Why Floundering is Okay When Learning Thai

Why Floundering is Okay When Learning Thai

Why floundering is ok…

I read an article recently about “floundering” and the learning process. It’s called Why Floundering is Good: Figuring out something on your own first, before getting help, produces better results than having guidance from the beginning.

In a nutshell, Annie Murphy Paul, the writer of the article, states that people who learn by floundering rather than a rule-based system of learning have a better ability as far as extrapolating and applying what they’ve learned. This struck an all too familiar chord with me because I’ve experienced my share of floundering while trying to learn Thai. For the most part I’m part self-taught, so I’ve made more than a few mistakes in the learning process.

What I have noticed in the advanced classes I’ve attended (or at least it seems to me) is that that I’m way better at making sense of constructs and seeing how they together than the people who’d attended every level of a particular school and learned their Thai by studying the rules of grammar. Granted, some of these students are wicked clearer Thai speakers than I am and some of their structure is way better than mine. However, when they’re faced with reading unfamiliar text and making sense out of it, they oftentimes have a disconnect. In the group discussions, which take place after a reading exercise, they seem unable to work out what the material was about, remember key points brought up, etc. My only real barometer is in the testing that follows each class: multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blanks, and written answers.

I don’t know why this is really. As I mentioned, some of these people have really good spoken Thai skills. Far in excess of my half-assed abilities in the Thai language. Now it could be that they don’t read enough Thai stuff outside of class. I’m a voracious reader, and try to read almost anything in Thai that catches my fancy. I buy the Thai versions of Maxim & FHM for the articles (not the plastic Thai women with foreign noses plastered on their faces instead of their normal thai button nose). I read short Thai romance novels. I read learning English books written in Thai, which are a good source for comparative sampling (noting the differences between Thai and English sentence constructs). And I recently started reading the Thai version of Science Illustrated too (even though it’s 130baht!) It’s turned out to be a worthwhile investment because thankfully, as the title suggests, it’s illustrated so you can work out from the pictures what’s being discussed.

‘Why Floundering Is Good’ mentions building into the learning process something called productive failure. I like this term quite a lot because I view each of my failures or dead ends in my quest to learn Thai productive to one degree or another. Even if the productive part was only realizing that wasn’t the way I was gonna learn Thai, it helped.

I was always taught as a kid that’s it’s okay to fail at doing something because it shows you how NOT to do it the next time. It’s the “getting back up after a failure to try it again” which takes moxy or stick-to-itiveness. I’ve started looking at the problems I face learning Thai more as puzzles I need to work out, rather than as roadblocks in my learning. Once I figure something out I can usually see a way to apply that solution to other parts of my learning process. Now, I could be wrong, but it seems as if things are actually getting easier in my Thai studies. ← frankly that scares me because Thai has always been “sold” to me as a tough nut to crack.

Anyway, I just thought you might find this observation interesting. Good luck learning Thai.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

7 thoughts on “Why Floundering is Okay When Learning Thai”

  1. Counldn’t agree more. I have been living in Thailand for 3 years, but only studying the language for 1. I am taught how to say many things however only mostly remember what I had to piece together myself. They say in life we learn from experience, not from reading or watching.

    Plus as you mentioned, we only remember what interests us. Even in learning Thai… I have a car so I remember the Thai word for car no problem, I have difficulty remembering the word for motorbike even though much easier!

    The brain is a funny oul thing! 🙂

  2. Hi Tod,

    Your comment about learning what interests you is spot-on. Being interested is key.

    I am reminded of a co-worker of mine who had trouble making the transition from the typing pool to a computer-based way of doing things. She could never remember the details of what she had to do on the computer, but one day she surprised me with an exact 45-minute blow-by-blow recitation of a TV show she had seen the previous night. Interest matters.

    I have heard of Andrew Biggs and bought one of his books because I thought it might appeal to one of the monks at my local wat, but I have not heard of Christopher Wright. I will have to check him out.


  3. As far as those “fancy shmancy” Thai fonts go (like the ones where a ร is an S, ธ is also sort of an S, ว is a backward C and บ is a U) I took a good long while learning to read the fonts used in print advertising here. Once you get pretty proficient in reading it, every semi-normal Thai font after that is a piece of cake to read. Because those stylized ones are so widely used and because there’re pictures in the ads; it’s easy to do what I call “predictive reading”. You can somewhat “predict” the context based on the pictures and work out the wording.

    I couldn’t advise or offer advice on how to best “flounder” around learning Thai. For me at least I learn the best and fastest when I have an interest in the topic. That’s why I started reading all those “trash teen romance novels”; because the topic is universal to all humanity. The dialog was colloquially informal and ultra contemporary as well. Those books are written for the masses, so there’s not the mind wobbling degree of difficulty a person encounters when reading the Thai newspapers. I’ve got about 30 of those romance novels now takin’ up space here. I also have all of Andrew Bigg’s books and most of Christopher Wright’s books too. They are an excellent way to “reverse study” Thai because again, you know the topic of those two authors is teaching English to Thais.

    To me it’s all about “bang-4-the-baht” as far as where you’re gonna spend the majority of your time interacting with Thais in Thai. If most of your time is spent in a professional office or work environment, then good mid register “office talk” vocab is your best bet.

    If you’re like me and don’t spend your time doing much of anything, except hanging around makin’ a pest out of yourself bothering Thais, then good colloquially informal “real life Thai” is gonna serve you better.

    In a nutshell, floundering is good ONLY IF you’re floundering in the right place around the right crowd of people. You need to be around ones who can further your language acquisition. It’s knowing where you’re gonna use your Thai the most and then concentrating on getting that area of your spoken language dialed in which yields the best return on time invested.

    Good luck, thanx for the comments on this topic!

  4. Hi Tod, and simultaneous thanks for your insightful off-topic response and apologies for sending you there. 🙂

    So. Floundering is good. How best to go about the process of floundering effectively? Augmenting one’s classroom learning by getting outside the classroom and one’s comfort zone comes to mind, but what would you recommend?

    Some random thoughts: Reading anything any everything as you said. Learning to recognize the other styles of Thai letters such as the sans-serif ones used in advertisements, the calligraphic ones used in temples, and the gothic ones used for newspaper headlines. Listening to Thai soap operas. Interacting on facebook with Thais. Comic books? Children’s books?


  5. Interesting Keith, and sorry to all that this is “off topic”;
    “Teaching the test” is nothing new to this country (or possibly every country) and it’s routinely done in almost EVERY field of learning from kindergarten to university here.

    In a school I sometimes attend students are drilled with the exact questions they’re to be tested on to “pass a module” and move on to the next level. I found this puzzling seeing as it’s not a clear barometer of students acquired knowledge (nor is it an effective gauge of either the methodology or the teacher!). All it did was make a classroom of “parrots” that could spit out the appropriate Thai response when given the correct “prompt”. They were more like little “thai-auto-bots” than real people conversing.

    On a break during the module one “review”, I asked several students the “real every-day spoken Thai construct” of เป็นยังไงบ้าง, which is said mostly as เป็นไง or ไงบ้าง. In fact nowadays with the Thai youth of today, often it’s simply said as drawn out version of ไง (which sounds to my “foreign ears” more like งายยย). Not even a single student knew what either of the abridged versions were; nor could any make the “leap in logic” to work ‘em out, even though this is probably one of the most over used phrases out there after ไปไหน, ไปไหนมา & ทำอะไรอยู่. This is what leads me to believe that often times there’s a disconnect as far as what’s being taught to foreigners in the classroom and what a foreigner will likely encounter out in the “real world” every day here or as Keith called it a “cocoon effect”.

    I most certainly don’t have the answers; although in the meeting I have with various Thai teachers every couple of weeks I broached the possibility of a “real life spoken Thai” class after a student has a solid foundation of mid register Thai. Some of the teachers are old and that can lead to what I call the “หัวโบราณ syndrome”. As a rule I’ve found older Thai teachers (almost any Thai over 40 y/o) far more inflexible to change, far less likely to see the benefits and way more likely to shoot down an idea rather than entertain the possibility it might have merit.

    This is especially so if the proposed change is brought up by an outspoken brash foreigner who treats everyone as an equal instead of kowtowing simply because who ever I’m talkin’ to is old! I mean some of these women have taught the same method year after year for centuries! Their take is; if it ain’t that badly broke and a piece of scotch tape can keep it workin’, don’t waste time tryin’ to fix it. This “stagnation” is one of the saddest things I see routinely in the teach-thai-to-foreigner niche marketplace.

    Thankfully, the younger teachers, (who still have taught Thai to foreigners for a good many years) are more “forward looking”. They totally bought in on the idea of teaching “every day-real life Thai” to their students ONCE a base line of knowledge was acquired. During the discussion even the “old school hardheaded” teachers started to warm to the fact this idea might have practical application (mostly as in generate income for their schools). Granted it’s still in its infancy, but at least I planted the seed so who knows?

    Sorry this was off the topic of “floundering”. I’d just met with those Thai teachers and this was fresh in my mind. Now without further ado, back on topic: get out there and flounder around to you hearts content! You gotta learn to dog-paddle before you can breast stroke or butterfly, and as long as your heads above water you’re doin’ okay.

  6. “I’m a voracious reader, and try to read almost anything in Thai that catches my fancy” doesn’t sound like floundering to me. Sounds more like exploring and persevering!

    But I also agree with your premise. I think structured learning might build a cocoon around the teacher and student where both interact in a subset of Thai: the same subset of words, limited subject areas, etc. that allows the student to succeed in the classroom.

    Here in America there is a debate regarding improving the quality of education for children. Many programs rely on standardized testing to judge students’ knowledge and so the teachers “teach to the test,” meaning they teach students how to do well on the test, but some argue that comes at the expense of teaching (and inspiring) children how to learn new things.

  7. I agree one hundred percent! There will be stuff I “learned”, but some how could never remember at the moment I needed it. But after floundering with it for awhile, it became much more natural and apart of my vocab. Fantastic Insights!


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