Common Speaking Challenges in China
I came to China 4 years ago to teach English. I have not managed to learn Mandarin in that time frame but I did learn quite a bit about the differences in pronunciation between Mandarin and American English. The most common errors made by Chinese students generally come from the habit of translating to their native language. English and Mandarin share some similarities such as word order and sentence structure which also complicate the issue. In this essay, I will discuss teaching pronunciation, the problems that can occur when teaching pronunciations, and the issues that occur with Mandarin speakers learning English.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Paris S. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Because of the difficulty of teaching English, pronunciation tends to be a very neglected aspect of English language teaching. Sometimes teachers don’t have a lot of confidence in teaching it. When I started, I wasn’t sure how much to focus on it and WHEN to focus on it especially when dealing with 5-year olds. The other problem is that pronunciation practice tends to bore me and the students which does not help classroom morale. Thankfully I hate being bored so I learned from my co-teachers and explored ways to teach a fun pronunciation. Honestly, I didn’t even realize I was teaching pronunciation in particular when I used the techniques. They just kept me entertained which also kept the kids entertained.
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I’m a very expressive speaker so intonation was an easy thing for my young kids to catch on to. (Many of my students stayed with me for 3 years which didn’t hurt.) When I taught sentences like “I like apples” I would switch up my stress. Sometimes I would say I like apples, then I’d say I LIKE apples and then I like APPLES just depending on what meaning and what aspect of the sentence I was trying to focus on. My kids also loved to copy certain words I said like “What???” because I would say it in a very high-pitched voice out of shock and to make them laugh. As a result of this, my students because extremely expressive in their speech which was a huge success. I would do exercises where they had to sing the sentence or say sentences with a different emotion attached. It wasn’t something I was consciously doing, just something to liven up the classroom and make it more fun. I saw the benefit later as they got more and more fluent in English and I subbed other classes that didn’t use these techniques. In China, kids are used to drilling in school and more reserved in their expression of emotions so I loved that I was able to teach them that fun aspect of English.
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Another fun difference between Chinese and American English students is the way we’re taught phonics. On several occasions, my kids would “correct” their parents’ pronunciation and always realized the differences between the way I talked versus how a non-American teacher talked. Some kids had a hard time pronouncing r’s and v’s because of how Chinese schools teach English phonics, but we were able to work on the problem. If I had a kid who had an especially hard time with a letter, I would work with them one-on-one while my co-teacher worked with the other kids. I would show them proper tongue placement and lip movement and we’d work together until it sounded better. Chinese students also really like to add -uh to the end of the word so when they said my name, my name word become Paris-uh and if they did it a lot we would joke around as I mimicked it attaching -uh to their names and they slowly learned to stop doing it.
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Teaching pronunciation can be boring but it can also be so much fun. My classrooms full of excitable kids that used intonation and stresses and tones were so much fun to teach compared to the more “robotic” kids in other classes. I’m currently working on becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist and hope to develop these teaching skills even further.
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