I did not recognize the international importance of this need, however, until beginning a research project in Thailand. In 2006-2007 I took a year sabbatical leave from my university to live in Thailand. I chose Thailand because of my interest in doing research on Thai Buddhism. I made an arrangement to live at a Buddhist temple in a town in north Thailand. Whenever I do ethnographic fieldwork, I always try to do something to contribute to the needs of the people I am studying. Soon after my arrival I realized that, what the Buddhist monks most wanted from me was a chance to improve their English.
I had taught English language before, in 1987 and 1988 while living in Indonesia. The Indonesian language is easy to learn, because it is logical, consistent, and efficient. In studying Bahasa Indonesia I gained new awareness about how chaotic English is as a language. But when I arrived in Thailand I was presented with a setting in which Thai uses a complex alphabet of Indian origin that has no relationship in the least to the Roman alphabet. Plus, Thai is a tonal language. My ear has not been trained to recognize the various different tones that Thai people use, and it has been very difficult for me to learn this language.
Not only is it difficult for Westerners to learn Thai, but because of the extreme differences between Thai and European languages, it is equally difficult for Thai people to learn English. The novice monks at the school that is located on the grounds of the temple had been taking English classes every year they had been at that school. But, I was shocked to observe, even those students who were in the upper grades could hardly carry on a basic conversation. And their pronunciation was horrible. They consistently said “yet” when they tried to answer yes to a question, they said “tree” for the number three, and mangled 4 as “fo”, 5 as “fi”, 6 as “sick”, 8 as “H”, and 9 as “ni.” Saying the number twelve was just impossible for them. I would say “good” and they would repeat “goose.” It usually took about forty or fifty repetitions just to get them to hear the difference between those two words. And anytime an “s” sound was at the end of a word it was left off. They would say “I see you in two day” and “I want study English becaw I want a goose job.” The word “house” became pronounced “how” and “rice” became “ri.” I made them say the sentence “His house is nice with ice” which often came to be pronounced “He how e nye wi I.”
I thought these were the dumbest students I had ever seen, but when I later taught at other schools I found the exact same patterns of mistakes. Since then I have taught English in Cambodia, and find many of the same mistakes there. What I later learned is that the places where the Thai and Cambodian students were having most difficulty were precisely the points at which those languages and English were most different. What I learned from this experience is that hearing is cultural. When they said their words in different tones, I could not tell the difference because as a baby my ear had never been trained by cultural experience to listen for different tones. And, conversely, their ears had never been trained by experience to listen for the sound at the end of a word. When I said “nice” those students actually heard “ni” because their languages do not have the “s” sound at the end. But, for the life of me, I still do not understand why they say “goose” after I have said “good” with heavy emphasis on the “DDDDD” at the end. This happens with a few other words, like when I say I want to drink tea, they repeat “tis.” It is words like that, when I have not made an “s” sound, are the only times I can get them to actually make that sound. Strange but true.
What I have learned in my experiences teaching in many classrooms across Southeast Asia, is that English is extremely difficult for many people around the world to learn. Because of its confusing and inconsistent grammar and spelling, I have come to the conclusion that if English is going to have this predominant role as the prime medium of global communication, it is a necessity for English to change. English must become easier for people to learn to pronounce and to write. My crusade is to begin, with this book, a new stage in the spelling and grammar reform movement for the English language.
Some might say it is more of a revolution that I am mounting rather than a reform, but I will let the reader decide when you see what I am proposing. If we native English speakers are going to expect the rest of the world to adopt our language, the least we can do is to make the language as consistent and easy to learn as possible. The ideas contained in this book are all directed toward that goal.