On the art of speech.
Today, I was reminded of how standards in broadcasting are not what they once were. I am thinking, in particular, of the quality of speech of radio announcers. When I was a young boy, growing up in Britain, it was an apparently universal truth that only the best, clearest, most well spoken people ever made it to the radio. Everyone on it seemed to have perfect control of their tongues and speak with exquisite enunciation. Not so today, even in Britain, as anyone can readily observe. However bad Britain may have become, in this respect, matters are much worse elsewhere.
On the radio, today, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I heard a particularly funny example of this tendency towards slovenly, inaccurate speech. I was in a taxi, and the car radio was on in the background. Over it there came the most unexpected announcement: “Come to Courts URINE sale! Courts URINE Sale!”. I found myself instantly puzzled at what I was sure I had heard. It was only towards the end of the advert when he repeated the same slogan again that I managed to work out what he was really trying to say: Courts Year End Sale!” The man’s speech had been so bad, that he had merged the two words, dropped the final “d” and made “year end”, sound like “urine”. Hilarious…and more than a little disturbing.
What struck me about this is that, for this advert to have been broadcast, something very strange must have happened: no-one, in the entire chain of approval, had either listened to the ad, or, if they had, had noticed the incompetent pronunciation. It suggests, therefore, that none of those involved had a strong grasp of what constituted good English pronunciation – even with a Malaysian accent attached. Either that or their knowledge of what it should have said, had made them hear it, as others would not.
This is all a little worrying for what it says about the standards of English language speech in Malaysia. You see, it is customary, for those who appear in adverts in the West, at least, to be very competent users of their respective languages. They are, after all, in the business of communication – and that communication must be clear and unambiguous if it is to be understood as desired. That advert was anything but clear.
It should be noted that Malaysia is not alone in this failing, however. When I was in Singapore, I noticed similar failings among its television personnel, on both news and entertainment channels. Particularly at fault were the newsreaders and those who made voiceovers introducing various programmes. Sometimes their errors of pronunciation came across as hilarious, at other times worrying and, on occasions, just plain dumb (such as when they say one word instead of another, because they are clearly unfamiliar with the target word – which would have made sense – and substitute it for one which does not). I even made the effort of arranging to see the head of Channel 5 at Mediacorp, to suggest that I might be able to help them out with voiceovers. He actually laughed at the suggestion and said: “We have people for that.” The irony of this, of course, is that the joke was on him, since he clearly had no idea, at all, of what constituted a good voiceover, or a competent speaker. I knew then, that the measure of this man, was in millimeters, at best. I mentioned, in passing that I was a writer, too, as background. He really perked up at that. Rather slyly, I thought, he urged me, not to write out my screenplays, if it was screenplays I was to write, but to “email me your ideas”. I knew at once, what was on his mind. Not only was this man unable to judge quality of speech…but he clearly seemed to be in the business of stealing ideas, too. Tellingly, I later learnt that he, too, was a writer (though he hadn’t mentioned it to me), but, it seemed, one in search of ideas.
This situation is more important than it appears, at first. All the key countries in South East Asia aspire to English language competence for their citizens – yet, they hamper themselves in achieving it, when their media figures are not competent speakers. The examples that are held up to the people, are not good ones. Now, there are plenty of very good speakers of English living in these countries, but the best of these are natives of English speaking countries. In other words, they are foreigners. These people tend not to be employed in public roles that would allow their ability to provide an example, however. This is because it is typical, in this part of the world, for the presence of Caucasians in the broadcast media to be restricted. This was notable in Singapore – and it appears to be the case, too, in Malaysia, since I really don’t know of any Caucasian media figure in Malaysia. I can’t even think of one. You’d think they could employ them in radio, at least, where their good English would be an asset and their white faces would be unseen…but I don’t know of any.
It is unlikely that Caucasians will ever have much of, if any, a presence on South East Asian televisions or on the radio. Yet, there is a simple solution. Native English speakers could be asked to advise on whom to hire to do the broadcast jobs in the first place. This is something, for instance, I could do, quite easily. By careful selection, only the best local speakers of English could be allowed to broadcast, with consequent benefits for the entire population. One of the first benefits, might be an end to all those urine sales, for a start.
(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, 10, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, 7 and Tiarnan, 4, this month, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html
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