Grammar Mistakes that are common to Chinese ESL learners

 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 come up often.

Grammar Mistakes: Pronouns and Articles

The 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 second two in this article.  Grammar mistakes involving word order, verb tense + “to be” are discussed in a related article.


Chinese ESL students misuse English pronouns—he/his, she/her, it/its.  Chinese does have different written words for genders and objects but they all sound the same when spoken, also subject and object pronouns are the same in Chinese.  So, Chinese ESL students will make English pronoun errors like…

He has dirt on she shoes.
He has dirt on he shoes.
instead of
He has dirt on his shoes.

Pronoun referents are also a problem.

I asked he to come along.
instead of
I asked him to come along.

It would make I happy.
instead of
It would make me happy.

The reflexive pronouns—himself, herself, ourselves, itself, themselves, etc…commonly lead to errors like…

How are the students getting theyselves to the game?
instead of
How are the students getting themselves to the game.

She looks at sheself in the mirror.
instead of
She looks at herself in the mirror.

Chinese ESL students also have a bias toward using the masculine.  They may say…

She lost the book he needs for class.
instead of
She lost the book she needs for class.


Chinese doesn’t use articles so Chinese students have a habit of omitting them when speaking or writing English.  On occasion students will mistakenly insert an article where it’s unnecessary, perhaps because they are reminded how common article usage is in English.

“The” is the definite article; it is used to communicate that a specific noun is being talked about.  “The cat”, “the book”, “the pants”, “the honor roll”.  If you brought your roommate “a” cat instead of “the” cat you’d be presenting them with some random cat you found instead of their cat.  If you made “an” honor roll instead of “the” honor roll your parents would be a lot less proud, and probably question what exactly it was you were working so hard at in school.

The indefinite articles, “a” and “an”, are used when a noun is unspecified as above—hey just bring “a” cat.  Maybe your friend works at an animal shelter that’s trying to take in strays, or you made “an” honor roll because your friends created funny awards for classmates to help cut the tension during finals week.

Chinese ESL students can tend to treat all the English language articles as though they’re interchangeable.

Where is a baby, she needs to go to daycare?
instead of
Where is the baby, she needs to go to daycare.

My friends are buying the condo, they are looking at open houses every weekend.
instead of
My friends are buying a condo, they are looking at open houses every weekend.

English articles are 3 important little words that communicate more information than it seems!

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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