Pronunciation Issues for Chinese ESL Learners

English is a tough language for anyone to learn.  While every ESL learner has his or her own unique challenges with the language’s sounds, spelling, and generally nonsensical grammar rules, there are certain challenges that you’ll find are more common than others. 

classroomJust like native English speakers struggle with the tones in Chinese, native Chinese speakers struggle with certain aspects of English that just don’t have any equivalent in their language.

If you have been teaching English to native Chinese speakers for a while, these common pronunciation challenges are sure to ring a bell.  Having a better understanding of where the difficulties come from, and being ready to address them will allow you to help your students pronunciation improve much quicker.

Ending Consonants

With very few exceptions, Chinese words don’t end with consonants.  Words like start, jump, bat or black are going to be a challenge for your students because of the instinctive tendency to add in a vowel sound at the end.

The letters “F” and “L” are a challenge to students just learning the alphabet, for the same reason.  For example, your students will likely say “ell-a” or “ell-oh” instead of just “ell” when they first learn L in the alphabet.

In your speech, try to emphasize the crispness of those ending or stand-alone consonants, and have your students practice emphasizing those ending sounds until it begins to feel natural to them, too.

Consonant Clusters

Consonant clusters are where two or more consonants are side-by-side in a word.  For English speakers, we can spit out a word like “explore” without a second thought.  In Chinese, each consonant sound is attached to its own vowel sound.

The mash-up of four consonant sounds (eh-k-s-p-l-ore) without a single vowel in there to break them up is going to be a mouthful to your Chinese-speaking students.

Break the words down into their individual sounds, pronouncing them slowly and emphasizing each consonant sound in the cluster, and gradually increase the speed at which you put them back together – this gives your students a chance to hear how all of the sounds flow together and to get used to all of the weird vocal acrobatics they have to do to pronounce them.

R and L

One of the first challenges that comes to mind for Chinese speakers learning English is the “r” sound.  Because there is no exact equivalent to the “r” sound in Chinese. ESL learners will often replace it with the closest approximation that they have, which usually ends up sounding like “l.”

So, for example, “ride” becomes “lide” and “room” becomes “loom.”  Model for your students the difference in the positioning of the tongue between the “r” and the “l” sound, and make sure that they get plenty of practice differentiating between the two, both when it comes to listening and speaking.

Th

“Th” is another sound that doesn’t exist in Chinese.  Add on the fact that in English, “th” can have multiple different pronunciations, and it’s no wonder that this sounds gets mispronounced frequently.

Consider the difference between the words breath, which has an unvoiced “th” and breathe, in which the “th” sound is voiced.  To get your students saying this difficult sound right, first make sure to emphasize to them that they have to put their tongue between their teeth.

Show them the difference between the two sounds by having lists of words with voiceless and voiced “th,” and go through them slowly.

Intonation

Since Chinese is a tonal language, you might be surprised that intonation is a common area of difficulty.  Chinese uses tones to differentiate between individual words.  Rising, falling, or steady tones indicate the meaning of a particular word or syllable.

In English, on the other hand, a word will have the same literal meaning regardless of what  tone you use, but the actual meaning in context can vary hugely depending on your intonation.

Take, for example, the simple word “thanks.” In Chinese, the word for “thanks” will always be pronounced with a falling tone.  In English, it can be pronounced sarcastically, as a question, half-heartedly, firmly, sincerely, or any number of different ways – each with its own unique combination of rising, falling, and flat vocal tones.

Understanding the difference between a question, a sincere statement, sarcasm, a joke, an insult, or a demand often comes down to intonation, and it can be difficult for your students to grasp this subtle but incredibly important part of English communication and pronunciation.

Luckily, your students ears are pretty well-trained to pick up on tones, so give them some examples of different contexts where you might say a sentence sincerely vs. sarcastically vs. as a question, they will pretty quickly get used to hearing and saying the different tones.

Have you ever taught Chinese speaking students? Did you face the same issues that have been stated above? How did you get around these barriers to the English language? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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