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Problems for Learners in China and How to Help Teachers Overcome Them

Problems for Learners in China and How to Help Teachers Overcome Them | ITTT | TEFL Blog

After spending five years in China as an ESL teacher, corporate trainer and university lecturer I would like to share a few of the most common problems for Chinese learners and ways for teachers to overcome them. I will focus on problems regarding cultural differences, pronunciation and first language interference.

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

Social challenges

Despite China’s opening to the outside world in recent decades, it is still a very closed society with only anecdotal knowledge of Western culture (by Western they mean American). Lack of access to Western news, social media platforms, and heavy censorship makes it difficult for students to understand certain cultural concepts, which are prevalent in Western societies. The role of an ESL teacher is often perceived as an access point to anything Western, therefore it is crucial for instructors to provide unbiased and objective information regarding Western etiquette and stress the differences between individual countries (as many learners don’t differentiate between them). Teachers can suggest and provide reading (e.g. newspaper articles) and audio-visual materials (news videos, podcasts), which can enrich students’ knowledge of the outside world and provide them with the desired insight into the western way of thinking.

Due to the collectivist character of Chinese culture, students are rather shy to ask questions and are afraid of making mistakes in class, due to the possibility of “losing face”. Therefore, the teacher should always encourage opinions and creativity in a respectful manner. Humour and group activities are very often desired, where students can thrive on cooperation in a pleasant atmosphere.

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Also Read: What questions should I ask a TEFL employer?


When it comes to pronunciation, students from certain regions of China (predominantly southern provinces) might have problems pronouncing certain sounds: s (as in sleep) and sh (as in sheep), z (as in maze) and s (as in television), mixing n and l (night and light sound the same). This happens due to their local dialects lacking these sound differentiations. It is crucial for teachers to extra focus on these problems, preferably starting from teaching individual sounds and pronunciation patterns, as it can help students to gain much-needed confidence. It also helps to present the physical aspects of sound production (tongue placement, lip shape, etc.) and provide enough time for mimicking and repetition. Most training schools in China focus on oral English, therefore students expect teachers to correct their pronunciation. Sometimes it might lead to overcorrection, however, it is often desired by the students and school.

Also Read: Multilingual and Monolingual Groups: What are the Differences?

First language influence

Another important issue many students in China are facing is the interference of their first language. From simplified sentence structure to lack of plural form and grammar concepts available in the English language, students at all levels might have problems with mastering them. It is important to note that these quite often don’t interfere with fluency and communication, but are more accuracy problems, which also detract from students’ self-confidence. Stressing proper sentence structure, providing correct examples of word usage and grammatical forms is crucial in the classroom, with ample opportunities for students to practice these.

Another aspect of first language interference is often visible in students using their native idiomatic expressions translated word-for-word into English. Knowing them and their equivalents in English can help teachers to facilitate student’s expression. It can also provide for an interesting task, where students can explain the hidden meaning behind the expression, therefore gain more practice and confidence.

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As China is still a very popular destination for ESL teachers, it is important to realize some common problems Mandarin speakers face when learning English. It can help ease the transition from teaching jobs, teachers might have had in their native countries and provide ample opportunities for thriving in the new environment. Prior knowledge of problems your learners might have can help teachers plan and prepare accordingly to provide the best possible service to their students, aiding their learning process.

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