Teaching and Learning Thai Language at SOAS

By Ben Murtagh|September 23, 2016|SOAS Students, SOAS teachers|0 comments

I have had an enjoyable time as a teacher for Thai language at SOAS for the past fourteen years. Year after year, different groups of students walk into my classes. Some are complete beginners, whilst others are inspired by their holidays or a short stay in Thailand and want to learn more about its language and culture. Regardless of their different backgrounds, these eager students have one thing in common; they realise that a good working knowledge of Thai is an essential key to the understanding of this complex society and, for some, their own future living and working in that society.


Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace, Bangkok. Photograph by Sud Chonchirdsin

Our Thai classes have always been small, which enhances students’ opportunities to participate and concentrate on developing their language skills. To me, learning a foreign language is always a challenge. Students make mistakes but through these errors they learn and develop their skills. If you walk past my classroom, be prepared sometimes to hear a roar of laughter because someone in class has just inadvertently said something very funny or rude due to misunderstanding the tone rules for Thai. For example; Carol tried her new Thai sentence ‘Could I buy a shirt?’ but by simply mispronouncing one word, what she actually said was ‘Could I buy a tiger?’ (shirt=เสื้อ with a falling tone and tiger = เสือ, with a rising tone). On another occasion Tom told Miki ‘You are unfortunate’ [unfortunate=ซวย, with a mid tone]   when he had intended to say was ‘You are beautiful [beautiful=สวย, with a rising tone].

So by making just a tiny mistake in tone pronunciation you will never forget the importance of the tone of a word for the rest of your life! These kinds of surprises happen all the time, but it makes us have a great fun and learn a language in a different way – though there are times that I have to confess I wish it didn’t happen!!!!


River taxi along the Chao Phya River, Bangkok. Photograph by Sud Chonchirdsin

The atmosphere in our classes is very informal, and students contribute to the development of teaching and learning through their questions, some of which are not easy to explain instantly, even for a native speaker, and make you think and try to find a clear and satisfactory explanation. Our class is not only a language class; through texts and other teaching material, students learn more about Thai society and cultures and this knowledge leads to another level of learning, especially when students are linguistically competent enough to discuss specific topics from the texts they are studying. When Thai politics or some cultural issues are discussed, there can sometimes be quite a heated debate and a strong division of opinion among the class. These interactive learning styles definitely contribute to students’ progress. As a teacher, it is always very rewarding to see students’ achievements as academic years progress and how their hard work pays off. One student Richard, who knew nothing about the Thai language at the beginning of his studies and hated it so much when he was forced to roll his tongue for a low class consonant (roughly an equivalent of R in English), is now happily living in Thailand, speaks fluent Thai and works for a humanitarian international organisation on a good salary!

All of these opportunities are made possible because SOAS understands the importance of less widely taught languages and supports the teaching of such subjects. Its multinational and multicultural body of students, Thai included, also supports the learning of foreign languages. I still remember when I was asked by Dr Manas Chitkasem, who was in charge of Thai language when I first came to SOAS as a student almost 30 years ago, to help his students to practise speaking Thai. A well-equipped graduate with good knowledge of different languages will be well placed to work effectively in our complex and multicultural world.

Thai can be studied as part of a undergraduate or postgraduate degree in South East Asian Studies, or can be taken as an open option as part of a full range of degrees offered at SOAS. To find out more about the Thai Language modules we teach in the South East Asia Department, take a look at our website. Or just drop me an email at sc58@soas.ac.uk

Dr Sud Chonchirdsin, Senior Lector in Thai, September 2016

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