Thai language teacher and first-year students practice vocabulary. August, 2009.
Thai is a tonal language and English is not. Thai has five tones, and every syllable in every word in the language has one. Disconcertingly, often comically, there are many groups of words that have exactly the same phonemic sounds, and yet because of different tones express very different meanings. For example, call a man “laaw” (low tone) and you’ve told him he’s handsome. Call him “laaw” (rising tone – pronounced like a cartoonish imitation of an Italian chef saying “Come-a on-a in-a!) and you’ve insinuated that he has no teeth.
You can hear this difference in action in the sound clip at the top of the post. From the first word, the teacher gives deliberately exaggerated inflection to every syllable, to make the tone as clear as possible. The students, who in their native language speak flatly and inflect only for emphasis (rather than meaning), imitate her fledglingly.
The teacher, by turn, inflects English in ways that have no meaning – except, as it turns out, to mark her speech as that of a native Thai speaker. Tone is excessive once she switches to English and yet, out of habit, her speech is still full of it. Notice how, at :18, she pronounces “selLER” with a high tone on the second syllable. Thais tend to do this with borrowed words, for reasons I can’t explain. Around 1:48, she does it again with “buyER” and then once more with “how ‘BOUT.” I think that accent is not only an impediment to clarity, but also a way of continuing to “speak” one’s native language while speaking another language. The patterns of nonsensical excess produced by speaking in an accent immediately take on new meaning beyond the parameters of the languages themselves, since they mark their speaker in totally relative terms.
The valences of accent, however, work differently depending on which direction you’re traveling, i.e. an American in Thailand is not the same kind of foreigner as a Thai is in the United States. Thais are used to foreigners being inept with tone, and will often laugh at them openly. The monotone of the foreigner (say it to yourself: for-ay-NERRR) is partially confusing, but also an unmistakeable marker of alienness, probably at least as potent as skin tone.