Fighting Mad Over Linguistics

In Linguistics and Language Learning on April 3, 2008 at 3:03 pm


“I can beat up almost any linguist who was chosen over me in the International Journal of Linguistics”



Sounds Vs. Words

By Antonio Graceffo


A reader sent me an email response to one of my earlier pieces about language learning. These reader mails demonstrate the commonly held misconception, about the way we learn language. My new strategy is to allow reader letters to become the basis for future articles. So, if you have any questions about language learning or want to share a story or some information, feel free to write me. 

 The reader wrote:   “When I first began to learn Thai, I was staying with my uncle- who is Thai.  this means that when I asked him something, or when he talked to me, or when I talked to him, I got a mix of both Thai and English together, either from him accidentally slipping a word of Thai out- I learned the word for ‘pencil’ that way (bakgaa)- or from him not knowing a word in Thai or in English, and both of us having to communicate the meaning of what we were trying to say in very basic ideas.” 

The situation with his uncle reinforces what I said abut the myth of total immersion. You can’t go in completely cold or not knowing anything in the language and expect to learn. His uncle spoke some English mixed with Thai. This is what you need, some point of reference from which to learn. If the uncle spoke only Thai, he would have learned more slowly. This is how I learned Italian and Spanish, my grandmother and the other older people always spoke a mix and I had learned a lot of words but more importantly a lot of mannerisms and inflections, passively, by an early age.


David Long, who runs the Thai program at AUA Bangkok, and is the leading proponent of ALG (Automatic Language Growth), believes, and I concur, that much of the understanding that we have in a foreign language is cultural, rather than linguistic. We know that in our native language communication is 80% non-verbal. Studies have been done, showing that we only hear one in five words spoken to us. So, language is not the key. Culture is. Mannerisms, inflections, concepts, thought-processes and attitudes are all extremely important in mastering communication in a foreign culture.


And these are all cultural nuances which the reader would have picked up from his uncle, which you can’t get from a book. But again, the only way he was able to learn is because the uncle knew some English.


This hypothesis could easily be tested. Go live in a tribal village on the border, but find one where no one speaks a word of Thai or English, and see how quickly you learn the local language. It will take ages.


When we talk about learning from “immersion” instead of school, I must ask, would your uncle teach you words for economic theory, political language, religion, history…Are these subjects that you would expect to come up in normal conversations with villagers? The answer of course is no, these are words and concepts we would expect to learn from school and from reading. Which stresses the importance of learning to read. Once you have a sufficient verbal ability then you need to learn to read in order to learn more elevated vocabulary. Most foreigners scoff at this.


“Who needs to talk about that stuff?” 

“My father had to go see the cardiologist, and she recommended an operation because one of his ventricles is not working right.”


If you told this story to an English native speaker and he didn’t know what a cardiologist was, or a ventricle, or an operation, you would think he was a complete momo. So, unless you want to be a complete momo in Thai, you need to learn elevated language. Generally, you will only learn this type of language from targeted reading and study. It won’t just come up in conversation. If you worked in a hospital, you might hear these words everyday, and eventually learn them. But you will lose a lot of patients along the way. For most of us, however, these words may come up in conversation, but not frequently enough for you to learn. Only frequently enough for you to look like a mook when you don’t know it.

 The reader wrote: “When his nephew came to stay with us, my Thai learning started to skyrocket, as did his English learning: we had to learn to communicate effectively, and I remember we would sit for hours at a time when we had nothing to do and point at things and say “Whats this?” “anii riak waa arai?” and write the answers down in some form we could understand later.  this wasn’t as much of a learning aid, simply because we’d find each other’s answers funny half the time and spend half the time laughing at the stupid words in each others languages, or else we’d try to make sentences with the new words in each other’s languages and get that entirely wrong, which would make us laugh more. But it meant that we had to learn to communicate with some effectiveness without having a language in common, and that was very helpful to me learning Thai.” Once again, the reader was able to learn with his cousin because he already had a good basis in the language. One trap a lot of people fall into if they learn a language at home with family or with their lover is that people who are emotionally close develop their own language, which is devoid of grammar rules and may include made up words, consistently mispronounced or misused words and words borrowed from other languages.  I was staying in a German guesthouse in Chiang Mai. There was a couple in the next room. When the man spoke, I could tell by his accent and dialect that he was clearly an uneducated laborer or factory worker from East Germany. His wife was Thai and had obviously lived in Germany for years. She believed that she spoke fluent German and was very proud of herself. She kept dressing down the Thai girls who worked in the restaurant because their German wasn’t perfect.  The truth is, this woman spoke something between Gastarbeiter Deutsch and Kindersprache. Gastarbeiter Deutch is the pigeon that is used to communicate with eastern European, Italian, and Turkish laborers working in Germany. Only Hauptworte, main words, nouns and verbs, are used. There is no grammar and no tenses. For example, “You tomorrow working 7:00.”  Kindersprache, or baby talk, meant, you had this adult woman saying brilliant things like “I want my baba, or “I have to make duty.” Once again, she believed she was totally fluent because she and her husband understood each other. And probably, when other people didn’t understand here she attributed it to the fact that they were stupid. This couple was traveling with two other German couples and I saw, time and time again, the Thai woman would dominate the German conversation to show how well she spoke German. After she finished the story, her husband would translate into real German. Then the other two couples would laugh or cry or whatever reaction the story called for. Also, I saw her husband desperately talking the ears off of his German friends, ostensibly telling them all of the things he couldn’t tell his wife because she didn’t understand real German well enough.  She was 100% fluent in the German she and her husband spoke together, but it wasn’t standard, adult German. And, it only worked because the husband dumbed down the things he wanted to talk about.  It goes both ways. I met a British guy who was so proud of his Thai. But, when I heard him speak, it was absolute shite. I knew from listening to the way he spoke, he learned from his girlfriend and measured his fluency by his girlfriend’s ability to understand him. The other Thai women in the room were straining to understand him. Switching back to English he was then lecturing a Belgian guy about how, now that he has mastered Thai, this British lad understood the key to fluency in a foreign language.  The British guy was missing the point that the Belgian spoke perfect English, Flemish and French, and was able to carry on a conversation in Germany. He probably didn’t need a lot of advice from this lad who only spoke one foreign language haltingly.  “The key is to think in the foreign language and not translate.” Said the lad.  Although this is true, he was misguided. To think in Thai, he had to lower his thinking to the level of his Thai, which compared to a native speaker, was the level of a three or four year old. If you think and speak like a three or four year old you will be a mook.  This is one of the reasons I left the Shaolin Temple, in China. I had reached a point where I thought and dreamed in Chinese. But my Chinese vocabulary is not even a tenth of my English vocabulary, so my thoughts were not even a tenth as intelligent. I was worried I was becoming stupider.  When I lived in the monastery in Thailand, and we had a professional fight, my opponent was the ugliest human being I had ever seen. I didn’t know the Thai word for ugly, but someone said that my opponent was Kon Lao. So, I thought Kon Lao meant ugly. I later learned, of course, that Kon Lao meant he was from Lao. But after that, when I saw an ugly person I always said Kon Lao, and my friends understood me. I had no idea this was wrong and got angry when outsiders didn’t understand me.  In Taiwan, when I first met my kung fu team mates I couldn’t remember all their names. I was trying to say, “what is the name of the fat guy?” and they told me Tai Pong De. So, I called this guy Tai Pong De for months. Later, in Chinese class I realized Tai Pong De means “too fat.” It wasn’t his name, it was a description. But everyone on my team understood me. So, the thing to be careful of is, whatever level of fluency you have at home or with your loved ones, decrease it by at least 30% to find your true fluency. The reader wrote: “ You can pick up individual sounds and remember them, even if they have no meaning to you, and from those sounds, you can get a translation and a meaning for the sound, and you can learn a new word or phrase from that.  one recent example is a word I just learned two days ago- ‘bra gorp’, or to assemble or to put together: this is a word I’ve been hearing regularly for maybe the past 3 months, maybe once or twice a week, and I’d always heard it in context with ‘fixing’ something, or doing maintenance, so I had a rough idea of what the word was without being able to nail down specifics.” 

Actually, it is not possible to learn and remember a sound without knowing what it means. If you don’t speak any Thai at all you can’t even differentiate between sounds. Again, I have written about this at length elsewhere, but one of the points is that when you learn a new language you come in with the sounds you already have from your native language, and then match them as closely as you can to the new language. The problem is that they never match up properly. This is why half of the drunken foreigners are telling prostitutes that they are “very unlucky” rather than “very beautiful.” From their own L1 reference point, they can’t hear the difference between those two words.


In this example, figuring out the meaning of the word “assemble,” the reader is learning a word, not a sound. This is one example of why people need to study linguistics to understand how to learn and teach language and why their advice sends me through the roof. Learning a word and learning a sound are two completely separate concepts.


He probably already had all of the Thai sounds at that point. I don’t have an exact number, but most likely, by the time you have one thousand words you probably have all the Thai sounds. So, what he listened to and took with him was not an unknown sound but an unknown word.

He learned the word “assemble” from context. He already knew all the other words in the sentence. At the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey California, the concept applied to learning words in context is probability. When we hear a new word, we assign it a probability, and we update this probability each subsequent time we hear it until we are certain we know what it means.


This is why linguists are often employed as code-breakers. Mathematicians are the obvious first choices, but good linguists or let’s say good language learners, operate on an internal system of probability.


My Thai teacher told us a story about a women who “mi lup.” I didn’t know what that meant, so the teacher pointed at a classmate who was pregnant and said, “Kun Courtney mi lup.” I assigned “mi lup” a 70% probability that it meant “pregnant.” Pregnant also worked in the story the teacher was telling us, so I upgraded the probability to 80%. Over the next several days, when I heard stories that included the words “mi lup,” I substituted “pregnant” and the stories made sense.


One problem with guessing is that when we think we know, we stop guessing and move on to the next word. Months later, I learned that Kun Courtney had three other children and that “mi lup,” meant “to have children.”


We do need to do statistical guessing to deal with words and concepts in communication. ALG (Automatic Language Growth) however, would argue that becoming too focused on words, we miss out on learning the language and, of course, once we think we know something we stop learning.


Keep listening and keep learning.


Antonio Graceffo is the author of four books, available on He is also a professional martial artist who has appeared in magazines, television, and films. See his website, contact him at



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: