Chinese to English
For the purpose of this explanation of language issues, we are treating the variety of Chinese dialects as one, although special attention is given to Mandarin, as it is the official language of China.
- The first and most obvious difficulty Chinese face when learning English is to become accustomed to the concept that letters in English words represent sounds and pronunciation of English words is related to their spelling. Chinese writing is not done with letters that represent sounds, instead, it relies on characters which represent a picture. Chinese characters have little to do with the pronunciation of the word. Chinese-first speakers must understand the relationship between letters and sounds, and sounds and words.
- English is a stress-timed language, meaning that some words are stressed (spoken louder) than others, and the tone or pitch of those words is used for emphasis or to illustrate whether the sentence is a question or a statement. The Chinese languages are tonal. The meaning depends not just on the sound of the word but also its pitch or tone. The same word can have different meanings depending on the rising and falling of the voice. The Chinese-first speaker must learn to omit that rising and falling of the voice except under certain conditions. (See Members’ lesson 6, Intonation).
- Chinese first speakers of English may have their greatest problems with pronouncing final consonants, especially the hard stop consonants. In Chinese languages, most words end in vowel sounds. Vowel sounds require you to breathe outward, so Chinese first speakers are accustomed to expelling air at the end of every word. Chinese will often try and use the rules of their first language and end a word by exhaling. The result are words like “home” pronounced as “hom eh”, “and” pronounced “an-de” or “coat” pronounced as “co-te” (adding an incorrect extra syllable). Another possibility is omitting the final consonant sound so that the word will end in a vowel sound making “coat” sound more like “co”. The Chinese-first speaker must learn to make sure to pronounce the final consonant and make sure not to add on an additional incorrect syllable.
- English grammar, especially English tenses could prove extremely difficult. In English, a variety of tenses are used in order to describe an event that occurred in the present, past or future. The time an event took place is explained by the use of words such as tomorrow, or last week or at 2 pm. in Chinese. The Chinese-first speaker must learn the English language tenses and use them properly.
- Another grammar issue involves the creating of questions. In English, we reverse the subject and the verb to create a question, in Chinese a word is added to the end of a statement to make it a question, or the tone changes to indicate a question.
- English idioms are used often and there are many that are commonly used. I have put a short list of idioms under the common problems section. More idioms will be added to our list, or you can purchase a book on English idioms and go over the book with an English-first friend to find the most commonly used.
- Countable versus uncountable nouns require different adjectives. “Much” is used for uncountable, and “many” is used for countable. We say “How many pencils did you have yesterday?” You can count pencils, as opposed to “How much rain fell yesterday?” Don’t get confused now. The word rain is uncountable. You cannot say “One rain (or two rains) fell yesterday”
Specific Sound Problems
- Hearing and pronouncing the difference between “l” and “r” is often difficult. (See Members’ lesson 4 – #11, #15).
- In Chinese one does not pluralize nouns. The fact the item is plural is indicated by the number of items. That accounts for sentences such as “I have 3 book”, instead of “I have 3 books”.
- The letter “v” sound is often dropped in the middle or at the end of a word. (See Members’ lesson 4 – #8).
- The “z” sound is often difficult. (See Members’ lesson 4 – #10)
- Consonant clusters, (two or more consonants in a row), don’t occur in Chinese so words with consonant clusters are often a problem and should be worked on. Sounds with consonant clusters are also difficult as in “x” which is pronounced as “eks”. (See Members’ lesson 4 – #27,#5)
- There are difficulties in pronouncing vowels. The long ‘a” sound is especially difficult when followed by “l”, “m” and “n” sounds. The vowel sounds in the following words are difficult for many Chinese-first speakers, main, men, and man. (See Members’ lesson 5, #35, #27, #28)
- Chinese words are one-syllable words, but English words are often 4, 5, or 6 syllables. The Chinese-first speaker must be careful not to omit any syllables. Working with lists of long words can help. Contact us to prepare lists of words to work on if this is a problem for you. Prepare lists of words for me, please.