Take a break and improve your Thai


In traditional language programs it’s common to forget.  In fact if you wait long enough, you may forget everything you studied.  Many years ago, one of our students had ‘studied’ (I never like using the word study in relation to our program because it doesn’t represent what we do very well.) for about 6 months and was in level 3.  He was going to return to his home country for another half a year and hoped to come back to take more classes.  He asked Dr. Brown what he should do in order to maintain his Thai – in order not to lose what he’d learned.  At that time, Dr. Brown imagined that he wouldn’t lose a thing and he’d be able to start right back from where he’d left off.

The next year he returned.  He had not been exposed to any Thai, and hadn’t practiced any form of study.  He went into level 3 where he’d left off.  After about 1 week, he went to visit Dr. Brown, reporting that the classes were actually too easy.  The result of this break was that he moved to level 5, completely skipping level 4 altogether.

What happened?  How can this be?  We think there are a few things related to this phenomenon.

First, people normally remember things that happen.  Because our Thai program is based entirely on experiences, you automatically retain them.  What is an experience made up of?  Many happenings – and in our program, Thai language is a part.  So the first thing to understand is if you were there as part of the experience, you’ve got that experience in your head.

Secondly, processing those experiences cannot possibly take place all at once.  How many times have you been unable to recall something, or understand a new thing that happened, and couldn’t understand it until setting it aside completely?  Your mind was still at work, and what you were trying to figure out, connected seemingly all on its own.  When you collect the language pieces in experiences, your brain doesn’t connect everything immediately – this is a process that apparently takes some time.  I like to think of this process as a from of digestion.  In fact, it’s more like a linking up of the different parts in the hundreds of ways each part might be linked up to other things already in your mind.

What we have noticed and especially for those who study 5 or 6 hours each day, is that during breaks away from the program, these students actually report improvement.  They often understand things that they didn’t before.  Vocabulary seems to ‘click’ into place.  My own most vivid experience with this was one day, while driving down the street, a word on the radio stood out to me as if I was hearing it for the very first time – except that it took my back to a class that I’d had in room 421 where the teacher was explaining that word.  It hadn’t connected at that time, but it remained as a part of the experience.  While listening to the radio, I ‘experienced’ that word again and it was the link my brain needed to help it fit in.  This was a full 8 years after the class!

My advice to our full time language students is this:  Don’t push yourself by thinking that getting away is going to hurt your progress.  If you’re studying for 30 hours a week, a week or two week break every month or two will do you good.  Try it and don’t forget to tell what happened here. 🙂

David, do you think it doesn’t harm to take a break from engaging with the language you’re learning or that it’s actually beneficial and/or necessary? I can well imagine, and you’ve presented examples, that taking a break doesn’t mean the brain stops working on the exposure it got. But wouldn’t this also happen while you keep engaging with the language? Anyway, I like your suggestion to relax and trust that the language will come by itself in its own time.

Many language students seem to be in more of a hurry to ‘get it’ than nature itself. So it’s easy to become frustrated or anxious over time. One effective strategy I’ve found for students to stay on course and not become discouraged is to simply back off of things for a bit. In fact, this is true of many difficult things we attempt in life.

When a language student takes a step away, things can seem to fall in place, as it were and this can often be pleasantly surprising. By staying in the program, our minds may be more restricted by the context, and while it may be good in terms of input, the regular activity we do may keep us from being aware of what’s happening on the inside.

“This was a full 8 years after the class!”
That happened to me too.

Do you think it would be ideal to acquire 7 days per week or to do it 5-6 days per week and rest 1-2?

In my opinion, it would definitely be better to spend 5-6 days and have a day or two free for other things. Of course this depends on the format or structure of the program. It’s difficult to avoid real-life and real-life settings tend to provide the best input.

Would you care to share your experiences learning language here? If you had a similar experience, it would be interesting to know about it.