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Native tongue twisters

Some tourists in Thailand seem to have trouble remembering how to speak their own language

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All around my Los Angeles neighbourhood are hand-written signs tacked onto lofty palm trees: ``ACCENT ELIMINATION''. The two words are followed by a local telephone number, which to my surprise doesn't begin with 555. Accent Elimination _ how intriguing.

A long, long time ago I was here in Southern California as an AFS foreign exchange student. This was pre-Crocodile Dundee, and Americans had next to no knowledge of Australia ... but they did love my accent. These days Aussies are a dime a dozen in America; you can find them trawling the cheap beer in Ralph's supermarkets, or staggering out of seedy Sunset Boulevard bars singing Khe Sanh at the top of their atonal voices.

In fact, here in LA nobody has an American accent. Every little Fatburger or El Polo Loco in every strip mall across LA is a cacophony of voices from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and, most predominantly, Mexico, to the point where LA must surely stand for Latin America. ``Accent Elimination'' promises to knock that accent out of you, and in no time you'll begin to sound like those prescription-happy people on every American TV ad. Oh joy! Hand me my cellphone now!

``It's a service for new Americans who can be a little difficult to understand,'' my host brother Marc explained when I finally gathered the courage to ask. ``What about in Thailand? Do you have a problem with accents?''

How interesting you should ask, Marc.

Something bizarre is going on in Thailand. As a native English speaker spends more and more time in the Kingdom, his English starts to mutate into something far removed from what he uses back home.

The next night you have off, quietly pop down to any pub in Soi Cowboy, Nana or Patpong. Find yourself a bar stool, thoroughly disinfect it with anti-fungal spray, sit down upon it and order an orange juice. Now, listen in to your neighbours. As any professor of linguistics will tell you, the deterioration happens in four distinct phases:


For some inexplicable reason, many western visitors who fraternise with the locals believe that the more they speak like an idiot, the better they will be understood. Thus, within days they are dropping the conjugated S at the end of verbs whose subject is third-person singular.

``Your mother, she say she's sick?'' I heard an Australian in dire need of a course of Jenny Craig frozen dinners ask his new friend Noi. From my eavesdropping position Noi had just informed him, surprise surprise, that her mother has fallen ill. ``She go to hospital?'' the Aussie asked.

say  ... go ... what happened on the Qantas flight over here that made you decide these were preferable to says and goes? In a similar way, this linguistic disease starts spreading to the present continuous tense, eradicating it entirely. ``I go to ATM,'' he tells Noi. ``Then we eat rice. OK?'' ``OK!'' Noi nods, with a smile, not because she understands the sentence structure, but because she heard the magic word: ATM.


This, I suspect, is a communicable disease  the western tourist picks up from the likes of Noi.

``You very beautiful!'' he say _ I beg your pardon _ says. ``I very happy with you.'' The man is effectively speaking like a newspaper headline, dropping the is am are faster than he drops thousand-baht bills into Noi's sweaty palms. He's not doing anybody any favours talking like this, especially poor Noi, who should be learning that the verb ``to be'' is fundamental to any good English sentence. In no time she herself will begin speaking like this, with sentences like ``He my brother!'' when a man, strangely with the same nose and mouth as Noi's three-year-old son, suddenly appears from upcountry needing a motorbike.


The first person I ever heard speaking like this was a western woman ... and an Australian to boot. It was down on Koh Samui as she ordered a drink from a bewildered Thai waiter.

``Me like water,'' she was saying from her buckling deckchair. ``Me want water in bottle. Me no like Coke or Pepsi.''

Has this woman seen one too many Tarzan movies? Where does she get off thinking ``me'' instead of ``I'' as the subject is good? Some tourists even do it the other way around.

``You come to I tonight at 11pm. Lek come here. Lek wait for I here, okay?'' I heard a Dutchman tell his Thai bargirlfriend (named Lek) on the Pattaya walking street. Poor Lek; she's going to hit her teens thinking it's perfectly acceptable to switch ``I'' and ``me'' around as frequently as she switches Eurotrash boyfriends.

The final stage is almost fatal, simply because I want to murder the idiots who enter it. By this stage, their accent and English construction is more fraught with holes than a Sukhumvit condominium complex. It's the stage I call:


Thais love to take English words and give them new meanings far removed from what may appear in your old MacMillan or Oxford dictionary. A ``freshy'' is a freshman, for example, and if your clothes ``fit'', then they are too small for you. I know, quirky and cute, but completely understandable in the adventure of learning a new language.

It does not, however, give native English speakers carte blanche to do it.

``I no butterfly!'' I heard a British septuagenarian defending his character to  the blank-faced-but-gorgeous girl in a temple-fair bikini sitting on his lap. ``I no like you say that.'' She's no doubt just accused him of philandering, not because she believes it, but what else is she gonna talk about between now and asking for a TV? But that is beside the point _ where in England does one call a philanderer a ``butterfly''?

``Mekhong whiskey same-same methylated spirits,'' I overheard an Australian telling his Thai bargirl one night in Patpong. The girl raised her eyebrows and laughed, lifting her glass and clinking it with his, pretending ``methylated spirits'' was a word she indeed knew from her four years' schooling upcountry.

``Butterfly'' ... ``same-same'' ... no verb to be ... no present continuous tense ... ``like'' suddenly an intransitive verb.  These are the symptoms of a strange linguistic disease that engulfs many a western tourist to Thailand.

What is it that makes us think speaking like an idiot somehow makes us easier to understand, let alone be of any help to a Thai already grappling with the maddening complexities of the English language? And yet we do it, and often.

It's a slap in the face to the Thais. Somebody wrestling with a second language doesn't mean they are stupid. The last thing they need is condescending pidgin English comin' right at 'em. So no, Marc, we don't need Accent Eliminators in Thailand ... although mandatory intelligence tests along with visas on arrival may not go astray.


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