Studying at the Dream School (AUA 2/3)

Pablo Roman Humanes
October 13, 2018
 min read

My first time attending the Thai program at AUA was on a Saturday. On Saturdays there were always fewer students than on weekdays, so it was relatively calm. I went to the office and was given my first free hour (actually 50 minutes). There was no real introduction to explain the method and why this school is different than other schools. I don’t know how I felt about it at that time, but over the period I spent studying there I became more and more convinced that it would be better to have a proper introduction. I saw that many students misunderstood the goal of the school and didn’t make the most of the lessons.

I should say that I was starting to learn Thai completely from ZERO. I had deliberately prevented myself from having any other exposure to the Thai language, since I wanted to see how it felt to learn only by listening from the very beginning and only using their method.

I don’t remember exactly what my first class was about. I didn’t write it down. But after taking 2 hours of class in the morning, I met the previous manager of the Thai program at that school, David Long, who still has a lot of influence on the program. I remember going out for food with David and already understanding a few of the Thai numbers.

The Beginner Level

The classes at the beginner level are always conducted by 2 teachers. At this level the topic of each class is completely flexible and the teachers prepare a different topic for each class. As a student you don’t know what the topic for each class is going to be, just who will be teaching it. The same pair of teachers always teach the same class (say 9 AM) from Monday to Friday, but the topics can change each day. When I was there there were in total 10 teachers in the school, so that allowed you to get a few different examples of voices and ways of speaking, which I think is great to help your comprehension ability.

As I mentioned in the first post, all the classes are conducted exclusively in Thai. You are not supposed to take notes, or use dictionaries. You are also not supposed to try to speak Thai, especially at the beginner level, and even at the intermediate and advanced levels you are not encouraged to do it if you don’t want to.

At the beginner level, teachers use the whiteboard a lot. They draw a lot to make themselves more comprehensible. They also make a lot of gestures, imitate animal sounds, etc. They also have a set of posters with pictures they can point to. They use those to talk about fruits, vegetables, countries, colors, days of the week, months, etc.

They use all those tools to talk about a wide range of topics. Those include anything from daily life, Thai culture or sports, to gambling and partying in Bangkok. They also try to interact with the students as much as possible and have the students contribute to the conversation. However, since speaking Thai too early goes against the principles of the method, they encourage people to reply in English or with gestures.

The beginner classes also include many games, some more fun than others. Personally I got a bit bored of doing so many bingo games, and I think some of the games didn’t really fit the method since they seemed to try to draw the students’ attention towards particular words. The majority of the games, though, were indeed fun to play and exposed us to a great deal of input in the language. These were great to add some variety and make the students participate in class.

My experience when I started in the beginner class is that it was HARD. I wrote this during my first week of studying at AUA:

The numbers were very easy to pick up, as were greetings and other interjections that are used at specific times. However the level for beginner classes is not as low as it could be. I imagine because they have to accommodate to a certain range of levels. The classes could be more easily understood in my case if they used more role-playing and if they didn’t have any conversations in which they didn’t use the support of the whiteboard, which they do often.
Some classes I can’t really get the topic of the class and it just seems as if the teachers are only jumping from topic to topic.

Because of the number of students they currently have, they can’t break up students in more than 3 levels of difficulty. In my experience, that means that in the beginner class there can be quite a bit of variation between the level of complete beginners (me) and the level of more advanced students. The teachers target the average level of the class, and that means that the lesson won’t be as easy as the complete beginners would wish. I guess there’s not much you can do about this. In another context in which all students started at the same level at the same time this wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

The easiest lessons for me to understand were those in which the teacher was telling a story. Having a connected narrative helps enormously with understanding, since it lets you have some expectations about what possible directions the story can take and that adds a lot of context. Stories tend to have also a big physical component (movement, actions, etc.) that’s easier to explain using gestures and drawings. Lessons in which the teachers discussed a topic (like “transportation”, or “medicinal herbs”) were in general harder to understand at the beginning.

Besides my complaint about the difficulty of the classes at the beginning, the teachers were generally AMAZING. Most of them have a lot of experience at what they do, and can talk in front of the students for 50 minutes without stopping. They are experts in coming up with things to talk about. They are also really funny people. One of my main motivations for continuing to improve my Thai nowadays is having met them and the good times I had in those classes. They loved to tease me and the other students, and I loved to tease them back.

Something should be said about the other students. Even though they weren’t supposed to be trying to speak Thai, some of them seemed to take the lessons as an opportunity for practice. The result, especially considering that they were still at the beginner level, wasn’t pretty. Most of the time I wasn’t able to decipher what they were trying to say, even when I could understand the teachers without any problem after they repeated what the student just said. This kept happening all the way to the advanced class. Generally I tried not to pay attention when a student was speaking Thai, since I was trying to remain “pure” and only have input from natives.

The number of students at the beginner level changed wildly depending on the day and the time of the day. At least 3 or 4 times I’ve had a class just for myself, but often we were around 15 or so people.

Even though I got the impression that my progress at the beginning was very slow due to the difficulty of the lessons, I did manage to make progress and I actually progressed to the intermediate class earlier than expected. AUA says that the average time for a western person is 400 hours, and it took me 300.

I’m Intermediate!

The transition to intermediate wasn’t as hard as I had initially expected. It was for sure much easier than when I started attending the beginner class. I didn’t understand everything right away, but I did understand what most of the classes were about, and pretty soon I started understanding more and more details about what the teachers were saying. I’ve read at least one account of a person who said that they had a hard time and that it was very frustrating for them to do the step from beginner to intermediate, but for me that wasn’t the case. It is possible that I stayed at the beginner level for longer than they did.

In intermediate classes, the teachers barely drew on the whiteboard anymore, and they didn’t have so many posters lying around to help with communication. There would still be a lot of rephrasing and explanations, but not so much in terms of visuals.

The structure of the classes also changed. At the intermediate and advanced levels, the topics for each hour are decided beforehand. Every day of the week (besides Saturday) there’s the same topic at 9:00 AM. Another topic at 10:00 AM, etc. This way, you can attend the lessons that interest you the most. Terms last for 6 weeks. The topics stay the same during the whole term, but every term the topics change. Topics are usually taken from a bigger pool of topics that the teachers have experience teaching, but the variety keeps it interesting. Examples of these topics are: “The News“, “Thai Dance“, “Bangkok Nightlife“, “Ghost Stories“, “Debate“, “Thai History“, etc. Most of the topics involve the teachers teaching the students about a certain subject, but there are also a few in which teachers tell fictional stories, or things like a debate between the two teachers. At the intermediate levels there are no games anymore.

At the intermediate level most students tried to speak Thai and very few of us replied to questions in English. Teachers don’t try to discourage it anymore at this level, even though many of the students still spoke so badly that I couldn’t figure out what they were saying.

In the average intermediate class there are more students than in the average beginner class. Sometimes we were up to 25 people. That happens more often around noon, which is when the school was the fullest, and also for topics that people like. Things like “Debate” and “Adult Stories” (nothing sexy here, just stories that end mostly in people dying) were especially popular.

I’m, Like, So So Advanced

After spending some 400 hours in the intermediate class (around 700 hours total counting the beginner classes), I made the jump into the advanced class.

The advanced level was weird in that you only really had 3 hours of the day in which you were separated from the intermediate class. Even if you are at the advanced level, you still have to join the intermediate students during the rest of the day.

The jump from intermediate to advance was the easiest one to make. The biggest difference was that the topics at the advanced level were a bit more abstract or “adult”. Things like “Economics“, “Politics” or “Thai Idioms“. There were also more classes in which there was only one teacher. There was essentially no drawing. The teachers did still sometimes bring printed pictures when they wanted to talk about certain topics. One example is to show us what some famous person looks like.

The advanced class was also the smallest in the school, and we were typically between 3 and 6 people.

I was surprised to still see students at the advanced level who were totally incomprehensible when speaking Thai because of totally messed up pronunciation.

My progress

Even though it took me less time than average to go into the higher levels, progress never really felt fast. I did realize many times that I was understanding specific words here and there that I wouldn’t have understood the day before, but it took me at least 30 to 50 hours of class to really notice a significant difference in how much I was understanding.

The first words that I noticed I was understanding were nouns that refer to concrete things, like “person”, “pineapple”, or “pants”. Verbs that refer to physical actions also became clear quite early on. Things like “to walk”, “to eat”, “to speak”. Many things for which there’s a universal gesture were also easy to guess, so for example I learned “to think” and “to like” way earlier than “to be called” (used to say “my name is …”) or “to want”, for the simple reason that the latter are harder to convey using gestures or drawings.

Most times, I didn’t learn specific words straight away in a single class. For most words, I would first hear the word a few times and start noticing it, then I managed to associate some particular meaning to it, say “pineapple”. Later, when I heard that word, meaning wouldn’t be immediately clear out of context, and I would only understand the word in a context that made its meaning clear. After I got more input I would eventually be able to understand that word when said by itself without any context. At that point I still probably wouldn’t be able to come up with the word myself and use it in a conversation though. That came later after some more exposure to the word.

I also felt many times, especially at the beginning, that I could understand a word even though I was not exactly sure of how it was being pronounced. This happened more for words that have many sounds that I wasn’t familiar with. All this eventually became clear after listening to many and many hours of the language and finding those same sounds in many other words.

Many times I noticed that I had learned the meaning of a whole sentence as a chunk, without really knowing each of the words inside it. I eventually did learn those separate words, but it never really bothered me since I wasn’t trying to analyze the language.

It was very interesting to see that many words that are typically taught right at the start of typical language courses weren’t acquired until far later. After attending 120 hours of class I didn’t even know whether Thai had personal pronouns (I, you, he, she). It wasn’t after past 170 hours of class that I learned the first pronoun for “I” (later it turned out that Thai has many of these). An even more extreme case was for one word that seems to be used most often where you would use the verb “to be” in English. I didn’t learn that until after past 300 hours, even though it’s a word that’s used in every other sentence. I realized at that point how little importance we place on words that don’t carry much meaning and which are there just to accomplish a grammatical purpose.

Before those first 300 hours had gone by, still in the beginner class, I had already noticed though that I had acquired quite a bit of the syntax of the language. I regularly noticed errors when other students spoke because they intuitively sounded wrong and not how the teachers would say that same thing. It was usually a problem with the word order, or with the students forgetting a word or adding a word that was not necessary.

Through the intermediate and advanced levels I continued learning words that were progressively more abstract. Some words that I noticed I had learned close to the end of my study were words for “for example”, “in general”, and “definitely”.

Summing it up

This is it for now.

In the third and last post I’ll discuss my final level of achievement, my ideas for how I would try to improve AUA, and a recap in which I will talk about what the experience meant for me, what I got from it, and whether it matched my expectations or not.