I moved to Thailand a couple of years ago to be with my Thai wife. I started (and am still) learning the language with the help of a course book (Benjawan Poomsan Becker series), then tried a couple of language institute courses (not worth naming) and finally decided it would be better to chart my own learning journey. The purpose of learning was, and still is, to improve the quality of my life in Thailand, to be able to communicate with my in-laws and to build stronger rapport with my learners.

During learning, I have been observing and reflecting on my language acquisition process which has led me to introspect and question my beliefs on how a language is learned and what goes on in and among learners while they are learning. Of course, each learner being an individual entity, it is difficult to generalise but the introspection has challenged some of my core beliefs and has ushered changes in my teaching. Here are a few of them.

Teaching Listening


Previously, I didn’t teach listening rather I tested listening through course book listening (gist/detailed/inference) tasks. The most unfortunate part was the fact that when my learners were unable to get the correct answers I wasn’t able to help them identify the stage where they lost out. All I told them was, ‘We need more practice’.


While learning to listen to a foreign language a lot of things are happening simultaneously. We could break it down into the following stages:

Decoding – we ‘translate’ input into the sounds of the language

* (in English, those would be the IPA sounds we are trying to catch: /b/ + /ʌ/ + /t/)

Lexical search – we search for words which match or nearly match these sounds

* (we join the sounds together to identify words: /b/ + /ʌ/ + /t/  = but)

Parsing – we recognise a grammar pattern in a string of words and fit to a linguistic context

*  (‘but you told me’… we know it is a past situation and it contrasts the information it preceded)

Meaning building – we make sense of the utterance after having ‘broken’ the speech flow

* (‘…but you told me..…’ – speaker is complaining about something the listener said earlier

Discourse instruction – we connect the utterance to the larger context using background knowledge which compensates for gaps in understanding

* (…but you told me..…’ Imagine, we manage to decode only these four words in the entire sentence but we are aware that the speaker and listener are in a romantic relationship and the speaker is sad and crying. This might lead us to guess that the speaker is highlighting a lie the listener told the speaker earlier or they are breaking-up)

©️Listening as Modelling, Contification, Dr Gianfranco Conti

Now, right from the beginning of the course, I either explicitly or through scaffolding highlight the importance of listening and identifying sounds in English. I indulge them in various listening activities. Some are highlighted below.

  • Listening and transcribing short dialogues (one liners)
  • Decoding (utter a sentence with pronunciation error(s) and learners pick out the error)
  • Shadow reading (listen to a proficient speaker and repeat)
  • Delayed Dictation (listen, pause and rewrite)
  • Close pairs (learners listen to similar sounding words {accept vs except/called vs cold} and spot the correct spelling)

Designing a more synthetic syllabus


Being a novice teacher, I relied heavily on course books. They provided a structure and easy materials. I thought language is learnt by breaking it down into grammar and functional language topics, and we communicate by bringing those pieces together bit by bit.


Grammar is low on my priority list, especially when I am planning a course for my A1/A2 learners. I concentrate on high frequency chunks and patterns used in real-world communication.  For example, one of the first few important chunks I picked up while learning Thai was, ขอ_____หน่อยได้ไหมครับ (Can I have…, please?) /ขอโทษครับ___อยู่ที่ไหนครับ (Sorry, where is the…..?) / เท่าไหร่ครับ (How much?) The idea is to provide learners language they can immediately put to use outside the classroom and which is relevant to their personal lives. This makes them feel competent and boosts their motivation significantly.

For my exam-prep classes, especially TOEIC, the course book is used sparingly to consolidate or clarify grammar concepts and to provide test question practice.  Most of my materials comprise YouTube videos (short-films or short talks), blog posts, movies (‘Office Space’ is my favourite), songs, audio clips (famous movie dialogues), news articles (matching the test themes – health/hospitality/investment/etc.)

During classes, as I delve deeper in conversations with my learners, we tend to reveal our real personalities and characteristics. This not only builds trust but also allows me to understand my learners better, which in turn facilitates my selection of the materials for the class. This segues smoothly into my next point.

Having a Meaningful conversation


I was taught during my teacher training that at the end of the lesson, learners should be able to produce the target language (henceforth TL). So, almost all of my lessons would end with some kind of production task (role playing/speed dating/writing a short text/etc.). That was evidence that my learners have understood and ‘can’ use the TL. However, the next day or the next week, a lot of my learners wouldn’t be able to reproduce the TL. Something was missing, apart from my inexperience and lack of awareness.

I vividly remember this one occasion where I was facilitating a class of adults at A2 proficiency level. The course book had a text of a passenger buying a bus ticket at the ticket counter. So, it was obvious to me to end the lesson with a ‘buying a bus ticket’ role play. Never did I ask myself if these learners have ever or would ever buy a bus ticket in their town or the ones around by conversing in English? I wonder how the ticket attendant would react if a local resident were to converse in English to buy a ticket. I dread to think what might happen next.


In my Thai conversations with my in-laws, we talk about religion, politics, culture, current affairs, media, etc.,  all the *PARSNIPs topics you can think of, because our conversations are authentic. We share our true emotions and personal viewpoints. It is a part of our lives. Our conversations are cognitively and emotionally charged. That’s what makes them meaningful.

So, now when I plan my lesson activities, I carefully think of its authenticity, relevance, emotional connect and plausibility. Here are some examples:

  • share a time in the past when you felt excited/nervous/guilty/exhilarated/disappointed/etc (allows them to talk about past situations and use vocabulary for emotions)
  • present a social media marketing plan for the product you are trying to sell (one of my learners sells Cranberry Cornflakes online and is also a media analyst for a local firm)
  • close your eyes, imagine yourself in the near future speaking English fluently and confidently. Now, draw or write: where you are, what you are doing, describe the surroundings, how you feel (inspired from NLP visualisation technique).

*My learners are adults and we spend considerable time building trust before being comfortable to indulge into sensitive topics

Creating oppportunities for retrieval practice  


At times, it would baffle and frustrate me when my learners weren’t able to recollect or failed to use lexis or grammar structures, as pointed out above, we had already covered during the course; sometimes, even when the TL was covered just a day prior. It led me to think that they weren’t putting enough effort into learning the language, which wasn’t necessarily true.


There have been several occasions during my conversations in Thai with my in-laws or my wife, where I have horribly struggled to recollect  words: วัฒนธรรม (culture) and พยากรณ์อากาศ (weather forecast) are just two examples, which I have used and heard a few times in the past or when I would make the same grammatical structure mistake over and over again. I don’t know how long it took me to automatise this มันเป็นไปไม่ได้ (It isn’t possible.) structure. I, now, can clearly understand and relate to my learners frustration of trying to recollect words or frame sentences using the TL previously covered

For a lexis or a grammar concept to stick in our heads, we need to encounter it several times (see Hermann Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, 1885) and, also, it needs to be presented through different skills of language (reading/writing/listening). This makes retrieval practice (RP) activities highly essential. Some of the RP activities I employ are:

  • retrieval practice challenge grids (inspired by Gianfranco Conti’s work)
  • instilling the TL in my regular conversations with them
  • exit ticket (Ls share one thing they learned in the class before they leave the room)
  • consolidation activity (end of the week, Ls are indulged in a activity which would urge them to use the language covered that week)


For my A1/A2 learners, I write a customised course book and in each of the lessons the TL is presented in three skills (L/R/W – speaking is done with me in class) through various activities. Inspired by Dr GianFranco Conti’s E.P.I (frequent and extensive exposure to and production of key patterns through all four skills).

Following a principled eclectic approach


I would go through a lesson in the course book and write a lesson plan following one of the approaches (PPP/TTT/Task-based/Text-based/TPR…..) learnt during my pre-service training.


While learning Thai, I have not been acquiring language in a rigid pattern and from a constant source. I started learning Thai by following a language course book and picking up key phrases (and a long list of vocabulary, which I wouldn’t advise anyone to do) and learning the Thai script. I even enrolled for a language course at a couple of language institutes (was disappointed with their approach, hence didn’t continue and promised not to enrol for these courses again). Then, I slowly started reading short children stories, watching movies and TV series on Netflix, having long conversations with my in-laws, transcribing movie/TV series scenes, writing short personal texts or picking up key phrases and creating my own sentences.

It dawned on me, I enjoy learning what appeals to my personal interest, is of utility to me and is from varied sources.

When planning a lesson, I ponder over my learners’ needs, purpose, relevance, cognitive abilities, emotional factors, and motivation for learning. My lesson plans are shorter and have a lot of room for flexibility. I like what one of my course mates (on a professional development course I am on with iTDi.pro) had written in response to this question ‘Is your approach eclectic and principled?’ The metaphor she used is apt to describe my thoughts too. She says, “There is no method that fits everyone and can be applied everywhere. The methods are on the menu at our disposal and depending on the day, the season and the ‘customer’, we can pick up different elements of it and create a new variation; a meal never tasted before. Best recipes are not published in famous cookery books either; the content, ideas and principles come alive and become meaningful in the act of teaching, adapting, rejecting and risking” Thank you, Kata Ujvarosi.

Having said that, at the end of the day, the learner is more important than any specific approach.

Final thoughts

When we already have acquired a language, we unconsciously undermine the difficulties associated with learning it. Learning a new language puts us at par with our learners and can provide an insight on the challenges we face. I would encourage teachers to embark on a journey of learning a language, preferably their learners.

At the end of this year, I plan to take a Thai for Non-native proficiency test at Chulalongkorn University (CU-TFL), so wish me luck.