Learning English as a second language can be challenging. This article takes a look at six of the most common mistakes Chinese speakers are likely to make when learning English. Identifying and correcting these problems will go a long way towards producing clearer and more fluent speech.
1. Pronoun Confusion
- “I cannot find Mrs. Clemons. Do you know where he is?”
- “I gave Jason her phone back.”
This is by far the most common mistake made by Chinese ESL speakers. From beginning students to highly accomplished professionals, the pronouns “he, she, him and her” can cause a lot of confusion.
What makes this mistake so challenging is that although many native Mandarin speakers know they are making it, the pronoun patterns of Mandarin are so ingrained that a lot of intentional effort has to go into using them correctly in English.
- “I cannot find Mrs. Clemons. Do you know where she is?”
- “I gave Jason his phone back.”
- “What did you do with a TV remote? I want to change a channel.”
- “Mrs. Clemons wants to buy the car. What brand should she get?”
In English, there are two main types of articles: definite (the) and indefinite (a, an).
The definite article is used to let the listener know that a noun is specific and known to the listener. If a speaker says “the cat” it is clear to the listener that he or she is not talking about any cat, but instead about a specific cat.
On the other hand, an indefinite article lets the listener know that the noun is not specific. In the sentence “I want to climb a mountain” the listener knows the speaker does not have a specific mountain in mind. As an exercise, take a look at the articles used in this paragraph and ask yourself why one article was used and not another.
- “What did you do with the TV remote? I want to change the channel.”
- “Mrs. Clemons wants to buy a car. What brand should she get?”
- “Jacob borrowed three book from the library.”
- “Can you give me some example?”
Very common among Chinese students is the use of a singular noun in place of a plural noun. The most basic and most common way to make a plural noun is to add an “s” or “es” to the end of a word: pencil becomes pencils; box becomes boxes (the rule is any word ending in -s, -sh, -ch, -x, or -z gets an “es” added to it, other words receive an “s”).
But remember, English has lots of exceptions as well. A few examples of irregular plurals to watch out for are person/people, index/indices, crisis/crises, deer/deer, child/children, woman/women, etc.
Plural formation can be very complicated in English, and a detailed explanation of the different forms is beyond the scope of this article. The important thing here is to remember to pay attention to use a plural noun when speaking about multiple things and a singular noun when only speaking about one thing.
- “Jacob borrowed three books from the library.”
- “Can you give me some examples?”
4. Count Nouns
- “The mansion has many furnitures.”
- “She gave me some advices on the entrance exam.”
This mistake is closely related to #3. English has two broad categories of nouns: count nouns and mass nouns. As the name implies count nouns are those that can be counted, like students; it is pretty easy to imagine counting the number of students in a classroom. Mass nouns, on the other hand, cannot be counted. These usually consist of liquids (water, milk, oil), powder (flour, dirt), materials (gold, plastic, meat) and abstract nouns (advice, care, information).
To say three advices or four golds is incorrect and can be unclear. Instead these nouns need to be quantified with a unit, as in a piece of advice or four grams of gold. This is very similar to using a measure word （量词） in Chinese. Notice that a mass noun does not change forms when quantified.
It is worth noting that sometimes mass nouns are used as count nouns in informal situations. Below are a couple of examples of ways in which a mass noun can be used as a count noun.
Drinkable Liquids: a water, three coffees or one juice. These are simply a contracted versions of a glass of water, three cups of coffee and a bottle of juice, where the measure word is left out.
Indicating Variety: a mass noun can be used in plural form to indicate distinct varieties: meat (pork, chicken, beef etc.), beers (lager, ale, stout, etc.), metals (gold, silver, copper, etc.). One would still say a quarter pound of meat, a glass of beer, or some metal.
There are many other cases in which mass and count nouns can be interchangeable, but it is best to learn them on a case-by-case basis.
- “The mansion has many pieces of furniture.”
- “She gave me some advice on the entrance exam.”
5. Mistranslation of Chinese Homonyms
- “Mrs. Clemons did not know how to get to the library, so Jacob carried her there.”
- “Ana likes to fire kites in the spring.”
Confusion of homonyms from your native tongue to your target language is not just a problem for Chinese speakers learning English, but for anyone learning a language. A homonym is a word that has the same sound and spelling (or in this case character) as another, but with two or more different meanings. At times it can be confusing to know how to translate a homonym.
One character can have many meanings; even if they seem very similar in Chinese, they may be separate words in English.
Consider for a moment the various meanings of 本 in the following contexts:
In these contexts, 本 roughly means 1) root, 2) one's own, 3) originally, 4) a measure word for book.
While on the surface it is obvious that these meanings cannot all be translated as the same word, it is surprisingly easy to forget. It is very common to hear phrases such as “please open the light” because 开, which can mean both “open” and “turn on,” was mistranslated. Special care should be taken when learning the meaning of a new word. Good dictionaries often use example sentences to help avoid this problem.
- “Mrs. Clemons did not know how to get to the library, so Jacob took her there.” (带 should be translated as take, not carry).
- “Ana likes to fly kites in the spring.” (放 should be translated as fly, not fire).
6. Declarative vs. Interrogative Sentence Structure
- “Now Mrs. Clemons knows how do you get to the library.”
- “Ana did not say where does she buy her kites.”
Sometimes the difference between relative pronouns and question words can confuse students. Words such as “what,” “why,” “when,” and “where” can introduce a question to the listener but they can also be used as relative pronouns, which are words that connect a clause or phrase to the subject.
For example in the sentence “What do you want to eat?” what functions as a question word, but in the sentence “I do not know what I want to eat,” what functions as a relative pronoun. The most common problem is word order. In a question, the verb comes before the subject, but a non-question sentence with a relative pronoun has the normal structure where the subject comes before the verb.
So, the trick is to remember that a sentence must be a question in order for the verb to come first, even if it contains words like “what, why and who.”
- “Now Mrs. Clemons knows how to get to the library.”
- “Ana did not say where she buys her kites.”
Hero image by Andrew (CC BY 2.0)