Sunday, September 17, 2006

A struggle to speak English right

Thai Takes

In Thailand, The Lord of the Rings is the rord of the lings.

Thais mix their “L” and “R”, according to Christopher Wright, a 29-year-old British-Thai who wrote two pocketbooks in Thai, Farang Kao Jai, Kon Thai Get Part I and II (English That Foreigners Understand and Thais Know How To Use).

Bad pronunciation is one of the problems Thais have with speaking English, notes Wright.

For example, when a Thai says, “I want to pray at the temple,” he doesn’t pronounce the “R” and it comes out as “pay”. Or he says it with an “L” and it becomes “play”.

Why the mix-up? “This is – and most foreigners do not know about this – because when Thais speak Thai, they make a lot of mistakes in their pronunciation,” he explains.

“In Thai culture, we are sa baay sa baay (happy) and mai bpen rai (it does not matter) in our pronunciation. But in English, the ‘L’ is an ‘L’ and the ‘R’ is an ‘R’.”

The other letter that Thais have difficulty with is “X”. And the mispronunciation is one of Wright’s favourite “X” jokes. Well, it is about a salesman and the word “fax”. And it rhymes with “duck.”

Mispronunciation or not, English is big business in Thailand.

Even the government has got into the act. Last month, the Cabinet approved a baht 2 billion (RM200mil) budget for a four-year project to upgrade the English competency among the Thai people to an international level.

In cosmopolitan Bangkok, where about 10% of its six million population speak fluent English, Bangkokians are finding that loosening their tongue to English translates to a better salary.

“I want to learn English because the multi-national companies pay twice more than local companies. But they want Thais who can speak English,” explains Supitch Buaseng.

The 27-year-old building manager plans to attend a baht 2,600 (RM260) six-lesson English course.

There’s a possibility his teacher may be Hannibal Lecter.

In the wake of last month’s arrest of John Mark Karr, a suspect in the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey, an American child beauty queen, the Education Ministry offered to compile a list of foreigners suspected of committing crimes against children.

Why? Because Karr slipped into the education system and taught English for two weeks at one of Bangkok’s most prestigious elementary schools before he was rejected for being too strict.

The Nation reported that some language schools were so desperate to acquire foreign teachers that they didn’t bother with any detailed checking.

That comes to no surprise to Wright. “There is a lot of weird or sleazy farangs (Westerners) teaching English in Thailand,” he says. “Anyone with blond hair who wears a suit can get a job teaching English.”

Surprisingly, a few years ago when the Mahidol International University business administration graduate applied for a English teaching job in several schools in Bangkok, he was told that they only hired native speakers.

“I told them I’m a native speaker as English is my first language. But they told me that they did not want Thai parents to think they were hiring Asian teachers,” recalls the bilingual Wright, whose father is British and mother is Thai.

In Thailand, he adds, it is all about image. When it was pointed out that he looked pan-Asian, Wright says, “I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes.”

However, he prevailed and managed to teach English at schools and universities in Bangkok. With enough experience teaching Thais to learn and speak English, he wrote two pocketbooks in Thai.

The books are about Thai people’s problems with English. “My books answer a question most Thais and farangs love to ask, ‘Why can’t Thais speak English after all their years of learning it in school and at college?’” he says.

The number one reason is that Thais view English only as a subject. “They study it for an exam. They don’t immerse themselves in English. For example, they watch a Hollywood movie with Thai subtitles,” he says.

Next month, his own English school Wright English Club will open in Bangkok. He will teach Thais to speak English, the Wright way.

Or as some Thais (and Malaysian Chinese) will say, “the light way”.

(Published in The Star on Sept 17, 2006)