Phil Roeland

Clock, peanut and frog

The problematic pronunciation of many Thais


The other day I had a group of very young learners. The last period I decided to review some animals and let them do some crafts. The animal they had to colour, cut out and assemble was a frog. When I showed them one I had made earlier, a few of them started shouting an obscene word. Well, I thought it was the f-word (pronounced with a working-class accent, true) but I soon realised they were just shouting out the name of the animal.

Try the other words, clock and peanut, with your students. I’m sure you can guess what’ll happen. The way they pronounce them will make them sound like the body part one needs to “frog”. Please don’t think this is a typical kids’ problem. It isn’t. All ages seem to suffer from ”pronunciitis” (hardly documented, chronic disease that makes it virtually impossible for Asian people to pronounce English correctly).

Okay, time for a diagnosis. Thais have a very hard time pronouncing consonant clusters (two or three consonants after one another), because they hardly have any in their own language. I personally think that – apart from sentence stress – classroom activities should really focus on this problem, or else the English that Thais use will remain unintelligible.

I try to have as much empathy for my students as I possibly can and I am becoming rather good at understanding the unintelligible. However, there are limits to everything and I am not a mind-reader. If a person says for example /sa-pye/, I know he or she means “Spy” (the wine-cooler or James Bond, doesn’t matter). But if someone says “kye”, I don’t automatically think of cry.

Don’t think it’s impossible for Thais, it’s just difficult. The last example (cry/kye) shouldn’t actually pose any problems, as the consonant cluster /kr/ exists in Thai (think of Krung Thep), but it usually does. They can pronounce Spy too, very clearly even.

Spy or Sprite?

The other day a student told me she liked to drink gin mixed with Spy. She pronounced it perfectly. I was dumbfounded, not only because of the perfect pronunciation, but also of the bizarre combination of gin and Spy. The students interrupted me though, repeating that it wasn’t gin and Spy, but gin and Spy. Spy, you don’t know Spy? Finally it dawned on me. They were talking about Sprite… (/spr/ is indeed a difficult cluster and a final –t is hardly pronounced in Thai).

The final –s is also a recurring problem as it is virtually non-existent in Thai. Confusion between the “r” and “l” is another issue. I won’t even go into sounds like “ch” (as in cheap) or “j” (as in Jeep).

Sure, everyone can learn, I won’t deny that, on the contrary. I’ve been to quite a few workshops and I know a lot of practice exercises and pronunciation games. Practice is the key to success and some Thai learners make good progress.

Retention

The problem however seems to be that many students have the memory span of a mosquito. After you’ve asked them for the 50th time to please pronounce a word correctly, for example using the final –s (actually extremely easy to do), they’ll still pronounce it “the Thai way” the 51st time. And I am not referring to virtually unpronounceable words as “asks”, “vegetable” or “ventriloquism”, but to much simpler things like the final –s.

Normal sentences will get mangled and sound like “She very ny, she wash TV evelly evening and alway go to shopping on Saturday.” (By the way, that should read “She’s very nice, she watches TV every evening and always goes shopping on Saturdays”, in case you wondered.)

Ask ten randomly chosen students to spell the words black and blue, and I guarantee you that a significant number of them will spell them “back and bue”. Well, at least they are consistent and somewhat logical. They probably figure that if they don’t pronounce the “l” there is no need to write it.

I don’t want to go into how to teach pronunciation in detail in this piece. There are a lot of good books on the market and at the British Council you can pick up a good pronunciation booklet including two CDs. For free. Just remember when teaching pronunciation that students have to be able to hear and recognise a sound first before they try to make it themselves.

It’s quite useless making them for example repeat the word cheap over and over again if they themselves can’t even hear the difference between cheap and sheep. So listening, recognising, producing the sound themselves and a lot of practice are the keys to success.

I just wish sometimes that students had more self-discipline. They should practise a tiny bit outside of the classroom and try to improve their awareness of the language and their memory. After all, pronouncing the final –s isn’t difficult at all, it’s child’s play. They have to remember to pronounce it though.

They all have a computer at home, so it might be a good idea to purchase some educational software that features word recognition. They can try over and over again until they get the sound right. The software will even tell them how well they score (often on a scale from 0 to 100%). The price of the software shouldn’t be a problem, as you can pick up pirate copies for as little as 150 baht).

Obstacle

Another obstacle might be the omnipresent schwa (the unstressed /e/ - sorry, but I didn’t find it on my keyboard), actually the most common sound in English. Think of the way we pronounce America. Thais would pronounce it A-mE-ri-cA, but native speakers of English will hardly pronounce the vowels and say /e-mE-re-ke/.

Linking sounds is also unheard of for many students. Think of the way we pronounce things, like /howeyou/ (how are you), /whaddeyewant/ (what do you want), /Idunno/ (I don’t know) and so on. Do you know the animal called nelephant (as in an elephant)? Do you realise better now that the way we speak is completely different from the way we spell? Not so for the phonic Thai language. Every word is written the way it is said, or said the way it is written if you prefer it that way (there are a few exceptions, but hardly as many as in English).

Pitfalls

Until now the only thing I’ve been talking about is pronouncing sounds. Those are the first building blocks that students should try to master (and they should start doing so at the earliest possible age). Then come two other major hurdles, namely word stress and sentence stress. As you see, dear native and non-native speakers, there are a lot of pitfalls in English pronunciation. Here are a few stereotypes we all know and love to hate. I’ll focus on food and drink.
• I want eat hamburger or pizza and then go to beer garden.
• Where you going? What you doing?
• You want pineapple or watermelon?
• She not so beautiful like me.

I guess it’s possible to build a whole curriculum around these few phrases, focusing on grammar (to-infinitive or ing-form, verb tenses, use of the article, comparatives and so on), pronunciation, function etc.

I’m not going to go into this word stress business but just remember, dear learners, that in English the word stress is seldom on the last syllable. Also, as said earlier, a lot of the vowel sounds are pronounced as schwa, making the non-stressed syllables weak.

As for sentence stress, English is a stress-timed language, which means that a sentence has stress on the most important words (content or meaning words), reducing most of the other words to a schwa-ridden, linked mumbo-jumbo. Never mind that, hearing the stressed words will make the meaning of a sentence more than clear, well for people with a reasonable grasp of English at least.

My contribution ends here. I hope some of you can find some useful information in this piece. Please don’t get discouraged, as a teacher or a student, and think that teaching/learning English is next to impossible. It isn’t. It just takes a long time and a lot of determination.




Comments

Fantastic article. Really helps me understand the pronunciation issue much better whilst I teach here in Ubon Ratchathani.

Can you provide any links to excercises and activities to get them to pronounce more correctly?

Thanks

James

By James, Ubon Ratchathani (31st January 2010)

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