Thai and English Phonetic Comparison

Introduction

English and Thai languages are different in terms of their phonological systems. For instance, there are 21 vowel phonemes and 21 consonant phonemes in Thai language (Enfield, 2008). The aspirated voiceless stops such as /ph/, /th/, and /kh/ in the Thai language are not mere allophones of /p/, /t/, and /k/.. Instead, they are distinct phonemes. There are more fricatives in English language. This is a major difference when English is compared to Thai. When it comes to Thai language, it is quite cumbersome to generate /θ/, /δ/, /v/, /z/, /∫/, and /з/ (Swan & Smith, 2001). Besides, the length of the vowel is crucial. Hence, long and short vowels are clearly differentiated.

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Research summaries

Most of the English language pattern in Thai contains the ‘Thai’ accent. This pronunciation error usually results due to the fact that the Thai phonological system is compelled to fit in each English word. This implies that the nearest Thai equivalents are used to pronounce English language. The syllables of words towards the end are stressed in Thai language. Consonant clusters and final consonants are problematic to articulate. The language also experiences a staccato effect that emanates from the following:

  • Each syllable is given equal timing and weight.
  • A habit of assigning tones to syllables
  • Glottal stops are inserted before the original vowels
  • Some initial consonant clusters are mixed with short vowels.
  • Consonant clusters are reduced mostly to single consonants.

The chart below shows the Thai alphabet (Smyth, 2014).

Thai alphabet (vowels)
Thai alphabet (vowels)

There are also equivalents and near equivalents in shaded phonemes. Hence, there is great difficulty in articulating and perceiving them. In some instances, confusions still arise in most shaded phonemes. There are also a number of challenges that may be caused by unshaded phonemes. These problems are caused by the following:

  • The pronunciation of diphthongs is similar to that of vowels.
  • Most short vowels are pronounced as long vowels. A case example is /æ/.
  • It is common for the Thai speakers to stress the final syllable and consequently lengthen the final vowel.

The equivalents and near equivalents witnessed in shaded phonemes are not cumbersome to use especially when they appear as initial consonants. However, phonemes that are not shaded may be generally problematic.

Consonant clusters

There is a wide range of consonant clusters in English language compared to Thai. According to the Thai language pattern, consonant clusters hardly appear at the end. The initial segment clusters that are not present in Thai include the following:

/dr/. /fr/, /fl/, /fj/, /tw/, /sl/, /sw/, /sm/, /sp/, /sk/, and /st/.

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A short vowel is inserted by the Thais whenever English language is pronounced. In some cases, a fully stressed syllable can be created in the process.

Examples

  • Frown is pronounced as ‘fa-rown’
  • Smoke is pronounced as ‘sa-moke’

On the same note, the initial clusters contained in the English three-segments operate in a similar manner.

Examples

  • Strike is pronounced as ‘sa-trike’
  • Screw is pronounced as ‘sa-crew’

The two-segment consonant is often dropped especially in Bangkok by the Thai speakers. Hence, the starting point of any Thai word might exclude the above additions. For instance, ‘khray’ may be pronounced as ‘khay’ while ‘plaa’ pronounced as ‘paa’. This trend of reducing words by the Thais might be readily transferred to English communication and thereafter cause pronunciation problems. In addition, most Thai speakers usually experience problems when dealing with English final clusters. Hence, they are often compelled to reduce them to manageable levels. They have to seek the final consonant that is most comfortable to use in conversations. Therefore, they retain the initial segment that bears the cluster and drop the rest.

Examples

Pump is pronounced as ‘pum’

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  • Perfect is pronounced as ‘perfec’

Rhythm and stress

There is a fixed in every Thai syllable. Hence, each syllable is given equal timing and weight. Single syllables also carry tonal pitch. When it comes to the English language, groups of syllables are used. The tendency to stress the final syllable is the most common language mistake among the Thai speakers. The worst affected words are polysyllabic in nature. Examples include shop’ping, cof’fee, and but’ter. Attitudinal meaning can be conveyed when syllables are stressed. Besides, meanings can be altered owing to stressed syllables.

Intonation

Intonation patterns in English and Thai are completely unique from each other. Since Thai is primarily a monosyllabic language, its pitch contour fluctuates sharply. ‘question words’ are used to denote questions in Thai. Such a pattern has an inherent increasing tone. However, the English question contours are not reproduced at all. Polite requests intonation should be the main focus. There is also disappearance of polite request when translation is being done from Thai to English language. If the speaker opts to be too literal, a brusque imperative is left after the translation.

Juncture

New consonant clusters can hardly be produced in Thai. This is especially common when initial or final consonants are used and also in the presence of junctures. The link between the starting and concluding consonants are also precluded by the glottal stop that takes place before the starting or initial vowels. There are also myriads of phonetic changes witnessed in English language via juncture. Nonetheless, speakers of Thai language may not identify such changes at all. They can only be aware of the changes unless the phonetic alterations are vividly pointed out.

How spelling affects pronunciation

When new words are being learned in Thai language, numerous pronunciation mistakes are made. The main cause of this problem is that spelling and pronunciation have a major mismatch. The following are some of the typical problems experienced by most Thai speakers:

  • They are not certain in the pronunciation between ѕ and /s/ as well as /z/.
  • Inability to establish proper usage or distinction between ‘th’ and /θ/.
  • Inability to lower the pronunciation of vowels that have not been stressed. Examples of words that contain unstressed vowels include breakfast, possible, police, problem and common.
  • The strong written pronunciations of the Thai speakers also affect certain words such as have, was and can. They should instead use weak forms of these words.
  • Non-English pronunciation is reinforced by the typical English loan words among the Thais. As a consequence, learners find it difficult to defy the same trends when the words are used within the context of English language.

Spelling and writing

An alphabetic system is used to write the Thai language. The writings run from left to right. The upper and lower cases are not differentiated at all. The vowel symbol positions are not fixed. For example, some of them may be inserted above or below a consonant while others may be positioned on either the left or right hand side. In addition, it is pertinent to mention that spaces are not used to separate words when writing sentences in Thai. Spacing hardly appears in Thai writing (James, 2009). The latter is similar to the use of punctuation in English language. In any case, the Roman alphabet is a common feature among the Thais from the tender age. This implies that the Roman alphabet is a common learning experience among the Thais.

Punctuation

The Thai language does not contain punctuation marks. However, pauses are indicated using spaces whenever there are groups of words in place. Western punctuation marks have been attempted in the past. Some old books that were written in Thai show that punctuation marks such as inverted commas, exclamation marks, and commas were sparingly used to compile literature. Nonetheless, they are hardly used in contemporary literature. Most Thai learners are not equipped with punctuation skills. In fact, the concept of sentence construction might be a major barrier towards learning among the Thais.

General grammar

There are outstanding differences in the grammatical structure of Thai and English languages. For example, unmarking of verb tenses and plurals of nouns takes place. Moreover, structural words are added to denote tense as well as singular and plural forms of words. Hence, inflection is not used in this case (Clewley, Jai-Ua & Golding, 2013). Verbs in Thai can also be denoted using adverb and adjectives. Moreover, the pronominal system of the Thai language is quite complicated. Various degrees of intimacy are reflected by distinct sets of pronouns. When it comes to the order of words in sentence structures, it follows the same pattern as that of English language that is subject-verb-object. Nevertheless, there are several instances when the Thai language omits the subject part of a sentence. The latter occurs especially when there is vivid understanding of what is being addressed in a given sentence.

Auxiliaries, questions and negatives

The Thai language does not have any auxiliary verbs. As already pointed out in the above section, question words are used to transform sentences into questions. When a literal translation is used, a rising intonation is substituted bearing in mind that there are no equivalents in English when it comes to question words. There is also confusion when it comes to questions and answers that are negative.

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Time, tense, aspect and articles

There are no inflected forms in the Thai verb. Most Thai learners also face serious problems when handling complex verb phrases and verb inflections. There are also no articles used in this language.

References

Clewley, J., Jai-Ua, B. & Golding, M. (2013). Making Out in Thai. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing.

Enfield, N.J. (2008). Linguistic Epidemiology: Semantics and Grammar of Language Contact in mainland Southeast Asia. New York: Routledge.

James, N. (2009). Just Right English Grammar for Everyone. Bloomington: Oxford University Press.

Smyth, D. (2014). Thai: An Essential Grammar. New York: Routledge.

Swan, M. & Smith, B. (2001). Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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StudyCorgi. (2020, November 29). Thai and English Phonetic Comparison. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/thai-and-english-phonetic-comparison/

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StudyCorgi. 2020. "Thai and English Phonetic Comparison." November 29, 2020. https://studycorgi.com/thai-and-english-phonetic-comparison/.

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StudyCorgi. (2020) 'Thai and English Phonetic Comparison'. 29 November.

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