Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mog Software TV and Radio

A couple of weeks ago, Kikiat suggested a great web resource in a comment.

With a broadband connection, you can stream Thai TV or radio from the Mog Software site for free. If you're using Internet Explorer, navigate to one of these links:

Then click on one of the Windows Media Player icons.

Windows Media Icon

This allows you to stream the television or radio station right on the page.

There are also links for Firefox and Opera users, and a few of the channels and stations open an external Real Player. Among the configurations I tried, my experience was the best in Internet Explorer with the embedded Windows Media Player.

Remember to click on a Windows Media Player icon. If, instead, you click on the name of a channel or station, you are redirected to that station's website, after which you get a lot of unexpected practice reading Thai script.

Friday, December 29, 2006

When to Speak

Steve Kaufmann posted a provocative thought on his blog.

I guess I would summarize my philosophy as follows; until I can read and listen to a novel, news programs, and recorded conversations... and enjoy doing so, I have no desire to speak with anyone.

This criterion takes the idea much farther than I have ever tried to take it personally, but I've read a lot recently about the advantages of an initial silent period. Understanding a large amount of input before trying to speak has been shown to result in better grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary for most students. As I've mentioned, I think this can probably be generalized to a behavior that's useful indefinitely in a second language, even after the initial acquisition takes place.

AUA advises students not to speak during the first 800 hours of class time. Steve says he has no desire to speak until he can read and understand a novel. I wonder what other criteria people advise or use for the duration of an initial silent period.


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Wednesday, December 27, 2006


What are the best language acquisition blogs on the internet?

These are the blogs I currently follow.

Aspiring Polyglot
Effortless Language Acquisition
Foreign Language Acquisition
Japanese for Life
Steve Kaufmann

I'm especially interested in finding blogs which discuss theory and research in second language acquisition along the lines of Stephen Krashen's work.


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Sunday, December 24, 2006


Update 7.23.2010: I'm removing a few posts that are no longer interesting to me. You can reach the homepage here.

Thanks for your interest!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Gallery of Obscure Patents

This is an amusing VOA Thai clip about the online Gallery of Obscure Patents.

Click here to listen. Posted with permission.


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Friday, December 22, 2006

Thai Typing Resources

All of my Skype language exchanges have involved text instant messaging (IM) as well as voice chat.

I've been able to participate a little in Thai text IM by copy-pasting text from this tool and online dictionaries, but that's obviously very limited. So I now have another reason to learn to type Thai. Lleij Samuel Schwartz mentioned in a comment that a Thai keyboard helps a lot. I found a Thai keyboard in our house, but the cable is PS2, and my PC only accepts USB.

If I'm motivated, having no keyboard may be a good thing, since it will force me to learn touch-typing. Even so, I will need a USB keyboard for the long run.

I did find some resources online.

1. Set-up instructions for non-English typing.
2. A Thai typing tutor.
3. Thai keyboards for sale. I haven't ordered one yet.

Update: I solved my keyboard problem by buying a PS2/USB adapter. Even before attaching the Thai keyboard, I used this image of the Kedmanee keyboard layout along with these mnemonics, and typing didn't look like a lost cause. I'm a decent touch typist in English, which may help. I'm now practicing with this useful list of common phrases. Fortunately, you don't have to type very quickly in an IM session.


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Thursday, December 21, 2006

AUA Small Talk

The AUA materials include a great book of dialogues entitled "Small Talk" by Adrian S. Palmer. Since I am experimenting with Skype language exchanges through Mixxer, I am working with this book and CDs again.

The CDs were originally intended for practice drills, but I am using them primarily as a source of comprehensible input. I focus on listening and understanding the phrases and dialogues, rather than trying to follow the drills out loud. If past experience is any indication, new words and phrases will find their own way into my speech after sufficient listening. At times, I do find myself speaking along with the tape, but I don't try to make that happen.

The presence of repetition and substitution drills means that most of the input is not exactly natural, but that drawback is counterbalanced by the fact that, for me, the level is almost perfectly i+1. Also, as with all the AUA CDs, there's very little L1, which is great.


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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Practicing Output

Steve Kaufmann posted an interesting abstract from a study* showing that practicing speech does not appear to improve fluency.

This study investigated whether giving learners an opportunity for oral output has any positive effect on the L2 learners' acquisition of a grammatical form. Twenty-four adult ESL learners were randomly assigned to one of three groups: an output group, which engaged in a picture description task that involved input comprehension and output production; a non-output group, which engaged in a picture sequencing task that required input comprehension only; and a placebo control group. The two treatment groups were exposed to the same aural input for the same amount of time. Learning was assessed by means of a pre-test and a post-test consisting of production and reception parts. The results indicated that, contrary to our expectations, the output group failed to outperform the non-output group. On the contrary, it was the non-output group that showed greater overall gains in learning. A careful post-hoc re-examination of the treatment tasks revealed that the output task failed to engage learners in the syntactic processing that is necessary to trigger L2 learning, while the task for the non-output group appeared to promote better form-meaning mapping.

More and more, I perceive my ability to speak emerging automatically after sufficient listening with understanding. For example, there are certain things my wife says in Thai to my son every day. Having heard them for years, I now also say them, automatically, without thinking or having practiced. The first few times I said them may have been a little awkward, but my speech quickly zeroed in on the sounds I was approximating.

The idea of speech emerging automatically from listening is a radical departure from the way I used to think about language study. Even the way we describe language acquisition in English shows a bias toward practicing speech. When asking whether someone is fluent in another language, we say, "Do you speak French?". Maybe a better question is, "Do you understand French?". If the Comprehension Hypothesis is true, understanding will eventually lead to speech, but speaking doesn't necessarily lead to understanding.

It's very interesting to experiment with this as I study Thai, and I'm sure my ideas about this will continue to change as I read more and gather new experiences.

(*Investigating the Effects of Oral Output on the Learning of Relative Clauses in English: Issues in the Psycholinguistic Requirements for Effective Output Tasks, Canadian Modern Language Review, Yukiko Izumi, MA, Shinichi Izumi, PhD.)


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Sunday, December 17, 2006


I'm removing a few posts that are no longer interesting to me. You can reach the homepage here.

Thanks for your interest!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Superman Again

A while back, I posted a VOA news clip about Superman.

With a lot of help from my Thai wife, I have posted a transcript at the link below. I'm using it as a supplement to the audio. I hope it's helpful to other people as well.

Superman บินได้...

Transcribing this made me realize:

1. I need to learn to type Thai properly, so that I don't have to copy-paste from this tool and the online dictionaries at thai2english and
2. When listening, I still often confuse the short and long "a" sounds อะ and อา.
3. I don't understand spacing rules in Thai very well.
4. Transcription takes a lot of time. :)

(VOA clip used with permission.)

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

How to Do A Language Exchange

Yesterday, I posted about my first Mixxer language exchange.

Omniglot recently mentioned another language exchange site, which has an interesting page on how to do a language exchange. The site also has lesson plans, which include good ideas for things to talk about.

Do you have experience with Skype language exchanges? I would be interested to get tips and pointers on how to get started. How often do you meet? Do you follow a structured format? How many people do you meet with? What do you talk about?


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Saturday, December 09, 2006


By reading, I learned about Mixxer, a language exchange site that makes it easy to find partners for conversation practice. Last night, I contacted a Thai speaker from Bangkok and practiced conversation a little with him on Skype. We chatted for about half an hour, switching back and forth between languages, so that we both had a chance to practice in the other language. Everything was free, including the Skype call to Bangkok.

This will be a great resource for conversation practice. It's amazing how the internet has revolutionized language acquisition.


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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tone Sandhi and Cursive Speech

There is an interesting, detailed description of Thai tones from a learner's perspective at this webpage. I'm especially interested in the last couple of paragraphs:

What is cursive writing? That's when we write letters together in a string without lifting the pen up - the "b" runs into the "a" which runs into the "d". Why do we do such a lazy thing? Because it is faster. The same holds true for speech and tones in Thai. If Thai speakers were required to make a pure flat "high" tone followed by a pure flat "low" tone just as the Thai guide books imply, then they'd have to literally stop their voice & restart it at each tone at the exact level required.

So in cursive, natural speed speech, Thais need tones which can run from one to the next.

I don't normally think about tones in this much detail. But I have noticed that tones used in normal speech are more fluid than I used to think.

A linguist was recently telling me about "tone sandhi", a term for tonal pronunciation which changes depending on surrounding words. He compared this to an English speaker pronouncing the acronym "NPR" (a public radio network in the U.S.), which is often pronounced "em P R".

Much of the language acquisition material that I've read suggests focusing on phrases when acquiring words. Tone sandhi seems like one good reason to emphasize phrases.


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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How To Learn Any Language

By reading Paul Davidson's Japanese for Life blog, I discovered that there is a terrific web community for language students at I registered today for their free forum. I'm looking forward to reading about people's experiences, getting language acquisition tips, and possibly even connecting with other Thai language students and speakers.


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Monday, November 27, 2006

Superman Returns

VOA Thai recently gave me permission to post MP3 clips from their news programs.

Here is a great little clip about Superman from last summer, when Superman Returns was released in theatres.

Click here to listen

(From VOA Thai, used with permission.)

I love listening to this kind of report, in which the subject matter is very interesting* and very familiar. Even if a lot of the vocabulary is new, there are enough "hooks" to make sense out of the report, and the vocabulary becomes more familiar the more I listen.

*Superman is, of course, super-interesting!

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thai Morphology

A surprising number of people happen upon my blog looking for information about Thai morphology. I am not a linguist, but I decided to post what little I know about it. I hope that someone will find it useful.

There is no inflectional morphology at all in Thai. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives do not inflect, nor does any other part of speech. In cases where inflection would communicate essential information, such as number or tense, additional words are used to convey that information. For example, "I walk already" would be the Thai equivalent of "I walked".

Although there is no inflectional morphology, Thai does have derivational morphology using a small set of prefixes. The site has this excellent list of common prefixes which change the part of speech or meaning of the words they precede. Also note that has transliterations of the Thai words below, as well as mp3s of native speakers pronouncing them.

การ converts a verb or adjective into a noun, a general abstract description of the state or static process. For example, ตกปลา (to fish) becomes the general, abstract activity การตกปลา (fishing), a noun or adjective.

ความ converts a verb or adjective into a noun, the general abstract feeling of the action. For example, เร็ว (fast) becomes ความเร็ว (speed), or ร้อน (hot) becomes ความร้อน (heat).

ด้วย just as in English, the word 'with' can have the effect of converting a noun into an adverb. For example, ความนับถือ (respect) becomes ด้วยความนับถือ (respectfully).

โดย converts a noun into an adverb, For example, เร็ว (fast) becomes โดยเร็ว (quickly), or ง่าย (easy) becomes โดยง่าย (easily).

น่า converts a verb into an adjective which expresses an opinion of the verb as worth enacting, similar to the -able suffix in English. For example, รัก (love) becomes น่ารัก (lovable), or เกลียด (hate) becomes น่าเกลียด (hatable).

If there are errors or omissions, please feel free to comment, clarify, or correct me.


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Friday, November 24, 2006


Update 7.23.2010: I'm removing a few posts that are no longer interesting to me. You can reach the homepage here.

Thanks for your interest!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Don't Try to Follow Every Word

When I registered at AUA, an instructor evaluated my Thai knowledge for placement. As part of the evaluation, she watched me listen to a conversation and checked my comprehension. After the placement was complete, she gave me some advice. She said, "When you listened to that conversation, you were trying to understand every word. If you try to follow every word, you won't understand the story. Don't pay attention to every word -just pay attention to the story." I thought this was a great explanation of how to acquire another language through listening.


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Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Trouble with Barney

Update: Over on, a commenter claims that Thai singing does use tones. This certainly could be true -I just can't hear it in the children's counting song I mention below.

I have some reservations about Barney the purple dinosaur.

I'm an educated man in my late thirties, but my reservations have nothing to do with watching a stuffed dinosaur come to life. It's not that Barney is too cute and cheery, or that I already know my shapes and colors and don't feel a need to review them.

The problem with Barney is that he sings.

I've been watching Barney dubbed into Thai with my three year old son. Overall, it's a pretty good source of input. The shows review and reinforce important vocabulary, like days of the week, numbers, colors, and shapes. Review of basic vocabulary is interspersed with easy dialog. The only problem is the singing.

Thai is a tonal language, which makes it impossible to learn correct pronunciation from songs. This is most obvious to me when Barney sings his numbers. In Barney's counting song, there are no tones at all, just musical notes. Although I'm very familiar with Thai numbers, it sounds strange, foreign, and hard to understand. There would be no way to learn correct tonal pronunciation by listening to it.

On the other hand, Barney has excellent spoken dialog, and Thai children listen to songs without a negative effect on pronunciation. The Barney input is helpful, as long as I don't focus on the songs or try to learn vocabulary from them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Update 7.23.2010: I'm removing a few posts that are no longer interesting to me. You can reach the homepage here.

Thanks for your interest!

Monday, November 06, 2006


Update 7.23.2010: I'm removing a few posts that are no longer interesting to me. You can reach the homepage here.

Thanks for your interest!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Implicit Review

I'm still emphasizing news broadcasts. I've listened to a total of about 60 hours of news.

Last summer, I stopped reviewing vocabulary with flash cards, because I became convinced that it's better to emphasize "input" over memorization. But I accomplish a lot of implicit review just by listening to the daily news.

For example, not long ago I acquired the word for "senator" by listening repeatedly to the news about U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman's defeat in a primary election. Since then, the word for "senator" has occurred quite often due to upcoming elections in the U.S. Every time the word occurs, I hear it in a meaningful context with native pronunciation. It's a very pleasant and, I think, productive way to review vocabulary. I now feel like the word for "senator" is completely built-in to my brain.

One consideration about building vocabulary in this way is that it takes a lot of time. Back when I was using flash cards, it seemed like I was learning a lot of words very quickly. But many of those words were forgotten after I had memorized them. Words that I acquire naturally are much more permanent.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Updated: I'm removing a few posts that are no longer interesting to me. You can reach the homepage here.

Thanks for your interest!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I'm removing a few posts that are no longer interesting to me. You can reach the homepage here.

Thanks for your interest!

Saturday, September 09, 2006


I've been thinking about Thai compounding lately. Many common Thai words are made up of simpler component words. For example, the word for "river" translates to "mother of water". The word for "electricity" translates to "sky fire". (I personally associate "sky fire" with lightning, although the Thai word for "lightning" is different.) Tears are "eye water", calmness is a "cool heart", and so on.

The online dictionaries and give component words along with translations, and it's always interesting to see the components. Component words are often more common, and, while I don't try to use this information in any explicit way, I think the component words provide little automatic hooks for building vocabulary. Once I've associated "sky fire" with electricity, it's hard to forget.

A related phenomenon is "derivational morphology", where Thai words can change their nuance or part of speech by a small set of common prefixes. As I hear these prefixes in different contexts and become more familiar with them, they really contribute to my comprehension.

Between compounding and derivational morphology, vocabulary in much of Thai is pretty logical. The more challenging vocabulary includes proper names, words borrowed from other languages, and "specialized" vocabulary such as that used by and for royalty.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Comfortable and Curious

150 hours:

I've listened to about 38 hours of news so far. Words which have recently become familiar include words for "nuclear reactor", "agency", and "Germany". The Thai system for numbering years is also becoming more familiar.

A colleague tells me that as an undergraduate math major, I claimed that success in mathematics is a matter of getting comfortable with not understanding everything right away. I don't remember making this claim, but I think there's some truth in it. Being comfortable and curious with partial understanding is a great mindset for learning all kinds of things.

To acquire a word or language pattern naturally through "i+1" input, I have to hear it many times. New words and patterns start as meaningless streams of syllables interspersed with better understood context. Gradually, I differentiate each new word or pattern as a sort of "motif" that's appearing over and over in different contexts. As more and more context is understood, and the word continues to recur, it becomes very familiar. Eventually I recognize and understand it immediately, without effort. At some point during this process, I usually verify my understanding of the new word with a dictionary or native speaker. This breaks the input model slightly, but I feel that it's helpful, since I'm studying without the aid of a teacher. Words acquired in this patient manner are easily available to me, without review, effort, or memorization.

This process requires me to be comfortable with not understanding everything right away.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Din of the Night

A while back I wrote about "din", which I equate to getting language "stuck in your head" like a pop song. Common sense suggests that one way to experience this would be to listen to repetitive input for many hours in one day. The most Thai listening I've been able to squeeze into a day since then is about two and a half hours, which isn't much.

So I may not have experienced exactly what Krashen would call "din", but I have noticed something interesting. When I'm falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning, I'll usually hear something from my Thai mp3s in my head. Maybe this is some kind of mental "practice", similar to din.

It's not always the case that what I hear when falling asleep comes from something the same day. Often it's from audio which I haven't listened to in a few days or more. It's interesting how the mind works.

Monday, August 28, 2006


I almost never watch westerns, but I have been enjoying the HBO series "Deadwood" on DVD. I'm pondering the use of English in the show and comparing it to the Thai movies and television I sometimes watch.

The vocabulary in Deadwood consists of common words, but for an ESL learner the level of English would be quite advanced. The characters speak in outdated idioms and turns of phrase. Important plot points are communicated by indirect dialogue. There's an implicit assumption that the viewer is familiar with American history, culture, and geography. Even as a native speaker, I have to watch and listen carefully.

The closest Thai equivalent I can think of is a movie that uses a regional dialect (like parts of Ong Bak, Thai Warrior) or a royal dialect (like Legend of Suriyothai).

It's interesting to me that the "advanced" nature of the English in Deadwood is due to cultural, stylistic, and idiomatic features, rather than vocabulary.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Training for Thai

135 hours:

A few weeks ago, AJ wrote a great motivational post entitled, "Learn a Language, Get in Shape!", pointing out how L2 input and physical exercise can be done at the same time.

I recently started training for the Seattle half-marathon, which will take place in November. My times in previous half-marathons have been slow, but I'm quite content to get some exercise, enjoy the race, and finish without injury. If I'm lucky, I may even take a few minutes off of my personal record.

Running provides a great opportunity to listen to Thai language mp3s. I'm running for a half-hour a few times per week, plus a longer run on the weekend, so the hours accumulate quickly.

I've had to solve a few issues. The main one is that ambient noise like wind or traffic is a big obstacle to comprehension. Since I value my hearing, I don't want to compensate for ambient noise by turning up the volume. I never noticed a problem with ambient noise while listening to NPR podcasts or English talking books, so I must be much better at unconsciously filling in gaps in English.

After a number of experiments, I'm now using a pair of Sony earbuds which cut down considerably on ambient noise. It also helps to listen to short, 1-5 minute segments over and over, rather than trying to listen to an entire newscast. This enables me to follow the thread even when a few words are lost.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Din in the Head

Stephen Krashen has written about a phenomenon he calls "din". It's something like getting a song stuck in your head. Din is an "involuntary mental rehearsal" which people sometimes experience after a lot of exposure to L2 input. Krashen quotes a Russian language learner describing the experience this way:

"By the third day, the linguist in me was noticing a rising din of Russian in my head: words, sounds, intonations, phrases, all swimming about in the voices of people I talked with. This din blocked out all my other languages."*

I've personally experienced short Thai phrases and sentences getting stuck in my head, but never anything quite as dramatic as what's described here. It would be an interesting experiment to try to induce "din" by listening to comprehensible input for a long time at once. It seems like short, interesting, repetitive input might be the most likely to induce this phenomenon.

Unfortunately, this experiment would require that I find a few consecutive hours during which I can listen to Thai audio, and the only time that is available is in the evening after my son goes to sleep. It could be hard to stay awake and alert. Maybe a cup of coffee would help.

(*Elizabeth Barber, quoted in Krashen 1983, found in this pdf file which takes a long time to load. The original paper does not appear to be archived on the internet.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

130 hours:

For a change of pace, I'm listening to audio from a Thai cartoon called Pang Pond (flash site). Some of the silly dialogue is getting stuck in my head, which is perfect.

To say the least, the vocabulary is different from that of internet news broadcasts. I haven't heard one mention of President Bush, Lebanon, or Bird Flu. The word "jao naa tii" (เจ้าหน้าที่ , meaning "police" or "authorities"), which I learned from the news, does appear in an episode about UFOs. Many words which haven't been reinforced for a long time also appear.

I suppose this doesn't do much to fine-tune my pronunciation, unless I want to talk like a cartoon. If an ESL learner only ever listened to Bugs Bunny, they might end up with an unusual way of talking. But a little of this keeps things fun.

Monday, August 07, 2006

117 hours:

I've spent about 15 hours so far listening to news stories. One nice thing about news stories is that the domain is somewhat restricted, so new words get repeated a lot.

Examples of words which have recently become very familiar are words for "report", "news", and "company". Many geographical and political terms have become very familiar. Sadly, words dealing with war and loss of life are also becoming very familiar.

Examples of words which have recently become somewhat familiar are words for "government", "president", "prime minister", "science", and "environment".

Words for "crude oil", "atomic", and "fuel" have appeared, but they have not yet become familiar.

Listening to the news is a lot like narrow listening. The domain of discussion is restricted, subjects change slowly from day to day, and the subjects are interesting. An entire news broadcast is longer than the 1-3 minutes recommended for narrow listening, but broadcasts can be edited in Audacity, and individual stories are usually 1-3 minutes, give or take.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

115 hours :

Earlier this year, I was surprised by the very rapid way my vocabulary was growing. I think this was partly because I had such a small vocabulary to begin with. The old AUA books and tapes where I started learning Thai deemphasize vocabulary almost completely, teaching just enough to support grammar patterns, simple dialogue, and pronunciation. When I started attending the new AUA and focusing on input, my vocabulary increased very rapidly.

Recently, my vocabulary acquisition has noticeably slowed. This is expected -I have already acquired the very high-frequency words. As I get closer and closer to the long tail of the Zipf distribution, new words occur and recur less frequently. So of course, they take longer to acquire.

I spend most of my practice time these days listening to the news. Despite my previously mentioned concerns about propaganda, VOA is the most comprehensible Thai news I've found on the web. Almost every segment has a mix of completely new vocabulary, somewhat familiar vocabulary, and very familiar vocabulary, so it's never too far from i+1.

One of my goals for the future is to understand Radio Japan news broadcasts in Thai. Radio Japan is much more demanding than VOA. The announcers speak faster, the vocabulary is harder, and the subject matter is less familiar. When I can understand Radio Japan, I'll know that I've made a lot of progress.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

AUA uses a student's cumulative number of classroom hours as a guideline for expected level of acquisition. Every 200 classroom hours or so, most native English speakers are ready to advance to a new level of Thai. Classroom time at AUA is primarily spent actively listening to native speakers.

Inspired by AUA, I started keeping track of how many hours I listen to Thai. I took 32 hours of AUA classes in April. Since then, I've listened to 80 hours of other content, so I'm currently averaging around 27 hours a month, for a total of 112 hours.

I only count quality time. Mp3s count, but only if I'm paying attention. Movies count, but only if I watch without subtitles or significant distraction. Thai radio playing in the background does not count. Little snippets here and there don't count. In other words, my total is a conservative measure of high-quality input since April, but it's not anywhere close to the number of hours I've actually been exposed to Thai.

For the last three months, I've blogged mainly about my ongoing epiphany that people can acquire languages naturally through input. Now I think it might be interesting to reflect on changes as I listen more and more, using this cumulative total as a measure.

Monday, July 31, 2006

I'm a big fan of Stephen Krashen's research and the comprehension hypothesis. I'm garnering enough experience learning Thai that I'm now convinced that input is the only way to truly acquire a language.

Recently, I've been thinking about how to determine a level of input that provides optimally efficient acquisition. That is, how can I tell when input is at level "i+1"? The American University Alumni language school uses a very pure input approach, and they provide some guidelines. AUA instructors target 80% or greater understanding for all of their students. For AUA, "understanding" includes not only familiar vocabulary, but also the context of visual and experiential cues. For example, a beginning student playing Uno in Thai might understand fewer than 80% of the words, but most people who already know the game would understand at least 80% of the experience. After a large amount of comprehensible experience in the foreign language, words acquire meaning without resorting to translation.

I think an 80% rule-of-thumb is good, and an inclusive definition of understanding is also good. In fact, I cannot imagine a pure input approach which does not allow for understanding by contextual cues. Without contextual cues, there would be no way to "get started" without introducing translation of some sort and breaking the input model.

This definition of understanding means that all sorts of material is available. For the months of May and June, I studied primarily by watching children's movies in Thai. I avoided subtitles, since they can interfere with acquisition. By using visual and contextual cues, I was able to have 80% or greater comprehension while only following 30% of the spoken dialogue. Watching the same movies again and again, my comprehension of the spoken dialogue improved, and for one those movies it's now around 60-70% and still growing.

My vocabulary is bigger than it was in May, and a new source of comprehensible input is radio news stories. If I already know something about the subject, I can fill in gaps left by unfamiliar vocabulary. If I don't know much about the subject, I have to understand more of the vocabulary. The vocabulary is usually easiest in human interest stories, like a review of the week's top movies.

It's not always possible to understand 80% of everything. Like Tony, an enthusiastic ESL blogger, I place the highest priority on my level of interest. If I am very interested, I will listen again and again with a great desire to uncover the meaning. Even if I only understand 50%, the listening is very productive.

I am not a purist. A very pure input approach doesn't seem practical without a teacher. I own a dictionary, and I do use it. However, I strongly emphasize input over anything else, and I avoid memorization, letting words and phrases build themselves into my vocabulary naturally.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I have been listening to the Voice of America in Thai.

It's propaganda. I know. As an American who values critical thinking, I'm suspicious of any media outlet that is controlled by my government... especially recently.

But as a Thai acquisition device, VOA is awesome. The vocabulary is everyday. The content is interesting. The announcers are engaging. I often know something about the topics. Words get repeated often. Individual stories are perfect for narrow listening.

I edit the news in Audacity and listen to interesting segments over and over. As usual with Thai content on the internet, the content is a little beyond my i+1 level. But I can look up a few words.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Stephen Krashen, the American University Alumni school (AUA), and others recommend an initial "silent period" for students of a second language. During the silent period, the student is instructed to listen and understand, but not try to speak. When I registered at AUA in Bangkok, an instructor asked me many questions in both Thai and English while observing my answers, speech, and comprehension. Because of my background in Thai, I was placed at an advanced level where complete silence is not required. Consequently, I do not try to stay "silent" all the time in Thai. However, there is a long-term version of the silent period, which is a useful behavior pattern in general for language acquisition. AUA alludes to this in some of their literature, such as this paragraph from "Just Let Me Try To Say It" by David Long (italics mine).

'When will I start to speak?' Without doubt, this is the most often asked question. This is also a question that a baby or young child never asks. The easiest answer is, 'When you're ready.' Each person will be little different but overall, when a student has acquired between 60% and 70% of the new language the phonemes of the new language are firmly set. After that, it is simply a question of whether or not the word is 'there' when you need it or not. If it's not, don't worry about it. Use what's there. You'll be amazed at how well it will work for you. When a student begins speaking, it isn't that the language will immediately come out perfect, but that he doesn't have to 'remember' anything at all. He will simply think the thought and the words will be there. This is exactly how your native language works for you. The key is that because the student is drawing only from the input of Thai teachers, those things he says will correct themselves in just a short while.

Just Let Me Try To Say It, David Long

For me, "using what's there" consists of using English words, remaining silent, or changing what I'm saying. This completely circumvents a hesitancy that can occur when a student learns by translation and is forced to speak.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

For the last week or so, I have been listening to a 12 minute Thai Buddhist discourse called "Living With the Cobra". It's somewhat beyond an i+1 level for me, but not by much. It's short, I have a transcript, and there are many repeated words, so with a little help from my wife, I can make sense out of it. People tell me that discourses on Buddhism are usually difficult because of specialized words and language. This particular one does have some specialized language, but it seems more accessible, perhaps because it's addressed to a westerner.

I could listen to this audio for hours and hours without losing interest. In college, I listened to a tape of the philosopher J. Krishnamurti over and over. It was all-absorbing because the subject was so interesting and he is so eloquent. By listening repeatedly with interest, I automatically reached a point where I had large parts of the tape memorized, including Krishnamurti's intonation, rhythm, and even pronunciation. This Thai mp3 is on a similar subject, and the speaker is similarly engaging. I can imagine myself assimilating this mp3 in the same way over time.

Monday, July 03, 2006

My son is almost three years old. Consequently, over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to observe his natural language acquisition. It has been fascinating. Several things surprised me, most notably that if he cannot pronounce or does not know all of the words in a phrase, it doesn't stop him at all. He just says the phrase, coming as close as he can to the unknown words. Over time, these "approximations" come closer and closer to the words he is imitating.

His internal model of the words and phrases is apparently far ahead of his pronunciation. If we misunderstand a word or phrase, he always corrects us and says "no", that is not what he meant. Then he repeats what he said. Sometimes, he will repeat the misunderstood word several times, while we try different guesses at what he is approximating. Once we arrive at the right word, he finally tells us "yes" -that's what he meant.

This seems very relevant for my acquisition of Thai, and at the same time it is somehow very reassuring. If a child's acquisition of language can be an accurate model for an adult's acquisition of a second language, pronunciation will come along by itself, without explicit practice, once an accurate internal model of words and phrases is established. This is consistent with my understanding of the AUA literature and other research on second language acquisition. The nice thing is that it's normal to pronounce things imperfectly at first, and it's not harmful as long as an accurate internal model of words and phonemes has been well-established by extensive listening to native speakers.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

To get some sense of my progress, I've been trying to estimate how many words I know in Thai. I have approached this in a couple of different ways. First, I've thought through related sets of words. I know twelve months, ten colors, seven days of the week, fourty-four consonants, etc. Secondly, I've glanced over word lists, such as the vocabulary index of a Thai textbook and the entries in a learner's dictionary. By using the size of a list and the percentage of words I recognize, I can produce an estimate. My best estimate is that I know about a thousand words.

In doing this exercise, I've realized that it's actually not clear to me what it means to "know" a word. While very frequent words are clearly "known", and words I've never heard are "unknown", there is a whole range of other possibilities. There are words that I understand when listening but cannot correctly use. There are words that I recognize and understand only in context, and there are words for which my sense is still emerging and incomplete. Even taking into account this ambiguity, I think 1000 words is reasonably accurate.

Now that I know what I know, I'd like to find statistics for Thai showing that the most frequent 1000 words cover x% of spoken language, the most frequent 2000 words cover y%, etc. This lexical coverage information is easy to find for English, but I have been unable to find anything for Thai. So I've resigned myself to trying to estimate for Thai by using what is known for English.

One consideration in trying to apply English lexical coverage to Thai is that Thai morphology is not as productive as that of English. An ESL learner who acquires a word like "create" also acquires a whole family of words, including "creates", "created", "creative", "creation", and "recreate". In Thai, there are no such families of words. Other words function in place of morphology. For example, to say "created", a Thai speaker would say "create already". Word families in Thai are families of one.

I found some research on Marlise Horst's website showing that, with a vocabulary of the thousand most frequent word families in English, students understand about 85% of spoken language. To increase that comprehension to 98%, a vocabulary of 6000-7000 word families is needed. Due to the difference in morphology, statistics for word families in English might give a rough approximation of statistics for individual words in Thai. This jibes with my experience. With my thousand word vocabulary, I think it's accurate that I understand about 85% of spoken Thai. This assumes an idealization where the only impediments to following a dialogue are vocabulary and grammar. The ability to listen to spoken dialogue at a normal rate of speed in a variety of regional accents is a separate issue.

The Linguist, an interesting ESL website, has another way to measure proficiency in a second language using the number of known words.

Beginner a) 2,000 b) 3,500 Intermediate a) 5,000 b) 7,500 Advanced a) 10,000 b) 12,500 (source: The Linguist blog)

This system is for English, and every word in a word family is counted, so an attempt to apply it to Thai would again require taking into account the difference in morphology. Playing with the numeric data from Horst's site, it appears that there is an average of two words in an English word family, with the most frequent families being the largest. Since Thai has word families of one word each, it seems reasonable to multiply the number of words in my vocabulary by a little more than 2 to acquire a rough estimate of an equivalent ESL vocabulary. With my thousand word vocabulary, I'm the equivalent of an ESL student a little past "Beginner A". This seems about right.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

It's interesting to observe how learning works. J. Marvin Brown's article "Learn Languages Like Children" mentions an "incubation" phenomenon, where a student's ability in a foreign language improves after a hiatus. As a graduate student, I certainly experienced this with mathematics. As a hobbyist musician, I also observe this when practicing an instrument.

My recent approach with Thai has been simply to listen "effortlessly but with understanding". One of my staples is watching movies. It is often easy to understand a movie without understanding all of the dialogue, by using visual cues and other context. This is especially true with children's movies.

It's very interesting to come back to the same movie again after a period of time. My comprehension invariably increases without any work on my part. Clearly, this is at least partly because I am on the next iteration of hearing the same dialogue, but I wonder whether it is also related to "incubation" that occurs between subsequent viewings, when I am not even exposed to Thai.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


I'm removing a few posts that are no longer interesting to me. You can reach the homepage here.

Thanks for your interest!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

I have been working through the AUA books entitled Reading and Writing. The Thai writing system has 44 consonants, which are divided into three classes, arbitrarily named high, mid, and low. The consonant classes are used to determine tones. One of the challenges Thai students face is to learn which consonants belong to which class. During the Thai class I took in graduate school, the writing system was de-emphasized until the second half of the course, at which point there was an intensive memorization effort aimed at the consonant classes and the corresponding rules. I did well with the homework, quizzes, and exams, but I never felt that I had mastered the material.

As usual, I find the AUA approach to be remarkably innovative, well thought-out, and interesting. Rather than jumping right into memorizing classes and tone rules, the AUA book starts by distinguishing sonorant consonants from aspirates and plain stops. Grouping consonants in this way requires no memorization -once the student understands the distinction, it is obvious which group each consonant belongs to. For example, "m" and "n" are sonorants because the larynx vibrates when they are pronounced. Further lessons explain that that sonorants are all low class and plain stops are all mid class, while explaining the tone rules for each class. This makes learning their classes and the corresponding rules very easy. The aspirates then have to be sorted into high and low class. Sorting out the aspirates is also easy, because the initial syllable of the name of each aspirate has either a rising tone (ขอ ไข่) or a mid tone (คอ ควาย). In the former case, the class is high, and in the latter case, the class is low.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

I have another movie review, this time for Ong Bak, Thai Warrior. It's a great film for muay thai boxing and stunt work, but a bad movie for learning Thai, at least at my level. The dialogue is composed mainly of the Isan dialect and central slang. It is also somewhat sparse, as a lot of time is taken up by boxing and stunts.

I did get a better sense of some words in informal Thai, like the particle "wa" and the word "dtang" for money, and it was interesting to hear Isan. I also really enjoyed the muay thai, the elaborate stunt work, and the action scenes in Bangkok. But I don't think seeing this movie again soon would help me much with Thai language skill.

***** for muay thai
***** for stunts
** for value as a language acquisition tool

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Last night I watched 6ixtynin9, a Thai movie that I rented from Netflix. It was great. The reviews pointed out that it's heavily influenced by Quentin Tarantino. I agree that some aspects show his influence, such as characteristic framing and liberal doses of tongue-in-cheek violence. I also wonder about the influence of David Lynch. There are some quirky scenes that remind me more of Lynch than Tarantino, such as one in which a mobster starts to cry about missing his mother. I thought Lalita Panyopas' portrayal of the main character was very good. I had only seen her in a campy police drama made for television, so I was surprised to see how well she can act.

The story is easy to follow without using subtitles. I would say that I understood 30-40% of the spoken dialogue, and 90-100% of the story. As AJ Hoge nicely puts it in his AUA observations, it was easy to "forget" that I was watching a movie in Thai. I'll probably watch this at least once again before sending it back. It is a nice change from watching "Finding Nemo" dubbed into Thai for the nth time.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In my search for "comprehensible input", I have been delighted to find excellent Thai language audio resources at The link labeled "Listen" navigates to dialogs, essays, and stories written and read by primary school students.

I'm currently listening to the story called "Red Boat". As I repeatedly listen over time, it is becoming more and more comprehensible, reminding me of the way features used to slowly appear in old Polaroid photographs. At first, I thought I would need to work to "make" this process happen, but it doesn't seem to be necessary. I listen over and over, between watching Thai DVDs and listening to my Thai wife speak, and the stream of nonsense is starting to acquire meaning. Even if some of the story is beyond my "i+1" level at any given time, parts of the narrative are always at the proper level. This method turns everything I thought I knew about language study on its head.

I am studying Thai language once a week at the Buddhist temple near my house. It's great to meet other friendly farang who are interested in learning Thai, and to chat with the monks and Thai people who stop by the temple. I have some interest in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, and it's wonderful to keep in touch with Buddhism as I study Thai.

The temple lessons emphasize reading and writing, which is very helpful to me. However, there is also a tendency to want to build vocabulary through translation and memorization. Since study is entirely self-directed, I may start to de-emphasize memorization for myself. Words and phrases acquired through translation and memorization are different from words acquired naturally through listening. Memorized words tend not to "stick", and there is often little internalized context for how to use them correctly. Words and phrases that I have acquired slowly through listening are "just there", along with their usage.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

I have no formal training in linguistics, but I have been very interested to read about Stephen Krashen's research in second language acquisition. Krashen explains his comprehension hypothesis as follows.

"It hypothesizes that 'skills,' or mastery of the components of language, is the result of one particular aspect of language use, comprehensible input. It claims that grammatical competence and vocabulary knowledge are the result of listening and reading, and that writing style and much of spelling competence is the result of reading. "

I have been finding this idea more and more persuasive. Recently, I have been compiling and using comprehensible audio at what Krashen describes as level i+1, where i represents my current linguistic ability, and 1 represents a small supplementation. As I practice hearing Thai at this level, my vocabulary and grammar grow in a way that's completely different from a memorization approach.

My son has a number of Pixar and Dreamworks movies in Thai, and I have been practicing by watching them with him. They are very good, because I can rely on visual cues so that I am never completely lost. Upon repeated viewing, I notice vocabulary and grammar growing from the "inside out". Words and phrases that initially sounded like a random stream of syllables are becoming more and more comprehensible. Words and phrases I acquire in this way are available to me in a much more natural way than whatever I have learned through memorization and translation.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Welcome to My Thai Language Blog!

My most recent trip to Thailand opened my mind in unexpected ways to many aspects of Thai identity and culture. The most interesting aspect for me was my experience studying the language.

During graduate school ten years ago, I took a Thai language class based in part on the American University Alumni Association (AUA) books and tapes. I was very impressed with the unconventional methodology of the AUA materials. For example, grammar and pronunciation skills were taught through substitution word games and rhythmic drills. I enjoyed the AUA tapes, and I played them continuously in my car. My pronunciation became pretty good, and I found it easy to recognize and produce most Thai phonemes, but my vocabulary lagged behind. My Thai wife was very good at English and determined to practice as as much as possible at home, so after mastering a few of the AUA tapes, I stopped following the series and moved on to other hobbies.

Last month, I traveled to Thailand with my family. I had the opportunity to attend the AUA language school and resume my acquisition of Thai. The first thing I realized is that AUA has completely changed its teaching philosophy from the old books and tapes. The "new" AUA program is called Automatic Language Growth (ALG). It is based on modern research into language acquisition, which suggests that listening skills form the basis of speech in a second language, much as they do in a first language. The approach maintains that, if listening comprehension is taught first, while speaking is delayed until a solid foundation is established, long-term fluency benefits. It was interesting to me that J. Marvin Brown, who created the original AUA books and tapes, was also the initiator of this radical change in approach.

The more I learn about modern thinking in second language acquisition, and the more I reflect on my own experience, the more I am convinced of the wisdom of the ALG approach.

I find myself with an unusual set of Thai language skills. My pronunciation is good, but my vocabulary is weak. My writing is good, my reading is okay, and my listening needs a lot of work. I still enjoy AUA's tapes and books. On my recent trip, I purchased all of the AUA books from the bookstore at the school. I had to purchase the recordings from Cornell University, since AUA has changed its philosophy and no longer offers its old tapes or CDs. I am using my AUA CDs to resume grammar and pronunciation practice where I left off years ago, but since I'm more and more convinced of the preeminent importance of listening, I am spending most of my time doing that.

Thanks for stopping by my blog! If you are studying Thai or any other language, it would be great to hear from you. You can leave a comment here or email scottimig at hotmail dot com.
My most recent trip to Thailand opened my mind in unexpected ways to many aspects of Thai identity and culture. The most interesting aspect for me was my experience studying the language. more...

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