Category Archives: language learning

Learning languages isn’t rocket science…

… but it does take a lot of work! I suppose there are adults who can pick up new languages without putting in much effort, the way kids do naturally, but for most of us, learning a new language or improving on one we already know (even our L1 or home language) requires some time and brainpower. Nevertheless, it is possible, and the rewards are great.

I just read this short article and agree with all its advice: “Tips for Learning a New Language”

The author doesn’t shortchange the effort it takes, but she also reminds readers that it’s completely do-able, even for those who aren’t able to travel to countries where their goal language is spoken. Nothing in this article is revolutionary, but it’s a good reminder that routine practice, with communicative goals, is the key. Listening, reading, and speaking as much as possible on a regular basis are the core recommendations.

I also like that the author makes it clear that what it means to be “fluent” depends on the learner’s goals. She quotes a source: ‘As Nagel says, “For some, [fluency is] being able to order a coffee. For others, it’s being able to discuss economic policies.”’

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Reading to Eat

One of the strongest motivations I have to learn Thai is so that I can expand my diet while I’m here. (Two years ago I subsisted mainly on fried rice and pad Thai.) Hence, I have bought flash cards that will teach me all the vegetables and fruits (to complement my coloring book of fruits). I am also working on reading menus on food stalls and ingredients lists on packages.

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The flash cards are meant for Thai kids to learn English, hence the English name writ larger than the Thai. But it’s also useful for me, since I don’t actually know what all these fruits are called in English, let alone Thai.

A bonus I hadn’t expected is that a lot of Thai words for non-traditional foods are direct transliterations of English words. The coffee stand outside my office has a menu that is mostly translated (the proprietor knows a bit more English than most food vendors). One line at the end of the menu wasn’t translated, however, so I started sounding out the word I saw there: อิตาเลียนโซดา. By the time I got about halfway through, I realized it meant Italian soda, exactly what it sounds like. Some of the flavors I could have were กีวี่ (“gee-wee” aka kiwi) and แอปเปิ้ล (apple).

Since I have had some digestion issues that have prompted me to seek out simple carbohydrates, I am also reading packages of things like honeycomb-like cereal. A new word from that delicious snack is น้ำผึ้ง, which I guessed correctly means honey. How did I guess it? I know that น้ำ means water and ผึ้ง means bee… so honey is literally “bee-water.” I’ve been confirming my guesses with Google Translate, which also helped me learn that the word after honey is แท้, meaning genuine.

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Across the top it reads “Copp Sky Flavor Honey.”

I was also in search of something like Gatorade since I knew I should be replenishing my electrolytes. I selected this beverage mainly because of its color. Then I started sounding out words on the label and realized (thanks to the help of some Facebook friends) that I had actually picked up a drink that has guarana in it (the words over the little beans to the left of Zaa) and is naturally caffeinated (the words under the beans). Apparently it does still work to keep me hydrated, but I should probably lay off it close to bed time.

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The unnatural yellow color contrasts with the natural caffeine from the guarana beans. (Also comes in very unnatural purple color.)

The next challenge is to decipher this menu, from a roadside restaurant near the university. I think I should be able to read most of it, but the font makes some of the letters different from what I learned in class, making it a lot harder than it might otherwise be. I am very pleased I was able to spot pad Thai (top left of the first board) quickly, since that was what I actually wanted to eat today at lunch. But I know there are some delicacies that I could learn about, and since I’m vegetarian, I need to know which are straight up meat and which are mostly veg, noodles, or rice and could be easily modified with a request to not put in the meat.

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There’s pad Thai at the top! Very delicious it was, too. Actually, I think the header indicates that this restaurant’s name has something to do with pad Thai, although I don’t know what the rest of it is.

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This one starts with fried rice and gets more complicated. Lots of fried things (พ้ด) on this board.

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Teaching myself Thai

Since the last post on this blog, I have given up on taking Thai classes at UH (I did pass Thai 101 in the fall thanks to a cram session the night before the final exam), but don’t want to give up on learning Thai. I arrived in Thailand yesterday and have already settled into my dorm/hotel room at the university where my grad students will be teaching English. I do have to get to work planning the two seminar classes they will also be taking with me, but first, I wanted to get to work on my own language learning.

We took the song taew (pickup truck-base fixed route taxi) out to Big C, the Walmart of Thailand, for supplies. I bought a pile of children’s books, including an alphabet book (with space to practice writing letters), a numbers book (with space to practice making the shapes of Thai numbers), a book about Thailand, a children’s English-Thai dictionary with the words in categorical lists (including a list of shellfish and one of insects), and a bunch of bilingual English-Thai story books.

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My haul from the children’s books section of Big C today.

IMG_0563I wonder what kind of shellfish a hippopotamus is.

Since the rainy season has already started with a vengeance, I anticipate there will be a lot of time where I am confined indoors and need to entertain myself. Here’s my language-learning plan:

  1. Review the consonants that I already know and then make sure I know the sounds made by the ones I don’t know.
  2. Make sure I remember all the vowels.
  3. Start reading! The bilingual books should be useful because I can also work on deducing grammar and word order by comparing the sentences in Thai and English. One of my books is called “Fruity Sports Day” and tells the story of a group of anthropomorphic fruits (grouped by color) who like to wrestle and take breaks to eat vegetables.
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    There’s something just a bit disconcerting about this group of fruits getting excited about eating vegetables. Does this count as cannibalism?
  4. The book about Thailand does not have any English connected to it, so I imagine it will be a bit harder. I will be very happy if I can read it by the end of this summer.
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    An added reward will be getting to read about elephants, which are awesome.
  5. And as an added bonus, I also bought a book that will teach me how to draw tropical fruits as well as how to write their names. This should come in handy when I go to the fruit stand and want to order some chopped fruit without resorting to pointing.
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    I must confess that I will probably do better at learning to read Thai than I will at drawing bananas.

I’ll try to post some updates on my progress. In the meantime, now I need to start thinking about what I will teach my grad students next week.

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I also bought some cute penguin office supplies (plastic folders and a notebook) in which to keep my research and teaching materials.

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