Monday, May 16, 2005

Observations on vocal comparisons between the Thai language and Mandarin Chinese as they relate to the English language and English language speakers

(How's that for a long title?)

Over the last few years I have been learning a little Thai and Mandarin. They are both tonal languages and both have certain characters that make sounds not present in the English language. What I am going to talk about is how they compare to the English language. More specifically, how the pronunciation of each compares to the English language speakers ability to form the requisite sounds for each language.

Let's start with the similarities. While both Thai and Mandarin have more letters in their alphabets, many of the sounds they make are very much the same as various English language letters. A randomly selected example might be; W, D, O, T, B. There are equivalent sounds in all three languages for what these letters represent in English. Now, by letter I mean characters. In both the Thai and Mandarin writing systems the characters actually represent words or concepts, especially in Mandarin. A "real world" example of the "same sound" would be my name, Joe. In Thai there are two characters that, when combined, make the sound that is the same as my name. Interestingly, in Thai the character for the "O" sound comes before the one for the "J" sound. But that's getting ahead of myself. The reality is that most of the sounds made by these languages are very similar across the board. However...

The differences are where the fun begins. First off, the number of characters in the languages are interesting in their differences. English has 26 letters in our alphabet: 5/6 vowels & 21/20 consonants (that damned "and sometimes Y" thing keeps things from being completely clean). The Thai language has 44 consonants & 24 vowels. Plus some special characters we'll get into shortly. Mandarin has, it is estimated, some 40-50,000 characters! There's a rule of thumb that you need to know a minimum of 3,000 to be able to communicate and 6,000 to read a news paper. But if you are learning the language phonetically it's not as important how many characters there are. You only need to know the sounds. This makes it much easer, as the Pimsleur Approach has shown.

Second, while there are similar sounds there are also unique sounds that are not made in the English language. Sounds, which are often so different, the English speaker is unable to correctly form their mouth, tongue, lips, etc. in order to make the sound. This seems to be more prevalent in Mandarin than in Thai. Because of the complexity of Thai and Mandarin, the slightest variation in the way you hold your lips or position your tongue can mean the difference between communicating and just making strange sounds. This goes both ways, though. There are some sounds in the English language that are difficult for native Thai and Mandarin speakers to make. In both cases, Thai/Mandarin -> English and English -> Thai/Mandarin, the trouble comes partly from the fact that the native speakers mouth/lips/tongue/etc. are not used to the subjectively strange positions they need to be in in order to make the correct sound. As a simple example, there is a sound that is most closely approximated by an native English speaker by saying the "U" while spreading your lips in as wide a smile as possible. This is a learned trait and becomes more pronounced the longer someone has only spoken their native language. Young children up to teens are much more able to adapt themselves to handle the sounds made in both languages. This is why you find that older people tend to have a more pronounced accent to their speech when speaking a non-native language. A person could have their first 20 years immersed in their "native" language then another 30 in their "second" language yet will likely still have an accent that can be heard in their speech.

Finally, and most importantly, there are the tones. Both Thai and Mandarin are tonal languages. This means that the tone used when saying a word or phrase will change the meaning, often quite drastically. Thai has five tones while Mandarin has four. In Thai the tones are mid-level, low falling, high, and raising. In Mandarin the tones are high, rising, falling~raising, and falling. The third tone here starts out high then falls to low and then raises back up. Tones are the most difficult thing that English speakers have to learn. When you start out the tones are imperceptible; they all sound the same. But, with practice and help, they can eventually be heard and even spoken. I can speak some of the phrases in Thai that I have learned with no accent. Sometimes I am mistaken as being fluent in Thai by some native Thai speakers. They quickly learn that I am far from that. But I take it as a compliment.

So what does this all mean? My limited exposure to the two languages leads me to believe that Thai speakers will have an easier time speaking English than those who speak Mandarin. Conversely, it will be easier for English language natives to speak Thai than Mandarin. This is true only when not considering the tones. Factoring the tones in the Thai/Mandarin -> English is much easier than the other way. This is not unique, really. I also happen to know a lot of German plus some Italian & French. From the perspective of being able to be understood, it is much easier to go from pretty much any language to English.

3 comments:

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  2. Many letters sound the same: you're damnly right about this!

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  3. Sometimes you can't tell the difference.. This was a very good article and something I never thought about until I read your post.. nice blog design by the way!

    ~James

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