Swee Sar Pok Wee’ Flai Lai – What’s in an accent?

My grandfather used to tell me “When you’re learning a language, you want to try your best to avoid having speakers of that language complimenting you. If people are complimenting you on how well you’re speaking ‘their’ language, it means that you still haven’t arrived”. That’s not to say that you want them insulting you! What he meant was that if you’re speaking a language proficiently enough to a native speaker of that language, the thought of complimenting you on your language ability wouldn’t even cross their mind.

Our physical features might play a role in the way some people perceive what our proficiency in a given language is, though from my experience our physical features play second fiddle to our accent and actual delivery of that language. If we don’t set this as one of our goals when embarking on learning a language, we could be unwittingly setting up a whole barrage of new obstacles to our language development in that language. I have found that when we use a heavy ‘foreign’ accent in a given language, the person we’re speaking to will often subconsciously alter the way that they speak to us, delivering a corrupted, unnatural, ‘foreigner’ version of their language. The good news is that there are some tools that we can use to help us get up to that standard or at least close to it when learning a language.

Think of someone who’s not a native speaker of your language speaking to you in it with a very heavy foreign accent. What are some particular characteristics about their accent, expressions and sentence structures that stand out? What is it that lets us know that they come from China, Russia, Sweden, France, Latin America, Africa or Thailand?

If we hear someone speaking like this, what assumptions might we make about their background? Their family? Their intelligence? Would the way you respond to them in your language be the same as the way you would respond to a native sounding speaker of your language?

When I was about eight, there was one particular Chinese restaurant near our home in Australia that our family would frequent. You could always tell people who were eating there for the first time by the puzzled look on their faces when ordering their meals. The waiter from Hong Kong would ask them:

“Joo won swee sar pok wee’ flai lai’ ah no flai? Dee swa hee kam wee sho’ sup oh’ lo’ sup”.
(“Do you want sweet and sour pork with fried rice or not fried) This one he comes with short soup or long soup”.)

The reaction of many Australian customers when hearing this went something along the lines of (with a bit of poetic license:

“Streuth! I seen what’cha done, but I’d be buggered if I had a clue what’cha rantin’ on about mate. YOUR IN AUSTRAYA – SPEAK STRINE!”

My reaction when I hear the waiter speaking like this is “Eureka! There’s gold in them thar hills!!” Just through looking at this one sentence, we can see so much about the waiter’s native language – Cantonese. The language is obviously one with many glottal stops and clipped endings, built on monosyllabic words. The above sentence also gives us a bit of an idea of the person’s background and how they’ve learned English.

I would say from the first word ‘Joo’ instead of ‘Do you’, that this person has learned their English mainly from experience –listening and mimicking rather than from studying text books, as native speakers of English would rarely separate the words ‘Do you’ in normal speech.

When learning a language, I find myself spending a lot of time trying to imitate the way native speakers of that language speak English and other foreign languages that I can hear accents in. My logic is that those speech characteristics have been influenced by that person’s mother tongue’s sound system. The way that they perceive foreign sounds and meanings gets filtered by their mother tongue’s sound system and language rules. If I can successfully put those things back into their language when I speak it, I will probably sound less ‘foreign’ to them.

*One tool you can use is “Speech Analyzer” – *
(See the article I’ve written at this link : http://stujay.blogspot.com/2006/11/speech-analyzer-graphical.html )

Is this good logic? I don’t know, but I do know that it has helped me build a proficiency up in many languages that has let me come close to the goals set out by my grandfather of speaking in a way where people don’t even think to compliment you on your language.

The Quick and Easy Guide to Effective Tinglish

People come to take my Cracking Thai Fundamentals course for a number of reasons. Some to unlearn some of the bad habits that they’ve formed, some to get a more solid understanding on the rules, psychology and culture behind the language, some to learn how to communicate better with their employees and some to learn how to teach the Farang students Thai more effectively.

Surprisingly, there has been more than one person who has told me that they were told about the course and wanted to come and improve their Tinglish! I think this is a fabulous goal, and could be the one thing that raises their proficiency in Thai faster than any other. Through learning to speak fluent Tinglish we start to inherit some of the sound filters and habits that native speakers of Thai possess, build subconscious grammatical rules that come from Thai and see meanings and understand humour from a corner that we may not have ever sat on before. With this, lets build a profile of Tinglish!

The First Ten Steps to Better Tinglish
No Consonant Clusters
When pronouncing words (syllables) with more than one consonant stuck together, just pronounce the first one. If the cluster is not the initial consonant of a syllable, pronounce the first consonant and stop! E.g. the word ‘first’ will be pronounced เฟิ้ด /fət/, ‘washed’ will become /wot/.

Note that some ‘alive’ syllables in English will die in Tinglish and some dead syllables in English will come to life in Tinglish.

  1. Fish (English alive syllable – i.e. the shhhhh can theoretically go on and on until you run out of breath) /fit/ in Tinglish (Dead syllable – the glottis closes, killing the /sh/ making it a /t/).
  2. Silk (English dead syllable)  /sin/ (Tinglish alive – glottis closes on the /l/, turning it into an /n/)
  3. Note that depending on how a word first entered ‘Tinglish’ (either through literature or through hearing the spoken word), the pronunciation might differ. ‘Milk’ and ‘Silk’ rhyme in English, but in Tinglish, ‘Milk’ is pronounced /miw/ and ‘silk’ is pronounced /sin/.
  4. When these words are transliterated in Thai, more often than not, the equivalent letters that don’t get pronounced are included in the spelling, but the silent marker is placed over them. E.g. First – เฟิ้รส์ต , Pink -พิ้งค์b.

If you trace the Thai language back over the past few hundred years, you’ll see that there are many sounds that are said to be part of the modern Thai sound system today that are actually quite foreign to the Thai tongue’s natural flow.

As I have mentioned in some of my other articles, Thai is a language with an identity crisis (don’t shoot me yet!). It is a tonal language whose writing system is based on a non-tonal writing system. There have been tools developed including consonant classes and tone markers to help overcome some of the inherrent problems that arise from this.

The Indic sound system the system from which the Thai script is based on, also has many other features that aren’t found in the traditional Thai sound system.

Many consonant clusters – /pl/, /kr/, /pr/, /tr/, /-nt/ etc. When words were brought in from other languages like Pali and Sanskrit, the original spelling was retained though Thai sound rules were applied to them.

You might have a Thai telling you until they are blue in the face that the word for ‘fish’ is ปลา – /pla/.

When they pronounce it for you, it will be said as /pla/, though take another listen when they are speaking normally with other Thais. Unless they are being overly obnoxious, the /pl/ will become a /p/ and /pla/ will become /pa/, /trong/ will become /tong/, /kra pao/ will become /ka’pao/ and so on.

I SA-PEAK INGLIT

Sanskrit has its own set of rules on how words should be pronounced, how to join and create new words and how pronunciation changes when words are joined. Consonants from a language based on the Indic sound system will have with them an inherent vowel. Normally speaking, that means that if you see a consonant with no vowel symbol (diacritic) written somewhere around it, the default vowel is a short /a/ อะ (like the ‘u’ British pronunciation of ‘cut’). In Thai, this /a/ has turned to a short rounded /o/ sound โอะ ( Like a shortened version of the ‘o’ in ‘Pope’). This is very similar to the shifts that have happened in Bengali.

There ARE sometimes where the short ‘a’ อะ sound is slipped into Thai pronunciation. When two Pali or Sanskrit words are joined together where the first word’s last letter is a dead consonant and the second word’s first letter is a consonant, the /a/ อะ sound will be put in between them.

This insertion of the /a/ sound is called** ‘pra visanjani’ or ประวิสรรชนีย์.**

E.g. ราช – Raj (King) เทวี – Thewi (Devi – godess) when joined will be written
ราชเทวี ‘ratthewi’
(without writing the /a/ sound into the spelling), but but pronounced ‘rachathewi’.

There are many consonant clusters like ‘sp-‘, ‘kb-‘, ‘st-‘ that can be written and pronounced easily in Sanskrit. The Thai tongue hasn’t traditionally pronounced these sounds, so the same ‘a’ sound is thrown in between the consonants to get them out easier.

In other Indic based scripts used in the region – including the Lanna script from Chiangmai, Burmese and Khmer, consonant clusters are written as vertical stacks, often abbreviated.

E.g. –
Devangari Script – ‘Speed’ could be written:
स्पीद the (s) is attached to the (p), creating **स्प **‘sp’

Seeing them like this would show for certain that they are clustered.

Since the modern Thai script has been all stretched up onto one line and each letter written in its full form, these distinctions have become more ambiguous. There is actually a facility within the Thai script – it’s not really widely known how it works –

In Thai, the same example of ‘Speed’ could be written as:
สฺปีด

Most Thais would not be too familiar on the use or the importance of the dot below the ส and might even get scared off by it because it reminds them of Pali or Sanskrit. You would never seen this used in common transliterations of English or other modern languages.

In English words like ‘speak’ to be pronounced ‘sa-peak’ สปีก, start หตาร์ต ‘sa-tart’, star สตาร์ ‘sa-tar’, smoking สโมกิ้ง ‘sa-moKING’ and scoop สกูป ‘sa-koop’.

Even though these consonant clusters aren’t pronounced, for many, the tongue will still make a motion toward the positions of the clustered consonant –

e.g. the ‘r’ in ‘kr’ or ‘l’ in ‘pla’, but it won’t quite hit the mark.

‘r’ and ‘l’ in normal colloquial speech are the SAME SOUND

This is where I will be shot by any patriotic Thai.

Just like the consonant cluster idea, the whole idea of the rolled ‘r’ came in relatively recently and serves for more aesthetic purposes, resembling the revered rolled ‘r’ sound from Sanskrit.

Any traditional ‘Thai’ words (monosyllabic words / affixes not based on Sanskrit – Zhuang / Dai based) that use ร /r/, were traditionally produced as either a /h/ sound or /l/ sound.

Again, when people are wanting to sound a little obnoxious, they might start rrrrrrolling their r’s – sometimes to the point that they start rrrrrroling their ‘l’s too. Listen to that same person speaking after a few minutes when they’ve had time to forget themselves and you will see that ‘r’ and ‘l’ are actually the same sound and very often drop out all together if they’re not the initial sound.

The Lao Example
Laos have taken a realistic look at the way they speak their language and reworked their spelling to come into line with the way words are really pronounced.

In this way, the consonant cluster are done away with – ร represents the ‘h’ sound and there is no such thing as a rollie ‘r’.

I personally like preserving the original spelling so that word etymologies can be traced. Otherwise, you might end up with a slew of words having different meanings but all being spelled the same because they’re pronounced the same.

It should be noted that some Thais when making an effort to produce a more genuine English ‘r’, may manage to get the tongue in the right position for the initial ‘r’. For this example we’ll use the word ‘really’. The problem arises when we get to the /i/ part (really), the vowel and ‘l’ sound in English are too produced more toward the back of the mouth than they are in Thai. Sometimes, even if a Thai succeeds in producing the ‘r’ correctly, the rest of the word is suddenly mangled when the tongue then rolls up to the front, trying to produce a frontal ‘I’ with a ‘smiling’ mouth rather than a rounded mouth and then the ‘i’ with just the tip of the tongue. The result may be something like /r-l-ee-l-i/.

Think in Syllables

When speaking, speech units are in syllables – distinct, not slurred.

‘Traditional Thai Words’ … or Thai words that aren’t based on Sanskrit from one source or another will be monosyllabic. Even when pronouncing words with many syllables, the body subconsciously breaks them up into distinct syllabic units.

Get your glottis wanting to close at the end of syllables

There is a natural tendency for the glottis (part of your throat that closes and opens) of native speakers of Thai (and many other Southern Chinese Dialects / Languages) to want to close at the beginning and end of each syllable.

What happens to letters like ‘f’, ‘s’, ‘r’, ‘l’, ‘ch’,’j’ etc. if they are at the end of a syllable and your glottis closes at the same time that that sound is supposed to come out?

  1. P, F, V, B  P
  2. T,D, S, CH, SH  T
  3. K, G, H,  K

c. Note that as the glottis closes, there is no such thing as a ‘plosive’ ending. That means that you’ll never ‘click’ your ‘K’ or ‘t’h’ your ‘t’ or ‘P’h’ your ‘P’.

The sound dies when the throat closes. d. On a side note, letters like ‘t’ and ‘p’ are normally given their non-plosive Thai equivalents, especially if they have been introduced via literature or advertising rather than the spoken word. E.g. Instead of ‘Pepsi’ being written เพ็ปสี่ , it is  เปปซี่ and ‘Marketing’ instead of ม้าร์เกอะทิง  มาร์เกตติ้ง 5. Affricate sounds (/ch/, /s/) are produced at the front of the moutha.

If you’re a native speaker of English, say the word ‘sit’, ‘chair’ and ‘sheep’. Where are the ‘s’, ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ sounds coming from in your mouth? If you’re like me, for ‘s’, the tongue is splayed out at the top a bit, letting a section of my tongue about an eighth of the way back to make contact with the ridge behind my teeth. The ‘ch’ is produced with my tongue squished against the sides of my teeth toward the mid / back section of my mouth and the mid / back section of my tongue raised up to the roof of my mouth.

There is no ‘sh’ sound in the Thai sound system. Depending on the word, a ‘sh’ sound from English will be turned into a ช – /ch/ or ซ – /s/.

In Thai, the ‘s’, ‘ch’, ‘sh’ sounds are all produced by the tip of the tongue on the bridge between the back of the teeth and the (alveolar) ridge behind them.

For native speakers of English this might sound quite strange and even very effeminate for men. In Thai, this forward ‘s’ sound more natural and shouldn’t be avoided. In some instances, the ‘s’ is produced so far forward that it almost disappears.

The tongue is in the same position for the sounds /l/, /r/ and /n/

– produced by the tip of the tongue raised to the hard-palatea. In English, the ‘r’ is produced by raising the back of the tongue and the front end doesn’t have any ‘sound’ making roll at all. It just squishes back into the rest of the tongue to make a big blob in the back of your throat. Then, think about the way you say the words ‘Pill’ and ‘Lip’. How are the ‘l’s produced? Are they the same? What’s the bottom of your tongue doing? In Thai, the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds are produced by the tip of the tongue on the hard palate. The back of the tongue is relaxed and the bottom of the tongue isn’t connecting with anything. That means, when the glottis closes when the tongue is in this position, the only path for the air to escape is through the nose. When ‘r’ and ‘l’ happen at the end of a syllable, they end up sounding like ‘n’.

Give a high tone to words of one syllable.

If you’re familiar with the consonant classes and tonal rules – and if you have come through any of my classes, I know you are all experts by now , you would know that short, dead low class words will have a high tone. This seems to rub off on monosyllabic words from western languages like English. To put the nail in the coffin of these words, when transliterated into the Thai script, these often incorrect tones are included by using the appropriate tone markers / rules as well. Many Thais see these words written like this from childhood, so when it comes to finally pronouncing it in English, the filters have already been set in stone, and without the right approach it is next to impossible to have the real tones / accents on the words heard and imitated accurately.

More than one syllable, give a falling tone to the last syllable

This is perhaps one of the first characteristic of Tinglish that stands out to the newcomer. The last syllable of words with more than one syllable 9 times out of 10 is given an un-natural falling tone. E.g. Waiting – /wei TING/, fashion – /fae CHAN/, ‘tower’ – /ta WOER/ etc.

‘er’ is always pronounced /ә/ as in ‘shower’.

Never /e/ as in ‘error’. a. This is another one that has people shaking their heads thinking ‘what did you just say!???’. Some well intentioned English teacher at one point in history probably taught someone of some influence that ‘er’ sounds like ‘err’ (/ә/). Thenceforth everything with ‘er’ was given this sound both in speaking and spelling – เออร์. The word ‘cherry’ is pronounced เชอร์รี่ /chә rEE/ and ‘error’ is เออร์เร่อร์ /ә Rә/.

The phenomenon of the ‘f’d’ up ‘p’ and the ‘s’d’ up ‘t’

This rule applies to some but not all speakers of Tinglish. If you look at one of the rules above, you will see whenever there are no affricate or plosive endings. Here’s the twist! For many speakers of Tinglish, words like ‘tape’ and ‘tops’ and ‘what’ are pronounced ‘tafe’, ‘tof’ and ‘wos’. Why? This is my theory – and I could be wrong. When they have been taught English by a native speaker of English, the native speaker will over zealously pronounce the ‘p’ in tape and tops, or the ‘t’ in ‘what’, ‘cat’ etc. To a Thai, these fluffy /p/ and spitty /t/ sounds, sound more like /f/ and /s/ affricate sounds.

This phenomenon goes to show you though that the Thai excuse of ลิ้นแขง /lin kaeng/ or a ‘stiff tongue’ doesn’t cut the mustard. The Thai tongue is capable of producing a whole array of sounds, many of which native speakers of English might not be able to produce. This phenomenon shows that affricate endings can be produced – it’s more the psychology of how these sounds are perceived to ‘ought to sound’ that causes the final mispronunciation. The Thai writing system actually has a little ‘dot’ symbol ‘อฺ’ (if your have a Thai keyboard, it is accessed by hitting ‘shift + B’).

This dot basically means ‘don’t kill this consonant – let it sound out, and if it is in a cluster, pronounce the cluster. Many Thais will not be aware of the use of this symbol, and when they see it may even get shivers down their spine as it brings direct connotations with Pali and Sanskrit. I have developed a transcription system using the Thai letters that utilizes this symbol as well as a few new ones to represent affricate and voiced sounds. Through using these symbols and few minutes of explanation, I have witnessed students’ tongues being unlocked, being able to pronounce words in very good British, Scottish, American, Australian and even Russian accents.

This is a guide to get you started on your Tinglish. As you listen and practice, you will find more and more little subtleties that you can add to this list. The thing that might surprise you when speaking Tinglish well, is that many Thais won’t even realise you’re speaking it no matter how ridiculous you sound. As it starts to become more natural, start applying these rules back onto your Thai and see what results you get.

So what are you doing still reading this article? Go on – get out there and start speaking!