Most Common Pronunciation Errors for Chinese Speakers Learning English
There are over 2 million speakers of different varieties of Chinese in the U.S., and 29,000 in the state of Oregon alone. Just over 48% of Chinese-speakers in the U.S. speak English “very well”, however, many still may be wondering how to take their English skills to the next level. To boost your English pronunciation as a native Chinese speaker, looking at the most common pronunciation errors is a great place to start.
The two primary factors to consider in English pronunciation differences would be word shape and length, as well as speech sound differences. Although there are a variety of Chinese languages, dialects, and experiences, the information we present is based on the literature and is not a steadfast rule for what each person will have difficulty with.
Word Shape and Length
1. Forming correct word endings may be difficult.
In Chinese, plural forms (like adding an “s” at the end of the word in English) do not exist. For this reason, Chinese speakers of English may have difficulty with this grammar construction. This could look like “I have many homework assignment” instead of “I have many homework assignments“.
Another grammar construction in English that may be difficult for Chinese speakers is third person singular “s”. This is used when you are talking about “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”. A third person singular “s” mistake might look like “She say hello” instead of “She says hello”.
Finally, in English, tense is marked at the end of the word. Because Chinese speakers do not have tense differences, they may have difficulty with the end of words in English that indicate tense. For example, when a native English speaker is talking about the past tense, they would say “I worked yesterday”, but a Chinese-speaking English learner might mistakenly say “I work yesterday”.
2. In English, words are more “linked” together in a sentence.
Native English speakers pronounce words fluidly linked together, without abrupt stops between words. Chinese speakers might produce each word separately, and this may lead to a more pronounced Chinese accent. If you are looking to sound more American in your English production, then a good rule of thumb is not to release (“release” meaning letting air out after producing it) if the final sound in a word is a “p”, “b”, “t”, “d”, “k”, or “g”.
3. Multiple-syllable English words may be difficult to produce.
Monosyllabic words, or words consisting of only one syllable, are the norm for Chinese speakers. However, in English, there are longer words with more syllables. Because of this difference, Chinese speakers of English might “reduce” English words with multiple syllables. For example, they may produce “particularly” as “par-ti-cu-ly” instead of “par-tic-u-lar-ly”, or “customer” as “cus-mer” instead of “cus-tom-er”.
Speech Sound Differences
When looking at accents of language learners, it is important to consider the sounds that their native language contains. This way, you can compare the sounds of the native language to the sounds of the language being learned, and understand which sounds may be most difficult.
For example, there are several sounds in English that do not exist in Cantonese.
These can include the following sounds:
- “b” as in “bag”
- “d” as in “dog”
- “g” as in “go”
- “v” as in “very”
- “z” as in “zig-zag” or “bees“
- “sh” as in “show”
- “j” as in “badge”
- soft “j” as in “usually”
- “r” as in “row”
- “ch” as in “chew”
- “sh” as in “shine”
- voiced “th” as in “there”
- voiceless “th” as in “both“
This may look like a lot of sounds (13 total), but with some education about how these sounds differ, you can improve your English pronunciation! Also bear in mind the example is specific to Cantonese, and different Chinese languages may have different influences on American English pronunciation. We are going to look more specifically at l, n, and r. For more information on speech sound differences in Chinese languages, see our references.
“l” as in “love” is often confused with “n” as in “not”
This can be especially tricky in words that contain both sounds, as in “analysis” or “only”. Because the sounds are produced in the same part of the mouth (with the tongue touching the top of the mouth behind the teeth), it can be easy to confuse these two sounds. A good trick is to focus on where the air is leaving from when you make the sound. If you want to make the “n” sound, the air should be coming out of your nose. If you want to make the “l” sound, however, the air should be coming out of the sides of your mouth. Also, your tongue should be slightly flatter to make the “n” sound, and for the “l” sound, your jaw should be a little more open.
The other common error that can occur with the “n” sound is not pronouncing it at the end of words. As we mentioned before, this can be a result of the “linking” nature of English in that we don’t stop between words. You can make sure you are producing the “n” sound at the end of words by remembering to link your words. For example, the phrase “can eat” would become “ca + neat”. In this case, the second word starts with a vowel. This can make it a little bit easier to produce the “n” at the end of the first word. However, if the next word starts with another consonant, you really have to concentrate on making sure you produce both the “n” and the first consonant of the next word. For example, “can go” might be a bit more difficult to produce because a “g” comes after the final “n” sound.
“r” in the end of words also gets forgotten
Due to the linking of English words (and not in Chinese words), “r” is another consonant that is often left out when it is at the end of a word. For example, the word “more” might be produced as “mo”, or “corn” might be produced as “cone”. Paying attention to all the consonants involved in the phrase, especially those after the “r” sound, can help you improve your pronunciation.
Acknowledging that miscommunication can result from mispronunciations in standard American English pronunciation is very important for English learners. Although there is no “wrong” way to communicate, there can be more efficient ways to communicate! Recognizing the value of pronunciation can help increase your English communication skills, whether you’re trying to improve it for a professional, social, or personal setting!
Mojsin, L. (2016). Mastering the American accent. Hauppauge, NY: Barrons.
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