Did I Find the Dream School? (AUA 3/3)

Pablo Roman Humanes
October 20, 2018
 min read

So, did I become good at Thai? What was my final achievement? Did I manage to order pad thai without shrimp? First let me put things into perspective by summarizing all the contact that I had with the Thai language.

I arrived in Bangkok at the beginning of July 2015, and I ended up staying there for 13 months, attending AUA all along. I attended almost every weekday, with the only exception of some short holidays and a 20-day period for Christmas when the school is closed. I attended some Saturdays too, but only sometimes. On average I attended 6 lessons every day, with breaks every 2 lessons or so.

During that stay I attended exactly 1203 lessons, my original goal being 1200. Since every lesson is 50 minutes long, that means 1000 hours of sitting in class listening to somebody speak Thai.

Most of the time I was taking classes I was purposefully avoiding most other contact with the Thai language. In particular, I didn’t want to do anything that deviates from the ALG method, so I didn’t do any kind of self-study, exercises, or practicing speaking. Even now, more than 3 years after I started learning Thai, I haven’t checked a single word in the dictionary. After some time at AUA I did learn about Crosstalk and I became quite interested in it, and during the time I was in Bangkok I ended up doing 74 hours of it.

At the beginning I wasn’t trying to get exposure to Thai media either, since I wanted to see how fast it would be to learn the language by attending AUA only. The last 2 months or so of my stay in Bangkok I did begin watching videos and TV in Thai, and did it for 65 hours.

I never tried to practice speaking, and in general I tried to avoid speaking the language unless I needed to. I managed to do that more or less, and in the year I was staying there I had only a handful of conversations in Thai, mostly to give the necessary instructions to taxi drivers, and one phone call (be careful with your apartment rental agent, mine vanished without a trace).

So the total balance of my exposure to the Thai language was 1000 hours at AUA, 74 hours of one-on-one Crosstalk with a Thai partner, and 65 of watching TV and videos, mostly on YouTube.

By the end of my stay, I knew enough Thai to get by in the country in most daily life situations. I was also able to understand around 40% of Thai TV series and sitcoms. I even successfully had that phone call with an associate of my housing agent, when the agent disappeared without a trace and left me without any means to contact my landlady.

Still, while I could understand most things that were said around me, especially the things that people said directly to me, the amount of words I had acquired by that time didn’t allow me to be “fluent” in the language. It wasn’t everything that I felt I needed to have comfortable daily conversation with friends without them having to make an effort. I was comfortably an intermediate learner though, as I could understand somebody speaking only Thai to me, as long as they could be patient and rephrase or explain things I didn’t understand. But in the end I felt I was still missing many common words that are used daily.

The first conversation

After I finished my goal at AUA, I got a teacher to sit down with me and have a conversation for 10 minutes. That was the longest conversation I had had in Thai until that moment. I got several insights from that conversation.

The words that I knew well, the ones that I had heard hundreds of times after having first learned them, came very naturally and without me having to think at all. What that tells me is that there is no need for any kind of production exercises or speaking practice to move words from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary, it’s just a matter of knowing the vocabulary well enough, so that the current context and the meaning in your head will trigger that particular word.

I did struggle with some words, but most of the time either I could recall a word or I couldn’t, so things keep coming off my mouth quite fluently as long as I was talking about common topics that I was comfortable with. I was quite nervous though. Even though I was only recording the conversation for myself, it did feel a bit like an exam. I kept mixing up the words for “mother” and “father”, and instead of saying “meh”, “poh”, I would say “moh”, “peh”. Also, I should mention that in my mind there wasn’t anything else besides Thai words. I was never trying to translate words in my mind, but that’s the same experience I’ve had with every other foreign language that I’ve learned.

I didn’t have any problem to get the teacher to understand my pronunciation. This is a thing that MOST foreigners struggle with in Thai. Even after a long time studying the language, when they go out and try to speak it, many find out that nobody understands their pronunciation. Learners of Thai usually blame this on the tones of the language. In my experience hearing students trying to speak, they don’t seem to get almost anything right. They don’t get the tones right, but they don’t get right the consonant sounds, the vowel sounds, the vowel length, and the general pace and intonation of the language.

One thing I noticed when first trying to speak is that the sounds of the language didn’t come out exactly the way I could hear them in my head. My mental image of the sounds of the language was probably quite good by that point, but since I hadn’t got any practice making the sounds, my muscles weren’t yet well trained in producing them. My hypothesis is that after I start speaking, my production of sounds should start matching my mental image pretty quickly, maybe after just a few hours of speaking. This is a theory that I still have to test, as I still haven’t started speaking now, more than two years after leaving Bangkok.

A better AUA

There’s many good things to say about AUA and all the pioneer work they have done. But while I was there I also took note of the different things that I thought could be improved. Some things could be easily implemented at AUA, while other things would only work in an ideal situation with enough students and money. I’ll start with the things that I think could be easily improved.

One thing that I missed as a beginner was having more stories told to us. As I mentioned in the last post, I felt the lessons in which they told us stories were some of the most effective ones as my rate of understanding was higher than in other lessons. I think the beginner stage could be sped up by doing more of these. There are also certain games (I’m looking at you, bingo) that I’d rather live without. Also some of the games seemed to be trying to bring the focus of the students to particular words, which seems to go against the principles of the ALG method.

I also think that the school management could use student attendance information to offer topics that are more popular. A couple of examples are “Debate” and “Adult Stories”, for both of which the classroom was full of students. In spite of that, those topics were taught very rarely. They were only in the schedule in one of the terms during the 10 or so months that I spent in the intermediate and advanced levels, each term being 6 weeks.

Another thing that I think would be beneficial is trying different approaches to increase the amount of vocabulary that teachers use. I’m not sure why this happens but after about 1000 lessons I got the impression that the teachers were barely using any words that I didn’t know already. That may be due to them having unconsciously adapted the vocabulary over the years to something they know their students will understand easily. The fact that they’ve had to teach for so many hours by each other’s side could also mean that their choice of words has become a bit homogeneous among the different teachers.

One idea is teaching new topics that haven’t been taught before. Another option is getting some local Thai people to come to class as guests every now and then. Also having more role plays or acting out stories could also give more exposure to the students to vocabulary that’s used in different situations that doesn’t come up often in a classroom setting (when shopping, when having an argument with your boyfriend or girlfriend, when running away from zombies…).

Another thing that irked me and that I would like to see improve was that certain principles of ALG weren’t sometimes respected. Even though this didn’t happen in most lessons, you would every now and then get a teacher to compare two similar words and point out the difference in their pronunciation, get the students to try to say a word out loud, or to “cheat” by getting one of the students to translate a word to English (since the teachers are not supposed to use English themselves). Maybe I’m being a bit too strict here, since this was only a very small part of the time of a small number of classes, but I still wished that they would have been more aware of it.

The rest of the problems that I noticed are things that would be harder to fix and that may only be realistically implemented in a bigger school with more students or more money. One obvious thing that I mentioned before is to increase the amount of levels. Having a less steep learning curve would help with the speed of learning, since you could have a separate group for complete beginners that could benefit from having even easier activities. Having a separate class the whole day for students in the advanced classroom, so that they don’t have to go to the intermediate classes for most of the day, would also help them continue learning at a steady pace even at the more advanced levels.

One of the great things about AUA is that we got to listen to many different teachers. There were 10 of them when I was there. That is great because it allows students to listen to a wide variety of voices, and get used to the differences in pronunciation, accent and vocabulary of the different teachers. The more, the better though, so in a bigger school you could have even more teachers from different regions in the country.

The last two problems that I found are two things that seem to often come together with Comprehensible Input methods, no matter the situation. The first one was actually one of the first things that I noticed when I started attending AUA. The problem is that not all the students are equally open to the new ideas that the ALG method introduces, and that skepticism keeps many of them from even giving it a try. I think this is something that all the initiatives that attempt to apply Comprehensible Input methods have to face.

At AUA, this causes some students to discard the school right away after they see that it doesn’t use a traditional language instruction method. Even most of the students who decide to stay and study at AUA don’t really follow the ALG principles and are doing some kind of language study in parallel. Many attend a second school or do some kind of self-study. I think one big reason for this is that AUA doesn’t do a good job of explaining its method and the importance of following it. There’s a short introduction when you sign up for school where they explain to you how the classes work and what you are expected to do in them, but there’s no explanation about the reasons for using this method and the supposed benefits.

I’ve discussed this with the administration of the school, and apparently the reason for not having a more thorough introduction is that not many people agree with the principles of ALG, and fewer students would decide to study at AUA if they had such an introduction. I understand the point of view of the managers of the school and I probably would do the same if I was in their situation. The livelihood of the teachers depends on having a certain number of students coming to the school every month. However, I can’t help thinking that, in the long run, having more students that believe in the method and follow it would allow the school to show better results, and that would attract even more students.

The second problem that all Comprehensible Input initiatives face is how to provide a short-term sense of progress to the students. This is not very important in a middle or high school setting, since the results can be seen at the end of the year, but it is important for a language school like AUA that needs to retain its students. Traditional language education provides this sense of progress very well by providing a list of units, grammar points, and vocabulary for each lesson, so that at the end of the lesson you can clearly see what you’ve supposedly learned (and will soon forget). In CI-based approaches there’s no such thing. Actual acquisition of a whole word or a whole grammar point doesn’t happen in a single day. Acquisition is rather a process of gradually getting used to and refining many aspects of the language. During a CI-based lesson, instead of having learned the translation for 20 words, you have very slightly improved hundreds of words and grammar items in your head, and some of them you may notice, but most of them will go unnoticed and not contribute to your impression of making progress in learning the language.

Because of this, many students believe that they are not improving much after having attended 10 hours or more of class, and they give up on the method. The answer to this problem is not obvious, but I think it’s probably the single biggest issue that’s keeping CI methods from becoming the norm. The long term benefits of using CI are clear to me, but we need a way to provide students with medium-term and short-term sense of accomplishment.

AUA does provide some form of medium-term sense of accomplishment by showing a chart of your progress on their website. That chart is based on the amount of hours of class you’ve attended and how well you’re following the method. Unfortunately, not many students look at it.

I think that more could be done. For example, students could be given a roadmap of small milestones and be told what they can expect to be able to do with the language at each milestone. Things like “Order at a restaurant”, “Give instructions to a taxi”, “Make friends who only speak Thai”, etc. Also, it’s good to cause a strong emotional response in people. We could record them listening to a teacher speaking Thai, and play that video back to them in the future, so they can notice how bad they were at understanding things that now seem really easy. Their improvement would be crystal clear to them.

Medium-term feedback is good and necessary, but to get most of the students to get that far before dropping out it is quite important that we provide them with a more immediate sense of accomplishment. Ideally, students would leave the school each day feeling that they learned something. How we do that though is not self-evident and I don’t have a definitive answer. Because of the nature of Comprehensible Input, learning of the grammar is a very gradual process, and many of the features of the grammar of a language aren’t acquired until the learner has acquired a decent amount of vocabulary. Because of that, I think it makes more sense to focus on using vocabulary to provide that sense of progress. But how do we do that?

Lessons could have a small list of easy-to-guess words that the teacher makes sure that the students notice. Those words could be mentioned more or less explicitly so that the students notice them and feel like there’s a purpose in that lesson. One problem with this approach, though, is that we would be bringing attention to the language, which is one thing that ALG tells us not to do. This may still be okay if those words refer to concrete real life items and not more abstract elements of the language. The danger with bringing the student’s attention to specific words is that they may try to analyze them, try to translate them in their heads, and make mistaken assumptions about their meaning and usage. Concrete vocabulary may be less prone to confusion and wrong assumptions so using it may be a good compromise. However, I will continue working on finding an approach that can let learners get a feeling of their progress without bringing attention to the language.

Was I satisfied?

I consider my stay in Bangkok really successful. I got to confirm that you can learn a language completely from context without the need for explanations or any kind of connection to a language you already know. I got to experience what it feels like to develop a feeling for the sounds of the language, all the way from not being sure of what I heard for most of the words, to knowing the different ways a word may be pronounced in different situations depending on formality, background of the speaker, etc.

I also got to experience first-hand what it is like to get used to the sounds of a tonal language to the point in which two words that only differ in their tone feel like two completely different words. Unfortunately, there’s still so much belief that tones should be taught explicitly and practiced over and over.

It was also my first time learning a foreign language while being completely unaware of how to write it. While many people say that they can’t imagine what it feels like, in the end it’s not that different. The concept of each sound ends up forming in your head, even if it’s not linked to any particular letter. It is something similar to how English has so many vowel sounds, but many of them aren’t tied to any particular letter. English speakers can still identify particular sounds, and are able to explain to each other how certain words are pronounced. That means that the concept of each sound exists in their brain. Those concepts are connected to, but separate of, the letters themselves.

My experience attending AUA also helped me confirm how we can acquire an intuitive feeling for the grammar without having learned any rules. Not only that, but I also confirmed that I don’t even need to formulate the rules in my head for that intuitive knowledge to appear, as there are many things in Thai about sentence structure that just sound right to me but that I wouldn’t be able to explain.

Thanks to all the experience I got as a student I got very comfortable with the method and learned how to apply it to learners at different levels. This serves me well presently as I’m applying what I learned to benefit a lot of people and allow them to learn a large variety of languages. I hope the principles that guide the ALG method will gain broader acceptance and help improve language education and language learning all over the world in more and more situations.

Something else I learned about during my stay in Bangkok is Crosstalk. I didn’t know much about it before moving to Bangkok, but I’m glad I discovered its existence. It’s helped me considerably with my language learning, and it’s expanded my idea of what ALG is and how it can be used. My experience doing Crosstalk is probably one of the things that I’ve been able to leverage the most when making my Spanish videos.

There are of course some limitations to what I learned, and things that I felt were still left unanswered after my stay. For one thing, I only tried the method on myself, and in the future I’m aware that I’ll need to learn more about how the method works for different people, and whether there’s a way to make it work for everybody.

I’d like to go back to what I mentioned before about educating the students about the method. I believe that if the method really works so much better, having a (possibly separate) school with fewer but more committed students would allow us to learn much more about how to really get the method to work and about what its real potential is. Also, if the method really works that much better, it would help the school in the long term thanks to its good results and the publicity that comes from there. That way, people that are skeptical would become convinced that a better approach to language learning is possible.

There is one big doubt about the method that I was left with. That doubt is about the feasibility in practice of following the principles of ALG completely, even by someone who is fully committed to it. In his book “From the Outside In“, Marvin Brown explains how analyzing the language in his head prevented him from acquiring Teochew Chinese. As a career linguist, he couldn’t keep himself from analyzing a lot of the features of the language while he was listening to it. In my case, I wouldn’t say it affected me as much as it affected him. After all, I’m not a linguist and I did acquire quite a bit of Thai. But I also can’t say that I didn’t analyze the language I was hearing at all. And if someone that’s so motivated that will go to live abroad for 1 year to try a method on himself can’t keep himself from analyzing, what can we expect from the majority of language learners? AUA tries to reduce this by playing engaging games and telling interesting stories, but of course not all of the classes manage to be captivating 100% of the time for all of the students. There may be a solution to keep learners from analyzing and thinking about the language, but I don’t think we have found it yet.

Another thing that is also missing is more data that would help us give better input to learners. There is quite a bit of research comparing Comprehensible Input to other methods of language learning, but there doesn’t seem to be much research about what’s the best way to provide input. Is it better to listen to slow speech? Is it better to listen to interesting fiction or to personal stories? Is it better to simplify the vocabulary? Can something be done to help with understanding and acquisition of more abstract words? Many questions still remain.