Pronunciation Problems for students in ChinaIn china there is not just one language, but a few different dialects including Mandarin (spoken by about 70% of the population) plus Cantonese, Taiwanese and Wu. English and chinese belong to two different language families and are significantly different.
Firstly, unlike English, chinese doesn?t have an alphabet and uses a logographic system for its written language. These are symbols, which represent words. Because of this huge difference, chinese learners may have some difficulty in reading and writing words. This makes English a difficult prospect for new learners.
Secondly, chinese is a tone language, which means that different pitch (low or high) can distinguish the meaning of a word. In English, pitch expresses emotion but not difference in meaning altogether.
Lastly there is the issue of motivation and cultural differences which also hinder the learning process. I will cover this later.
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis mentions that the languages we learn as a child strongly influence the ways we think and view the world. It directly influences one?s life. It says that during the acquisition of a second language, learners will perceive meanings in L2 from their own culture. Therefore, miscommunication is not always due to linguistic competence but a lot of other cultural differences interfering.
For example, one English teacher in Hong Kong states on her blog that chinese students tend to state their point at the end of argumentative essay writing, rather than right at the beginning. Her conclusion is that this is how they tackle the topic in their native language and that often-chinese students will therefore fail to meet the criteria for going further in this type of English.
Most native English teachers in china
will comment that students are passive in the classroom. They show an intrinsic lack of initiative when joining in classroom activities, which is because they have been strongly influenced by their concept of the role of teacher verses student; in which teachers are dominating and to be respected, and students are to be obedient and show respect to a teacher who is higher up the hierarchical ladder. It is in fact Confucianism that emphasis the hierarchy of relationships and it does have a very tenable affect on the dynamics of the classroom.
Perhaps the most notable and reported difficulty for chinese students is pronunciation. It is easily joked about their inability to hear and speak the difference between l and r and the mispronunciation or rake (lake) and rice (lice). But it is a fact that English has more vowel sounds than chinese, which results in the mispronunciation of words like ship/sheep and it/eat.
Another problem for chinese speakers is with the common final consonant in English, resulting in the failure to produce the consonant or add an extra vowel at the end of a word. So with these problems combined a chinese student of English might have perfect Grammar but still remain difficult to understand.
There is a brilliant website (btinternet) which mentions 27 common pronunciation problems for chinese students and how to fix them. Whilst repetition and drilling will go towards helping a student pronunciate properly. Understanding the science of exactly where to place ones tongue in ones mouth will help the student produce the language correctly.
chinese learners also have a tendency to stress every syllable strongly and with the same weight. But studies have shown that 85% of all English words, such as nouns, have the stress on the first syllable; which if realized could help foreign students understand connected speech.
Researchers in the fields of psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology have also discovered that there is a ?critical period? within which the student must be exposed to language in order to become a native speaker of it i.e. to speak that language naturally and without accent. So therefore it is easy to see why adult learners who have had little exposure to English would struggle with pronunciation. Pinker, 1994, P298 says that ?it would be extremely rare for an individual to ever use the foreign language (L2) natively? if they were not exposed to it until after puberty.
Other problems for the teacher to consider.
There also comes a distinct problem when the student themselves realize that they may never use English outside of the classroom other than to pass an exam or to please a proud parent. It still remains a fact that in china, English is rarely used to get a job and it may only be used in employment to send a fax. Therefore teachers do come across a lack of real commitment to the subject. Hong Kong teachers are luckier, in that the majority of their students have a real goal ahead of them, be it an English speaking school exam to get through or a job prospect to prepare the student for. In these two scenarios the motivation for learning is quite different and will have an effect on the student contribution in class.
There are benefits to being a chinese native speaker teacher. Because they already know the problems the learner faces, they can empathize. They themselves have overcome the same obstacles as the learner and they are familiar with local chinese accents that may be posing pronunciation problems for the student.
However as a native english speaker teaching pronunciation in china, one can be sympathetic to the challenges they face, both culturally and in terms of communication. Immersing learners in English, in terms of listening, reading and speaking will help the students especially with regard to grammar and pronunciation. A teacher can further help their student, by adjusting their expectations and concentrating their focus upon pronunciation skills.
In summary, a teacher of a chinese English student needs to be aware of the intrinsic language differences and adapt their lessons to the needs of the student.
My personal preference would be lots of listening exercises combined with repetition, drilling, pronunciation exercises, chants and songs. Also putting myself in their shoes and trying to be compassionate.
Learning a second language, so very different to one?s own must be daunting!
Dr Mikes English Centre