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The CJD Teacher’s Survival Guide: The 4 Obstacles Between Your Chinese Students and English Fluency

Jun 17, 2019


As a brand-new teacher, your first day on the job can be a mixed bag of emotions. You excitedly stride into your first class and see all those bright faces staring back at you, ecstatic about meeting their new foreign teacher!

...And then the gravity of the situation settles in - you’re going to be responsible for teaching these students English over the next academic year! It can be overwhelming to feel this weight on your shoulders. You’ll need to develop classroom management skills, lesson planning skills, and the ever-important improvisational skills (only to be used when absolutely needed).

In this article, I want to share some insights to help you navigate your first year of teaching abroad. Teaching is a complicated craft and there is much to learn, but let’s start with these four obstacles Chinese learners of English will face.

#1 The Rhythm of English

In English, we use stress to signify the importance of certain words that we use. For example:

Birds eat seeds.

Every word is important to the meaning of this sentence, so every word is stressed. Let’s take a look at the same sentence, but with some less important unstressed syllables in it:

The birds will be eating the seeds.

For a native speaker, this sentence will take almost the same amount of time to articulate due to the stressed syllables maintaining the tempo of the sentence. A native speaker will also use something linguists call “reduction” to make the sentence smoother sounding by changing “will” to a simple “ll” sound.

In Mandarin, each syllable of every word has the same value and will take the same amount of time to articulate.

In order to implant the language skills needed to speak English with the correct, natural-sounding tempo and stresses, explore methods like jazz chants and grammar chants.

#2 The Vital Importance of Stress

Mandarin is a monosyllabic language. Every character or symbol of meaning has a corresponding, single-syllable sound. Each single sound is given an equal amount of time to be articulated and an equal amount of stress. The most interesting part of these sounds is their tonal shape, which is very important to the interpretation of what a speaker is saying. These tones give Mandarin its beautiful, melodic sound.

One problem this aspect of Chinese often poses is that students will meticulously pronounce each syllable of an English word. This can be a nightmare for stress-patterns; it will make the student’s spoken English unnatural sounding and difficult to understand. For example:

  • inVITE, a verb, means “To ask somebody to come to a social event”
  • INvite, a noun, is an informal word for “an invitation”

It is also important to keep in mind that Chinese syllables only end with consonant sounds /n/ or /ng/. This causes students to find discomfort in ending words with consonant sounds outside of these two. For example, you will hear students add a vowel-sound syllable after the ending consonant sound of an English word:

“I can’t find it-ah”

For an effective activity that helps students learn how to apply stress to their spoken English, try Fun with Word Stress.

#3 Problematic Pronunciation

  • /l/ and /r/

This is a problem faced by students all over Asia. It often goes ignored or unnoticed by teachers. It’s important that students understand the physical production of these sounds and how they differ. Be sure to demonstrate with your classes and show them the way your tongue is positioned when making the /l/ and /r/ sounds. The best way to demonstrate is by showing them how the tip of your tongue touches the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth for the /l/ sound. For the /r/ sound, show them how your toungue curls backwards while your teeth stay separated.

  • /v/ and /w/

This is another set of sounds that will pose many issues for your students. Most native Chinese speakers aren’t used to the /v/ sound, so they’ll pronounce English /v/ as /w/. Once again, demonstrate exactly how you move your mouth when you make these sounds and make sure the students practice it regularly.

  • /th/

This sound does not exist in the Chinese language. Students will find it uncomfortable to bite their tongue to make this sound and will often substitute it for an /s/ sound. Play pronunciation games to practice this sound with your class, and they will develop the ability to naturally utilize this phoneme.

  • Consonant clusters /tr/ /dr/ /st/ /pl/

Native Mandarin speakers have a lot of trouble with blending consonants. There isn’t anything like that in their language. On top of this fact, the blended consonants often contain the problematic /r/ and /l/ sounds. As you could imagine, this is a daunting spoken language skill to master.

A great way of practicing these pronunciation skills is through games like pronunciation bingo telephone.

#4 Grammar, OF COURSE!

Grammar is a fundamental part of any language and English grammar is especially intricate. Below is a list of grammatical aspects of the English language that have proven challenging for Chinese learners:

  • Sentence structure - As English speakers, we are used to seeing or hearing the three different words that dictate a sentence’s meaning: the subject, the verb, and the occasional object. In Mandarin the subject is often implied or omitted.
  • Word order - Students will often attempt to understand the meaning of an English sentence by translating it word-by-word. This usually produces either a completely incorrect or at the least a very warped meaning of the sentence. Addresses and dates are also written in completely different orders from what we are used to as English speakers.
  • Adverb phrases - In Chinese, groups of words that indicate date and time are placed differently in the order of a sentence.
  • Subject/verb agreement and articles - The English language makes use of articles (‘a’, ‘the’). The Chinese language does not. Subject verb agreement is a vital part of English but is non-existent in Chinese.
  • Pronouns (male and female) – Although in written form there is a different Chinese character for the masculine and feminine pronouns, they are pronounced exactly the same. Chinese students commonly run into issues with articulating the correct pronoun, often mixing up ‘he’ and ‘she’, ‘him’ and ‘her’.
  • Plural - Mandarin does not have plural forms of nouns. They have a word that signifies a plural noun that holds a meaning similar to the word “many.” Modifying words to make them plural can be a difficult new linguistic habit for your students to learn.

For an amazing list of games and activities that turn the dullness of grammar instruction into an engaging and effective lesson, check out this list.

One Day at a Time

As a former teacher in China and a current teacher in the USA, I understand that getting students over these hurdles can be frustrating, exhausting, and sometimes seemingly even impossible. It’s important for you to understand that mastery of a language takes time, effort, and, most importantly, communication. Teaching a language is complicated work. The results you aim to achieve in your classroom will take hours upon hours of instructional time, but the “ah-ha!” moments your students experience will be supremely rewarding. You’re setting your students up for success by helping them conquer these obstacles. Be patient, believe in your students, and accept that progress towards fluency happens one day at a time.

Physician, heal thyself!

One final piece of advice: It wouldn’t hurt to learn a little Mandarin. It’s a humbling experience learning a language very different from your native tongue, and if you’re ever tempted to lose patience with a student, you can think back to your own lessons just trying to master tones, much less produce coherent sentences. Secondly, gaining even a rudimentary understanding of how Mandarin works will give you insight into the kinds of mistakes your students repeatedly make, and even help you understand them when they speak or write with English words but using Chinese grammar.

By: Ted Salonek

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