Dr Ismail Aby Jamal

Dr Ismail Aby Jamal
Born in Batu 10, Kg Lubok Bandan, Jementah, Segamat, Johor

Sunday, July 31, 2011

So, are there any problems when a Malaysian talks to a non- Malaysian in English?

So, are there any problems when a Malaysian talks to a non- Malaysian in English?


Sunday July 31, 2011

It’s in the way you say it



While there may be a need to improve our pronunciation, there is no need to speak with a different accent.

MALAYSIAN pronunciation and the Malaysian accent are easily recognisable to anyone who has spent any time in the country or dealing with its people.

Whether it’s the wonderful way people here say the word “love” or the often rising intonation at the end of an utterance; pronunciation of certain sounds and Malaysian intonation differ from British or American English.

So, are there any problems when a Malaysian talks to a non- Malaysian in English? Most of the time, they can communicate successfully, without too much strain or misunderstanding (depending on the competency of both speakers of course!). Speaking face to face is much easier because there are visual clues to aid communication. However, when small changes of sound occur, for example, on the phone, a whole host of problems can arise.

How can we improve our pronunciation to overcome such problems? And if not just on the phone, how can we wow our colleagues and bosses with clear and precise pronunciation?

Do I need to get rid of my accent?

To improve your pronunciation, there is no need to lose your “Malaysian-ness”. In fact, a lot of people think that unless they speak with a kind of perfect “BBC English”, they are speaking incorrectly.

Similarly, Malaysians often find difficulty in understanding people with non BBC or Southern English pronunciation. I often hear people complain that they cannot understand the Australian or Scottish person’s “slangs”.

First of all, slang refers to vocabulary and not to pronunciation, so what you mean is “I cannot understand his/her accent”. Secondly, there are lots of accents which are difficult to understand even amongst native speakers — so don’t get too worried. The question is: how can we communicate with our Malaysian English accent across cultures? How can a Malaysian improve areas of his/ her pronunciation in order to communicate more effectively?

Areas of weakness

So what are some of the problem areas for Malaysians when it comes to pronunciation?

■ Vowel Sounds

Often vowel sounds pose a problem for Malaysian speakers. This can be because of the confusion between long and short vowel sounds like:“dark” (long) and “duck” (short), or simply the fact that some sounds can be fairly similar like: “man” and “men”.

■ Consonant Clusters

Words like “asked” and “crisps” pose considerable trouble for Malaysian speakers. They rarely appear in any of the languages spoken in Malaysia and involve some serious tongue twisting. Malaysian speakers of Tamil often find these easier than Malay or Chinese language speakers.

■ Word stress

Stressing a word incorrectly can disrupt the flow of speaking. A word like “infamous” is usually stressed on the second syllable in Malaysia, whereas correct stress should be on the first syllable (infamous means well known for something bad- not the opposite of famous by the way!)

■ Intonation

A lot of meaning can be conveyed by intonation, pitch and stress. All languages use this to convey meaning. However, for non- native speakers, doing this appropriately in English can be difficult. Take, for example, the phrase “thank you”. You would probably think that someone uttering “thank you” should be happy or appreciative.

Change the tone a little and we can create a completely different meaning behind the words, however: angry, disappointed, sarcastic or even ecstatic. It’s not just the words we use, but the way that we say them which creates the message.

How can I improve?

So, what is the best way to improve pronunciation?

■ You come across a new word at work. Let’s imagine the word is “deterioration”. You need to use it at a presentation which is coming up. How do you say it? Well, the best thing that you can do would be to check an online dictionary (like www.macmillandictionary.com). Not only does this provide you with the phonetic transcript which looks like /dɪˌtɪəriəˈreɪʃ(ə)/, but it also gives you an actual recording of a native speaker saying the word. If you can read the phonetic transcript— then you can even use a good English dictionary. Note that the apostrophe symbol (‘) is used to show where the main stress in the word is.

■ Buy a book to help guide you through sounds that you find difficult (I recommend English Pronunciation in Use Intermediate, Hancock, Cambridge University Press 2003) and make sure that you use the CD’s to help model your pronunciation.

■ Listen to a recording of a native speaker (or someone with very clear pronunciation) on the radio or TV. Record yourself saying the same thing and then listen back comparing yourself and the model recording.

■ For those extra difficult words and sounds, try and find out (by using a book like I suggested above, for example) how to produce the sound in terms of the mouth: the shape of the tongue, the position of the lips and the jaw. Where does the sound come from? Practise in front of the mirror, so that when you say “thoroughly”, you know what your, tongue, lips and mouth are doing.

■ Practise listening to a range of English accents being spoken. If your work involves having to speak to people from Aberdeen or Mumbai, get used to their accent. The more exposure you have to different accents, the easier it will be to communicate.

Good clear pronunciation impresses people and inspires confidence. Don’t set yourself unrealistic targets though. Oh and try saying this — Irish wristwatch.

Alex Cummins is a trainer with the Professional Development Unit of the British Council in Kuala Lumpur.


© 1995-2011 Star Publications (Malaysia) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)

No comments: