24 November 2013

Misunderstandings in ELF

My new book, Misunderstandings in English as a Lingua Franca: An Analysis of ELF Interactions in South-East Asia, has now been published by De Gruyter. More details are available from the publisher (here).

The book analyses 183 tokens of misunderstanding that occurred in recordings of conversations in Brunei, to try to determine what caused them and how they were dealt with. The basic finding is that most misunderstandings arise out of pronunciation. Unfamiliar words and idioms occasionally cause a problem, but grammar is rarely an issue. The most common way of dealing with misunderstandings is following the 'let-it-pass' strategy, in the hope that things will sort themselves out naturally.

The book is priced at about 100 Euros, which seems a bit expensive. Maybe libraries will get copies, as I feel it contributes substantially to knowledge about what is important in English teaching.

The book is available from Amazon (here), though it appears to be 'temporarily out of stock'. Hmm, well I guess that means someone must have bought it! Something really bizarre about the Amazon offer is this:

So it is cheaper new than used! I know some things, such as antiques and some wines, get more valuable with age; but my book? Very strange!

original colour

I saw this sign on a display board that is being installed at UBD:

This raises two questions:

  1. What does 'being original colour coming along with birth' mean?
  2. If we assume it is a Google translation from some language, what language is it from?

My guess is that it means 'natural colour', so 'coming along with birth' serves to elaborate 'original colour'; but I have no idea what language it is from.

On the right, there is mention of a German standard for installation, so maybe it is from German.

22 November 2013

east / west

Something I find constantly amazing is how bad English is at differentiating crucially important words. For example, the numbers 'fifty' and 'fifteen' are almost identical. And in American English, 'can' and 'can't' are pretty hard to distinguish.

For the basic digits, the biggest problem is between 'nine' and 'five', both of which are monosyllables with the same /ai/ vowel. In air traffic control, people are instructed to say them as 'niner' (with two syllables) and 'fife' (devoicing the final consonant). Maybe that solves the problem, though away from air traffic control, most ordinary speakers do not follow this pattern.

It is interesting that Chinese does better: the digits that are confused are yi ('one') and qi ('seven'), because they both have the same vowel on the same high-level tone. But even ordinary folk usually know it is better to change yi into yao when reading out phone numbers. It is strange that English speakers generally don't know how to do something comparable with 'nine' and 'five'.

Even people working in air traffic control get into trouble with some English words. I just read a news report (here) about a pilot in the USA who landed his plane at the wrong airport partly, it seems, because he confused his hand-written 'west' with 'east'. It is stunning that we do not make these two terms maximally distinct instead of both having four letters ending with 'st'.

17 November 2013


I just saw this sign outside a construction site near Jalan Muara. (Awas means 'caution'.)

It would be more standard to have 'danger' rather than 'dangers'. But why? After all, 'dangers' also occurs in standard English. Indeed, it crops up 5865 times in the COCA corpus. So what is the difference between the mass noun 'danger' and the countable noun 'dangers'?

I could not immediately think of the answer. We can usually detect a difference in meaning between a mass noun and a count noun: 'glass', refers to the substance, while 'glasses' are either cups or spectacles; 'stone' is the substance, while 'stones' are little round things; and 'wine' is the generic item, while 'wines' are types of wine. But 'danger' versus 'dangers'?

No wonder the count/mass distinction is so fragile in World Englishes!

14 November 2013


I just looked at a splendid new resource that shows the change in forest cover across the world between 2000 and 2012 (here). Below is a screenshot that zooms into part of the north coast of Borneo. Undisturbed forest is shown as green, forest that has been lost is red, and forest that has been gained is blue.

The big patch of red on the left (with just a bit of blue in there) is near Miri, in Sarawak. Overall, the findings confirm that Malaysia is one of the countries with the greatest loss of forest over the past 12 years.

This screenshot confirms that there has not been too much forest loss in Brunei, though there is a little around Muara and also some in the middle, presumably in Tutong District.

It is fascinating that you can easily make out the map of Brunei, especially its south-western border with Sarawak, by looking at the undisturbed green area. On the right, you can also make out Temburong fairly clearly, while there has been a little more forest loss in the Malaysian district of Limbang between the two parts of Brunei.

07 November 2013


In English, blends usually involve the first half of one word and the second half of another:

'smoke' + 'fog' = 'smog'
'motor' + 'hotel' = 'motel'

In contrast, in Malay they seem to involve the first part of successive words:

cerita ('story') + pendek ('short') = cerpen ('short story')
taman ('garden') + didik ('education') + kanak ('child') = tadika ('kindergarten')

But on page 4 of the Media Permata of 8 November 2013, I saw ucaptama ('keynote speech'), which seems to be a blend of ucapan ('speech') + utama ('primary') – so it is following the English pattern of first part of one word and second part of another.

I wonder how many other blends like that there are in Malay.

06 November 2013

Brunei Times

The Brunei Times daily synopsis of the news (here) offers some splendid material for comparative linguistics because it has the same reports in English, Malay and Chinese. Analysis of these videos provides some fascinating insights into the structure of the different languages.

For example, I have been comparing the English and Malay summaries for 10 September 2013 (available on YouTube here and here). The English version lasts 1 minute 49 seconds, while the Malay equivalent is 2 minutes 26 seconds. Given that they are presenting exactly the same material, what causes this difference in length?

One key difference is that, in the English version, the ending takes just 4 seconds, while in the Malay it takes 12 seconds. The reason for this is that there are a number of formulaic things which need to be said in Malay but which can be skipped in English.

But quite apart from this, there are some interesting differences in the linguistic material within the individual news reports. For example, there is an item on the newly-introduced strain of Laila rice. In English, this takes 17 seconds, while in Malay it takes 24 seconds. Here is a snapshot of the English presenter:

And this is the Malay presenter:

So what causes the difference in length? Here is the text of the English:

In other news Bruneians love the taste of the Laila rice variety but researchers continue to look into new strains of paddy that promise better resistance against diseases and of course the promise of higher yields. Initial results of studies show positive results. (43 words)

And here is the equivalent text in Malay:

Dalam berita lain, rakyat dan penduduk negara ini suka dengan beras Laila. Namun begitu, para kaji selidik terus berusaha untuk menemukan jenis padi baru yang mampu melawan penyakit tanaman. Dan sudah setentunya, jenis padi baru itu boleh memberikan hasil tuaian yang lebih tinggi. Keputusan awal kajian itu menunjukkan hasil yang positif. (51 words)

There seem to be three principle differences:

  • In the first line, the English has 'Bruneians' while the Malay has rakyat dan penduduk negara ini ('citizens and residents of this country'). I don't know why the Malay avoids mentioning Brunei, but I have noticed a comparable avoidance of mentioning Malaysia in the Media Permata newspaper, as the phrase negara jiran ('neighbouring country') often occurs instead.
  • The English has 'the promise of higher yields' without stating what offers this promise, because this can be determined from the context. In contrast, the Malay repeats the phrase jenis padi baru ('new strain of rice'). Such repetition of words is not encouraged in English. We can conclude that Malay achieves cohesion by repeating phrases, while English avoids this kind of repetition and uses ellipsis instead.
  • Some of the Malay words take longer to say. For example, the English has 'And of course' while the Malay has Dan sudah setentunya. Both versions consist of three words, but the English is three syllables while the Malay is seven.

04 November 2013


I have previously discussed the occurrence of tautologous expressions in Malay (see here).

In a test for my fourth year UBD module on translation (see previous post), I asked my students to translate into English a short Malay text from page 12 of the Media Permata of 19 October 2013 about someone who managed to persuade a hunter to release a kongkang ('slow loris') that he had captured, and it included the following:

... berjaya memujuk dan meyakinkan pemburu tersebut untuk meyerahkan kongkang berkenaan ...

which might be translated literally as:

... successfully urged and convinced the hunter to release the slow loris ...

It seems to me that 'urged and convinced' is tautologous in English, as 'convinced' carries the full meaning.

Despite the fact that avoidance of tautology is something we have discussed many times in this module, ten of the 23 students taking the test included both 'urged' and 'convinced' in their translation. This seems to reflect that fact that acceptance of tautology is common in Brunei English, though one might alternatively say that my students were attempting an accurate rendering of the text and they might have chosen a freer translation instead.

one of

On page 54 of my book on Brunei English (see here), I list the following examples of 'one of' followed by a singular noun:

one of the queen
one of the actor
one of my life's luxury
one of my cousin
one of our relative
one of the tourist site

In the test for a fourth year UBD module, my students were asked to translate into English a short Malay text which included the phrase:

salah satu daripada haiwan di negara ini

Seven of the 23 students translated it as 'one of the animal in this country', with no 's' on 'animal', so this gives us an estimate of the frequency of occurrence of this pattern among fourth year students at UBD.