The Top 6 English Pronunciation Errors Made by Native Chinese Speakers
China and America have a few things in common in that they’re both large countries with a wide variety of dialects and a deep sense of patriotism. The languages, however, are another story.
The most common pronunciation errors by Chinese ESL students can be traced to the students’ tendencies to translate to their native language. The fact that English and Chinese share a similar word order and sentence structure only exacerbate this problem.
Pronunciation Errors Common to Chinese ESL students
Chinese ESL students face several hurdles to proper English pronunciation but I’d like to focus on the top 5 common pronunciation errors —they are: tone and intonation; consonant clusters and words ending in consonants; “r”and ”v” sounds; vowel confusion; and “l” and “n” confusion.
Tone and Intonation
Chinese uses a logographic system for its written language, this means that a character represents a word or phrase. Furthermore, Chinese is a tone language—your pitch can change the meaning of a word. English, by comparison, uses an alphabetic writing system—consonants and vowels are used to create individual words, and English is an intonation language. There’s no individual tone for a specific word rather, how your tone and pitch is used over the whole of a sentence changes its meaning and the emotion expressed.
Chinese ESL students’ ears are finely tuned to tone so learning proper English language intonation will be straight-forward once students understand the way intonation effects what’s being communicated.
Yeah, that’s right. = Statement
Yeah, that’s right. = Sarcasm
Yeah, that’s right? = Question
Consonant Clusters and Words Ending with Consonants
Consonant cluster don’t exist in Chinese; on top of these unfamiliar sounds, many consonant clusters in English contain the especially challenging “r” or “l” sounds— “tr”, “dr”, “pl”, “cl”, “fr”, “fl”, “pr”…
Chinese students of English often add vowel sounds between consonant clusters, and substitute consonant sounds that are easier for them to say.
drape becomes dilape
French become Filench
Or—students omit the sounds all together.
words becomes wors
cluster becomes cusser
Words ending in consonants are also hard to find in the Chinese language—except for those ending in “n” or “ng”. Chinese students will pronounce English words ending in consonant sounds with either an “ah” or “eu” vowel sound at the end of the word, or they omit the final consonant sound entirely.
and becomes and-eu
kind becomes kind-ah
card becomes car
change becomes chain
These consonant clusters and final consonant sounds are all new for Chinese ESL students; I’m not surprised their English pronunciation suffers from these sort of substitutions and omissions. These errors can be corrected with careful attention to English word pronunciation—by that, I mean TAKE YOUR TIME! Sound out the individual sounds within English words. Learn the proper mechanics for producing the unfamiliar sounds, and create word lists and tongue twisters to practice aloud.
“R” and “V” Sounds
These 2 consonant sounds don’t exist in Chinese—are you picking up on a theme here? For some reason, it’s unusually difficult for Chinese ESL learners to form the “r” and “v” sounds. Some cliché errors are:
really becomes wewe
very becomes wawy
rice becomes lice
love becomes lub
dark becomes dock
More of that focused sound production is called for here, use every tool at your disposal to vanquish these foes.
The 2 common vowel sounds Chinese students most often confuse are the English “ih” and “eh” vowel sounds.
The “ih” sound is mixed up with and “ee” sound.
knit becomes neet
bit becomes beet
The “eh” sound is confused with an “ahe” sound.
bed becomes bad
set becomes sat
There’s a subtlety to the differences between these English vowel sounds, even native speakers of English regularly mispronounce them.
“L” and “N” Sound Confusion
I’m happy to say the “n” sound does exist in Chinese but…unfortunately, the “l” sound does not. Double “ll” sounds are especially difficult for Chinese ESL students to master. Students habitually substitute an “n” sound for the “l” sound in their English word pronunciations.
foil becomes foin
fault becomes faunt
fall becomes fawn
Try more practice learning the “l” sound. The “n” sound is an almost there effort to the “l” sound. Concentrate first on losing the vibration in your nose. Got that down? Now look in a mirror while you’re making the sound for the “l”– tighten the sides of your tongue away from your upper teeth. Having a hard time? Stick your tongue out in a point then retract it to the roof of your mouth just behind your top front teeth.
Chinese ESL students have a number of pronunciation errors caused by the fact that many English language sounds are new to them. Learning how to make these unfamiliar sounds is the best way to tackle the problem. Think about your mouth, lips, tongue, vocal chords, and breath as parts of an instrument you’re learning to play. Get technical about the sounds to correct the pronunciation errors. Practice, and you’ll be communicating more clearly with each passing day.