Problems for Learners of English in Mandarin Speaking China
Over the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching English as a foreign language online for a company called Education First. The format would normally be an internationally diverse group in an audio-only platform. During these sessions, I found that my students from China would have specific challenges in pronunciation that many of my European and Brazilian students would not. I recognized their tendency to add an “a” at the end of words that clearly ended in a consonant. Unfortunately, I was not educated enough in the specific challenges that Mandarin speakers faced in their attempt to learn English. I’m scheduled to begin teaching in China later this year, and it has become clear to me that I need to drill into the specific challenges faced by Mandarin speakers to more effectively help them successfully learn to speak English as a foreign language. This essay will address a few of the observed phonological challenges faced by Mandarin speakers and offer some analysis on how to best navigate these challenges in educational platforms.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Jason G. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
The major difference in the phonology of English vs. Mandarin is that Mandarin is a tone language, and monosyllabic, while English is a non-tone language. The lexical meaning that comes from the pronunciation of phonemes in Mandarin is critically dependent on tones, whereas the non-tonal pronunciations of English phonemes do not inherently define the words they create. The understanding of English, being a non-tone language, depends more on the stress of the individual word within the intonation of the overall sentence. The tonal speech habits of native Mandarin speakers can prove to be a challenge as they might be prone to speak each English word in a sentence in tones that do not allow for the proper stress of the words and intonation within the sentence, thus making the overall meaning ambiguous.
Lack of Sounds
Another problem that arises when native Mandarin speakers attempt to pronounce some English words is when they are required to pronounce phonemes that are not commonly used in Mandarin. Two examples would be "l" and "r," as in “call” and “rice.”(1) Pronunciation issues are further complexified by the fact that words with consonant endings in Mandarin are rare, while in English they are very common. (2) The particular issue relates to what I was observing in the speech of native Mandarin students in my online EFL courses, as they added a vowel sound to the end of many English words that end with a consonant.
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So, the question then is how to successfully address these potential problems in EFL courses. I’ll say upfront that it would be far more difficult to address the English phoneme pronunciation issues in an online course because of the benefit of physically showing the student how to actually form the sounds with one’s mouth. So, a simple step is to make sure to either do all lessons in person or at least with a clear and interactive video component. To address the stress and intonation challenges that Mandarin speakers have, Ruth Wickham suggests exercises such as “grammar chants,” where the focal words of a sentence, such as nouns and verbs, fall on downbeats, while less stressed words, such as and & the are quickly spoken on the upbeats. (3) This helps the student understand that unlike their native Mandarin language, the pace of English is more about the stress of specific words and their intonation within a broader sentence. The challenges with English consonants could be addressed (after showing them the physical technique for forming the sounds) with games of accurate repetition. There are many other issues that I’ll need to address concerning teaching English to Mandarin speakers, and many other strategies for successfully doing so, but this course has awakened me to the fact that I need to study the linguistic complexities of teaching English in China.
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