The Difficulties Chinese People Have With English (And How To Get Around Them)

Teaching English as a second language can be a very rewarding career, but many teachers struggle to break through to their Chinese students. This struggle is not a denigration of the intelligence of the students, but an indicator of the differences between the languages. Understanding these differences can help you work around them successfully.

English Is A Strange Language

For people who speak closely related languages (such as German or French), English is a hard nut to crack. It is a language built out of a lot of strange rules that seem arbitrary and which are often contradicted. For example, think of the old “I before E except after C” rule and then look at the list of words that break it, such as “weird.”

These rules (combined with improper pronunciations and spellings by people in different geographical areas) make English baffling for Chinese speakers. Their language, though difficult, is nowhere near as contradictory as English. As a result, Chinese speakers often have a hard time adjusting.

Difficulties That Pop Up

Beyond the strange rules system of English lies the fact that it and Chinese are very different languages. For example, the Chinese language doesn’t have an alphabet made out of letters that are strung together to make words. Instead, they have a symbolic language, one in which the symbols represent whole words, rather than sounds.

As a result, they often struggle to make sense of the English alphabet. This doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent, but that their frame of reference is so different. Imagine trying to read a language made entirely out of small pictures. You could probably learn, but it would be outside of your comfort zone.

Another problem that often pops up in pronunciation is the ways that Chinese speakers use pitch when speaking. Decreasing and increasing the pitch will actually change the meaning of a specific word, but in English, pitch changes usually indicate emotional content.

Ways To Get Around It

Understanding the above-mentioned problems is key to helping Chinese speakers with English. Start by explaining the letters of the alphabet as symbolic of a sound. For example, “A” is symbolic of a variety of sounds, such as “ah” and “uh.” This can help them better grasp the nuances when it comes time to speak and even write.

Make sure you spend time speaking with them in English daily. Hearing the language being spoken gives them a better understanding of proper pronunciation. Also, make sure to write down sentences and repeat them, encouraging the English language learner to pay special attention to the words. Further visual confirmation fits in well with their symbol-based language.

With this approach, a Chinese person can learn better English speaking skills more quickly. It will still be a challenge, but it is one that is worth them taking. You may also help them using TOEFL practice exams.

Author: Alisa Henderson

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