Grammar mistakes commonly made by Chinese ESL students

 In Grammar

grammar mistakesChinese families and communities are very close-knit, so ESL students may have somewhat limited exposure to Western culture.  Chinese students are often learning and speaking English only in their English language class.  The result of this is slower language acquisition.  All English language learners struggle with native language interference, but for Chinese ESL students, there are some English grammar mistakes that seem to plague them.

 The Top 2 Grammar Mistakes Made by Chinese Students of English

The 2 most common grammar mistakes all stem from the fact that the English usage rules or the words themselves have no equivalents in the Chinese language.  The problem grammar areas are word order, verb tense + “to be”, pronouns, and articles.  We will discuss the first two in this article.  Grammar mistakes involving pronouns and articles are discussed in a related article.

Word Order

There are a few ways that Chinese ESL students make word order errors when speaking or writing English.  The first involves the placement of modifiers to nouns such as adjectives, adverbs, clauses, participle phrases, etc…  In Chinese modifiers to the noun, they usually precede the noun whereas in English they most often follow the noun.

A Chinese ESL student may say…
“Number one in Southeastern Conference has my new school football team.”
instead of
“My new school has the number one football team in the Southeastern Conference.”

Or for a couple simpler sentence examples…
“Great student is my girlfriend.”
instead of
“My girlfriend is a great student.”

“A red car he has.”
instead of
“He has a red car.”

The second way Chinese ESL students can confuse word order involves the relative pronouns.  The words:  that, where, who, why, what, wherever…are all relative pronouns.  Relative pronouns are used to connect a clause or phrase—one that defines or provides more information about the subject noun—to the subject noun.

For example, …  I know the girl who won the debate.
A Chinese ESL student may say…  I know who the girl won the debate.

Students can make this grammar mistake because there are no relative clauses in Chinese, and because the words:  who, what, where, why…all seem to signal questions—which brings me to the third way Chinese students confuse English language word order, questions!

The Chinese language uses the same word order for a statement as it does for a question.  That’s not the case with English; in English, the verb follows the question word.

For example, …  Who is she?
A Chinese ESL student will often use the subject after the question word.  Who she is?

In indirect questions—question phrases within statements, or questions that follow a polite introductory phrase—Chinese ESL students will incorrectly place the verb after the question word.

Polite question:
“Do you happen to know who she is?”  mistakenly becomes  “Do you happen know who is she?”

Statement that contains a question phrase:
“I told them she was the girl who won the debate.”  mistakenly becomes  “I told them she who was girl won the debate.”

Verb Tense + “To Be”

I have to start with the verb “to be” because the misuse of the forms of “to be” are central to many of the verb tense issues Chinese students have with English.  In Chinese, a verb doesn’t change its form according to tense instead, a time reference is used at the start of a sentence or for more complex expressions of time, a suffix or function word may be used.  English, by contras,t uses specific forms of verbs, helping verbs, and modals to indicate tense.  The most useful verb forms in English and the first a student should master are the forms of “to be”.

Person   Number   Present Past
1st singular 1 am was
2nd singular you are were
3rd singular he/she/it is was
1st plural we are were
2nd plural you are were
3rd plural they are were


Infinitive: be
Present Participle: being
Past participle: been

Because Chinese verbs don’t change to express tense ALL the English language tenses cause Chinese students to make grammar errors.  Chinese ESL students default to the English simple present tense for all tenses, often relying on adding words that indicate time to show the past or future tense.

I liked her article.
I like her article.
Yesterday I like her article.

I will be going to Florida.
I go to Florida.
Soon I go to Florida.

Unfortunately, students have a lot of word memorization to do since not all English verb forms are self-evident.  For example, the word “eat” becomes “ate” in the past tense not “eated”.  There are some common ways to conjugate verbs, for example, walk/walks, walked/had/have walked, walking, am/is/are/was/were walking, had/have been walking.

The grammar mistakes that Chinese ESL students make are all completely understandable—they stem from unfamiliar rules, and words.   Habit is a hard thing to break when it comes to a lifetime of expressing yourself.  I think an immersive environment is helpful when learning a language. It can be especially useful for Chinese students to live in the US while studying English.  Students can become more tuned into the rhythms of the sentence structure—then something like a missing article in English will stand out as a void, a missed note.  Even native English speakers make grammar mistakes, believe me.  Don’t be self-conscious when speaking English, you’re still learning and are already miles ahead—you speak CHINESE and English, you’re amazing!

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