For speakers of Chinese languages
Pronunciation for speakers of Chinese languages
AIM: to raise awareness of common difficulties with English pronunciation for speakers of Chinese languages.
- The sound system of English is very different from the sound systems of the various Chinese languages, so Chinese learners of English may have particular difficulties with pronunciation.
- There is no single ‘Chinese’ language, as people from China and the Chinese diaspora may speak a variety of different first languages. While Mandarin (Putonghua) is promoted as the national language in China and most Chinese people learn this variety, their own first language or dialect may be quite distinct.
- Many of the issues that cause problems for Chinese learners of English are common to speakers of any of the Chinese languages, so this resource will generally refer to Chinese languages rather than identify specific languages or dialects (e.g., Cantonese, Hokkien, etc.).
- While the large number of Chinese learners of English in Australia means that many Australians are familiar with the pronunciation of these speakers, there are particular aspects of pronunciation that can affect the success of communication with Australian English speakers.
- This section identifies some of the common difficulties for Chinese speakers in the pronunciation of English; however, it is not a comprehensive guide.
- English has more vowel sounds than Chinese languages and, although some of the Chinese vowels may be similar to English ones, they are not identical. Also, pronunciation rules in Chinese mean that the same vowel might sound different in different words.
- Chinese speakers sometimes find it difficult to pronounce English vowels consistently, especially since the spelling system of English is not regular, so the same letter(s) may correspond to more than one sound, depending on which word it appears in.
Common difficulties for Chinese speakers with English vowels include:
Speakers inserting an extra vowel between consonants or after a final consonant, e.g.
- ‘post’ may sound like ‘poster’; ‘worked’ may sound like ‘work it’
Speakers omitting a reduced vowel
Unstressed syllables in English words often have a ‘reduced’ vowel, known as ‘schwa’ (written as [ə] in the International Phonetic Alphabet). Since this is far less frequent in Chinese than in English, speakers often use a ‘full’ vowel, which doesn’t sound natural in English.
- ‘arrive’, ‘consider’, ‘sister’ Play
The sounds here are the same, even though they are spelt with different letters.
Learners tend to stress too many English syllables, giving the weak syllables a full rather than reduced pronunciation, e.g.
- ‘fish and chips’
- ‘The capital of England is London.’
- Diphthongs – moving from one vowel to another within the same syllable
While Chinese languages do have diphthongs, they are usually pronounced with quicker and smaller tongue and lip movements than their English counterparts, so sound too short with insufficient distinction between two component vowels, e.g.
- ‘face’ and ‘price’ Play
- Speakers making no distinctions between certain vowel sounds
English distinguishes the following vowel sounds, which may be hard to distinguish for Chinese speakers, e.g.
The sounds represented by the letter combination ‘th’ are difficult for speakers of many languages, particularly since there are two different sounds that correspond to this spelling:
‘thigh’, ‘bath’, ‘teeth’, ‘thought’, ‘thyroid’ [voiceless] Play
- ‘thy’, ‘bathe’, ‘although’, ‘gather’ [voiced] Play
- These sounds should be produced with vibration between the tip of the tongue and the back of the teeth, as distinct from [d] or [t] in English. Chinese speakers commonly replace these sounds with [t, d; s, z, or f].
The English sound [v] is not common in Chinese languages, so speakers often replace it with [w] or [f], e.g.
‘vine’, as distinct from ‘wine’ or ‘fine’ Play
- ‘vine’, as distinct from ‘wine’ or ‘fine’ Play
- Some Chinese language speakers find [l] and [r] difficult to distinguish
‘liver’ – ‘river’; ‘light’ – ‘right’Play
‘light’ – ‘night’Play
‘hospital’, ‘humour’, ‘human’, ‘hot' Play
‘like’ or ‘light’ à ‘lie’ Play
- Difficulties with [l] and [n], which in some languages (e.g. Cantonese) don’t change the meaning of a word, but do in English so learners have trouble distinguishing, e.g.
- [h] tends to be pronounced more ‘heavily’ in Chinese languages, with friction in the back of the mouth rather than a soft sound in the throat, e.g.
Chinese speakers often omit consonant sounds at the end of English words, which can make the meanings hard to interpret, e.g.
- ‘card’ à ‘car’ Play
Since English grammar is sometimes indicated by the end of the word (e.g. plural ‘-s’, past tense ‘-ed’), it is important to pronounce word endings clearly.
Consonant clusters (two consonant sounds together without a vowel in between) are not common in Chinese, so speakers often either:
insert a slight vowel, e.g. ‘spoon’ à ‘sipoon’ Play
- leave out particular sounds, e.g. ‘think’ à ‘thing’ or ‘thin’ (insert Chinese16.wav here)
- insert a slight vowel, e.g. ‘spoon’ à ‘sipoon’ Play
1. Word stress
- In Chinese languages most words are made up of two syllables distinguished by tone (a change in pitch) rather than stress as they would be in English. Chinese speakers might therefore have difficulty hearing or making a distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables.
- Use the word stress activity to practise this with medical words.
2. Sentence stress
- English speakers use sentence stress to highlight important words in a sentence. Chinese speakers sometimes try to pronounce each and every word fully and correctly, which makes speech that is difficult for the listener to decode, i.e., to work out the speaker’s intended meaning.
- Use the contrastive stress and more contrastive stress activities to practise sentence stress.
- Changes in pitch (tones) are used in Chinese languages to distinguish words whose pronunciation is otherwise the same; intonation is used less across a whole sentence than it is in English. This can make it difficult for Chinese speakers to learn both to understand and to use intonation patterns effectively in English.
- Use the intonation and question intonation activities to practise English intonation patterns.
- Because the structure of Chinese words is very different to English, Chinese learners of English tend to separate English words in a sentence rather than joining them smoothly into a ‘stream of speech’, which produces a ‘staccato’ or ‘choppy’ sound.
- Use the linking activity to practise linking.
There is a wide variety of resources available to help Chinese learners of English improve their pronunciation, including the references below. Focused practice, ideally with feedback from a teacher or trained native English speaker, will help address some of these issues for Chinese speakers and improve their pronunciation of English.
Deterding, D (2006) The pronunciation of English by speakers from China. English World-Wide, 27(2), 175-198.
Chang, J (2001) Chinese speakers. In M Swan & B Smith (eds.) Learner English: a Teacher's Guide to Interference and Other Problems (2nd ed., pp. 310–324). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Yates, L, & Zielinski, B (2009) Give it a Go! Teaching Pronunciation to Adults. Sydney: AMEP Research Centre, Macquarie University. Available from http://www.ameprc.mq.edu.au/resources/professional_development_resources/give_it_a_go