How does a child learn a language? They are born unable to speak, and for the first 12 months, just make noises. But after 12 months, words come. Single words initially, but by 24 months, most children are speaking in simple sentences and have a vocabulary of several hundred words.
By the age of 5, most children can form complex sentence structures and communicate their thoughts and desires quite well.
How did they learn that? No young child has formal grammar lessons, they don’t do verb conjugations, they don’t do spelling tests, and they have no idea what “grammar” means.
In Western cultures, parents often sit with a young child looking at picture books and encourage learning. In Asian cultures, especially in poor Asian families, this is less of an occurrence, simply because they can’t afford to buy books. Still, even in Asian cultures, children are reasonably fluent in their language by the age of 5.
How, exactly, do they do that? And can you use the same techniques to learn a language like Thai?
The short answer is “imitation”. Children copy adults. They hear the sounds, they see the actions associated with those sounds, and their brains make connections.
The brain is a complex instrument; some people compare it to a computer, as it has inputs (sight, taste, sound, touch) and outputs (speech, movement), and storage (memory). But it is more complex than any existing computer. Your brain is constantly taking in information every waking moment, filtering some of it out, and storing the rest in “short term memory”. For example, as I am writing this here in my room in Bangkok, I can hear traffic noise from the Expressway which is not far away. My brain is not storing that noise very long, maybe only a second or two, and then it is discarded. But if someone talks to me, the storage time dramatically increases; I can recall what someone said to me half an hour ago, but if you ask me to repeat what someone said two hours or two months ago, the exact words are lost, all I have retained is the general concept. Your “long term memory” contains far fewer details.
When you try to learn an “alien” language like Thai, you need to find a way to make the brain remember the details. I call it “alien” because Thai does not use English characters, it has its own alphabet. The sounds and rhythm of the language are different from English and other European languages, the grammar is totally different, and the vocabulary has different base sounds. “Alien” seems more appropriate than “foreign”.
Children learn by imitation. But you have an adult brain. If someone sits in front of you and says “meu” 35 times, and you repeat it 35 times, will you remember the word? Probably not, because it is not in any kind of context. While you might remember it for a day, a month later it’s gone. It’s just a sound, has no meaning. But if I show you a picture of a hand with six fingers, not five, and say “meu” twice, only twice, chances are you will remember that word the rest of your life.
Why is that? Because hands normally have five fingers, if I show you a picture of a hand with six fingers, that is something different; your brain will associate that picture and the sound together and make a permanent link in your memory. That’s how children learn, but we have tricked the brain to learn faster by making the image unusual to force the link.
Furthermore, if I show you a picture of the Thai word for hand in Thai script at the same time as I show you the image and say the word, your brain will store two images… the pattern of the Thai word and the picture of the hand, along with the sound of the word; this is a three way link. A week later, when you see that word written in Thai, your brain will fire a recognition trigger and pull up the image of the six-fingered hand and you will hear the word in your brain. You didn’t learn the Thai script, the characters, you learned the pattern of characters that makes the word.
It’s like seeing “WORD” as “WORD” rather than “W”, “O”, “R”, “D”. It’s the whole pattern that is important, not the individual letters. While you are reading this article, you are recognizing words, not spelling letters.
This is why I wrote Speak Easy Thai the way I did; the software uses 5000 interesting pictures tied to 5000 words spoken by native Thai speakers and shows you the Thai word in Thai script so your brain can make those important 3-way links. This is an excellent way to learn vocabulary; you just use the program for 10 or 15 minutes whenever you feel like it, and you get new vocabulary each time.
There is another section of Speak Easy Thai which shows 16 cartoon scenarios of common situations, like shopping in a supermarket, being in a classroom, renting a car, etc. I chose to have a young girl (my niece) draw these cartoons because she was not a professional artist. I knew in advance that her drawings would be childish and not professional, and they are. And because of that, they are memorable. When you learn vocabulary with her cartoons, you are learning words in context, like a child, and because the cartoons are different, your brain makes the 3-way links.
I have toured many of the world’s greatest museums and art galleries and viewed thousands of paintings and sculptures. But the ones I remember are the ones that were different in some way: Gauguin’s colourful south seas series is highly memorable, much more so than the thousands of renaissance art pieces. Michelangelo’s David is another example. Dali’s paintings are one more.
While Speak Easy Thai’s cartoons are certainly not up to the caliber of Gauguin, they are different enough from the norm that your brain remembers the cartoon and the Thai words in context.
Learn like a child. See, hear, remember. That’s what Speak Easy Thai is all about.
About the Author:
Douglas Anderson is the author of Speak Easy Thai [http://www.Thai-Culture-Publishing.com], an easy way to learn Thai vocabulary. The software runs on Windows PCs or Macs under BootCamp and includes Fundamentals of Thai Grammar [http://www.learn-faster.org/Thai], a 350-page eBook. Speak Easy Thai uses the Internet for updates, but does not require an Internet connection during operation.
More Thai resources at Learn Thai Faster! [http://www.learn-faster.org/Thai/]