Linguistic revelation, courtesy of my Thailand travels

JISHOU, HUNAN — Over the last five years, I’ve been puzzled by the manner in which one or two students in each class pronounce English. Talking with my Chinese colleagues, it seems some of these students have the same indistinct pronunciation in Mandarin, as well. We concluded it was a syndrome which used to be called “lazy tongue,” but (I have just learned) is now referred to as an apraxia of speech.

Now I am not so sure, after hearing the way some Thais speak their own language. My students’ diction problems may result from the speech patterns of their mother languages, which are often not Mandarin.

Some disclaimers, first of all. I have no formal training in linguistics or speech therapy, so take whatever I write here with a grain of salt. I am proposing a hypothesis, based on an amateur’s observations.

My students’ diction problems may result from the speech patterns of their mother languages, which are often not Mandarin.

Briefly, here is the situation. Several of my students’ English is blurred or mushy. Their voices seem to come from way back in the oral cavity, instead of more toward the front of the mouth. In addition, their consonants are often indistinct, so I have to pay close attention to what they are saying to be sure I understand. Speaking speed seems not to be a factor, as slow and fast speakers are equally indistinct. Nor does fluency level make a difference. And practicing English results in little improvement, as seniors talk as mushily as they did while freshmen.

The nearest approximation to their sound I can offer is the way a deaf-from-birth person sounds when they speak, if they have been taught to speak and not to use sign language. Yet, none of these students have hearing problems, as far as I can tell.

“Lazy tongue” or “mush mouth” — terms that are no longer used by professional speech therapists — is a syndrome that affects articulation of sounds. Usually, adults notice it in children as they leave the toddler years and approach primary school age. Normally, as a toddler ages, their diction improves so that even strangers can understand what they say, despite some mispronunciations like “bugetti” for “spaghetti.”

I thought this was a reasonable explanation for these EFL students’ diction problems until I visited Thailand last month. There, I was surprised to hear some Thais speak their native language in the same way my students pronounce their English (and presumably, their Mandarin). That is, the sounds came from way back in their oral cavities, as if their tongues were flat and pulled back from the teeth. Only some Thais sounded this way, so it is not the way standard Thai sounds. I reckoned they were either speaking their local language, or an inflected form of Thai.

Ah ha! I thought to myself. Maybe there is some connection here.

Two likely explanations came to mind.

  • Apraxia of speech is common in this part of the world, or
  • Given that many Thais also have “local languages,” as do many Chinese, there may be “local languages” that are typically spoken deep in the oral cavity with comparatively little tongue movement.

Not being an expert, I really can’t answer the question. I’d need to do some careful research to test my hypothesis, which is the second explanation.

For one thing, I would have to find out if my affected students’ “local languages” are from the same language family as the speakers in Thailand that I heard. There are many ethnic and language groups crossing national borders in Asia. For example, Hmong/Mien/Miao speakers are found throughout the mountainous regions in China and Southeast Asia.

For another, my surmise that some local languages are typically spoken in the back of the mouth might be full of crap, since I have no expertise in this matter at all.

And I would need a native speaker of Mandarin and/or a speech therapist to evaluate the students’ Mandarin diction. If their Mandarin is clear, and their English is not, then there would be something else affecting their pronunciation.

In short, I have just devised a research project suitable for a master’s or Ph.D. thesis. Any takers?

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