Peer pressure, practicalities and Pad Thai


While the other half of ELF Pron was busy at ELF7, I’ve been enjoying less ELFish adventures – packing up and moving to Thailand! At least I imagined it would be less ELFish after almost three years in Dubai, the unofficial ELF capital of the world. I expected the needs of students would be quite different in a monolingual context like Chiang Mai, my new home in the north of Thailand. It’s too soon to say, but I’m already pondering three points:

1) This passage from Learner English, in the chapter about Thai speakers:

“Thais speak English with a ‘Thai accent’ because they try to fit every English word into the Thai phonological system. While this is to some extent true of every foreign accent, there does appear to be a peculiar reluctance among many Thai speakers to shed their accent. In Thailand, this can be explained perhaps by peer group pressure and not wanting to show off or be different in the classroom environment. But as numerous English loan words (including brand names of hundreds of consumer goods) have passed into everyday Thai, it has also become a perfectly normal and legitimate strategy to pronounce English words in a Thai way; to pronounce them any other way risks not being understood and sounding pretentious. This process is reinforced by teachers and English-Thai dictionaries providing transliterations of English words in Thai script in an attempt to clarify pronunciation. As a result, English consonants and vowels are widely pronounced as their nearest Thai equivalents.” (Smyth, 2004: 344)

Maya shopping centre – one of the many company names created using English.

Leaving aside telling phrases such as ‘peculiar resistance’ and ‘shed their accent’, I was struck by echoes of Jenkins’ book The Phonology of English as an International Language, in which she also talks about accent and identity, peer group pressure, and focusing on the sounds students have already got at their disposal, rather than the sounds they lack.

But what Jenkins raises, that Learner English doesn’t, is whether a kind of accent transplant is simply deemed unnecessary by Thai speakers. Perhaps their ‘peculiar resistance’ comes from a sense that there’s no need to ‘shed their accent’? Perhaps it is also a practical choice? This then raises the question, who are Thai speakers mostly using English to communicate with? Chinese tourists it seems, in Chiang Mai at least! I’ve heard lots of languages spoken among tourists here, but there does seem to be a remarkable number of Chinese groups*, and…

2) …this brings home the importance of ELF as the language of tourism, and made me shake my head in wonder (once again) that some coursebooks and teachers continue to assume a native speaker goal when it comes to pronunciation. When a Chinese speaker uses English to order Pad Thai in a restaurant in Chiang Mai, why would a native speaker accent be more appropriate than a Thai accent, Chinese accent or something in between?


3) I wasn’t very familiar with a Thai accent before arriving, and at first had to ask people to repeat things with embarrassing frequency. I’ve been here two weeks. Guess what? I don’t need to ask people to repeat things as much. It’s been an important reminder of the role of familiarity in understanding accents. Jenkins stresses that communication is a two-way street. So it’s not only the person speaking but also the person listening who is responsible for ensuring communication doesn’t break down. So if I don’t understand someone’s accent, then isn’t it ‘my (receptive pronunciation skills) bad’? It’s also ‘my bad’ that I don’t speak any Thai yet – and no doubt my interlocutors will have to work hard to understand my accent when classes begin!

CM river

Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.

*The large number of Chinese tourists is apparently due to the success of a Chinese film called ‘Lost in Thailand‘ which was mostly filmed in and around Chiang Mai.


Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: OUP.

Smyth, D. (2001). ‘Thai speakers’ in M. Swan & B. Smith. Learner English. Cambridge: CUP.



4 thoughts on “Peer pressure, practicalities and Pad Thai

  1. There are lots of Chinese tourists (and lots of tourists from other countries too) in Chiang Mai but students are learning English for a variety of reasons, many of which don’t have much to do with its immediate utility. Not least of these is that being able to speak English is a marker of education and of social class. In the recent (and ongoing) political conflicts in Thailand, the ability to speak English was repeatedly raised as a dividing line between the great non-English-speaking unwashed (who being non-English-speakers are therefore – along with a ton of other reasons – unqualified to participate in a democracy) and the international, English-speaking, reactionary elite (who, being bilingual, are clearly born to rule). English ability, and the whole fraught issue of native-speaker accent, plays into these intensely political questions. It’s true that, much more often than not, these issues are in the background and only occasionally become explicit, though before the military did the dirty work of the English-speaking overclass and removed her from power, it was common to hear that Yingluck’s less than perfect English was clear proof of her inability to govern. This is obviously not the only, or even the main, motivation for learning English or for students wanting to acquire a particular accent but it is there and it does colour these questions.

    Anyway, I hope you have a good time in Chiang Mai. We are neighbours(ish).

    • Thanks for the insight and background Dan. From what Joanne said in her comment, it seems like all of this feeds into the preference for native speaker teachers (regardless of qualifications or experience) *sigh* … Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment, and nice to ‘meet’ a neighbour!

  2. Hi Katy
    I too have read that passage in Learner English many times. I found that, even more than fitting English into the Thai phonological system, learners fit their suprasegmentals, particularly timing, into the Thai system which stresses every syllable. Therefore words like “the” and “in” will get the same emphasis as key words. It is so hard to change that I found their accents rubbing off on me so I would find myself saying the ritualistic “Good morning, how are you?” to the class like a robot.

    There is a perceived need for native speakers as English teachers in Thailand, regardless of qualifications, and I just don’t get it. I think for many people there is a lack of clarity about why learning English is important. Sure, it is the lingua franca of ASEAN, so why are Filipino teachers not valued and, I understand, paid less? As for tourists, it is again often used as a lingua franca for French people, Germans, Russians etc but it is normally only inner circle English speakers who are wanted as teachers. I have a good Chinese friend with a Masters in TESOL (gained in Australia), but she would have great difficulty getting a job in Thailand. Further, text books include all sorts of language that would generally only be used by native speakers. Confusing – yes. From a policy angle, I think the confusion comes from the top levels in the Ministry.

    As for all the Chinese tourists, don’t forget that this week is the one week of the year when half a billion Chinese people have a holiday. I am in Laos at the moment and everyone tells me this is why there are so many here.

    Good luck in Chiang Mai!

    • Aha, thanks for clearing up the mystery of the huge groups of Chinese tourists! The point about your Chinese friend is something that has been disturbing me too, because I wonder whether even if she had an Australian passport, was born and brought up in Australia, had an Australian accent but clearly looked of Chinese ethnic origin that she might still have difficulty getting a job? Some very reputable schools here in Chiang Mai apologetically admit they only recruit native speakers because unfortunately that’s what students demand. So what happens at those schools if the students also demand a teacher who looks like what they’ve already decided a native speaker should look like, not just someone who sounds like what they’ve decided a native speaker should sound like? Where do those schools draw the line? Anyway, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on this Joanne. Have a wonderful time in Laos!

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