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Section I: Teaching English in China continued—China TEFL Primer

Difficulties Faced By Chinese EFL Students

Many researchers in the fields of psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology believe that there is a "critical period" within we must be exposed to a language in order to become a native speaker of it, i.e., to speak that language naturally and without an accent. For those who subscribe to this theory, that critical period is typically defined as comprising the first six years of life. It is further held that students who are exposed to a foreign language between the ages of six through puberty will experience increasing difficulties with that language, especially in regard to grammar and pronunciation. If exposure to the foreign language does not occur until after puberty, it would be extremely rare for that individual to ever use the foreign language (L2) natively, i.e., you would always hear something of an accent or there would be idiosyncratic errors in grammar directly related to that person's first language (Pinker, 1994, p. 298).

Chinese EFL students, particularly those who were not exposed to English until after six years of age, face a particularly unique set of difficulties because of the characteristics of their first language, Chinese, itself. These difficulties will be discussed across the areas of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The material that follows is not intended to be exhaustive but, rather, will alert prospective foreign teachers to some of the more predominant difficulties their students will have.


First, Mandarin is not composed of an alphabet as English is, but a system referred to as logographic (a picture word). In Mandarin, a picture or single character, instead of a series of letters, represents an entire word: thus many Chinese EFL students will have particular difficulties with reading and spelling throughout their lives.

Second, spoken English consists of a significant stress-timed quality which means that the amount of time it takes to say a sentence depends on the number of syllables that receive stress in the sentence as opposed to the total number of syllables it contains. Repeat each sentence below to yourself and take note of how long it takes you to say each sentence:

The BIRDS might have been FLYING SOUTH for the WINTER

Native speakers of English will naturally increase their rate of speech when speaking non-stressed syllables and will slow their rate for stressed syllables. However, non-native speakers focus on pronouncing each and every word fully and correctly, which results in staccato, mechanical, or choppy speech that can be so unnatural that it becomes incomprehensible to a native speaker (Cohen, 2007).

Related, and unlike the English language, the Chinese use changes in tone not for stress or emphasis but to distinguish between the meaning of different words. Thus the same syllable "ma," for example, can either mean mother, bother, horse, or scold depending on whether the first, second, third, or fourth tone is used, respectively.

Third, Chinese EFL students have distinctive difficulties with certain consonant and vowel phonemes (smallest unit of sound that is distinguishable). Most Chinese learners of English have difficulty hearing the difference between the consonants "r" and "l" and will typically pronounce "right" and "rice," for example, as "light" and "lice." Related, General American English consists of thirteen monophthongs (single vowel sounds) and three diphthongs (triple vowel sounds), while Mandarin contains considerably fewer vowel phonemes. Consequently, most Chinese speakers of English will not be able to distinctively pronounce words such as "sheep" and "ship" or "pool" and "pull," for example. In addition, Chinese EFL students have significant difficultly correctly pronouncing English words that end in a final consonant sound, such as in "colleague" or "hill," as this type of phoneme rarely occurs in Mandarin. So what they will typically do is either drop the final consonant sound altogether or add a syllable to it. In the previous examples, "colleague" will often be pronounced as either "collie" or "colleague-ga" and "hill," either like "hee" or "hill-er."


Mandarin does not contain any articles of speech (a, an, and, the). Although most Chinese EFL students can appreciate the difference between the proper use of "a" and "an," most perpetually struggle with when to use, and not to use, the definite article (i.e., zero article when, for example, referring to an indefinite plural as in "Children should listen and not speak").

Similarly, there is no precise equivalent of our possessive form of a noun in Chinese, e.g., Joe's car, the house's garage. Typically, even Chinese who are quite fluent in English will write: In front of the garage of the house.

In English, we convey a considerable amount of information, especially in regard to the passage of time and sequencing of events, through the use of modal auxiliary verbs and verb tenses. There is really no such equivalent in Mandarin. The Chinese express specific meaning, especially in regard to time sequencing, by the order of the words they use in addition to specifically using adverbs such as today, yesterday, and tomorrow, etc. Consequently, mastering verb tenses and the subtle differences in the use of modal auxiliary verbs remains a struggle for many students.

Another linguistic idiosyncrasy you will soon quickly notice among your Chinese EFL students is in how they respond to negative questions (negation), e.g., "You didn't eat breakfast?" Virtually all your students will answer "yes" when a native English speaker would say "no," as in "no, I didn't eat breakfast this morning," or conversely "yes, I did." In other words, Chinese EFL students will answer the question as if there was no negation: "Yes, that is correct. I didn't eat breakfast this morning."

Vocabulary/Word Usage

The Chinese characters for he, she, and it (他, 她, and 它, respectively) are homophones. All three personal pronouns are pronounced as "tā." Consequently, Chinese EFL students frequently interchange the use of "he" and "she" in speech: that is, when talking about their mothers, for example, they will often refer to them as a "he," which is very disconcerting to a native speaker who's already having difficulty trying to follow the communication. If you find yourself teaching English as a foreign language in China, you will be correcting your students on their use of personal pronouns virtually every day.

In addition, the English language is composed of numerous phrasal verbs (i.e., a combination of a verb and a preposition, a verb and an adverb, or a verb with both an adverb and a preposition) and many of them are used informally or idiosyncratically, e.g., "Before we drive to Mike's house, we have to pick up Emily." It takes non-native speakers of English quite a long time to master these phrases as well as to learn which preposition to use with which verbs and how changing the preposition can subtlety change the meaning, e.g., "speaking to" as opposed to "speaking with" someone.

A Note About The Pronunciation System in China

A final point worth mentioning, especially to North American educators, is that Chinese students are taught how to pronounce the English language with the aid of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) pronunciation key.

This pronunciation system was originally developed in 1886 by a group of French and British educators, which would later become known as the International Phonetic Association. It has undergone several major revisions since its inception culminating with the inclusion of a symbol for the labiodental flap in May 2005. A chart illustrating the IPA system is attached below for your edification (simply click on the heading to open).

All but North American teachers should be familiar with it as it is used in many (although not all) British dictionaries including the Oxford and Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionaries, respectively. However, dictionaries in common use in North America, such as the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language use a traditional respelling pronunciation key, i.e., a combination of letters, not symbols, are used to clarify correct pronunciation.

Those who are completely unfamiliar with the IPA pronunciation key chart may want to take a look at it before heading off to China as an EFL teacher, because many of your students will present you with this key and ask for clarification on its use.

The next unit will discuss the most prominent theory in use today regarding how people acquire a second language, particularly in regard to teaching English to Chinese students as a foreign teacher.


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