5 Problems for Chinese Speakers of English

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A slim chance and a fat chance are the same thing, but a wise man and a wise guy are opposites.

There is no pine in pineapple, ham in hamburger, or egg in eggplant.

We are all taught i before e except after c only to be told that that actually isn’t true.

Ghoti can be pronounced fish.

And then there is this sentence (which actually does make sense, but don’t ask us to explain it!):

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.

There’s no doubt about it, English is a tricky language

So it should be no surprise that learning English can be a bit difficult, and teaching English can seem like an impossible mountain to climb.

However, with a little bit of experience teaching English as a Foreign Language you will realise that your learners’ first languages will affect their learning of English. This can be in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation or word order, among a number of other things. Understanding these issues can help us help our learners overcome these problems.

Previously, we had a look at typical problems Spanish speakers may have when learning English. Here, let’s look at five of the most common problems for Chinese speakers learning English.

Read more: 5 Common Problems for Spanish Speakers Learning English as a Foreign Language

Person holding a Chinese passport

1. Alphabet

Probably the most obvious difference between English and Chinese is that they use different alphabets. English uses the Latin or Roman alphabet, consisting of 26 letters. Chinese uses a non-alphabetic script of pictograms. In other words, characters represent words or phrases (so it’s not, strictly speaking, an alphabet). 

Each symbol is one syllable and can represent a word, or words can be made up of two or three symbols. For example, 时 is the symbol for Shí, or time; 区 is the symbol for , or area; 时区 is the symbol for Shí Qū, or time zone.

There are literally thousands of characters to learn to be able to read and write in Chinese – you need to know about 3 000 symbols just to be able to read a newspaper! Then, when Chinese speakers want to learn English they have to learn an entirely new alphabet!

In the classroom, you can help your students by being patient with them. Especially with lower-level students – but even more advanced students – bear this is mind when assessing their writing. Understand it may take a bit longer for them to do reading and writing exercises. 

Chinese words 1200x900 1

2. Pronunciation

Unfortunately for our Chinese learners (and English learners of Chinese), there are quite a few differences between English and Mandarin and Cantonese when it comes to pronunciation.

First of all, Chinese is a tone language. This means that the tone of a word will change its meaning. There are five tones in Mandarin Chinese, so the same symbol can have five different meanings depending on tone.

English, on the other hand, uses tone when it comes to expressing emotion and attitude rather than meaning, and it is used over a whole sentence rather than individual words. Consider the difference in intonation between

You’re still here. and You’re still here?

The difficulty here for our learners is understanding the general tone of what a person is saying – like reading between the lines. 

Then, there are differences in rhythm. English is a stress-timed language, which means that the rhythm of the language depends on the stress of the sentence. Basically, syllables can last different lengths of time but there is a relatively constant amount of time between stressed syllables.

Cantonese and Mandarin, on the other hand, are syllable-timed languages. In Cantonese and Mandarin every syllable takes up roughly the same amount of time so the rhythm of language depends on the syllables, rather than the stress. What’s more, all Chinese symbols are monosyllabic. This means that when Chinese learners pronounce English words they will often give them equal stress, which can sound odd and unnatural.

In the classroom, you can help your learners with word and sentence stress by playing Bingo or drilling. Pay attention to stress patterns when teaching words and draw your students’ attention to different stress patterns within the same word family – for example, PHOtograph, phoTOGraphy.

When it comes to individual sounds there are differences too. 

More specifically, there are no consonant clusters in Chinese like we have in English, such as /tr/ and /dr/. As a result, when speaking English, Chinese speakers often add syllables when pronouncing consonant clusters, or omit them altogether. For example, drum becomes dilum, or words becomes wors.

Chinese learners have particular difficulty when it comes to the English sounds /l/ and /r/. This is because in Chinese languages there are no sounds which directly correspond to these sounds. Chinese learners cannot hear the difference between the two sounds, with the result that they have trouble differentiating between the two in pronunciation.

Similarly, Chinese learners will have problems differentiating /v/ and /w/, and pronouncing /ɵ/ as in bath and /ð/ as in that.

In the classroom, you can help your students with this by showing them physically how the different sounds are made and listening to minimal pairs to help train their ears. Playing games which make use of both sounds would also be useful.

Read more: 3 Activities to Help Your Students with Pronunciation

In terms of grammar, there are many differences between the two languages. The following two are the most prominent. 

Chinese learners 1200x900 1

3. Word order

Both English and Chinese languages are SVO languages, meaning the accepted sentence structure is Subject-Verb-Object. However, while in English this is pretty strict, in Chinese languages it is not. Chinese sometimes allows sentences which exhibit the SOV structure and, more commonly, the subject of a sentence can be omitted altogether or the object of the sentence may come first, depending on the topic of the sentence.

4. Plurals

In English, when we need to change a noun to make it plural, we change the ending of the word. So one apple becomes two apples. In Chinese there are no plural words. Instead, a number word is placed in front of the noun, which stays in its singular form. What this means is that learners may struggle to form plurals in English, or they may produce sentences like I have two cat. 

In the classroom, you can help your learners by doing activities which focus on error correction. This could be on-the-spot or delayed but be sure to draw their attention to this issue. 

Read more: Effective Error Correction

5. Articles

In English we use a, an or the as articles. Chinese does not have articles as such. Instead, it uses words that combine with the nouns to show the number of the noun, or it uses the noun alone. As a result, Chinese learners may omit the definite and indefinite articles when speaking English.

Other grammatical issues are confusing personal pronouns, and verb inflection (for example, the third person –s).

On a general note, exposing your learners to authentic language in authentic materials is a great way to help their English. Encourage your learners to watch English TV series or movies, listen to English songs, read English books and newspapers, and browse the internet in English. This will help them get a feel for natural language.

Problems for Chinese speakers of English

All of our learners are going to encounter problems when learning English, regardless of their first language. However, being aware of the particular difficulties speakers of different languages have helps you not only if you are teaching a monolingual class but also to prepare your lessons better by helping you anticipate problems your learners may have.

*These are not the only problems for Chinese speakers of English, but they are very common problems which you will experience in the classroom.

Please note: This blog post was originally published on 13 January 2017 but has since been updated.

Caisey Smith says

Chinese learners of English face many difficulties. And it is our job as teachers to help them overcome these difficulties caused by the difference in our languages. In my practice I find these resources useful when working with Chinese students: https://libguides.lib.cuhk.edu.hk/c.php?g=600222&p=4156045 It sometimes takes longer for them to understand certain material, but in the end, after getting enough practice, many EFL students from China become proficient English speakers.

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