25 April 2014


There is a word in Malay, sepet, to describe the almond-shaped eyes of East Asians such as Chinese and Japanese. But what's the English equivalent?

My dictionary gives 'narrow eyes', but that doesn't sound like something we would say. My guess is that we actually say 'slitty eyes', but that is clearly perjorative. Maybe 'slant eyes'? My feeling is that that is also insulting. So what is the English equivalent?

I suspect we don't have one, and there is no polite way to describe the shape of eyes of East Asian people. Perhaps there's no real need for such a word!

24 April 2014

Teaching Pronunciation

As a phonetician, I usually avoid trying to change the way people speak. I aim to raise awareness about the sounds of speech, to enable students to hear things in detail and also to let them produce various sounds; but I don't generally tell them how they should sound.

However, recently I have been working with three exchange students from China who are preparing to sit for the IELTS exam, and they have asked me for guidance on improving their pronunciation; so in this case I have made an exception. And one of the things I note is that I am telling them to use patterns of speech that native speakers do not use. Let me give some examples.

  • The biggest problem is probably with voiced fricatives, as Chinese has none, and /v/ is often pronounced as [w]. As a result, 'verb' may have [w] at the start, and 'never' may have medial [w]. The solution I have suggested is to use [f]. Now, [f] in 'verb' and 'never' is not quite right (according to native-speaker norms); but it is much better than [w], and it will enable you to be understood.
  • L-vocalisation (using a vowel for /l/ at the end of a word) is also an issue. Now, this is something that many native speakers do all the time, especially those from London but also throughout the UK and Australia. However, I heard 'meal' and 'feel' spoken by these Chinese students as 'mew' and 'few' respectively, and I suspect they will be marked down when taking the IELTS exam. I had problems getting them to use a proper dark-L (maybe I am not a very good phonetician!), so I suggested making these two words bi-syllabic: [mi:jəl] and [fi:jəl]. Now, this is somewhat different from how a native speaker would say the words, but it does seem to achieve good intelligibility, which is surely the main goal.
  • Finally, there is use of a glottal stop for final /t/, something which is again very common in many varieties of native speech. In one recording, the speaker said 'not yet' with a glottal stop in place of both /t/s, and it was a bit hard to understand. So, even though many native speakers would do exactly the same thing, I suggested that this speaker try to articulate all /t/s carefully.

In conclusion, in helping foreign language learners of English to achieve a high level of intelligibility, we should not be getting them to blindly mimic the patterns of native speech. There are various strategies that can be used to improve intelligibility, and that must be the main goal, regardless of what native speakers actually do.

Whether my advice helped the students with their IELTS exam or not, I do not know.

07 April 2014

berkesan dan effective

I have previously mentioned the pairing of Malay and English words (see here). Not surprisingly, this particularly occurs in semi-technical writing, where it may be important to match a local word with its English equivalent. For example, in an article on mosquito-born diseases in the Media Permata of 8 April 2014, we find:

penghapusan filaria atau untut
  eliminate   filaria   or   untut

where untut is (presumably) the Malay equivalent of 'filaria'. In the same article, we find:

siasatan entomologi atau kaji serangga
investigation entomology or study insects

where the technical term 'entomology' is provided a Malay gloss kaji serangga.

A bit more surprising is when the same kind of pairing occurs with adjectives. So we also find:

tatacara yang paling berkesan dan efektif
method which most effective and effective

where the Malay word berkesan is paired with its English equivalent 'effective'. This seems rather more redundant. But perhaps adding an English term adds gravitas to the writing.

One more example from the same article might be added:

kerjasama orang ramai dan penglibatan semua stakeholders
cooperation people public and involvement all stakeholders

In this case, penglibatan semua stakeholders seems pretty much the same as kerjasama orang ramai. Maybe this just reflects a Malay tendency for lexical doubling, perhaps to emphasise a point.

04 April 2014


You would expect deviations from Standard English to simplify things: they are likely to omit final consonants, drop suffixes, and so on. But sometimes one finds the opposite. Take this sign I saw on the door of a shop in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.

Note the spurious 'd' on the end of 'closed'. Perhaps one could regard this as a case of hyper-correction: the user is so concerned about omitting suffixes that a 'd' is added here even when it is not needed.