to her questions. Maybe others of you are interested also.

I have enrolled in an intensive language school which teaches Thai in 20 day modules. I study everyday for 3 hours with a teacher and 2 other students. My teacher is a 20 something Thai lady who speaks minimal English and constantly pushes us to speak Thai even when we are asking questions. Good, but frustrating. Overall, she is an excellent teacher.

The other 2 students are from the US and Korea. The Korean doesn't speak English and our teacher doesn't speak Korean. You can imagine his frustration. The American is tone deaf and can't hear well. Poor guy...but he tries hard. Thai is difficult enough without these challenges.

I feel I have every advantage right now. I have been living with a Thai family for 9 months, so I am constantly exposed to the sounds of Thai as well as picking up repetitious phrases. I also have a husband who is more than willing to help me, and correct me until I get it right! :) I am also deeply indebted to my phonetics/linguistics teacher at Moody for giving me such a great foundation in these subjects. It has been a tremendous help. I feel I should send the professor a fruit basket or something to say thank you!

Yet, with all these advantages, learning a language is still a challenge which takes a strong commitment to success. I study an average of an hour a day, but this really isn't enough. In the first 3 levels of classes ( I am in level 1) there is no official homework other than to practice and memorize. If you do that, no problem. I understand most of what I am learning, it is just the mass of info that needs to be memorized. There are some difficult sounds for me, but they are getting easier. Once you master levels 1-3, you begin reading and writing. In levels 4-6, there is 3-4 hours of homework a day I am told. Ouch! How will I ever find time for that? By the way, each of these levels can theoretically be accomlished in 20 days, assuming you pass the oral exam at the end of the class and don't have to repeat the level. If you finish all 6 classes, you should be able to speak, read and write at a 6th grade level.

The Thai Alphabet:

Here are the 44 consonants. I spared you the vowels!

There are 44 consonants and 32 vowels. This is not as bad as it sounds since many of the consonant sounds are repeated and only used for differences in spelling. The vowel sounds, unlike English, are each represented by a unique character. In English, the word hat and the word hate both use and a to represent two different sounds, whereas in Thai, the characters are different for every different sound. This, I think, is an advantage to learning Thai. There is little guess work in pronunciation. Of course, there are the 5 tones. I think of Thai as listening to a song. You need to hear the music of the speech. This just takes practice, practice, practice.

My Goal:

Of course I would love to be fluent in speaking, reading, and writing. Who wouldn't? But, with a baby on the way, I only have few months left. I am really hoping to complete the first 3 levels (all of the listening/speaking classes) and maybe try level 4 to get an intro into writing. We will see. Of course, that means I must pass every class in one try. Some do, many don't.

All this said, just as I enjoyed phonetics and linguistics in college, I really enjoy language learning now. I am not gifted in it by any means, but it is fun to learn something new. More than this, it seems like I have been living in a dark room for 9 months, but now, the lights are coming on dimly as I begin to understand more and more around me. My vocabulary is growing, and as I work on grammar, the world around me is opening up. What HOPE!


Val said...

If I didn't think you were a pretty phenonmenal person before(which I did) - I do now. I am most definitely in awe of you.

karen said...

That's great, Merri! Very interesting. Do you feel like you are starting to communicate at home with Pun's family? Or is it a lot of sign language like we used to do on mission trips?

Are the kids learning the language quickly? They always say that they can pick up language so easily.

christina said...

Wow! How do you even begin to write all those letters with all those squiggles? It seems like it would take hours to write a note. Three hours a day??? That's a college course. You study Thai with a Korean who doesn't speak English or Thai and a tone deaf American? Please tell me your keeping notes about this experience. That's good stuff.

It reminds me of when the kids and I bought a Latin course on CD. We listened to the lady and repeated after her all summer. Only later did I realize that the course was priced at a deep discount because the lady spoke with a severe lisp only I couldn't tell. So we don't really speak Latin so much as Lathin. Mr. Unseth, he was our linguistics teacher, wan't he?

Merri said...

Thanks Val, for the compliment, but really, you just do what your you half to do. I think you do so pretty phenomenal things yourself!

Merri said...

Karen, well, actually, most of Pun's family speaks English to some degree which has slowed me down on Thai acquisition. It is just easier for everyone to use English with me. I only have to do "sign language" with the maid who knows only a few English words. However, the exciting thing is that I am picking up more and more words in the conversations around me. I still can't understand a whole conversation, but the lights are coming on so to speak. Helen and Daniel are also picking up words and phrases, but it seems slow to me. Maybe their Thai learning will pick up with this next baby. No one will have an excuse to speak English to it!

Merri said...

Thank you Cristi, for saying man's name. I have been trying to spit out Unseth for the past few weeks and get stuck at "Un..." every time. I really can't believe how much of his classes I am recalling after all these years. Invaluable. Everything is written in the phonetic alphabet that we learned. My classmates struggle with it and resist it. We don't begin to learn Thai writing until the 4th class. Actually, the letters are quite fun to write. I prefer them over English letters.

Bummer about the Latin. But you know that would only happen to you. I think you should grab the microphone and speak a little. Latin with a lisp might be more entertaining than Thai. By the way, you saw the Suess books in Latin from Veritas? Way cool...

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