27. The sounds and allophones of Taiwan English I


     In class we often refer to "Taiwan English" x^y. Although there are variations in the way each person who is educated in Taiwan speaks English, there is a fairly consistent pattern of pronunciation to be discerned. This is certainly due first of all to the particular pronunciation style of one's English teachers, starting in junior high school, or now starting in elementary school; many students also learn English at a commercial "cram school" or bu3xi2ban1 ɲ߯Z. This pronunciation style is reinforced by one's peers and other English speakers from Taiwan who one comes in contact with. Speaking in any other way, even if it is a standard world variety of English like General American or RP, would likely draw negative feedback from others, simply because it is different; or one might be considered a showoff.

     In theory, General American is now the standard for English education in Taiwan, but Taiwan English sounds very 'un-American' in many ways. So where did the pronunciation patterns of 'Taiwan English' come from? It's hard to definitively trace all of the features back to their sources, but I suggest that they come from:

(1) Japanese-style pronunciations of English dating back to Taiwan's period of Japanese occupation (1895-1945);

(2) various mainland Chinese versions of English brought over by mainland immigrants to Taiwan starting just before 1945;

(3) persistent vestiges of Chinese versions of standard British textbook pronunciations (for example, the lack of postvocalic /r/, and the /ɒ/ sound as in Tom and John) dating from the time when the DJ (Daniel Jones) phonetic alphabet was used to teach English, before the KK (Kenyon and Knott) system of General American pronunciation was adopted in Taiwan in 1969;

(4) the reinforcement of defective pronunciation in English classrooms in all levels of schools; and

(5) transfer and interference from the main local languages, i.e. Mandarin and Southern Min; this last source seems to be a particularly strong motivating force behind the allophonic rules of Taiwan English rather individual segments. We will explain this in more detail in the next page.

    Some foreign accents of English, especially European ones such as French or Swedish, are often considered "charming", "quaint" or "cute". The first basic requirement of a "charming" foreign accent, however, is that it be clear and easily intelligible to other speakers of English, native and otherwise. Once intelligibility suffers too much, there is little charm to be found in a foreign accent; one only will feel tired when trying to understand it. Incorrect grammar and imprecise vocabulary choices worsen the situation. Ultimately, other people may prefer to avoid talking with speakers with too strong a foreign accent rather than work hard to understand them.

     If you are a native speaker of Chinese, you certainly have experience with this phenomenon in your own language. Think back on a time when you were trying to communicate in Mandarin with an older person from the mainland who had a very strong local accent of Chinese. How do you feel when listening to this kind of speech? Very often you might prefer to pretend you're in a hurry rather than to stop and talk with your father's or grandfather's old war buddy. And this is often the situation faced by a native English speaker trying to communicate with a speaker of 'Taiwan English'!

     In order to avoid making other people work too hard to understand you when you speak, it is certainly desirable to learn to speak as clearly and accurately, i.e. as much like a cultivated native speaker, as possible. This does not mean giving up your Chinese identity; you cannot do this so easily anyway! It is simply a matter of showing respect for others by not forcing them to work too hard to understand you when you speak English.

     Before one can go about 'correcting' the typical problems of 'Taiwan English', we must first identify and describe the features of Taiwan English, so we know which sounds need changing, and how. It is primarily for this reason that we study 'Taiwan English' as a 'dialect' of English in its own right. We might call it a 'national ESL dialect', since English is mostly learned as a second language in Taiwan. Perhaps most countries or regions of the world have their own characteristic 'ESL dialects'.

     On the next page, you will have the opportunity to describe 'Taiwan English' and formulate some of the allophonic rules that give Taiwan English its particular character.

     Ready? Then get out your table of IPA symbols, and a pen and some paper, and we'll get started!


Next: The sounds and allophones of Taiwan English II (with exercise in writing allophonic rules)


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