Dr Titima (in yellow) at a cultural event organised by the Thai language programme
Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Language Studies
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

A Thai less ordinary

As a child, Dr Titima Suthiwan was never short of books to read. She grew up in her grandparents’ house in Bangkok, Thailand “which was literally full of books”, fuelling her passion for reading. She also found languages fascinating and loved toying around words and discovering their hidden facets. Motivated by her love of language, she studied French, Spanish, Khmer, and Indonesian and also dabbled in poetry writing in these languages. When she was doing her PhD in Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, her poem written in French won the first prize in a French poetry competition. However, Dr Titima admitted that she has now lost touch with French. “If you don’t use it, it will hide somewhere in the recesses of your memory”, she said.

Dr Titima’s interest in languages and teaching brought her to NUS in 1998. As the University did not have a Thai language programme then, she made a bid to introduce it—and the rest, as they say, is history. She has spent almost one-third of her life in Singapore, calling it her second home. Her circle of Thai friends come and go, but she keeps in regular contact with a number of Singaporean friends, including former students. Students from various cohorts get to know one another through Dr Titima, either at cultural events organised by the Thai language programme twice a year, or via Facebook. They quickly become friends and form a familial bond.

According to Dr Titima, Thai is not that difficult to learn, especially for speakers of other Asian languages as they share similar centuries-old experiences and worldviews deeply rooted and reflected in their languages. This makes it much easier to pick up each other’s languages. Student beginners often feel intimidated by the Thai script that looks rather complicated. But they need not fret as the Thai Language Programme writing curriculum is designed to provide a systemic step-by-step guidance which will help one master the Thai script in just a few months!

If you want a crash course in simple Thai expressions, Dr Titima suggests learning these three powerful words: Sawatdii (Hello), Khor Thoat (Sorry), and Khorp Khun (Thank you). But to make these words sound more meaningful, you would have to add a politeness particle at the end of each word – a male speaker would add ‘khrap’ while a female speaker would add ‘kha’.

When asked about underrated Thai dishes, Dr Titima asserted that one dish would be Som Tum, a green papaya salad found in every Thai restaurant in Singapore. It can be easily prepared at home and is very adaptable. Moreover, it does not require any cooking, so you can make it anywhere, even in a classroom!

Dr Titima generously shared her recipe for Som Tum (see below). Besides the ingredients, you would need a pestle and mortar to prepare the salad dish. If green papaya is not easily available, you can substitute it with shredded carrots, cooked corn kernels or shredded cucumber. Preparing Som Tum is extremely easy; just put everything in the mortar and crush them together. But if you cannot find a pestle and mortar, you can simply toss the ingredients together like any other salad. A current trend is to add slices of hard boiled salted egg.

Dr Titima will be involved in the upcoming Songkran Festival (Traditional Thai New Year) on 30 March 2019, an annual celebratory event organised by the Thai language programme. So if you would like to learn a few words of Thai or savour some Som Tum, save the date and drop by University Town from 4.00pm to 8.00pm. And don’t forget to greet everyone “Sawatdii”!


Som Tam (Thai green papaya salad)


1 small green papaya or a mixture 2 shredded cucumbers and 1 shredded carrot

4 long beans cut into 2-cm pieces

3 cloves garlic

8 cherry tomatoes (quartered)

3-6 small red or green chilies (depending on the desired degree of spiciness)

2 tbsp palm sugar (if unavailable, substitute with 1 tbsp white sugar)

3 tbsp fresh lime juice

3 tbsp of roasted peanuts

2 tbsp fish sauce

Garnish: Fresh lettuce leaves, lime wedges, chilli, salted egg


Peel the papaya, remove the seeds then shred it, likewise for the carrot
(Cucumbers need not be peeled).

Crush garlic with a pestle, then add long beans and tomatoes and pound them a few times to release juices. If you don’t have a pestle, use the back of a large spoon.

Add the chillies and crush lightly.

In a separate cup, dissolve the sugar in the lime juice and fish sauce.

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and toss with papaya or cucumber to mix.

Taste and add more of any of the ingredients to achieve the desired taste.

Place in a shallow dish and add the desired garnishes. 


Other Stories