Boxing Till Fluency

In Linguistics and Language Learning on November 27, 2007 at 11:29 am

Thai Language Growth in the RingBy Antonio GraceffoThe ALG method (Automatic Language Growth) of language learning, concentrates on listening, and says the student will speak when he is ready. Last month, when I was in Surin, I needed to speak Thai everyday, but it was very difficult because so many people were speaking Khmer. I got confused and never used a complete sentence from either language. Maybe I wasn’t ready yet, or maybe the situation was just too difficult. The last three weeks, I was working in Chiang Mai, and needed to speak Thai. I was working in a Thai environment, where people honestly didn’t speak English. My listening, of course, is much better than it ever could have been, thanks to ALG. By getting people to relax, and speak to me in Thai, as they would speak to each other, I am able to get better stories, and better, less self-conscious information. Even if I don’t understand everything they are saying, it is better for me to have people rattle on in Thai, and I will catch what I can. This is essentially what happens in an ALG classroom. And now, because of the program, I am comfortable with this. At the end of the day, I am recording these conversations anyway and can always play them back and get them translated later if I need to. It is hard to convince Thai people that you can understand Thai but cannot speak it. The concept is hard even for westerners, but in Thailand, where abstract thinking doesn’t exist and where innovation is discouraged, they only measure your linguistic ability by your ability to talk, not listen. To get people to talk to me in Thai, I had to speak just enough to convince them I could speak the language, without speaking so much that I tripped myself up. It began slowly, with broken sentences and isolated words. After about a week, I was coming out with enough appropriate language, that people would say “Wow! You do speak Thai,” and then comfortably rattle on with me as if we had known each other for a thousand years. Normally in Thailand, if you speak any Thai at all, you receive an empty compliment, “Oh, you speak Thai so well.” Then the people continue speaking to you in English. If they continue in Thai, however, then I take this to be a bit more sincere. With my boxing trainers, I really needed them to speak to me in Thai. First of all, there is a limited amount of language which repeats, daily, and which I would eventually master if they would speak to me in Thai. I don’t need to answer back, only do what they tell me to do. But when they try to speak English, I often have no clue what they are asking of me. And when they are forced to speak English, the things they teach me are limited by their vocabulary and fluency. Which means, they actually teach me more things when they are speaking Thai. 90% of the time I can understand them from body gestures, movement and intuition, so, as ALG teaches, most of the communication is non-verbal. But they wouldn’t even attempt this communication until they falsely believed I was fluent in Thai.  Example: Antonio throws a kick. The teacher says in broken English, “turn your hip into it.” After the teacher is led to believe that I understand Thai, he says, “raise up on the toes of your base leg, and bring your weight forward.” He never made that correction when we were speaking English because he lacked the vocabulary, and he was afraid of losing face. When the teacher is calling combinations he will use numbers, combination one, two or three. But when he is speaking Thai, he invents new and more complicated combinations, which he lacks words for in English. At this point, for most trainers, the things they would know how to say in English aren’t very helpful for me, since their English is more basic than my Thai. Example: The teacher says in Thai: “I want you to blah, blah, blah, your left arm, two times.” The blah, blah, blah is the part I didn’t understand. When I tell the teacher I don’t understand he says in English. “I want you to blah, blah, blah left two.” The blah, blah, remained in Thai because he didn’t know it in English and I didn’t know it in Thai. We are actually worse off in English than we were in Thai. Miss communications and misunderstandings can occur between two native speakers of Thai. In that event, the teacher doesn’t suddenly try to explain in English, a language he is 10% fluent in. Instead, he explains in Thai. And this is my struggle, getting them to restate or explain in Thai. Now that I can fool them into thinking I understand, I can get them to restate in Thai. Often, on the second or third explanation, and using intuition and non-verbal, I can understand. To keep things going smoothly, I pepper my listening with chai, chai, chai, and kaboom, and kap, kap kap, kao jai, kao jai. Occasionally, I ask an incredibly obvious question just to keep the conversation a two way street. Not just in boxing, but other friends I met through my work just felt more comfortable talking to me in Thai. Luckily, we aren’t doing surgery or sending men to the moon, so it is ok if I miss some of what is being said. Each of these conversations is like the ALG classroom. The first trap many foreigners fall into is that when they hear from every Thai person, “Oh, your Thai is so good.” They stop trying to learn, because they think they have mastered the language. At worst, they are hearing a polite, automatic response to a foreigner speaking Thai. At best, they have mastered the art of the daily routine of ordering in a restaurant or telling the taxi driver how to go. The next trap is when you reach the point I am currently at. You can sit and listen endlessly, and understand enough to occasionally make an appropriate comment, or ask a question. This fools the listener into believing you have understood most of what was said, when in actuality, you have only understood 10 – 20%. Such as, your Thai friend tells you a really long story and at the end, all you understood was that the story was about rice. That is not effective communication. The answer is, you need to keep going to school. After sparring the other day, my Muay Thai teacher and I were sitting with a Japanese fighter named Riki. Riki is married to a Thai girl and has been living in Bangkok for five years. The teachers always speak Thai to him because they don’t speak Japanese and probably because they have known him for years. Part of whether or not people understand you as a non-native speaker is dependent on familiarity and trust. I brought one of my classmates, whose Thai is much better than mine, to my Muay Thai gym, but my teachers asked me to translate, rather than speaking Thai to my friend. Riki has a 5 year old half-Thai son, who he talks to in Thai. I always just assumed Riki’s Thai was good, especially since they always asked him to translate for me when I first came to the school. This was funny because Riki doesn’t speak English. He was translating my Thai into Thai that the teachers understood. Yesterday was the first time the three of us had a lengthy conversation in Thai, as equals. I was able to participate the whole time because we were talking about Muay Thai, K- 1, and other forms of fighting, which I am familiar with. So, the conversation followed my intuition and expectations, and I appeared to be a competent speaker and listener. I know that if we had been talking about anything else, I would have been much less prepared. Again, this is the trap of confidence through familiar situations. I discovered Riki’s Thai has huge, holes in it. The teacher asked Riki why Sumo wrestlers are so fat. Riki wanted to say, “Because they eat five times per day.” He kept saying the number five in Thai, but didn’t know how to say five times. Instead, he switched and said “They eat soup for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two more.” But he used the English words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Riki lives in Thailand and functions all day. Obviously, Thai people aren’t speaking to him in Japanese, so he is using Thai to communicate, but at what level is he communicating? And, if this is how he speaks at the end of five years, he probably won’t change at the end of eight or ten years. Another interesting point was that at times, Riki and I got so excited, talking about our favorite fighters in K-1 and Pride, that we were talking a mile a minute, in Thai. We understood each other, but our teacher was completely left out. Possibly he was left out because our pronunciation was so bad, that he as a native speaker couldn’t understand us. But the real problem was cultural. I realized that Riki and I, Japanese and American, were much closer culturally, than either of us were with the Thais. We are both from developed, first world countries, with good education systems. We had watched all of the same fights on TV and had opinions on them. For the Thai instructor, Brazil, Jiu Jitsu, even the K-1 was a blurry foreign mix which he had only experienced as legend. For the Japanese and Americans, our scope is global. We can comfortably talk about fighters and martial arts from Brazil to China and Korea. For many Thais, the entire world outside of Thailand is just Farang. The Japanese also internalize a lot of foreign words, sport words and names, they just write them in Japanese script. This meant that when we talked about the names of martial arts or the names of countries and fighters they were close enough in both of our languages that we knew what we were talking about. This experience drove home, once again, that communication is non-verbal. It is more cultural than linguistic. And, although it may not be the best way for everyone, martial arts is an awesome way to learn a foreign language.

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” The Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running on youtube, click here.  The Monk From Brooklyn – Kuntaw in the Phillipines Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website


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