12 March 2015

Yes, you can break a window with an ashtray (some thoughts on learning ภาษาไทย)

If you can see my scrawlings, don't read them.
I’ve been learning Thai for eight months now. I go to the Walen International School of Achievement (two-fifths of whose name can be taken at face value) and I’m having a pretty bizarre time, partly because of all the purple, but mostly because of their highly specific and counterintuitive method. So I thought I’d share.

This is our coursebook. Clearly there’s quite a lot to say about this in design terms, but that’s a wholenother post. The point is that it consists of groups of words, followed by questions and answers containing those words, and that’s it. Each lesson goes like this:

14:00-14:20  In a circle, student 1 reads a question aloud. Student 2 answers and reads the next question aloud. Student 3 answers, etc.

14:20-14:50  Teacher 1 reads questions to each student in turn. Students are meant to respond with the exact answer in the book, but teacher 1 allows some divergence from the model.

14:50-15:00  Break. Students frantically learn words for the spelling test.

15:00-15:10  Spelling test (15 words).

15:10-15:50  Teacher 2 reads questions to each student in turn. Students are meant to respond with the exact answer in the book and teacher 2 insists on this quite strongly. However, teacher 2 also makes up questions of her own and expects students to say the exact answer in her head, which is quite the parlour game.

15:50-16:00  Students exchange looks, collect spelling papers and go back to their lives.

I should probably add a note about the questions and answers here, which is that they’re not immediately usable at a bus station or the doctor’s. Two genuine examples:

She’s got four arms, hasn’t she? No, she hasn’t got four arms. She’s got two arms. (I suppose at a push you could slip this one in at the doctor’s.)

You can break a window with an ashtray, can’t you? Yes, you can break a window with an ashtray.

And one more note about the levels, because this is the second level class. In the first level class, the structure is basically the same, but the students just take turns to spell out words. For two hours.

So that’s Walen. Sort of Callanesque, except if I was at a Callan school I’m convinced I’d have twice the communicative competence by now. I dread the lessons and squirm my way through them, terrified of making mistakes, longing for just two or three minutes of explicit grammar instruction or any kind of fun at all. And yet. AND YET.

I can’t help wondering if Mr/Mrs/Ms/Dr/Rev Walen is some kind of evil genius, because I can basically use Thai although I’ve been a dreadful student. I only have six hours of lessons a week, I do virtually nothing outside of class…and I can kind of read signs and menus. Slowly, but it’s Thailand and who’s rushing? Vocabulary I don’t remember learning will suddenly pop into my head, especially words with the diphthongs เอือะ (eua) or เอือ (euaa) in them, since they are two of the silliest and most satisfying noises humans are capable of producing. And again, I’m sure my tones are all over the shop, but it’s Chiang Mai and who’s judging?

Evil or genius? Lest anyone is thinking of signing up to the Walen International School of Achievement, I’ve knocked up a short list of pros and cons. You’re welcome.

Why the Walen method might be a bit genius

1. The initial focus on reading makes a lot of sense, because you’re not relying on unstandardised and imperfect transliterations of Thai phonemes. And the first time you manage to sound out ก๋วยเตี๋ยว (noodles) on a food stall without help you just want to jump in the noodles, whooping.

2. Thanks to the endless repetition of the same material (we’ve been through the book multiple times), it’s possible to absorb a lot of lexis by osmosis. Imagine what I could do if I actually put in the hours and left myself vocab post-its all over the house! Oh, good intentions, road to hell.

3. You’re forced to pay attention. Your turn to read aloud comes around every couple of minutes, so you can’t take your eye off the ball. It’s stressful, but it’s also stopped me doodling and staring at the Japanese ice-cream festival downstairs.

Walen. It's purple. It just is.
4. Experienced Walen teachers say very little. They don’t give you much time before they prompt you, and they often interrupt to correct your pronunciation (hello again Callan), but they don’t actually say a lot. That means you can focus on the key language in the book without having to decode the teacher’s stream of consciousness. However, see also point 4 below.

Why the Walen method is in fact unmitigated evil

1. It makes you feel rubbish. Walen operates a roll-on, roll-off system so you’re properly chucked in at the deep end and have no idea what’s going on. The first class vexed me so much that I managed to learn all 76 letters in the 48 hours before the next one, which was ultimately a good thing but seriously, hashtag affective filter.

2. There’s no explanation of anything, either written or spoken, so you’re forced to either (a) draw your own, possibly erroneous, conclusions about the language, or (b) ask the teacher, who may or may not have the English / ability to grade their Thai / subject knowledge to answer your question anyway.

3. The cognitive load is too heavy, too quickly. For example, I’m supposed to learn how to spell 45 words per week. In the first place I’m pretty sure there are some data somewhere that say people can’t deal with groups of more than 10 things, and in the second, because there’s no explanation of spelling rules, it becomes a sort of visual memory test. Which of the six /k/ consonants do I need? ARGH.

4. Inexperienced Walen teachers talk constantly and with scant regard for the fact that they’re in an elementary class. That is all.

I’ve got four months left on my current education visa, during which time I will likely be shunted up to the third level class. I’m horrified at the prospect – but also curious as to whether they’ll start actually telling us what’s going on. Or heaven forfend mix things up from one lesson to the next, or have us chat to another student for five minutes, or throw in a snakes and ladders past tense review. Dark laugh. They do say teachers are the worst students.


  1. Hi Laura,
    Thanks for sharing the Walen method of studying languages. I think (hope!) it's safe to say this won't be taking the world by storm any time soon. It's one of the oddest methods I've come across so far, and I'm very glad it's not me on the receiving end!
    The onus on understanding the script is pretty useful I think, because the various versions of phonemic transcriptions have been confusing me. On the other hand, the multiple possible versions of each sound are also quite overwhelming at the start, so being able to make a quick note of the sound of a word in something approximating a phonemic translation has been quite useful.
    I've mostly been using courses on memrise, with a brief foray to Bangkok for 15 hours of lessons which filled in a few gaps and made me paranoid about tones. This week I've finally started being able to pick out words on signs which had me whooping for joy in a similar way to you :)
    How did the transition to the third level class go? Any change?