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Remarks on Fijian pronunciation and the difficulties faced by Fiji-Indians learning English
(This is a footnote to Dave Robinson's Lautoka pages)

Several languages are spoken in Fiji, the main ones being Fijian, English and a kind of Hindi with a greatly simplified grammar, often called Fiji Hindi. The official formal language is English.

The pronunciation of Fijian place names is mysterious to first-time visitors who haven't taken time to learn a bit about the country that's hosting them. The phonetic scheme is actually quite straightforward and probably easier than English. The main trouble is the alphabet rather than the language as such. Here are some of the problem letters, with approximate pronunciation:

       B is pronounced MB (Labasa > Lambasa)
       C is pronounced in between a hard TH and D (Ateca > Atetha or Atedha)
       D is pronounced ND (Nadi > Nandi)
       G is pronounced NG with a nasal N and soft G, rather as in "singer" (Vitogo > Vitongo)
       Q is pronounced NG with a soft N and hard G, rather as in "longer" (Yaqona > Yang-gona)
       S is pronounced more like a soft S than a Z, as in "sell"
       A is pronounced like a short A (as in "cat")
       E is pronounced something like a short E (as in "red") or, more often, a slightly dragged out short E
       I is pronounced like a short I (as in "pin") or something like EE or EA (as in "bean")
       O is pronounced like a short O (as in "pot")
       U is pronounced like the U in pudding or the double O in book

For more information on Fijian pronunciation see Rob Kay's Fiji Guide - Language.

Hindi names are entirely different and the pronunciation of the numerous consonant sounds is too difficult for most westerners to learn. For example, d and t exist in dental, retroflex and aspirated forms, and the letters can also be doubled or combined, with each occurrence in theory being separately pronounced. In English, d and t each have just one sound and doubling makes no difference (it only makes a difference to the sound of the preceding vowel). The pure and nasal vowel sounds in Hindi, some of which have no counterpart in English, also cause problems for westerners.

But all this is nothing compared to the plethora of difficulties facing Fiji Indians when they come to learn English. It's obvious that many Indians, even after decades of speaking English, are blissfully unaware of the swamp they've got themselves into.

English is an absurdly complicated language and extremely hard to master. Spelling and verb-forms are only a quarter of the madness. It might have been more sensible to keep Fijian as the official National language, as it seems simpler as well as more appropriate.

Regardless, a high proportion of older people, especially among the indigenous Fijians, and the majority of the younger generation in Lautoka do in fact speak English remarkably well. In my experience, the indigenous Fijians generally speak and write English considerably better than the Indians, who seem to have more difficulty with pronunciation and make a number of important mistakes with grammar. However, most Indians from Fiji speak English much better than most Indians from India, even though that country, too, uses English in parliamentary and other formal situations. (Part of the difference is a better understanding of western good manners by the Fiji-Indians. Spoken English without good manners is simply not proper English! See below.)

Unfortunately the errors made by Indians, both in Fiji and in India, are perpetuated through the generations because many teachers of English haven't mastered their subject, and many mistakes have even been included in text books (especially those published in India). No blame can be laid on teachers, of course, nor does it matter much, but the truth is that most Indians from India, as well as some Fiji-Indians, speak and write a distinctive brand of English ("Hinglish") which some westerners find very difficult to follow. For, although the mistakes made by people whose mother tongue is English are sometimes just as many as those made by Indians, the kinds of mistake are completely different. They are, so to speak, English mistakes, not Indian mistakes, and they sound quite natural to ears attuned to English from birth.

Below are some of the main errors made by Indians. (Although I believe what follows is true, it is admittedly hypocritical, in so far as I was born in India, am married to a Fiji Indian and have close associations with many Indians - yet have never succeeded in learning to speak Hindi or any other Indian language! I still often have great difficulty following the English spoken by many Indians from India, but usually no problem with that spoken by Indians born in Fiji. I've got unduly carried away with the following notes, but I hope they will be seen as helpful rather than critical, and apologise if anyone feels a bit offended by them.)

1. By far the most common and most important fault is the misuse of the definite and indefinite articles - the and a (or an). This is hardly surprising, since Hindi and other Indian languages have no equivalents. Unfortunately the rules of usage are complicated, but getting them right is essential for meaning and logic. The most common mistakes are (a) using the when you should have used a or nothing at all and (b) omitting a or the when you should have used one or the other.

"The" is an extremely important word in English and has literally dozens of different kinds of use. In one of his books, the philosopher Bertrand Russel identifies 25 logically distinct uses of "the" (quite apart from aberrant uses that don't fit any logical pattern), but fortunately we need not concern ouselves with most of these. One common use of "the" is to mark a particular, known object. If you say "I'm looking for the cat", it's assumed you're looking for a particular cat, probably your own cat or one that you can recognise, not just any old cat. Otherwise you'd say "I'm looking for a cat", implying that any cat will do. So if you are job hunting, you can say "I am looking for a job"; you must not say "I am looking for the job", because this seems to imply that there is only one job to be looked for! And you definitely must not say "I'm looking for job", which implies that you are looking for someone called "Job". You must not say "He has had the accident" or "He has had accident". Say "He has had an accident".

Refer to parts of the body with my, your, his, her, not the. Don't say "I will put the foot on chair", say "I will put my foot on the chair" (or "... on a chair" if you mean any chair, not a particular chair). All singular common objects (chair, table, car, window, road, tree, house etc etc) are invariably preceded by either "the", "a" or "an", or by "this" or "that", or by a possessive pronoun ("my", "his", "their" etc), or in questions by "which", "what" or "whose". You can't just have nothing in front, but you can put an adjective in between if you want (e.g. "a red car", "the main road", "whose black and white dog?"). There are, however, some stock phrases that don't follow the rule (e.g. "It's time to go to bed", "Let's have lunch together").

In the plural form ("s" on the end) the common nouns are preceded by either "the", "these" or "those", a possessive pronoun or nothing; you use nothing if you would have used "a" or "an" in the singular form.

Most vague general nouns, like fun, swimming, trouble, intelligence etc, are never preceded by "a", and only very occasionally by "the". Don't say "They are having the fun", say "They are having fun". However, there are many exceptions to this rule, as in "She is doing all the talking", "He has the intelligence of a bat".

Most proper names are not preceded by "the", but sometimes "the" is part of the name, and cannot be left out. So, for example, you can say "I climbed the Eiffel Tower" but not "I climbed Eiffel Tower". On the other hand you can say "I saw Big Ben" but not "I saw the Big Ben"; and "I will phone them on Christmas Day" but not "I will phone them on the Christmas Day". It's quite important to learn which names include "the" and which don't. Always use "the" in front of the names of rivers, never in front of cities or mountains unless "the" is part of the name (as in The Hague, The Matterhorn).

Sometimes, omitting "the" changes the meaning of a word. One example of this became a classical English joke for a long time. An Indian girl stopped an American guy in the street and asked "Please have you got time?" "What did you have in mind?" replied the American, "I'm rather busy at the moment". What she meant to say was "Have you got the time?" (or something along those lines, just so long as it includes the). Again, while "the French" normally refers to French people in general, "French" (used as a noun) refers to the French language.

Finally, don't be misled by newspaper headlines, which rarely follow the rules. For the sake of brevity they usually omit the definite and indefinite articles (as in "President calls for meeting of sports officials", which in normal conversation would be rendered as "The President called for a meeting of sports officials").

By the way, the speakers of many other languages (even some European languages) also experience this problem with English, though usually to a lesser extent. But it receives an exaggerated treatment in David Suchet's TV portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Do not imitate!

2. Verb tense. A common grammatical error is the use of double past tense, especially in negative statements and questions, e.g. "He didn't went to the shops with me" (should be: "He didn't go..."), "Did she borrowed your car?" (should be: "Did she borrow..."), and within certain verbs, e.g. "I broughted some biscuits" (brought is already past tense, so don't add ed on the end). Don't say "He didn't had his lunch", say "He didn't have his lunch" if you're talking about some time in the past. If you're talking about the present, say "He hasn't had his lunch yet".

Matching the subject and verb also causes problems, e.g. saying "He want some water" instead of "He wants...". (This is even sometimes a problem for Fiji Indians who visit the Indian subcontinent and attempt to communicate in Hindi, as of course Fiji Hindi has nothing like as much depth of grammar as the Hindi and Urdu spoken over there.)

Think twice before using the so-called perfect and pluperfect tenses, as in he has gone... , they have walked... and I had spoken... . If in doubt, use the straightforward past tense (he went, they walked, I spoke). Invariably the simplest solution works best.

Avoid over-use of subjunctive, conditional and other vague tenses. Don't say might when you mean will. I often receive letters beginning "I hope you would be well". This is quite wrong. Just say "I hope you are well". Would is useful in the construction: It would be ... if ... (or in past tense: It would have been ... if ...), but otherwise in everyday speech it's probably better not to use would at all than to misuse it. A notable exception is in the phrase "I would like ...", which is just a polite way of saying "I want...". However, in other similar expressions, such as "I would prefer you to come with me", you can often omit would quite innocuously. Also see note 12.

3. With pronunciation, the main problem is failure to distinguish between the short "e" sound (as in bet, bend, men, gem) and the short "a" sound (as in bat, band, man, jam). There's a strong tendency to pronounce the a's incorrectly, as if they were e's. Many people also have great difficulty with the long "o" sound, as in bone, and the long "a", as in play. These are dipthongs (complex sounds) and should not be pronounced bawn and pleh (the latter sound has no English equivalent - it's rather like the first half of the dipthong in ear). Don't pronounce "cold" the same as "called". Listen to the way Australians pronounce these words and you should be able to hear a big difference. Also the short "i" in live should be distinguished from the "ee" sound in leave (the Hindi vowel represented by "i" comes between these two sounds).

Please don't pronounce the indefinite article "a" as "ay". This is a habit only of Australian politicians with an inferiority complex, especially when making speeches. "A" is pronounced like a short "u": in fact rather like the short "a" in the anglicised spelling of some Hindi words such as acha, bas and mandir. Also see note 10.

4. Politeness is all-important when speaking to "westerners". Use "please" and "thank you" as often as possible. Don't tell people what to do, ask them. For example, don't say "Tell Cindy to call me", say "Could you please ask Cindy to call me". (In Australia words like “crap” and “bloody oath” are acceptable in almost all except formal situations, but saying “Tell her to call me” is simply not on – it sounds rude and arrogant.) Also see note 9.

5. Plurals. Normally when speaking of more than one object, the plural form of the noun should be used. For example, don't say "He hasn't got the shoe" when you mean "He hasn't got any shoes on." On the other hand, some nouns are never, or only rarely, used in the plural, because they already refer to a quantity of things or stuff. Examples are gravel, timber, cash, hair, cattle, grass, milk, bread. A tricky one is accommodation, which remains in the singular whether you're referring to just one room, many rooms or many hotels or houses. Say "The hotel provides a good range of accommodation" - not "...accommodations".

Of course, there are also some nouns, like sheep, which have the same form in the singular and plural - you can never say "sheeps" because there is no such word. There are also some nouns that don't know whether they are singular or plural! Examples are fish and thousand. The rules for fish are indistinct - in general don't add es on the end - but the rule for thousand is quite clear. When preceded by a number, you do not add an s, e.g. you say fifty thousand, not fifty thousands. Otherwise when referring to more than one thousand, you add an s, as in "many thousands" or "thousands of people". An exception to the rule is "several thousand", which normally does not have an appended s. The same rules apply to hundred, million etc. Unfortunately English has no equivalents to lakh (100,000) and crore (10,000,000)- very useful quantities in India!

In some contexts, the singular and plural forms of some words carry different implications. For example, consider "The prisoners are in good condition" and "The prisoners are in good conditions". The first means the prisoners are quite healthy while the second probably means the prisoners are living in satisfactory accommodation or surroundings.

Many plural nouns do not end in s. Common examples are people, men, women, and children. Never add an s to the end of these words.

Note that the word "every" is always followed by a singular noun. You should never say things like "every children" or "every Mondays and Fridays". "Everybody" is followed by a singular verb - Everybody is fine, not Everybody are fine.

6. A few words are habitually used incorrectly. One that comes to mind is "stay". In English "stay" means to reside or be somewhere only temporarily, so don't use "stay" when you mean "live", as in "Where do you live?" (your permanent home) as opposed to "Where are you staying?" (hotel, friend's place etc) or "Stay here until I come back".

Another misused word is "glass". Used as a noun, "glass" does not mean either a pair of spectacles or a window of a car. It means a container you drink from or the material that glass objects are made from. Spectacles are commonly called "glasses", always plural (like pyjamas - a Hindi word hijacked by English, and then changed back into singular form by Hindi-speakers when speaking English!).

"It" is another frequently misused word. You should never use "it" to refer to a person, even a child: use "he" or "she", "him" or "her". And you should not append "it" after verbs which already have an object, e.g. "This is the ring which she gave it to me". Here, the object of gave is which (referring to the ring in the previous clause), so it is superfluous as it refers to the same object again.

Of, by, from, since - There's a tendency to use these words in phrases where for or with should have been used. (This is unimportant, but Fiji-Indians seem to keep a stock of incorrect phrases.) For example, say "plans for development" not "plans of development"; "pleased with her gift" not "pleased by her gift"; "for a long time" not "from a long time" or "since a long time". Also note "looking forward to" not "looking forward for".

This is only the edge of the English swamp: note that different verbs with similar meanings often take different prepositions (e.g. "annoyed with", "irritated by", "tired of") while the same verb may take different prepositions in different contexts (e.g. "overjoyed with her gift" but "overjoyed by her presence"). Don't say "throw" instead of "throw away" or "throw out" - they mean different things. Throw is what you do with stones and cricket balls, throw away is what you do with rubbish or anything you want to get rid of for good, throw out sometimes means the same as "throw away" but usually it has a less drastic meaning, as in "throw out the cat" (i.e. put it outside for the time being, but not shoot it!)

7. Try to avoid using old-fashioned sayings (proverbs, maxims, cliches, "stock" expressions with special meaning etc) which you might have been taught in school, because (a) they usually do sound old-fashioned and (b) the chances are you'll get them wrong. These sayings must be word-perfect, otherwise they sound very strange. In particular you must get the definite and indefinite articles right. Beware, some text books don't get them right - always use an English source. Say "start from scratch", never "start from the scratch" or, worse still, "start with the scratch" - this simply isn't English.

8. In all informal speech, do use the shortened forms I'm, he's, they're, you're (pronounced "yaw"), I've, we've, aren't (pronounced "ahnt"), don't, won't, hasn't, didn't etc. It often sounds contrived if you use the long forms; only use them for emphasis, as in "You are coming with us, aren't you?".

9. When writing (letters etc) in English, it's probably a good idea to try to write sentences exactly as you would speak them. Most Indians seem to have much more difficulty with grammar when writing than when talking. When writing friendly emails, don't think you can get away with murder just because of the relaxed format. Never use SMS shorthand in emails, blogs and forums; this only adds cheapness and obscurity to what might already be a hard-to-decipher mess, and many Australians (including me) consider it to be impolite and a sign of laziness. In letters and emails, resist the temptation to use religious phrases. (A tip: write your message in a text file first, then copy it to the email. This avoids wasting log-on time and eliminates haste.)

10. This is straying even further from the subject of Lautoka, but here's a tip for Indians from India - Don't pronounce the "r" on the ends of words. To the best of my knowledge there are no English words ending with a vowel followed by "r" (or "r" and a silent "e") where the "r" is articulated. Say "wawta" not "wawtirr", "maw" not "morr", and, in particular, don't pronounce the "r" on the end of "her". The same applies to words containing an "r" following a vowel and preceding a consonant (or syllable beginning with a consonant, other than another "r"), e.g. form, shirt, burn, first, learning, farther, border, carnival. Of course, you always sound the "r" at the beginning of words (e.g. in river, return, great, present) and in the middle of two-syllable words where the second syllable is distincly articulated (as in pouring, florid, arrange and borrow but not in pour or poured). Admittedly Americans and Scots do pronounce some of the r's on ends of words, especially in words ending in long sounds like sure and bizarre, but the way they sound their r's is quite different to the Indian way. If you want, you can sound the "r" if the following word begins with a vowel, as most Australians do, but strictly speaking it isn't correct practice; you're supposed to use a glottal stop, which just means that you don't slur words together.

11. One of the great difficulties for Sri Lankans, and Indians whose mother tongue is Tamil or one of the other South Indian languages, is dynamics. Unlike Tamil (etc) English lays stress on some syllables and not on others, it drags some syllables out and there are often important changes in speed, giving an overall "wavy" effect. Listening carefully to how South Indians speak English, I think perhaps the main problems are talking much too fast and stressing syllables that should not be stressed.

12. Yet another tip mainly for Indian Indians! - Try to avoid using the "continuous tense" as much as possible, i.e. the form of verb that includes a participle ending in "-ing", because there's a high probability you will use it incorrectly. Examples are "is coming", "was driving", "will be seeing". With this form of verb, English has rules that are so confusing even the UK's neighbours in Europe can't understand them. The saving grace is that you can usually replace the -ing form with the straightforward simple form. In particular, be aware that normally you can't use the continuous tense of verbs which have anything to do with mental activity or which (in their simple form) express an ongoing personal disposition or relationship. For example, say "I believe you" not "I am believing you", "I love her" not "I am loving her", "She wished to come" not "She was wishing to come", "I own this car" not "I am owning this car", "This belongs to him" not "This is belonging to him". Even where the continuous tense is correctly employed ("I will be dining with a friend") it's usually quite OK to substitute the simple tense ("I will dine with a friend"), but the reverse is often not true. Thus you can say "I will give her a big hug when I see her" but in most circumstances it sounds comical if you say "I will be giving her a big hug when I see her".

One problem with English is that it commonly uses the present continuous tense for actions that are in the future, so when you change from continuous to simple tense, you also have to change from present to future. For example "She is coming to my party" means the same as "She will come to my party". You can't say "She comes to my party" as such, but, to add insult to injury, when you use certain kinds of expression or clause, you can only use this tense. For example, you have to say "When she comes..." not "When she is coming..." or "When she will come...".

On the other hand you can say "I hope she comes...", "I hope she is coming..." or "I hope she will come..." - they all mean the same thing! But you can't say "I expect she comes..."; you have to say "I expect she will come...". You can say "She comes to my parties", meaning that whenever I have a party she generally comes; or "She comes to my house", meaning, not that she's on her way to my house now, but that from time to time she visits me at my house.

I told you English is totally absurd! It's astonishing how so many Fiji Indians seem to get most of this right. On the other hand, media articles and internet items composed by Indians would generally benefit from a revamp. Grammar is obviously more important in written than in spoken communication, but some Fiji newspaper columns are full of quite elementary mistakes. Some supposedly verbatim reporting of statements made by "westerners" (such as the present Fiji Police Commissioner) are "Hinglishised", which is to say that typically Indian grammatical errors are deliberately introduced, presumably because the editor thinks that what the person actually said was couched in rotten English! (OK, don't tell me - you've already spotted a dozen grammatical errors in this article!)

Finally, a word of warning to those who aspire to know everything there is to know about English. Never be guided by Indians who already think they know everything! Consider the following extract from a music program, written by a professor boasting the qualifications of BA (Hons), MA, PhD (London), PhD (Qld) and FRAS:

India has, through the rolling millennia of its past, nurtured a variegated civilization, which transcended its physical boundaries to fecundate the growth of art and music in different parts of the world. The seminal influence of Indian art, architecture, philosophy and music helped shape aesthetic sensibility across Asia. Indeed India provided the ambient in which the cultural diversities of Asia became reconciliable. And in more recent times, the deletion of distances by modern technology accelerates the transmission of Indian art and music across the entire globe.

As a piece of English writing, this is total rubbish. Although containing none of the grammatical errors mentioned above, these words could have been written by no-one but a "well educated, upper class" Indian. The problem is that the good professor has tried to be too florid, and in doing so has chosen all the wrong words and phrases. The key to good writing is simplicity. (So for goodness sake don't take your cue from me either!)

As for the English spoken by indigenous Fijians, I haven't noticed any consistent error patterns, other than a confusing tendency to say "Thank you" to mean either "Yes please" or "No thank you"! No matter. Fijians usually say "Vinaka" anyway, and overseas visitors quickly learn to do the same. The chief peculiarity of indigenous Fijians is their reluctance to volunteer any information at all. If you want to know something you must ask. And if you're speaking to a politician, you still won't get an answer!


..............................................................Dabs of Grue............23/11/05