A rough guide to Chinese for ESL teachers

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You may not know it, but Standard Chinese is the official language spoken in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC): this standardized version of Chinese is also known by the more familiar name of Mandarin.

China is another popular ESL teaching destination, and novice ESL teachers should familiarize themselves with a few aspects of the Chinese language if they hope to teach Chinese speakers more effectively. Here are a few points worth remembering.

1. Chinese writing uses a logographic system rather than an alphabet per se. Visit: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/chinlng4.html

2. Chinese is a tonal language: the lexical or grammatical meaning of the word is essentially determined by the pitch, e.g. depending on the pitch used to pronounce the Chinese word ‘ma’, it could mean ‘mom’, ‘horse’, ‘scold’ or ‘hemp’. In contrast, English uses changes in pitch to express emotion rather than to assign a different word meaning to the utterance.

3. Chinese ESL learners (CESLLs) may experience great difficulty in reading and spelling because of the nature of the Chinese alphabet: the symbols themselves represent the words; this is unlike Latin based alphabets where the words are constructed from the various letters.

4. CESLLs experience difficulty in pronouncing individual words, and combined with the associated problem of intonation – this results in heavily accented pronunciation.

5. CESLLs have difficulty in distinguishing between the sound of ‘l’ and ‘r’ and Southern CESLLs between ‘l’ and ‘n’: this may result in an error such as ‘rate’ being mistaken for late’ and vice versa.

6. CESLLs also have problems with the common final consonant, e.g. mill may be pronounced without the double ll but with a long i, or uttered to rhyme with miller.

7. Chinese is an uninflected language: meaning is conveyed via word order (syntax), adverbials, and mutual understanding of the situation or context.

8. Chinese does not use different tenses and verb forms to deal with the notion of time.

9. The Chinese language has neither definite nor indefinite articles.

10. Verbs are normally preceded by adverbial forms.

11. Modal verbs do not have the same breadth of meaning as they do in English.

12. The English phonological system is difficult for CESLLs to come to terms with: patterns of stress and intonation are different, and some English phonemes are non-existent in Chinese.

13. CESLLs often incorrectly pronounce vowel sounds, and diphthongs are often reduced to a single sound.

14. Here are some typical examples of wrongly written sentences: ‘He will meet you as soon as he will get back, ‘He has got hired last week, ‘He good engineer, ‘How much she pay for her house?’, ‘He wish he is strong’, ‘What do you read ?’

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