This chapter provides introductory description regarding the pronunciation of English sound by Thais. It describes the problems of EFL speaking in Thailand, function of English in Thailand, and the teaching pronunciation in EFL curriculum in Thailand providing the content designed of communicative speaking skills. This is followed by significance of the study, the purpose of the study, research questions, scope and ending with limitations of the study.
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1.1 Background to the study
Problems of EFL Speaking in Thailand
In line with the role of English as an international lingua franca, Thailand has taken several measures to incorporate English into its education system. For example, in 1995, the Thai government made English language study compulsory from primary school (Sedgwick, 2005). Based on my two-year English teaching experience at school, Narathiwat, Thailand, however, many Thai students still have problems using English, especially in the area of pronunciation. One of the reasons for this is the lack of exposure to English language use outside the classroom. Another could be due to the differences between the phonetic and phonological systems of English and their first language. Next, they all might be taught and emphasized only the rule of grammar and increasing their English vocabulary but might not be practiced English pronunciation properly. On the one hand, formal pronunciation instruction should not be neglected in all foreign language classrooms since pronunciation plays important roles in communication which is the fundamental element of foreign language learning: as it has been claim from the most of Thai people that teachers should speak the target language during their foreign language class.
Due to the lack of time on teaching English pronunciation in the classroom, Thai students have not been instructed in the area of pronunciation sufficiently. In Thailand, only the students doing bachelor degree in English field are aware of how the sound is produced correctly and of the English vowel sound both in terms of vowel quality and vowel length but not for others. Hence, some students are aware only of quantity differences of the vowels but never being realized of quality of the vowels. Moreover, some are not aware of both the quality and the quantity differences between each pair of the vowel sound.
Previous studies on the English pronunciation of Thai speakers have found that they do not contrast vowel length (Chantachorn 2003). For instance, Thai speakers tend not distinguish between vowel pairs like /Éª/-/i/ and /ÊŠ/-/uË/, resulting in words like ship and sheep, and fool and full being produced as homophones. However, most of the published studies on the production of English vowels by Thai speakers are impressionistic in nature, and hence, the current study aims to examine the production of English vowels by Thai speakers through acoustic analysis. It also aims to examine the extent to which the production of vowels is influenced by Thai vowels.
Those problems of spoken English by Thai students are influenced by the following factors: functions of English, English language education, and teaching of English pronunciation.
Functions of English in Thailand
In Thailand, recently, the role of English is obviously important as it is used for international communication. New technology and World Wide Web have been developed rapidly resulting in a greater transition in education, business, tourism and economic affairs which all interrelate commanding high English proficiency.
Thai government officials use English for international conference and communication. For example, ASEAN summit which is a meeting held by ASEAN in relation to economic growth, social progress and cultural development of Southeast Asian Nations. In the commercial part, English is used by entrepreneur, tourist agencies, hotels, airlines and even bank to communicate with foreigners, as well as business for import and export. Beside this, English is the most important for the tourist area in Thailand. For instances, Phuket island, Krabi and Phangna located in southern of Thailand are very popular among Westerners. Therefore, Thais who leave in tourist area need to communicate with them in English even sometimes they do not communicate effectively. This may be due to faulty pronunciations which lead to communication breakdown. Some researcher’s foreign friends have blamed that most of the Thai people cannot communicate well, especially for people who come from Deep South of Thailand which are Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces. This could be due to there are not so many foreigners come there and Deep South is not a tourist area. This also cause the students in the area do not have much motivation in learning English.
Another group of English user is in mass media and publications. Some news channels and variety shows in Thai television program use English as a medium to perform their program. The examples of such programs are ‘English breakfast’ program on TV Thai channel providing English knowledge together with entertainment such as idiom for everyday life, grammar as well as English pronunciation. ‘Chris Delivery’ once famous English teaching program on channel TTB5 and ‘English minutes’ a short program on channel 5. Furthermore, the Hollywood movies are played in the cinemas around Thailand with English sound track and Thai sub-title. However, most Thais prefer to watch the Hollywood movies playing Thai sound track to English one. Moreover, there are also News program using English as a medium played on channel MCOT. Thailand outlook channel is a 24 hours English language news channel broadcasted by ASTV (Asia Satellite television) which provide news and insight into Thai affairs that really matter and affect both Thai and foreign residents. ‘The Nation’ and ‘Bangkok Post’ are well known and widely read by foreigners and educated Thai readers all over Thailand. For the English magazines, ‘Nation Junior’ and ‘Student Weekly’ have been well-liked among Thai teenagers. Since English is a global language, Thai government has tried to get all mass media involved with English language in order to serve Thais and support them to learn English.
Finally, English, therefore, works as a language for basic informal education in Thailand. Although English is not a medium of teaching in school level, it enables students to learn and understand differences of languages and cultures, customs and traditions, thinking, society, economy, politics and administration (Ministry of Education 2001). All in all, these functions reveal that Thailand has attempted to use English in many ways to make Thais get use to English language however these approaches only work on some Thai groups and some of Thais still not getting familiar with English perception and production skills which are listening, speaking , reading and writing.
English language education in Thailand
Learning foreign language serves an important and essential tool for communication, education, seeking knowledge, livelihood and creating understanding the culture and vision of the world community (Ministry of Education 2001). Although English is not only the foreign language in Thailand, clearly can be seen that English language still play a dominant role as it is mainly used to communicate to make a connection and cooperation between people around the world.
English has been known as an international language and many Thai people have been getting involved with it for decades. Most of them implicate with English language used in their daily lives from many media such as text, television, radio and newspaper. The people who get into school, of course, they have known English language at the beginning of the first primary school level. As mentioned above that English language has been made as compulsory subject starting at primary school in 1995 in Thailand. However, the curriculum was revised once more in 1996 and English is now taught as a subject in Grade 1 to 12(Sarmah, Gogoi & Wiltshire 2009). All students have to take English language as a compulsory subject every semester for primary and secondary school levels. This means that they have to take English course at least 9 credits for primary level and 12 credits for secondary level. In the upper secondary level, at least 6 credits are required for them (240 hours). Due to limited time as for 2 periods/hours a week, leading to limited lesson for pronunciation. Furthermore, six English courses are required for all learners in four -year curriculum at the undergraduate level (Chusanachoti 2009). These few English courses are only a little period of time exposed to English language use.
The Thai Ministry of Education has encouraged several approaches in English course syllabus to enhance the intelligibility in English language used such as a learner-centered approach, communicative language approach as well as language for specific purpose. Within those approaches, the area of pronunciation has also been taught in terms of conversation and reading out loud. Nevertheless, the most of the contents still focus on reading and writing skill for examples reading comprehension, grammar and vocabulary. This could be primarily due to a difficulty in teaching pronunciation, especially at primary level and lower secondary level: students feel shy to express and utter an English sound making them not to cooperate with the activities provided. As a consequence, most of the teachers feel oppressed to teach pronunciation.
At the primary school level (grade 1-6), students should be able to know the English Alphabet, to read a simple word aloud, to spell an easy vocabulary, to read simple conversation and story. However, the course syllabus has been focused very few on the pronunciation and reading out loud. Furthermore, in a period of secondary school, the fundamental English course requires the students to be able to listen, read, write and speak communicatively at the level of their own. For instances, at grade 6 level, they are requires to be able to communicate naturally in everyday life, to explain or tell a story of their own lives and history. But, as can be seen obviously that students still speak English poorly, even though they have studied English for 12 years (primary school-secondary school). This could be due to less attention on pronunciation lesson and a lack of exposure to English language used out side the class room. In addition, they tend to pay more attention on reading to be able to comprehend the content of the text and grammar in order to pass the final exam for all grade level students and to success in getting a high score from the national university entrance exam. Beside this, to emphasize on pronunciation and let students learn and know each sound correctly, teachers should instruct students to learn the relationship of each letters and its sound. This will not only help them in reading and spelling but also will master them in speaking. Moreover, teaching students to know how the sounds are produced will also support them to be aware of different sound and its characteristics.
Teaching pronunciation in EFL curriculum in Thailand
Pronunciation instruction has sometime been neglected in most EFL classroom. In another word, it is not given much more attention by the teacher in the classroom. In EFL curriculum in Thailand, spoken English has been played through these following main contents: language for communication, language and culture, language and relationship with other learning areas and language and relationship with community and the world (Ministry of education 2001).
The Thai Ministry of Education has placed teaching pronunciation instruction to all school level at primary and secondary school. Generally at Grades 1-3, students are expected to be able to know and pronounce the English alphabet, words, phrases, and simple sentences simultaneously with observing the principle of pronunciation. The tasks focus on learning basic phonology system which involves specifying the letter sound and vowel sound (a, e, i, o, u), spelling the words correctly and reading some basic words and sentences out loud as well as getting students practice on producing initial and final consonant, rhythm and intonation. Besides, the students would be engaged in interpersonal communication by asking them to use short and simple word that they have heard. These include using requested words such as pleas do not make a noise and can you help me, please?. Moreover, Students grade one, two and three should be able to differentiate the consonance sound and speak common sentences in imitating a real situation in the classroom. At Grade 4-6 primary education level, students are trained to speak English through expressing their needs feeling and opinion. They also should be able to tell story about themselves, friends and family to others. The ability in using English to communicate in various situations is required for them.
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During secondary education, speaking activities in the EFL curriculum, students are required to be able to listen, speak, read and write appropriately with their own grades both at upper and lower levels. Generally at the lower secondary level, communicative speaking tasks are played through various speaking activities such as dialogue speaking, speaking for short conversation, speaking for giving the information around them and showing opinion about the matters around them in the current situation. Reading aloud is also emphasized by training students to read some story in text books, newspaper and some simple English poem out loud in front of the classroom. By these school levels, in fact, the practice on production of English vowel sound appears in the curriculum designed. For instance, students should be able to read all text out loud by observing the basic principle of pronunciation. This means they would discriminate the differences of English vowel sound in term of vowel length.
The emphasis of communicative speaking at the upper secondary level is on asking for information, accurately read out loud text, news, announcement, advertisement, skits and poem and having conversations to exchange some information, experience, opinion in current situation in Thailand and overseas. These activities will be done by having a role-play in the classroom. For example, divide students in a group and ask them to create some situation by imitating the real situation in day life. Some students play as news reporters and some play a short drama in front of their friend.
As a matter of fact, although there are some contents on English pronunciation practice, the limited time as mentioned above is one of obstacles of practicing pronunciation. In addition, in the EFL context, Thai secondary students appear to use and give attention on English literacy skills of reading and writing rather than listening and oral skills (Bennui 2003).
Significance of the Study
An acoustic analysis of English vowels produced by Thai speakers will yield more reliable information on the characteristics of the vowels produced, in particular vowel quality and vowel length for monophthong vowels, and the former for diphthongs. Such information will enable comparisons with the acoustic characteristics of vowels in Thai, making it possible to compare the vowel systems of English and Thai, and henceforth to determine the influence of L1 on English. The findings on the extent to which Thai speakers can perceive English vowel contrast will help in the understanding of the relationship between perception and production of vowel contrast in English as it can be argued that if they are unable to perceive vowel contrast, they may not be able to produce the contrast. The information will also provide valuable insights to the area of pronunciation teaching in Thailand.
The Purpose of the Study
The current study is based on an instrumental analysis of English vowels produced by native speakers of Thai and investigates if there is any acoustic evidence of vowel contrast between vowels in Thai and English. It also aims to examine the extent to which the vowels produced by the Thai subjects share similar characteristics with a native and neighboring variety of English. The study also intents to examine the perception of English vowels by Thai speakers. In relation to these, the purpose of this study is to answer the following research questions:
What are the acoustic properties of English vowels produced by Thai speakers?
To what extent is there vowel contrast between traditional vowel pairs of /iË/ – /Éª/, /e/ – /Ó•/, /ÊŠ / – /uË/, /ÊŒ/ – /É‘Ë/ and /É’/ – /É”:/?
To what extent is the production of English vowels influenced by the speakers’ L1?
To what extent do the vowels produced by Thai subjects share similar characteristics with British (BritE) and Malaysian English (MalE)?
To what extent can Thai speakers perceive vowel contrast in English?
The Scope and Limitations of the Study
This work is limited to the acoustic properties of English monophthong and diphthongs as produced by 15 female students from one secondary school in one particular area of Thailand – Narathiwat. Moreover, the data were collected by recording the subjects in word list and informal speech context. Thai speeches were recorded by 5 female subjects in order to enable comparison of Thai vowels with the English produced by the target subjects.
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