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Pressure relief from culture shock

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

If you’ve moved to a new place recently, you’re probably experiencing some degree of culture shock.  I remember when I first moved to Thailand.  My temper grew short, I felt stupid most of the time (for my friends, no need to comment here) and it didn’t help being illiterate either, and I seemed to feel things I’d never felt before!

What was going on?  I wasn’t myself.

When I moved to Thailand in 1987, the idea that Thailand was the ‘Land of Smiles’ had I believe just begun to become a national slogan. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was expected to smile. I grew up in Southern California. Smiling at the wrong time, place or person could get you into serious trouble. More to the point, I just didn’t feel like smiling all the time. Smiling took effort. Yet everywhere I went, people wanted me to smile back at them.

I found relief though. It was during this time that I discovered Indian food. Not far from my house, was this great little Indian restaurant that some friends took me to, and the food was outstanding. Then reason I went back over and again however was not for the food. I had found a pressure release valve for culture shock!

From the moment I entered the restaurant, smiles were no longer expected and this felt wonderful. Walking in, the owner or manager might be standing there, staring with not even a hint of a smile, as if to ask, “Why are you coming into my establishment?” I would stare back, without a smile at all and say I want a table for 3. From ordering food, to paying the bill and leaving, the entire time could be spent without any effort or expectation that I needed to smile at someone.

Now, looking back, I’m much more comfortable with smiling. Rarely now, do people ever say that I look angry or unhappy but I assure you that this didn’t happen without pain – having to do anything that doesn’t come naturally is hard work.

Adjusting to any new culture – this is hard work. Culture shock is normally NOT some huge thing that happens, but is a lot of little things that we generally don’t notice.  What we notice, are the feelings that we experience as a result of being pushed out of our comfort zones.  In fact, for me, I see adjusting to a new culture as something very similar to excercise – it’s good for us.

Most of us have lived in our own language/culture and have arrived at an inner ‘place’ or comfort zone.  Our lives are predicatble there.  We know that we are easy-going, or high strung, or whatever we think characterizes us.  When we move to a new place, our inner limits change.

Imagine for example, that we have a cup of water (patience) that is 1/4 full.  To overflow (or lose your patience), we have to add in 3/4 more water, and this is you normally.  When you move to a new place, all the little things that are different and probably don’t really bother you all that much, get added in.  Together, they may add up to a great deal.  So are you losing your patience easily?  Not surprising.

Over time you assimilate the differences and they become part of you.  This generally takes longer than you think.  Don’t be surprised don’t be too hard on yourself.  There can be nothing as fantastic as learning about new people and places.  Enjoy it as much as you can, and accept that the inner-excercise of culture shock can be a healthy thing!

A pretty good blog about culture shock can be found at:
Leaving the Nest: An Expatriate’s Survival Guide: Culture Shock 101: The Problem

(One thing I realized as a student in the AUA Thai Program is that through sharing their lives, our teachers gave us more understanding of culture than was even imaginable.  I realized that in fact, understanding culture was more important than being able to use Thai, and preliminary to being able to use Thai as a Thai. There is so much added value in that, the for me, becoming fluent in Thai was merely a by-product.)

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My experience learning Thai the ALG way

December 3, 2009 4 comments

I was 26 years old when I entered the Thai Program at AUA in September of 1987.  I’d just moved into a house on Ladphrao Rd – a large private home with a large yard ant it took about 45 minutes one way to get to school.  The greatest difficulty I had in learning Thai was navigating the traffic!

I had chosen AUA because they were then, and still are, the only school who offers something besides the traditional programs that I had always failed miserably in.  As as student, I hated being put on the spot – even when I knew the answer (which on occasion I did!) So when I found AUA, it didn’t take much to convince me to give it a year.  If it didn’t work – well I could always enroll in a traditional, ‘practice makes perfect’ sort of program.

The difference of AUA was that we didn’t really study.  My job as a student was to take in whatever they served up – and they served up a whole lot!  This wasn’t just a language school!  The job of the teachers was to keep us entertained and interested in whatever they could think up to do or talk about.  They were a very imaginative bunch of people.  By the end of my first class, I was thinking to myself that if all the classes were like this one, I was going to really enjoy language ‘study’ for the first time in my life.  I did too!

It wasn’t all easy, especially at first.  I was worried, mostly due to conditioning from schools and teachers, that I might not be doing very well.  Was I doing as well as other students?  Was I progressing as I should be? Without tests, how could you tell?  It didn’t take very long before I realized that I was going to need to adjust to a few more things than smog, traffic, spicy food and life as an illiterate.

There were 18 students in my group – we all began level 1 at the same time.  By the time I reached level 9 (the end at the time which also included a few classes based on ideas we had offered) there were 5 of us left.  Beginning with level 1, students who were from all over the world, walks of life, and intellects, knew more than the founder of the program, Dr. J. Marvin Brown.  Dr. Brown was a well known linguist and physicist and to date, one of the most humble and intelligent people I have ever met.  I figured that probably he knew more about language learning than my student peers – most of whom were fluent in about 1 language.

So I got to talking to Brown.  He was a great listener, and during my first three months of classes, I visited him a few times.  How am I doing?  How does he know?  And while I didn’t get the sort of answers I was looking for, I got the answers I needed. Things like…

“…tests can’t really tell us how you’re doing.”
“…comparing yourself to other students in the class doesn’t really make any sense.”
“…look inside and tell me what’s happening.”

When I asked him if I was doing what I was supposed to he asked me what I was doing.  I tried doing what he told me – that was to “sit back, and figure out as best I could what was going on.” and “Guess.” and “Don’t worry about what you’re hearing”.

This mindset took me three months to settle into – and once that happened, I’ve never wanted to settle out of this mode!  This mode of learning has been and continues to give me life’s greatest moments and experiences.

It also seems to be a mode of existence that many adults struggle with.  We want to latch onto things, nail them down clearly, and then say we know a certain thing. (more on this in a blog at a later time.)  With this program I couldn’t do it.  I came away each day, with a whole lot of experiences, but unable to say I’d learned even a single word!  Wasn’t I supposed to be learning words?  No!  Dr. Brown, or Marv as he preferred to be called by friends, explained it to me something like this… Words, grammar, and all other ‘parts’ of language come from our experiences. In order to make a word, your brain needs the sounds of that language.  Where does it get the sounds?  From your experiences.  In order to make a sentence, your brain needs the grammar of that language.  Where does it get the grammar?  From experiences.  So I settled in and just collected the experiences.

It has been 22 years since that time.  I have never once regretted a moment I spent at AUA.  The fact is, language is a by-product of what they gave me.  That one year of entertainment was without question, the greatest educational year of my life!

So you’ve lived in Thailand for 10 years and still can’t speak Thai?

November 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I know of few things more tedious and boring than language study. I’ve always found it so.  The problem is that I’ve never been very good at remembering all the parts and pieces.  As soon as I learned 10 new words, the 10 I learned before always seemed to vanish.

My comfort has always been from my observations that I was part of the majority.  Indeed, many people have commented on the fact that over 90% of the people who try to learn a foreign language fail!  This is an incredibly high percentage.

I would love for the world to take a step back from everything we think we know about language learning, and look at a few generally accepted facts. 

1.  Young children always learn languages fluently, without study, without teachers, and without classrooms.
2.  Adults who study never achieve the results that the child does.

If we consider this, I say to you – You can do the adult thing, with a 90%+ chance of failure, or you can do the child thing, with a 100% chance of success – for the same investment of time and money.

Which do you choose?

I know that there are many answers from academics about why we can’t learn like children any more, because we’re not children, etc., etc.,  In fact, my experience has been the opposite.  I’ve learned Thai (at least in many ways) much as a child learns a new language. 

I know that the people who say things can’t be done, never do those things. 

Sometimes the only real reason we can’t do things is because we are sure they can’t be done!

So… what if?
What if you could learn a new language just by soaking up experiences in that language?
What if you didn’t need teachers, classrooms, and study?
What if you could become fluent while doing fun things, play, and going places?

In fact it’s not very hard to imagine – because that’s exactly what children do. 

So you’ve lived in Thailand for 10 years and still can’t speak Thai?  For many reasons, you may choose to believe that as an adult you can no longer do what the child does. 

I believe that we can.  So…

What would it look like to collect experiences the way a child does? 

What would it look like for you to do inside yourself, what it appears the child does inside herself?

Given the differences in results between the child and adult, this certainly seems to me like something worth thinking about.