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Common Difficulties in Teaching English to Native Mandarin Speakers

Common Difficulties in Teaching English to Native Mandarin Speakers | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Learning a second language can be difficult, and this is especially true when the learners L1 and their target language are completely different in structure, sound, and tones. An English as a second language student who speaks French, German, or any other European language will have an easier task than one who speaks a language that is not of European origins. One such language is Mandarin Chinese.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Ashley L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

State of The Problem

The areas that native Mandarin speakers most often run into difficulty are pronunciation, tones, tenses, and sentence structure. A Chinese speaker might well know the English alphabet, as pinyin is used quite frequently for typing. However, while they might recognize the letters, the sounds that they associate with them can be vastly different. For instance, in English ‘X’ makes a /ks/ sound as in ‘oxe’, whereas in Mandarin it makes a sound closer to /s/ as in ‘seet’. There are also sounds that are not present at all in Mandarin, such as /v/, which students will most likely either skip over in the word or pronounce as /w/. To address these issues, pronunciation should be drilled, especially when students demonstrate difficulty in with the presented sounds. Clapping to indicate syllables, having students peer correct, and even showing the proper placement of the tongue and teeth are effective ways to aid in pronunciation practice. Teachers should also not be afraid to use the International Phonetic Alphabet to help illustrate the correct sound. Most schools in China teach the IPA as part of the English language curriculum.

Also Read: Learning Chinese While Teaching English as a Second Language in China

The Chinese Language Structure

Chinese is a monosyllabic language, where words have one syllable and every word gets an equal amount of stress. Stresses and intonation can be hard for native English speakers to teach, as most do not even realize they do it. Stress and intonation can be so natural for native speakers that it can be difficult to recognize and breakdown. A simple way to demonstrate intonation to students is by humming the sounds of a sentence, stressing the rise and fall of the sentence. Likewise, a very simple way to illustrate and drill stress is by using physical gestures, such as raising and lowering your hand, while saying words or sentences.


Learning how tenses effect a sentence can be a special challenge for native Chinese speakers. In Chinese (and many other Asian languages) verbs are not conjugated according to where in time the action takes place. In English, the verb ‘eat’ is changed based on the tense. To make it simple, if an English speaker wanted to express that they had breakfast this morning they would say: “I ‘ate’ breakfast.” or even “I have eaten breakfast.” In Mandarin however, the verb does not change, but ‘le’ is added to show that the action is in the past. For example: “Wo ‘che’le zao fan. = I ‘eat’ (marker of past event) breakfast.” What compounds the difficulty is that English doesn’t just have three tenses (past, present, future), it has twelve. When teaching tenses, it is prudent to spread the lessons on tenses throughout a unit or even semester. Introducing the topic of a certain tense through a story or a unit concept may be a more natural way to broach the subject. For example, a teacher may want to teach past tense while teaching a unit on travel, allowing students to practice the use of past tense by discussing their vacation experiences.

Also Read: Are Teachers Responsible for Students’ Willingness to Learn English?

Sentence Structure

Sentence structure is another area in which English and Chinese greatly differ. English sentences usually start with a subject (unless in the passive voice) then a verb and sometimes an object. If time is being expressed, it can be mentioned at the beginning or end of the sentence. For example “This morning I rode the bus to work.” or “I rode the bus to work this morning.” in Mandarin, it would always be “Jintian zaoshang wo zuole gonggongqiche qu gongzuo= Today morning I ride (expression of past action) bus to work.” The structure would be always “Day + Time + Subject + Verb.” To counter this, make sure to set target sentence structures for each lesson, and for more advanced students, expose them to a variety of materials with different sentence structures, especially authentic materials.

Do you want to teach English in China?

It goes without saying that there are a plethora of other obstacles that can stymie a Mandarin speakers goal of English proficiency, as well as a large array of methods to counter them. A teacher in the position of educating Chinese students should do their due diligence and research all possible problems and common methodological solutions.

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