Problems Chinese speakers have learning spoken English
Chinese speakers realize that they have problems learning spoken English. However, some Chinese people appear to have a few misconceptions about their oral English proficiency as well as misconceptions about how they can practically improve their spoken English. In this article, I shall discuss some of these misconceptions and give some suggestions on what Chinese speakers could do to improve their oral English.
In order to discuss these issues, I need to first give some background information. Research shows that language distance is often a factor for many adults learning a second language. This is relevant because Chinese and English are very dissimilar structurally.
In terms of pronunciation, the biggest difference is that Chinese is a tonal language while English is not. This means that the different dialects of Chinese use tones to differentiate different words (e.g. – in standard Mandarin, “ma” with first tone means “mother” while “ma” with third tone means “horse). In contrast, English does not use tones to differentiate words from one another. What English does do is to use intonation (i.e. – pitch patterns in sentences) for different types of grammar and for the expression of different types of feelings. Because almost every syllable in Chinese has a distinct tone while English does not, this means that Chinese speakers’ intonation often goes up and down inappropriately in English. This sometimes makes them harder for English speakers to understand. More importantly, however, because Chinese speakers are often unaware of what feelings they appear to be conveying in English to English speakers, they may unintentionally sound excited, abrupt, bored etc. to English speakers. In addition, Chinese speakers often have trouble understanding what feelings English speakers have or are projecting (e.g. – politeness) when they are speaking.
Beyond this problem are problems with pronouncing certain sounds. Sometimes Chinese speakers only have problems with a given sound in a certain syllable position. For example, Chinese speakers have problems pronouncing /l/ at the end of a syllable. Chinese speakers typically have problems pronouncing words such as “will”, “feel” and “pill”, which they may incorrectly pronounce as “wiw”, “feew” and “piw”.
Another typical problem that Chinese learners have is with their fluency. “Fluency” as used by people who study language acquisition usually refers to the ability to quickly find the language they need to in order to express their ideas in a second language. This is a problem that all second language users have. However, it is possible that Chinese learners’ problems with fluency may be reinforced by the distance between English and the various Chinese dialects. In terms of vocabulary, there are few cognates shared between Chinese and English (a “cognate” is a word which is historically related in different languages, such as the Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations of the word “hand”). Thus, it may possibly be more difficult for Chinese learners of English to learn and remember new English vocabulary than for ESL learners who speak a language historically related to English such as Dutch or German.
One misconception that some Chinese learners of English have is that their grammar is “good”. This appears to be true only in a certain sense. Many Chinese students of English appear to have a somewhat greater knowledge of grammar than some other ESL students. However, Chinese students still have many problems correctly using the grammar that they “know” in their oral English. One reason for this appears to be their first language. In the study that I did for my PhD in Applied Linguistics, it became apparent that Chinese learners had more errors in using the simple past tense in their spoken grammar than Tamil learners did. The reason for this seems to be that Tamil has a grammatical past tense while Chinese does not. It appears that what the Mandarin-speaking participants in my PhD study often did was revert back to thinking in Chinese when they were formulating their oral English grammar. It is plausible to argue that some of their other errors are caused by interference from their first language as well.
Thus, in summary, as most Chinese learners of English appear to know, they have problems with English pronunciation and their fluency in English. What some Chinese speakers may not know is that their oral grammar is much weaker than their knowledge of grammar. Given that these language learning problems exist for Chinese speakers, what can they do to improve their English? Based on my experience of teaching adult ESL to many Chinese students, they are very hard-working and tend to take their study of English seriously. This is definitely very helpful as motivation and practice are key ingredients in learning a second language.
The problem is that this is not enough. Language acquisition experts estimate that it takes tens of thousands of hours of practice with a language for an adult to become proficient in it. It is possible that Chinese learners may possibly need a little bit more practice given the language distance that exists between Chinese and English. One cannot get the tens of thousands of practice necessary by merely going to school. If for example, a Chinese ESL student attended a full-time LINC school for 25 hours/week, he/she would only get about 1,000 hours of practice. Many of my Chinese ESL students appear to get very little exposure to English outside class. They naturally speak to their family in Chinese. As is also natural, they find it easier to communicate with other Chinese people and make exclusively Chinese friends. Sometimes they express the desire to practice their oral English with native speakers. Unfortunately, this is often not a practical solution either given the gap in proficiency between themselves and native speakers. Moreover, in order to make themselves intelligible to many Chinese ESL students, native speakers would be required to simplify their English in the manner of an ESL teacher. Unfortunately, many native speakers do not know how to do so and/or do not have the patience to do so.
What is then to be practically done? In order to receive the necessary number of hours of practice to become fluent in English, in my opinion, it is highly advisable for Chinese learners to greatly expand the number of hours within a week that they are exposed to intelligible English. The fact that this needs to be intelligible needs to be emphasized. For lower level students, television is simply not intelligible. Therefore, it cannot provide the modeling and input necessary for language learning. Some television programs may, however, be intelligible to some higher level of students and Chinese students of English should take advantage of such opportunities to improve their listening. For lower level students, their listening would be helped by language learning tools such as CDs which are level-appropriate.
Another very way to improve one’s oral English is to take advantage of the many free ESL and LINC classes within Canada. Such language classes always provide intelligible English input to students. It would a good idea to attend both full-time and part-time classes as well. Such classes also potentially allow Chinese students the opportunity to expand their social network to members of immigrant communities as well. This is potentially very helpful as spending time outside class speaking English with other ESL students (who don’t speak Chinese) is very important to improving one’s fluency. Many Chinese students are, however, seemingly reluctant to do this as they may prefer to practice with native speakers who do not make errors in their English. Such a viewpoint, however, closes off an important avenue for oral practice.
Finally, there are the issues of pronunciation and accuracy in the use of grammar and vocabulary. I strongly suggest that Chinese students consider taking an ESL pronunciation class as only in such a class can the teacher give the students the feedback they need to become aware of their pronunciation errors and how to correct them. Such classes also have the added benefit of improving students’ listening as one reason that students don’t understand oral English is that they don’t understand the pronunciation. The feedback offered in such classes is indispensible. Feedback in the use of grammar and vocabulary is also crucial for accurate use. ESL writing classes are useful in that they allow the teacher to focus on the accuracy of vocabulary and grammar without causing a student to become too flustered in attempting to orally express him/herself. Reading level-appropriate materials is another excellent way to improve one’s vocabulary and grammar. In addition, some ESL classes such as those at Seneca College allow one to practice the use of one’s spoken grammar.
In summary, research shows that to become proficient in a foreign language requires tens of thousands of hours of practice. It is possible that Chinese learners may have more problems because of the language distance between English and Chinese. Therefore, they may require some more practice with their fluency, pronunciation, oral grammar and vocabulary than some other learners of English who speak a language related to English. However, practice at an ESL school may not be enough. Chinese students are therefore advised to practice English outside regular school hours with other immigrants who speak different languages, attend more part-time ESL classes and seek sources of intelligible input. In addition, ESL classes which allow Chinese students to practice their English pronunciation and receive feedback on their use of vocabulary and grammar are also very important.