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This issue of CDTL Brief features the teaching practices of some 2006/2007 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.

October 2008, Vol. 11 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Thai Language Teaching at NUS
Associate Professor Titima Suthiwan
Centre for Language Studies

I see teaching as a two-step activity. The first one, which takes place at the beginning of the process, is to help students gain a good foundational knowledge in the subject. After students have acquired certain basic essential principles in the subject, they should be encouraged to use that knowledge to acquire further knowledge through the process of critical thinking, analysing, formulating theories, testing, reformulating and retesting, until a final conclusion is made, with an awareness that the results can always be falsified later by various factors. In short, learning is a lifelong process, and my teaching revolves around this philosophy.

In language learning, the most important task for students is to master the basic grammar at the beginning of the course. By grammar I mean the whole system of a language, not only syntax. This process can be painful when grammar is taught unnaturally. In my class, students will be reminded that a natural language first evolves as a spoken language and its written form is only invented later. They will also be reminded that changes in a language are constant, and only dead languages do not change.

I believe in teaching a foreign language by imitating how we learn our first language. Generally, a child will start speaking when s/he is over twelve months old. What the child does before that is to collect linguistic data, process and formulate it. When the child feels ready, s/he will test the formula by starting to speak. The reactions from and interactions with the audience give the child the needed feedback to improve the formula or grammar.

In my class, students are provided with controlled linguistic data because of the limited time they have in a class. Since Thai is a tonal language, it is important that students pronounce each sound perfectly. The acquisition of the sound system of a language may not require any critical thinking, yet it is the most basic principle that one needs to acquire before performing any mental activities.

I believe in doing everything with passion. I want students to come to each class with enthusiasm, expecting to learn something new. But how do we sustain students’ enthusiasm when all we do at the beginning is keep trying to get all the sounds right over and over again? My strategy in teaching the mundane phase of language learning is to make the exercises humorous. Laughing together and laughing at one’s own mistakes help students loosen up and break the ice in class. Humour also helps make the class warm, relaxed and fun.

Gradually, as students master the fundamentals of the language, they start to process the selected data, analyse it and form grammatical rules automatically. This process is highly important because it is purely a mental activity. Grammar rules are not given to students; it is the students’ task to derive them on their own. I see my responsibility at NUS as educating students in all aspects of their lives. Thus in teaching them the Thai language, I also teach students the learning strategy that I believe in. I do not spoon-feed my students as I respect them as human beings who can think, analyse, theorise and experiment.

In higher-level Thai Studies modules, where students are adequately fluent in the language, the contents of what they are to read, watch and listen are all important in helping students learn about Thai history, literature, sociology, anthropology, pop culture and so on. It is in these modules that students are stimulated to think and analyse what the authentic teaching materials present. The various activities in the modules encourage students to use their creativity and imagination.

Thus it is apparent that students will not be able to achieve much in advanced modules if they do not have a firm foundation in the language and are not trained to be mentally alert since the first module. I believe that this teaching strategy is not unique to any field or subject. It is a universal strategy that not only gives students knowledge but also plays an important role in human development. Today’s fast-changing world needs people who are creative, knowledgeable, morally sound and capable of thinking critically. My teaching philosophy is to develop such a person.

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Inside this issue
A Teaching Re-evaluation
Close Reading as Critical Thinking
Small-group Teaching for First-year Law Students—Thoughts from a Tutorial Taskmaster
Teaching: A Learning Process for Towards a Student Driven Pedagogy
Engaging the Phenomenon
Thai Language Teaching at NUS
Learning from Failures
Learning Through Teaching