When learning a new language, people often focus on vocabulary and grammar. Pronunciation, in contrast, is like the icing on a cake.
To illustrate this, Chinese learners of English often excel in reading, but when it comes to speaking, it’s not uncommon to hear words that are mispronounced, stressed incorrectly, or spoken with a heavy accent.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with speaking with an accent. Speaking with an accent to the extent that you become difficult to understand, however, immediately raises red flags. For example, Europeans also speak with an accent, but we don’t tend to think of them as accents in a purely negative connotation.
Why? Because despite their accents, they make themselves understood.
So, what gives?
When learning a second language, our pronunciation tends to be influenced by our mother tongue. In other words, the closer your mother tongue is to the target language, whether it be in regards to culture, lexical composition, grammar or even the sounds in your native language, the better you’ll be able to speak the language.
Unfortunately, this means that Chinese native speakers have a bit of a handicap when learning English. Apart from the fact that Chinese and English are both Subject-Verb-Object languages, they share very little else in common, especially with regards to pronunciation.
In this article, I would like to share seven common errors that Chinese people make when speaking English, along with some examples to demonstrate what sound does not exist in chinese.
7 Common Pronunciation Errors for Chinese Students
Pronunciation Error #1: d, t, s, k
This is a common mistake unique to Chinese people. Chinese students tend to stress the last sound of a word and produce an extra syllable.
For example, “and” becomes “an-deu.”
Solution: Drop the end syllable.
Pronunciation Error #2: th
This is arguably the most difficult sound for Chinese students to pronounce. The th sound, which involves the biting of the tongue, doesn’t exist in Chinese, so a lot of Chinese people simply replace it with an s sound.
As a fundamental sound that’s common to a large number of words in English, it’s essential you get this right. It’s a sound that if not pronounced correctly, can get in the way of making yourself understood.
Solution: Place your tongue between your upper and lower teeth and blow air out the gap between your tongue and your upper teeth.
- posthumous (pronounced like a POS-tu-mus)
- thyme (pronounced like time)
Pronunciation Error #3: on/un
Chinese students tend to add an extra g at the end. So Monday becomes “Mongday,” London becomes “Longdon,” and wonder becomes “wongder.”
This is especially prevalent among Northerners.
Solution: The on sound is NOT a nasal sound. In other words, the sound does NOT come from the throat, but from the tip of your tongue when it touches the back part of your upper teeth.
Pronunciation Error #4: i
Many Chinese students tend to take the short i sound and turn it into an ee sound. For example, fish becomes “feesh,” and bin becomes “been.”
Solution: It’s a very short i sound. It should only last a second or less.
Pronunciation Error #5: rl
This is another one of these difficult combinations. When you stick an r with an l, how do you pronounce it? Chinese students tend to pronounce it by getting rid of one of them. World becomes “weuld,” and whirl becomes “weul.”
Solution: Split up the world into two parts, separating them between r and l. For instance, “world” becomes “were” + “ld.” When you transition from an r to an l, your tongue jumps. It goes from touching the soft palate (the upper back part of your mouth), to the back of your upper teeth, and finally pronounces the d at the end.
Pronunciation Error #6: o
O is another problematic one. Some Chinese students like to turn the short o into a long o. For instance, offer becomes “o-fer” and honour becomes “o-ner.”
Solution: The short o sound is like au in English, as in “Australia.”
Pronunciation Error #7: ed
There are two different ways to pronounce ed in English (when it’s the ending of a verb). It’s easy to be confused as to which way to pronounce it.
Solution: The first way to pronounce it sounds like a d or t, and the second way sounds like its natural form, ed. To determine which one to use, look at the word endings before the ed is added.
For it to sound like a d or t, it has to end in one of the following: c/k, f, gh, ph, j, dge, p, s, z, sh, ch, b, g, l, m, n, r, w, v, y, a, e, i, o, or u.
For it to sound like an ed, it has to end in one of these endings: d, t.
So the easy way to remember is: if it DOESN’T end in d or t, it’s the silent, quick d or t sound.
d or t sound:
Why Chinese students pronounce these sounds incorrectly
For Chinese speakers, it’s difficult to pronounce English words correctly because of how language is taught traditionally in school. But more importantly, there’s a tendency for Chinese speakers to treat English words as a concatenation of Chinese pinyin, due to the habitual passing on of incorrect pronunciation from teachers to students.
The most common example I hear is the pronunciation of the English alphabet: c becomes “say” (when doing multiple choice questions, I’ll wager a bet that your Chinese teacher said “say”), m becomes 呃母, f becomes 呃符, n becomes 恩, w becomes 達臂有.
Another one is transliterated names:
- McDonalds 麥當勞
- Carrefour 家樂福
- Bentley 賓利
Avoid thinking of English in terms of Chinese pinyin sounds. They are fundamentally different. Instead, try to imitate native speakers so you can get a better sense of how to pronounce words correctly.
A word on accents
A last thought I’d like to share is this: for Chinese people, the Chinese government advocates learning the American accent. As such, there’s a great wealth of texts based on American pronunciation.
However, I have to be frank. The American accent is one of the toughest English accents for foreign language learners to learn, which is why I NEVER advocate learning the American accent. Instead, I recommend the British (standard Queen’s British) accent. It’s clear, easy to learn, and easy to understand.
With regards to accent, I also recommend that you stick to one.
I was watching a video the other day of a speech a Chinese (specifically Hong Kong) student was giving to a panel of judges. It was finely crafted and eloquently delivered, with one gaping flaw: he spoke in a mix of accents. I could identify words that were pronounced in at least three accents: Australian, British and American.
Today, we covered some of the common mistakes made by Chinese students when pronouncing English words. This is by no means a comprehensive list; there are many more (e.g. culture becomes “COWL-ture,” when it should be “cull-ture,” and the becomes “dee,” when it should be “the” or “thee”). However I hope this gives you a good feel for the types of mistakes to avoid when speaking English to prevent yourself from being misunderstood.
This is, however, only a start. There’s no substitute for practicing with a language coach and having your pronunciation corrected on a case by case basis. Hopefully this will serve as a starting point to your accent reduction journey.
Thanks for reading this article, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Hero Image by Milos Milosevic (CC by 2.0)