Readers' Submissions

Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 81

  • Written by Dana
  • April 30th, 2005
  • 12 min read


LANGUAGE CRIMINALS

Recently (27/4/2005) Ajarn Wannabe posted another submission on languages and learning languages entitled: MORE ABOUT LANGUAGE. Mr. Wannabe likes languages and in particular the learning of languages and this is presumably relevant to the Stickmanbangkok site because tourists or expats may be considering the wisdom or the techniques related to learning Thai. It's nice to have a hobby. Personally I like bows and arrows. Mr. Wannabe's enthusiasm is infectious and his knowledge is compelling and there is some evidence that he is one point on the three point triangle of mathematics-languages-music that defines the gifted. People who are mathematics gifted or linguistics gifted or musically gifted have mental abilities that can not be readily explained. However, either through indifference or ignorance he neglects to mention the four weak links in the ‘learn-a-language' chain. Think all the links in your yachts chain are identical? Ok, take a portable x-ray machine down to the boat and x-ray each link. You better be wearing diapers when you do this. To promulgate ideas regarding your personal enthusiasm to the general public without examining and making public all the links in the chain is intellectually dishonest. In business it is called a sin of omission and if you are a stockbroker or an insurance broker you are required to purchase ‘sin-of-omission' insurance to protect you from client lawsuit. A sin of omission is when you know something about the product or the service that the client would benefit from knowing and you neglect (omit) to tell them. The easiest example is the real estate broker who neglects to tell the potential purchaser that every spring the basement floods. The four weak links in the ‘learn-a-language' chain are what I call the Four Big Lies about learning languages.

The First Big Lie about learning languages is the ‘osmotic learning' lie. This is the universally accepted and happy idea that you can learn a language (Thai) osmotically. In other words, just by being surrounded by native speakers in Hat Yai or Chon Buri your brain will acquire the language the way a sponge in proximity to water will acquire (soak up) the water. It's called osmosis. Well, this may work for sponges but it does not work for people. You can not learn a language osmotically. If this were scientifically true rather than just the fuzzy thinking of the romantically inclined I could place a human being in a kennel for an appropriate amount of time and that human being would learn to communicate with dogs by growling and woofing and barking. Think that example is absurd? Wait a minute–I thought you believed in the notion of learning a language through exposure and osmosis. Surely the dogs language is not as complicated as Thai. It should be easy. Don't get upset with my example–it's your theory. Like a lot of western social science ideas this osmotic learning idea can not be supported by facts. It's just the happy anecdotal nonsense that can not stand rigorous testing. The reason osmotic language learning does not work and can not work is because you do not understand how technically the language (Thai) is put together in the first place so you have no reference point for the incoming language data you are receiving. You can be reactive but you can never be proactive because you do not know what you are doing. What people blithely call osmotic learning in languages because it sounds sort of scientific is just fancy language for mimicry. Parrots do this. But no one in their right mind would ever say that a parrot is fluent in the language. What so-called osmotic language learning is good for is picking up accent and speed and nuance and colloquialisms and slang and exceptions and confidence. But this can only be possible once you understand technically and instinctively how the new language is constructed. Otherwise what you are trying to do is put together the jig saw puzzle when there is no picture on the front of the box. Lots of pieces (data) but no clue. I hope you have a lot of time.

But this notion of learning a language osmotically is like a monster you can't kill by driving a stake through the heart. It is because the notion of learning something by just being around native speakers satisfies everyone's need for some human endeavor that is fast, fun, and easy. It is called sales. A little like telling an overweight person that they can lose weight just by thinking about it. You know–mind over matter. Well, I hate to be the bad guy and the party pooper here but you can not lose weight just by thinking about it. And you can not learn to be fluent in Thai just by being surrounded by Thai speakers. But it does sell a lot of airline tickets. Every year Suzy or Ken goes to France to live with a real French family and learn French by–you know–just being around them. So Suzy and Ken are happy because they got out of the house after graduating from High School, and the airlines are happy because they sold tickets, and the French family is happy because they are getting a little something for being so international and broadminded. When Suzy and Ken come back to the states their friends and their parents hear them say some things in French. Wow the program worked–my son can speak French. No he can't. Only the French knew this but they were too polite (and they haven't received all of their payments yet) to say anything.

Some obvious problems with this theory of osmotic learning should not require mention but I'll do the heavy lifting here and take the hits. The first problem that should instantly occur to anyone is that you are only repeating (mimicking) what you are hearing. How do you know the ‘native speaker' is speaking the language correctly. Answer: you don't. The reason you do not know if the native speaker is speaking the language accurately is because you don't know anything. Remember? You do not have a working technical knowledge of how the language is constructed in the first place. You didn't need to learn all of that boring shit because–you know–you were just going to learn Thai through osmosis. Let me give you a sad example. Right now there are many well meaning hard working Thai students taking ‘learn-to-speak English' classes in their Thai schools. The problem is that the Thai teacher does not know how to speak English. But the trusting student does not know this. After four years of getting 100% on every test and quiz the student believes they know how to speak English. Hold on, the heartbreaking part is coming. Many rich Thais send their sons and daughters to western countries like Australia or England or the United States because they have a parental commitment to help their progeny become citizens of the world. Once enrolled in a western university the Thai child is stunned to learn that they do not know how to speak English. They fail and have to return to Thailand and to the parents. The child's failure and the parent's loss of face (they bragged to all of their friends) becomes a family secret that no one talks about. Another problem with osmotic learning is that you are learning to mimic those around you. In my own city I come in contact on a daily basis with native speakers who speak English incorrectly. If these were the knuckleheads I was learning from I would sound like a knucklehead. Since the osmotic learner lacks basic knowledge about how the language is constructed they have no way of know if what they are hearing has any value.

A second problem with osmotic learning is content. If all the French family talked about was professional wrestling and grape stomping for three months that is pretty much all you know. That ain't (oops) fluency Pablo.

The third obvious problem with the theory of osmotic learning is time. Even if osmotic learning had value the question is how much time would be required. Thirty years? Twenty years? Ten years? Remember you are receiving no structured formal training in the language. You are just trying to puzzle out all of the little bits as they come in. In MORE ON LANGUAGE Mr. Ajarn mentions something of value being accomplished in three weeks. To which I say, "What drugs are you on?" The only thing that I can think of that you can accomplish with certainty in three weeks is losing all of your money in a bad investment. To not mention the intellectual bankruptcy of osmotic learning is criminal.

The Second Big Lie about learning languages is that it has value because it allows you to get a keyhole look at another culture and this has value. No it does not. Learning another language teaches you so little about that culture that the concept has no value. Learning the Thai word for water buffalo teaches you nothing about the culture. The only way you can learn about a culture is to live in the culture. There is no substitute. But boy-oh-boy is this idea popular. This idea started in the late 18th century when the Grand Tour for the sons of estate holders was being replaced by the concept of university education. The concept behind the Grand Tour since the late 16th century for the future estate holder or business holder was that doing a little touring of the world before settling down would make the son a more civilized and educated and broadened person and hopefully more qualified to run the estate and administer the human and business issues. But the tours got a little expensive and the sons spent a little too much time in women and too little time in thought. So the university idea was accepted as a substitute. Cheaper and more formalized. And part of the curriculum was languages. And the way these language courses were marketed to the unenthusiastic students and their bills paying fathers was that learning languages was not just technical and mechanical–why it also broadened your learning and horizons by teaching you about another culture. The marketing started early for this nonsense and was so successful in selling this intangible unproven idea that the self same marketing is used today to get Tom and Nancy and their parents to sign up for language classes in junior high school or high school. The difference (and marginal improvement) is that Greek and Latin has finally been dropped and everybody downgraded to French and Spanish and Italian. And at some universities now they have even now dropped that nonsense. It is now possible to get a bachelors degree in liberal arts with no language requirement. It was never anything other than a marketing scam and a stupid waste of time and a lot of schools are now starting to come clean on the issue.

The Third Big Lie in language learning that the super knowledgeable Mr. Ajarn neglects to bring up is the quaint notion that learning a language improves a person. More marketing and sales language by the language lobbyists (teachers and schools and travel agencies). No it does not. Learning Thai does not improve your character. Depending on what psychologist or scientific thought you are attracted to your character was either formed at point of conception or by age nine. There is not one scintilla of evidence that mastering a language other than your own makes any significant additions or deletions to your character. More silly marketing and sales lies to get you to sign up.

The Fourth Big Lie in the ‘learn-a-language' arena is that you do not have to know how your own language is constructed before you embark on learning another language. Wrong. If you do not know how connectives and pronouns and particles and qualifiers and adverbs are used in your own language you have no meaningful technical point of reference for learning another language. 99% of English speaking people do not know technically how their language works. Responsible foreign language teaching would first start with your own language. Only once you had proved technically competent and understanding of the grammatical and constructive basics of your own language; would you then be qualified to learn another language. But since this increases the time commitment and increases the difficulty and lowers the ‘fun' no one does this. They (the teachers and the administrators and the schools) know they should teach this way but they don't. More marketing and sales and irresponsible behavior on the part of the language teachers. It's all a scam.

So let us review. Osmosis is not a way to learn a language, only a way to improve on basic skills already acquired through formal structured training. You are not going to become fluent in Thai by owning a bait shop in Kamphaeng Phet. Learning Thai will not teach you enough about Thais or Thai culture for that sentence to ever come out of your mouth. Only living with Thais in Thailand will allow you to understand why they pass on blind corners and continue to buy tickets in a crooked lottery. Application of personal discipline and focus in learning Thai may fine tune basic personality traits you already have, but learning a language should not be confused with altering character for the better. If that were true governments would be requiring prisoners to learn to read Ovid in the original vernacular. And lastly, learning Thai without understanding basic language constructs (your own language is always the best reference) is a shortcut that leads nowhere. The average (I am not talking about the linguistically gifted- a category of brain competence no one even pretends to understand) adult westerner can not learn the tonal languages in a reasonable enough amount of time (relative to his stay on earth) or to a reasonable degree of proficiency to make it efficient. This makes it a waste of time. Time to humans represents life. If you are wasting my time you are wasting my life. That is a crime. People who recommend or encourage adult westerners to learn tonal languages without apprising them of the Four Big Language Lies are either ignorant or they are trying to sell you something. Either way it is behavior calculated or potentiated to steal my time and steal my life. These are criminals.

Stickman's thoughts:

That's a strong point of view to take on a rather innocuous subject…