English Speaking and Writing Errors made by Chinese Primary Students
I have been an online ESL teacher to Chinese students for over 13 years, mostly with primary students but also with secondary and adult students. I am also a father and have homeschooled my daughter over her primary years. Like many teachers, I’ve enjoyed teaching at this level of education as it lays the foundation in English. As it set the foundation, my teaching helped students to overcome common errors in production skills, speaking and writing. Teaching both my daughter and Chinese students at the primary level also helped me also to understand the different expectations between first language and second language students.
Since English is very different from China, many Chinese ESL students have difficulty in mastering English. The differences between Chinese and English cause Chinese students to make many errors while learning English. In fact, the interference of the student’s first language, Chinese, in learning a second language, English, is known as a crosslinguistic influence (Bian, 2013; Darus & Ching, 2009). Other errors, which are common in the first language and second language students (i.e., my daughter and my Chinese students), derive from development (Darus & Ching, 2009). While teachers can understand Chinese to better correct errors caused by crosslinguistic influence, teachers should provide more practice and exposure in order to correct developmental errors.
When I started out as an English teacher, I was overzealous and tried to correct as many mistakes as I could. My intention was to make students conform to the prototype of a native speaker (Nair, Krishnasamy, & De Mello, 2017). To uphold young Chinese students to such the prototype was frustrating for both the teacher and the students. Who could live up to such expectations? Training my daughter in English helped me to set more pragmatic benchmarks. In this way, my new focus, in consensus with English pedagogy, moved from native accuracy to intelligibility of communication (Shak, Lee, & Stephen, 2016).
Speaking is one of the production skills developed in many Chinese ESL classes. Speech production consists of three parts- pronunciation, grammar, and message. In my experience, practice in English speech starts with pronunciation and grammar, then later built into simple conversations. Due to the differences in Chinese and English phonics, Chinese students may have difficulty in mastering English phonetics. Not only do students have to overcome the difficulties of individual sounds and suprasegmentals, but they must also overcome anxiety to speak in class.
Vowels. Chinese students may make many mistakes in pronouncing vowel sounds in English. English has many more vowels than does Chinese. While English has 7 short vowels (/æ/ as in sat, /e/ set, /Ⅰ/ sit, /Λ/ sup, /ɒ/ sock, /ʊ/ soot, and /ə/ sun) and 5 long vowels (/ei/ bake, /i/ beak, /ai/ bike, /ou/ broke, /u/ beaut) , Chinese has 8 pure vowels (/a/, /ė/, /er/, /e/, /o/, /i/, /ü/, /u/) and only 1 long vowel (/i/). Chinese ESL students often interchange long and short vowels as well as /e/ and /ae/ sounds (Chan & Li, 2000). Thus, young Chinese students may pronounce minimal pairs, such as cheap/chip, food/foot, and caught/cot/coat almost the same. In early primary, my daughter and Chinese students both practice minimal pairs, sight words, and phonics readers. As students advance in primary school, pronunciation exercises may focus more on reading aloud and speech acts. In these activities, students may slow down, stop, or substitute the wrong vowel sound when coming across unfamiliar words.
The letter l takes on two forms in English: the clear l (light); and, the dark l (ill). Luckily, most consonant and semivowels are easy to pronounce for the Chinese primary student because they are similar in both languages. Because Chinese does not have dark l (Chan & Li, 2000), Chinese students will have difficulty with the dark l and will often leave it unpronounced. For example, they will shorten call to caw or they will substitute r for the dark l, bar for ball. Sometimes young Chinese students will also have difficulty with l, and substitute n for clear l. Thus, light will be pronounced as night.
Most consonants are similar in Chinese and in English phonics, but their position in the word or syllable may differ. Chinese do not aspirate consonants at the end of a word or syllable. So, aspirated consonants such as p, t, and s will sound like their non-aspirated counterparts- b, d, and z, respectively. For example, rope will sound like robe (Chan & Li, 2000). The letters /t/, /d/, and /g/ start many Chinese words but do not appear at the end of syllables. Thus, Chinese student may have difficulty ending words with these sounds, especially if they follow another consonant, as in attempt and fold (Shak, Lee, & Stephen, 2016).
Chinese students can pronounce individual consonants very accurately. Since consonant clusters are absent from Chinese, these consonant clusters prove challenging for Chinese students. One way students deal with consonant clusters is through deletion; in this way, left is pronounced lef. Because of this, students may often leave off the final -ed sound and final -s sounds. Another way Chinese student try to pronounce consonant clusters is by adding an extra vowel at the start or between connected words, which is called epenthesis. For example, students may pronounce free as f’ree, with an added schwa after the initial f. Because of the deletion of consonants and the addition of vowel sounds, the student’s speech can become unintelligible.
Not only are we as teachers supposed to correct the individual sounds, but we must also pay attention to suprasegmentals such as intonation and stress. Intonation is very different between the two languages. Whereas in Chinese, a tone language, connects the meaning of a word to the tone, English, an intonation language, determines only the attitude of the speaker by the tone (Bian, 2013). My daughter, like Chinese students, learn intonation through listening to their parents. In Chinese, there are said to be nine distinct tones which are practiced (Gan, 2012; Bian, 2013). At first, Chinese students may sound staccato or sing-song as they focus on individual words; however, they may develop English intonation through constant practice. This means students may speak with a monotone intonation before acquiring staircase intonation by learning stress.
### Stress Stress may also cause difficulty in the speech of Chinese students. Either in Chinese or English, stress is caused by the change of pitch or elongation of a vowel sound. My daughter learned that stress is important to the meaning of words (eg. record /ri-ˈkȯrd/; record /re-kərd/) and that most words have a fixed stress pattern. She also learned that words in a sentence are not given the same stress. English has sentence stress which helps distinguish the more meaningful words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) from function words (auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions) and so brings more meaning to the sentence. In Chinese, all words and segments are spoken at the same length (Bian, 2013). At first, Chinese students will not know word stress so they will have a hard time in differentiating between stressed and unstressed syllables. Both will be pronounced the same. Students have not practiced reducing function words will read and speak slowly and in a staccato manner which may lead to unintelligibility (Nair, 2017).
### Anxiety Speaking is not only a mechanical practice in getting sounds and tones correct but also a psychological act which focuses on the meaning of a message. As a psychological act in a social group, speaking in class and learning a foreign language can be anxiety provoking to Chinese students. Chinese students may be too shy out of the fear of being negatively evaluated by peers or the teacher. To help students overcome anxiety, teachers have to build rapport and help students feel safe from criticism. Since more and more Chinese students begin learning English phonics at an earlier age, students have been more relaxed when reading aloud but more anxious with new activities. In groups, it is important to get students to interact and cooperate with each other, but even then some students may shut down if they feel other students are teasing, criticizing, or not listening (Mak, 2011),
So far, we have discussed the difficulties and errors of Chinese students when it comes to speaking. Chinese students also make errors when it comes to writing. At the primary level, Chinese students move from practice in writing sentences to writing basic compositions. English lessons in China maintain focus on vocabulary building and sentence-level writing, only developing the students' skills in descriptive and narrative composition in the later primary years (Mohan & Lo, 1985; Yang, 2019). Similar to Chinese students, my daughter had to study both sentence-level grammar, essay composition, and vocabulary. Though there are similarities, the differences in grammar and essay composition may cause many students to make errors.
Chinese students make several errors in the use of articles. Students may not know the rules on how to apply general and specific articles. In English, general articles, such as a and an, are used to mark most countable nouns, whereas specific articles indicate that the speaker or writer refers to a unique case. My daughter learned the use of articles with countable nouns, an apple, before primary school and then later as she studied nouns and adjectives. Since Chinese does not precede nouns with articles, so 他吃了苹果 (he ate apple) can translate to “he ate the apple” and “he ate an apple”. Thus, Chinese students often forget to apply articles when it comes to English nouns. In over-correcting the error, Chinese students may overuse articles because they have difficulty in differentiating countable, uncountable, and zero-article nouns.
Chinese students also find prepositions tricky. English and Chinese both have prepositions, words that tell how nouns relate to each other. The use and amount of prepositions differ between Chinese and English, with English having more distinct prepositions than in Chinese (Vethamaiccam & Ganapathy, 2017). For example, the word Chinese word zai (在) can be translated as in, at, under or on in English. Most mistakes made with prepositions are those of omission because prepositions are not used less often in Chinese. In my daughter’s study, prepositions also challenged my daughter and were not emphasized until grade 3. In the higher primary, sentence diagramming helped my daughter to use prepositions to connect clauses. Although Chinese students may be introduced to prepositions through reading, Chinese students may have a harder time using them in such manner which is not used in Chinese (eg. 我们去市场买香蕉, we go supermarket buy banana).
Chinese students make errors with subject-verb agreement. Part of this problem may stem from the issue with the pronunciation error with final -s sounds (see above). In this case, they may not hear the sound in the internal voice when writing. Whereas my daughter was taught to conjugate present verbs according to person, Chinese students do not conjugate verbs in Chinese (Vethamaiccam & Ganapathy, 2017). In Chinese, students learn that they don’t conjugate verbs according to the actor. Thus, “he eats” (他吃) and “they eat” (他们吃) both use the same verb form, chu (吃). Conjugating the verb to be is also difficult for the same reason. In English, the verb to be is conjugated I am (我是), you are(你是), he is (他是). In Chinese, the to-be verb for each person is the same, shi (是). Thus, some students may just decide that it is easier to memorize one verb form (Mohamed, Goh, & Eliza, 2004).
Just as Chinese verbs do not change to indicate person, they do not conjugate to mark the time. In Chinese, time markers consist of particles or auxiliary verbs; for example, he ate(他吃了), he has eaten (他有吃), he is eating (他在吃), and he will eat(他会吃的). Le (了), zai (在), you (有), and hui (会) are auxiliary verbs that also do not conjugate according to person unlike the English verbs to be, have, and do. Along with conjugating verbs according to person, conjugating verbs according to time has also been taught to my daughter since the start of primary, especially through reading. My daughter also learned to remember the three main forms of irregular verbs- present tense, past tense, and past participle. In over-correcting this error to not conjugate past tense verbs, Chinese students may overuse the perfect tense or create sentences with double past tense verbs.
Writing opinion and persuasive essays are also limited in the primary education of China. As stated earlier, English classes taught by Chinese teachers focus mainly on grammar, reading, and vocabulary. While Chinese students are introduced to narrative and descriptive composition perhaps in mid-primary years, they are not really introduced to persuasive and expository writing. In the case of my daughter, she was introduced to more composition types including persuasive, business letter, expository, and research essays. In these compositions, she learned how to base her arguments on facts, examples, and illustrations. Chinese students often write using poetic words, exaggerations, and quotations from past historical figures. Moreover, Chinese students who lack practice in persuasion may have difficulty in giving and supporting opinions in group work.
Being straightforward and direct may also be problematic for Chinese students. English readers expect paragraphs to be succinct and direct as sentences support the main idea. In Chinese, paragraphs tend to be indirect, exaggerative, and patterned. In paragraph development, Chinese students may use suggestions, indirect language, rhetorical question, analogy, metaphor, and simile. Chinese students may have difficulty in connecting sentences together as words are often not in the correct order. In developing my daughter’s first writing, we first wrote down the main topic sentence before composing the other sentences to support the idea through cause-effect, contrast, definition, and classification. In Chinese, it seems that the indirectness stems at trying to find exceptions to the main idea rather than finding direct facts which support it.
In writing essays, proper paragraph and essay structuring strengthen coherence. Chinese and English both concur that every paragraph requires the main idea and that every essay needs a main thesis. Learning the structure is a process for both my daughter and Chinese students. They first learn how to write sentences; then, write multiple sentences based on a given idea; then, arrange these sentences based on concepts; finally, they learn to structure complete compositions. Chinese students often are not trained in writing the 3-part essay common in English, but a 4-part essay which is more familiar in China. While both essay types start off with an introduction and end with a conclusion, the Chinese essay includes a subtheme, elaboration, or transition. A Chinese student’s essay may seem to lack coherence because paragraphs are not often in a hierarchy according to the paragraph’s support of the thesis. Moreover, sentences often lack transition words or phrases. Thus, the writer may seem to jump around in his thoughts.
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In conclusion, this essay extends beyond an attempt to nitpick at the errors of students in order to explain the difficulties of Chinese students in speaking and writing in English. As teachers, we should not merely identify errors made by students but also be aware of the causes behind these errors. Whether these errors are caused by the transference of language or by lack of development, the student’s speaking and writing ability can be developed. Similar to my daughter, Chinese students at the primary level are acquiring language skills that will help them throughout their lifetime.
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