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)
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!
*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.