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Thread: How Thai interfers with learning English

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    Senior Member Array MikeS's Avatar
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    How Thai interfers with learning English

    Ever struggled to teach something and your students just don't seem to be able to get it? Sometimes their first language knowledge of Thai interferes with their L2. The following article helped to clarify my understanding of some of the problems: David Smyth, “Thai Speakers”, from Learner English, Swan & Smith, 2002. Note: These are my notes, so responsibility for any errors is mine.

    Thais tend to speak English with a particular accent which is affected by the way they pronounce Thai. For instance, r often becomes l and final consonants may change in pronunciation.

    When pronouncing English words with vowel clusters not found in Thai (dr, fr, fl, fj, tw, sl, sm, sw, sp, sk, st) Thais insert a short vowel, so smoke becomes sa-moke, frown becomes fa-rown, screw becomes sa-crew and strike becomes sa-trike.

    In Thai, speakers drop the second segment of a two-segment consonant cluster at the beginning of a Thai word, so khray (who) and plaa (fish) become khay and paa. When speaking English, they may do the same, particularly with r, turning brake into bake and free into fee. Fried rice may become fied lice. English final consonant clusters are often shortened, pump becomes pum and perfect becomes perfec.

    Thai is tonal and this can affect their pronunciation of English syllables. In Thai the stress is on single syllables while in English the stress is on groups of syllables. One effect is for Thai speakers of English to stress the final syllable in words, for example butter becomes but’ter, coffee becomes cof’fee, and shopping becomes shop’ping.

    Thai has a number of intonations which do not appear in English. So when Thai is translated to English it loses the intonations and may become rather staccato.

    The mismatch between spelling and pronunciation in English can cause many pronunciation problems for Thais speaking English. Another problem can be that English words can be misspelt in Thai, and then the user has trouble adjusting to the correct spelling.

    Thai words are not separated by spaces and Thai also essentially doesn’t have punctuation, except for gaps in letters to indicate pauses, so English punctuation is a whole new field to Thai speakers, who omit punctuation or to have trouble distinguishing sentence breaks.

    Thai plurals are generally unmarked from the singular and indicated only by the use of other words. Thai pronouns reflect an extensive series of intimacy and hierarchy. While Thai and English both have the subject+verb+object order, Thai often omits the subject.

    In Thai a question is created by adding a question word at the end of a sentence, so in English Thais often put the question word et the end e.g. "You go when?" The question words have no equivalent in English. Thais often use a rising intonation to make a question in English e.g. He go?

    Thais often answer “Yes” to English questions which require a “No’ answer e.g. ‘You’re not going, are you.” Double negative questions should be avoided at all costs.

    Negatives in Thai are created by adding the word may before the verb. There can be confusion about whether to translate this as no or not e.g. He not go; He no go.
    Thai has no inflected verbs, so a single word for go covers English equivalents such as went, was going, has gone, is going, will go, would go. The context in Thai makes the meaning clear. So Thais will tend to use the unmarked base form of an English verb rather than attempt to change it, with results such as, Yesterday we go London, She pay already and I leave him since 10 o’clock. A person using the base verb may actually be having trouble with pronunciation and may fail to pronounce the ed in words such as cooked or arranged.

    There are no articles in Thai and Thais have a lot of trouble with English definite and indefinite articles and when to omit or use articles e.g. He very nice man, The buffalos are the important animals in Thailand.

    Adjectives or adverbs in Thai occur after the noun they modify, which is the opposite of English e.g. Car red. Adjectives and adverbs also function as the verb to be e.g. Car good can be either the phrase A good car or a sentence The car is good. As a result, Thais often omit the verb from sentences e.g. This car not good.

    In Thai there is no distinction between adjective/adverb pairs as in English e.g. good/well, clear/clearly. Thais overuse the adjectival form in English e.g. You speak Thai very good.
    Thai uses the equivalent of more than and the most for superlatives, and so Thais tend to disregard er and est in English and produce sentences such as This dress is beautiful more than others.

    Thai nouns are neither singular nor plural and do not have gender or case, relying instead on context. So Thais use the singular form when the plural is required in English e.g. I have many friend.

    The Thai sound system has no final s, nor final consonant clusters, so Thais may produce correct written forms, but pronounce them incorrectly.

    The Thai number system is more complex than English, using a noun classifier, and this can cause a failure to pluralise a noun after a number e.g. I have five brother.

    Pronouns in Thai are more complex than in English to distinguish hierarchy and intimacy. The most common third-person pronoun in Thai makes no distinction between gender or number, resulting in Thais using he and she interchangeably and sentence groups such as, My sisters study at the university. He work very hard.

    Thai does not have a possessive pronoun, so in English of is frequently omitted.

    The subject is often omitted in Thai when it is clear who is being talked about, and pronouns may be discarded, causing sentences such as, My brother was angry when came home.

    English verb+ preposition or adjective+preposition combinations have a single word Thai equivalent, causing sentences such as, I angry you, We interest it, He frighten you.
    Complex English sentences cause problems for Thais in getting the correct verb tenses in subordinate clauses, usually resulting in them opting for the unmarked form.

    Thai only has one relative pronoun, so in English Who and Which are frequently confused e.g. My friend which I met.

    Many English loan words have been adopted into Thai, but they gain a Thai pronunciation which Thais may find difficult to shed when using English e.g. plastic pat-tik, style sa-taay, strike sa-tray.
    Last edited by MikeS; 27th February 2008 at 10:38.
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    Hangin' Around Array Cyrille's Avatar
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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    You've made it Mike!

    At last you've discovered the most difficult to read font on planet ajarn!

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeS
    The subject is often omitted in Thai when it is clear who is being talked about, and pronouns may be discarded, causing sentences such as, My brother was angry when came home.


    My wife is more extreme than this. She'll say, for example, 'He was angry when he came home' 20 minutes after we've finished talking about her brother. And I'm supposed to know who she's talking about.

    I wonder, is thai more intuitive in this sense, or is it just that my wife is getting on a bit, poor mare.

    Anyways, looks like a useful and informed analysis.

    Last edited by Cyrille; 15th February 2008 at 17:23.

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    The articles is fair enough but we shouldn't make excuses for Thais. the way they learn English is utter nonense simply based on filling in textbooks before they can read, never being encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them and being allowed for a large part to lean on their friends and smile their way through. Multiple guess tests should be abolished. You only learn from doing and producing. Lets get the country speaking bad English first before we refine it. Not easy though given the same nonense goes on in every subject of the Thai curriculum

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    Senior Member Array MikeS's Avatar
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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Sorry about the font, it wasn't deliberate. Sorry about the length too, I actually had to shorten it to 10,000 characters to get it accepted, which is why its a bit brief and brusque to read. You should have seen the length of the original article.
    Some longtimers might think its all obvious, but as a relative newby I found it helpful. It explained and organised random thoughts I'd had. Its clear the Thai first language does affect the second language, but pinning down how is difficult, so this is a useful summary I thought.
    If its helpful, that's good. If it's not, well ignore it...

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Its defintely helpful and a good reminder thats its not all plain sailing here. quite clearly in any language the more you read, speak and write, the easier it is to address these problems.

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Quote Originally Posted by peelieorion
    The articles is fair enough but we shouldn't make excuses for Thais. the way they learn English is utter nonense simply based on filling in textbooks before they can read, never being encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them and being allowed for a large part to lean on their friends and smile their way through. Multiple guess tests should be abolished. You only learn from doing and producing. Lets get the country speaking bad English first before we refine it. Not easy though given the same nonense goes on in every subject of the Thai curriculum
    Different topics really, peeeli, and ones which you've explored in admirable depth previously.

    Mother tongue interference is a common phenomenon for any language learner. Awareness of the reasons why students make mistakes can be invaluable, both for helping them to get it right and for easing teacher frustrations.

    A few years ago I had a colleague who groaned at considerable volume 'How come these morons can't do something as simple as tell the time'

    He had absolutely no idea, of course, of how to tell the time in the very different thai manner.

    Only joking about the font, mike. It's good content, and that's what counts. Could be 'modded and stickied', actually.

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Quote Originally Posted by peelieorion
    The articles is fair enough but we shouldn't make excuses for Thais. You only learn from doing and producing. Lets get the country speaking bad English first before we refine it.
    P. you're right about the reading issue. Until that is conquered, only minimal, accidental, or rote learning will occur.

    I think the OP was a fairly comprehensive guide to 'bad English' based on Thai (or for that matter, nearly any other Asian) language. And most of those listed can be solved with an extensive use of phonics and reading. The only glaring omission was a reference to a supposed genetic link to oral musclature that produces the r-l-s-w-errors.

    Because equivalent pronunciations of those letters exist in L1, a lot of the trouble, especially with combinations, is pure unexcusable laziness.
    -----
    Quote Originally Posted by Cyrille
    A few years ago I had a colleague who groaned at considerable volume 'How come these morons can't do something as simple as tell the time'
    He needs to see my M1 daughter's lesson on "How to Tell the Clock." Other than "I don't like your face", or "STFU (to the alarm clock)" I haven't been able to answer this Thai English lesson.
    Last edited by av8tor; 15th February 2008 at 17:59. Reason: Automerged Doublepost
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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Quote Originally Posted by Cyrille
    My wife is more extreme than this. She'll say, for example, 'He was angry when he came home' 20 minutes after we've finished talking about her brother. And I'm supposed to know who she's talking about.
    *

    Good one. My wife does this a lot as well. She also uses "he" and "she" indisciminately, and even though she speaks so quietly that I often not can hear what she says, she is frightened that my landlord or my neighbours will hear her talking about them so will not refer to them by name, leaving me to sort out who the hell she's talking about.

    Verb tenses are another one, as the article points out. "You eat?" The first year of our relationship I had no idea if this meant "have you eaten?" or "would you like to eat?". Now she asks me "hungry?" which is a great deal less ambiguous.

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Were you hungry or are you hungry though Asper?

    It's funny that she speaks quietly when discussing people that may or may not be listening. The Wife, even when it's clearly only the two of us, will still glance around the room before discussing someone elses business.
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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Quote Originally Posted by MikeS
    Ever


    before the verb. There can be confusion about whether to translate this as no or not e.g. He not go; He no go.
    Thai has no inflected verbs, so a single word for go covers English equivalents such as went, was going, has gone, is going, will go, would go. The context in Thai makes the meaning clear. .
    or not...
    I have trouble believing that all the English inflections can be replaced by "the context". Sometimes I think I can hear this lack of precision in Thai conversations but my Thai's really not good enough to know for sure. My friend who's fluent agrees with me though. "Thais say less with less" is how he puts it. Any linguists around here? Anyway, I'm not trying to say English is better than Thai though. English spelling is ridiculous to take just one example.

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Quote Originally Posted by LeedsLeedsLeeds
    It's funny that she speaks quietly when discussing people that may or may not be listening. The Wife, even when it's clearly only the two of us, will still glance around the room before discussing someone elses business.
    My wife, when gossipping about someone at a social gathering will partially cover her mouth with her hand. Despite all the times I've pointed out that this makes it obvious she's having a gossip!

    OP is a good summary of some of the reasons why English is so hard for Thais (others being personal lack of a sense of resposibilty, and a shite education system)
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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Quote Originally Posted by peelieorion
    The articles is fair enough but we shouldn't make excuses for Thais.
    Isn't it valuable to understand or start from the learner's ability and move forward from there? I don't see the article as offering excuses, rather showing the Thai language in some aspects is cleaner than the muddy mess of English. With a little imagination, you could create at least two years' worth of grammar lessons based on the linguistic observations of the article. Then again, you'd be boring the students shitless with a grammar-only approach to learning English.

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Quote Originally Posted by Guy Mandude
    Isn't it valuable to understand or start from the learner's ability and move forward from there? I don't see the article as offering excuses, rather showing the Thai language in some aspects is cleaner than the muddy mess of English. With a little imagination, you could create at least two years' worth of grammar lessons based on the linguistic observations of the article. Then again, you'd be boring the students shitless with a grammar-only approach to learning English.
    Guy I agree completely, I was only guarding against complacency I find particularly with Thai English teachers who constantly tell me its hard for their students to learn English. I tell them to start with actually ask kids some questions rather than babbling on and teaching them grammar rules. english is a tough language to perfect but not so hard to make yourself understood. i think the emphasis here needs to be to get Thais speaking bad English first and then refine it rather than the current approach which seems to betaught ieifits not perfect, say nothing.

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    I speak only a few words of Thai, and understand fewer. Put it down to laziness, a Thai wife who speaks English, and grey matter that has been rendered unusable by repeated applications of mind-altering substances (mostly alchohol).

    English is difficult to teach, partially because there are many different words that describe the same thing. We come to imagine English as excessively verbose, Thai as concise and terse, making the most with the least.

    Imagine my surprise when I dragged a student into the staffroom to explain (for me) to a Thai teacher why she hadn't been coming to my classses. The conversation, Thai student/Thai teacher went on for ten minutes as I stood by uncomprehendingly. The upshot was that my course was inappropriate to her degree requirement.

    There. Issue summarized in one sentence. What required 10 minutes of discussion? I'll never know I guess.

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    Re: How Thai interfers with learning English

    Quote Originally Posted by Asper
    We come to imagine English as excessively verbose
    I think of the infinite things a person may want to say and come to the conclusion that English is necessarily verbose with the aim being to have the ability to precisely articulate complex, subtle, and nuanced thought.
    Last edited by Hamster; 16th February 2008 at 13:43.
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