Teaching English in China

My name is Lisa. In my six years teaching in China, I had the opportunity to work with people of all ages and backgrounds.

As I talked with more and more Chinese people, certain patterns
began to emerge. There were some mistakes that were more common than

Let’s begin by taking a look at pronunciation.

One of the first things that come to my mind when I think about
common errors for Chinese students of English is the pronunciation of
the word “usually.” The sounds that should be present are often changed
in the following ways:

/ʒ/ – /r/ 

/l/ – /r/

/yuʒuəli:/ – /yuruəri:/         “usually” – “uruary”

There is a series of pronunciation mistakes
that I have identified surrounding the pronunciation of final sounds in
English words. A lot of students will add an extra syllable to the end
of words, usually an /ə/:

/waɪ/ – /waɪə/          “why” – “whyuh”

/frɛnd/ – /frɛndə /         “friend” – “frienduh”

Sometimes the final sounds are dropped all together, especially with plurals.  

/ˈæpəlz/ – /ˈæpəl/         “apples” – “apple”

When the /z/ or /s/ is not dropped, there are some common mistakes
surrounding the addition of an /ə/ before the /s/, especially in words
ending in “-ths” and “-thes,”/θs/. This results in the addition of an
extra syllable at the end of the word:

/mʌnθs/ – mʌnθəs/         “months” – “month-es”

/kloʊz/ – /kloʊθəs/         “clothes” – “cloth-es”

Another common mistake is the confusion of /v/ and /w/:

/vængɑrd/ – /wængɑrd/         “vanguard” – “wanguard”

/ vɒlyum/ – / wɒlyum/         “volume” – “wolume”

Similarly with /s/ and /ʃ/:

/ʃʊgər/ – /sʊgər/

One of the major differences between English and Chinese is
that when speaking a syllable-timed language like Chinese, each word is
spoken with equal emphasis and spacing between the words … unlike
English which is stress-timed, and where the words are spoken closer
together in a sentence. This results in a choppy sound in their speech,
something like this:

“construction worker”         “construction……..worker”

“How are you?          “How……..are…….you?”

“I like to read books.”         “I…….like………to……..read……..books.”

It is also useful to note that, with the exception of compound
words, all words in Chinese are basically one syllable. This can create
problems when dealing with multi-syllabic words in English.
Astonishingly, I rarely met a Chinese student who had even heard of
syllables before I brought them up. It is useful to break the words up
into chunks that are more manageable, then putting them back together.
Clapping can also be useful to help Chinese students to hear the
different syllables within the word.

“use-you-uh-lee”           “usually”

Another common mistake is in the way that dates are read, which is totally different in Chinese than it is in English.

1999 “nineteen ninety-nine” – “one nine nine nine”

2006 “two thousand and six” – “two zero zero six”

2014 “twenty-fourteen” – “two zero one four”

There are some words that are commonly confused by Chinese students
learning English, perhaps in this case due to a similarity in the

“kitchen” – “chicken”

“chicken” – “kitchen”

Another time when words are often misused is in the use of the
pronouns “he,” “she,” and sometimes, “it.” This is probably due to the
similarity of the gendered pronouns in spoken Chinese. In fact, these
three words sound identical in Chinese, the difference is apparent only
in writing and through the use of context clues.

He tā 他

She tā 她

It tā 它

Some of the challenging aspects of speaking
English for Chinese students are more conceptual in nature.  Students
seem to struggle when answering questions posed with, “Have you ever…?”
This also is apparent when discussing topics of a hypothetical nature,
for example, statements using “if” or “even if.”  There is a tendency
for them to take these statements literally, instead of considering them
merely as a possibility or an option.  Further explanation may be
needed from the teacher to ensure the students are on the same page.

Lisa Osgood, Former LOS Consultant