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As an online ESL tutor to Chinese children, you’ll notice similar grammar and pronunciation mistakes occur class after class. “He like basketball.” “I go to London last year.” “My brother is tree years olduh. She can walk.”
Of course, most ESL learners make similar mistakes and struggle with English grammar rules and pronunciation. English is a notoriously confusing language: Why is the “ough” sound in the words “through,” “cough,” and “rough” all pronounced differently? There always seem to be exceptions to the rules.
No matter the dialect, Chinese is a vastly different language from English. Whereas a Spanish speaker may have an easier time mastering English because of similarities in grammar structure, pronunciation, and vocabulary, a Chinese speaker must fundamentally change his or her thought patterns from Chinese to English.
Fundamental Differences between Chinese and English
It isn’t enough to say Chinese grammar and English grammar are different. Going from Chinese grammar to English grammar is akin to creating a whole new mental foundation for how people communicate. Everything from the range of sounds to the basic concept of tense has to be learned.
The co-founder of Smart English with a decade of experience teaching ESL to Chinese students says, “Teaching English to Chinese speakers is all about breaking Chinglish (Chinese-English) habits and providing an understanding of prepositions, tense, and sentence building logic from a native English speaker’s perspective.” In his experience, “specifics like preposition usage and meaning, tense, sentence building [are] things that native speakers take for granted but Chinese people need laid out and explained in a simple and easy to remember way.”
Common (and sadly, often stereotypical) issues first arise when learning how to differentiate and replicate new English sounds. Some sounds or sound combinations do not exist in Chinese dialects, notably R, V and TH sounds, so training the mouth and tongue to make these sounds is challenging. For those who teach English from home, remember the audio quality from your headset will never be as clear as in a classroom. Students often don’t just have difficulty creating these sounds but also in hearing the difference between certain sounds as well and may misunderstand you.
It’s also common to hear students end English words with an extra “uh” sound. It doesn’t always mean that they are pausing to think of the next word to complete their thought. No matter the dialect, most syllables in Chinese end in a vowel, and very few in a hard consonant sound. Many of our English do: end, think, help, cat. Therefore, Chinese students will automatically add an extra sound, “uh” at the end because it seems more natural. In the end, patience and repetition is key in teaching new sounds and eliminating unnecessary ones.
Tonality and Stress
It’s well known that Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages. This is not the same as when your mother told you, “Don’t you use that tone of voice with me!” Whereas English uses tone to indicate emotion, in Chinese, tones can distinguish individual words. To get an idea of how tone can be used to change the meaning of a word, look at the classic Chinese poem, “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den.”¹
« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
“In a stone den was a poet called Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions. He often went to the market to look for lions. At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market. At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market. He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die. He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den. The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it. After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions. When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were, in fact, ten stone lion corpses. (Try to explain this matter.)”
It may be easier to learn a non-tonal language than a tonal one, but English’s own stress and intonation patterns are difficult to master. For example: “I love your mother’s cooking.” Depending on which word you stress, the sentence can take on a different meaning. In Chinese, all words and syllables are given equal stress. Even after years of English study, students’ spoken English may still sound stilted, abrupt or monotone. Using chants or songs can be an effective way to practice intonation and syllable stress with students.
Chinese calligraphy can be works of art when presented by a competent hand. Entire art installations are composed only of Chinese characters (hanzi) as the centerpiece. In hanzi, the characters represent the word itself as opposed to utilizing an alphabet to create various words.
Learning an entirely new writing system may seem like the most challenging part for students. However, many Chinese are fairly comfortable with the Roman alphabet due to the rise of pinyin. Pinyin attempts to transliterate the hanzi and tone into the Roman alphabet. Spelling practice is still essential, especially as English does not hold to proper rules that span the vocabulary within.
It is often said that Chinese doesn’t have grammar. This is an incorrect assessment. Chinese dialects don’t use grammar structures that are found in Latin-based languages like English or French. But of course, there are still rules to adhere to.
It is true, however, that Mandarin and other dialects do not have any equivalent to what most Western students understand as “grammar.” Conjugations and tenses are two things that are fundamental to the English language but play no part in the Chinese language. This is why students often fail to add the final “s” to third person subjects he/she/it or use the present “I go” instead of past tense “I went.” But still, there are scores of other less common differences to highlight.
English is a Subject, Verb, Object structured language. In the sentence, “I like apples,” I is the subject, like is the verb and apples is the object. The order of the adverbs can then fall in one of many positions next to the verb of a sentence.
The basic rule of thumb for Chinese structure is: Subject + When + How + Where + Negation + Auxiliary + Verb + Complement + Object.
A literal translation of “The big red dog decided to get stuck in a backyard fence last Tuesday,” would become, “Dog last Tuesday stuck backyard get big red fence.” One can understand how the simple ordering of words becomes a monumental task.
Many English speakers who have learned any of the Romance languages are quick to share their annoyance at having to learn the gender roles of the nouns in those languages. Nouns need their gendered article and adjectives need to agree with the gender and number. In contrast, Chinese speakers don’t use gender at all. The need to assign “he” or “she” doesn’t exist, so it can often become confused, even when the students know the difference between the picture of a girl and a boy.
After observing just a few of the differences between the English and Chinese languages, one can see the problems and difficulties that many students face. Though students are often masters of writing and reading in English, and can ace any test, the ability to practice spoken English is not always an option in their daily life.
In their study, “Difficulties of Chinese Students with Their Academic English: Evidence from a China-United States University Program,” Yinhong Duan and Xiuyuan Yang of Florida International University, USA, observed that, “For English learning, the goal is to produce error-free sentences and give immediate Chinese-English translations (Shih, 1999). However, such an objective is generally achieved through students’ self-study and by memorization of exemplary texts and vocabulary lists. The teacher’s job is to explain grammar rules and examine students’ learning results through quizzes and dictation… English words are memorized without a clear understanding of their origins and semantic properties.”²
Of course, mastering a foreign language is more than just understanding the syntax and grammar; it requires knowing the context and multiple nuances within the language. For young language learners, the opportunity to learn with native speakers is a huge advantage to become familiar with many of the aspects of English that don’t exist in their native language. These good habits will establish a solid foundation for future language learning and communication skills. And, learning online with a native English speaker also bridges the divide between traditional Eastern and Western methods of teaching language.
1 “Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den.” Wikipedia. October 22, 2018. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion-Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_Den.
2 Yang, Xiuyuan, and Yinhong Duan. “Difficulties of Chinese Students with Their Academic English: Evidence from a China-United States University Program.” FIU Digital Commons. September 16, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/sferc/2016/2016/6/.