Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's gaffe on Wednesday during her welcome to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton received more than 10,000 hits in one night on YouTube.
Yingluck was heard saying “overcome” instead of “welcome” as she greeted Clinton at their joint press conference. Luckily, Yingluck’s gaffe has been not as damaging as Rick Perry’s brain freeze during a Republican presidential debate in the US. The evidence: Clinton did not make any objection.
Yingluck’s supporters defend her, saying a Thai premier doesn’t have to speak impeccable English with a perfect accent, like opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. But that’s not the point. In fact, Yingluck’s gaffe was not her accent, but the wrong word and pronunciation.
Language is communication. It enables people to understand each other. Saying Thai words in the wrong tone can invite conflict because words with different intonation carry different meanings, just as “overcome” cannot be used as substitute for “welcome”.
Of course, some people have accent prejudice. They judge another person’s intelligence by his or her accent. There is an old Thai saying: A gentleman will speak with conviction. If a person has a pattern of saying meaningless cliches over and over, he or she will eventually lose the attention of others.
Many Thai dignitaries have managed to command international respect even though they do not have a good English accent. Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, former World Trade Organisation chief and currently secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, speaks English with a Thai accent, but he commands respect because he speaks with conviction. Once, when Supachai attended an international meeting as a deputy prime minister, the Thai government distributed a copy of a speech that was handwritten in English by Supachai.
Accent is not as important as clear thought and right pronunciation. General Prem Tinsulanonda reportedly spent time on gruelling rehearsals before making public speeches in English when he was prime minister.
Some leaders opt for interpreters to make sure that they get the message across. In fact, speaking in one’s native language on the international stage can suggest the national pride of the leader.
When former prime minister Banharn Silapa-archa chaired the Asia-Europe Summit in Bangkok, he made the press conference in Thai with simultaneous translation from veteran negotiators from the Foreign Ministry and Commerce Ministry to avoid any diplomatic faux pas. Former prime minister Chuan Leekpai often read out scripted speeches in English but chose Thai during the Q&A sessions.
At any rate, Yingluck may want to show off her English during international events. After all, she received a master’s degree from Kentucky State University in America.
But her speech-writers should have done a better job in creating a speech with the right diction. Speech-writers should come up with the right notes to match the speaker. A speech from Yingluck will of course be different from one by President Barack Obama. Hopefully, Yingluck will feel more comfortable when she speaks English next time. Otherwise, a repetitive pattern of gaffes will define her premiership.