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Pronunciation Problems for Learners Speaking Chinese as their First Language

Pronunciation Problems for Learners Speaking Chinese as their First Language | ITTT | TEFL Blog

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

Problems with Consonants

Chinese does not have either of the “th” sounds (like “that” and “this”). Most other languages do not have these sounds and they are problematic for most learners of English. The difficulty is the point of articulation- the tongue has to be between the teeth, not behind them. Many people say that English speakers look like they’re sticking their tongues out all the time because of the “th” sounds. It can be difficult to get learners to do this because it violates a cultural proscription against sticking out one’s tongue.

Confusion between /r/ and /I/. There is a well-known perceptual confusion between these two sounds, caused by the fact that there is a sound in Chinese that falls halfway between English /r/ and /I/. When trying to say the words “pull” and “purr”. Notice how slight the difference is in the position of your tongue at the ends of these words. When Chinese speakers produce the immediate sound, the English ear will tend to perceive that an /r/ is being produced instead of an /l/ and vice versa.

asian people

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  • “fall” may sound like “four”
  • “raid” may sound like “laid”
  • “all” may sound like “or”

Sometimes there is confusion between /n/ and /l/. Again, there is only a slight difference in the position of the tongue, especially when the sound is at the beginning of the word.

The sounds /h/ and /ʃ/ can often be used interchangeably in Chinese. Think of the phrase in English “Can he go?” Native speakers might pronounce it distinctly- “Can he go” or they might say it in rapid speech- “Can e go?” The meaning is the same although the sounds are different, and native speakers will probably not even notice the difference.

Problems with Vowels

Vowels in English are particularly difficult. English has five vowel letters but 13 vowel sounds. Spelling does not always indicate which sound is required.

Both /I :/ as in “eat” and /l/ as in “it” occur in Chinese, but there are restrictions on the consonants following them. /eɪ/ and /e/ (“mate” and “met”) Notice that /eɪ/ is a diphthong - the mouth starts in one place and ends up in another. This “long” sound is not usually found in other languages and can be demonstrated and practiced with exaggeration.

little asian girl

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Problems with Rhythm and Stress

All aspects of rhythm and stress are highly problematical for learners and should be given high priority. Stress is often unpredictable in English (mostly because words come from so many languages and may have kept their original stress) and contributes more than you might expect to intelligibility.

Problems with intonation

Because Chinese is a tone language, speakers are very sensitive to changes in pitch of speech, but they are used to hearing pitch changes over a single syllable, rather than over long stretches. They do have intonations, so this area is not new for Chinese learners, so it is wise to do some perception practice on tunes extended over a whole clause.

Also Read: How Learning Chinese Made Me A Better English Teacher In China

Minimal Pairs

Probably the most common, and one of the most effective ways of helping students recognize the differences between sounds that do not exist in their L1 is by having them listen to minimal pairs, words that are similar but contain especially problematic phonemes. Minimal pairs of words that have on the phonemic change between them. For example “pat” and “pad”.Using these pairs can help students recognize the minor differences between English muted vowel sounds and can greatly help with pronunciation.

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