Most Common Pronunciation Errors for Thai Speakers Learning English
There are currently about 4,500 people in Oregon that live in a home where Tai-Kadai (Thai and Laos) are the main languages spoken. Of this number, 51% report speaking English very well. The remaining 49% feel they would like to improve their spoken English skills. If this number includes you, read ahead for some common areas of pronunciation that can present challenges for native Thai speakers learning English.
The Thai language and the English language have some key differences. One being, Thai is a tonal language, and English is not. This means that if a word in Thai is pronounced in a different tone, this can alter the meaning of a word. Several Asian languages are tonal languages including Chinese, Punjabi, and Vietnamese.
As can be expected, it can be challenging for speakers of tonal languages to separate the use of intonation in their native tongue from how tones are used in English. There are five tones used in this tonal language: low, mid, falling, high, and rising. Each of these tones changes the meaning of a syllable. For example, the sentence “mai mai mai mai mai” in Thai means “New wood doesn’t burn, does it?” By changing the pitch and movement of each word “mai”, this assigns a new meaning to the word. For learners of English, it can be difficult to consistently place stress in the correct part of a sentence, as well as to portray emotions such as surprise or interest through intonation. Following are two of the most common pronunciation mistakes related to stress and intonation:
1. Final Syllable Word Stress
One very easy pronunciation error made by some speakers is stressing the final syllable of every word. In English, the stress placed in words varies in location. For example, look at the stress patterns in these words as indicated in bold:
Backpack: stress placed on the first syllable
Decide: stress placed on the last syllable
Agenda: stress placed on the middle syllable
2. Weak Forms
Additionally, native Thai speakers sometimes over-emphasize or put unnecessary stress on words that are typically unstressed in English. For example, function words such as “we”, “with”, “are”, “her”, and “the” are normally unstressed in natural speech.
1. /l/ vs. /r/
In English, the alveolar approximants /l/ and /r/ are two distinct sounds. However, in the Thai language, /r/ is a sound that does not exist. The Thai /r/ is a voiced alveolar trill or tap, which sounds very similar to the English /l/. For this reason, oftentimes speakers will commonly replace the English /r/ with /l/. Or, some Thai speakers will find themselves omitting the /r/ sound altogether.
Words that begin with the affricate /tʃ/ such as in the name “Charlie” can present difficulty for individuals mastering English pronunciation. This sound is often substituted with the phonemes /ʃ/ as in “shop” or /s/ as in “soup”. To pronounce the /tʃ/ sound, place the tongue on the alveolar ridge. Make the /t/ sound, then immediately glide the tongue back to make the /ʃ/ sound. Essentially, /tʃ/ is just a combination of two sounds immediately spoken one after the other.
3. /ð/ and /θ/
In Thai, the fricatives /ð/ as in “that” and /θ/ as in “thermometer” do not exist. Consequently, speakers often will replace /θ/ with /s/ or /t/ and /ð/ with /z/ or /d/. For example, someone might say “sermometer” instead of “thermometer” or “zat” instead of “that”.
4. /əʊ/ and /ɝ/
The diphthong (double vowel) /əʊ/ such as in “grow” or “home” is sometimes replaced with the monophthong /ɔ/, which sounds similar to the English /ɔ:/ or /ɒ/.
Similarly, Native Thai speakers may replace the English /ɝ/ sound with a British-sounding /3/. This is because /ɝ/, such as in “bird”, “work”, or “service”, contains the consonant /r/ which, as discussed previously, does not exist in the Thai language. When some Thai learners attempt to make this sound, the tongue can be slightly dispositioned and the lips often do not make the necessary forward movement.
5. Voicing vs. Devoicing
Some Thai speakers learning English also find the concept of voicing and devoicing consonants to be challenging. For example, someone might say “I went to the bark” instead of using the correct voiceless “p” and saying “I went to the park”. Reference the chart below for some commonly confused words.
6. Consonant Clusters & Dropped Consonants
In English, it is typical to see many words with several consecutive consonants (also known as consonant clusters). However, in Thai, this is not the case. While consonant clusters to exist in the Thai language, they are not as common and can present trouble to Thai learners. Some speakers will separate consonant clusters by adding extra vowels. Instead of saying “drive”, someone might say “da-rive”, or “ca-lass” instead of “class”. This process is also known as epenthesis.
Additionally, since the Thai language does not contain clusters at the end of words, one common mistake is to drop consonants entirely.
There are a few notable differences between Thai vowels and English vowels. First, the length of vowels in Thai is very important, as this factor can change the meaning of the vowel. There are 18 vowel sounds in the Thai language, which come in 9 short and long pairs. In English, there are arguably about 14 vowel sounds, however, these are not defined or separated by length.
Another differing quality between the two languages’ vowel sounds is the nasality of the vowels. Thai vowels are typically produced as nasal, whereas English vowels are mostly produced as oral (air is released through the mouth instead of the nose). As a result, Thai speakers of English may sound nasal when they pronounce words.
While syntax does not fall under the category of pronunciation, this can be a common area of struggle for second language learners. Unlike many Western languages, Thai does not contain definite structure such as articles, object pronouns, and verb conjugations. Instead of grammatical markers, Thai speakers rely on context to portray the meaning of a phrase accurately. It is also typical for additional words to be added to a sentence to add clarity to the meaning of phrases in Thai. Resultantly, learning grammatical markers in English can provide confusion for native Thai speakers.
Overall, spoken English proficiency can be improved by taking note of the key differences between these two unique and interesting languages! As with any new skill, improvement comes with time and practice.
To learn about the ever-changing language demographics in the state of Oregon, check out this website.
Questions or Comments? Contact us here.
(2018, September 4). Languages in Oregon. Retrieved from https://statisticalatlas.com/state/Oregon/Languages
Tanabe, C. M., & Swain, J. J. (n.d.). Thai. Retrieved from https://www.pdx.edu/multicultural-topics-communication-sciences-disorders/thai
(n.d.). 10 English Pronunciation Errors Made by Thai Speakers. Retrieved from https://pronunciationstudio.com/thai-speakers-english-pronunciation-errors/