Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Top 10 Pronunciation Problems for Chinese Speakers of English

by Amy Schiwitz, M.S., CCC-SLP

As anyone knows who has tried to learn both English and Chinese, the 2 languages have very different pronunciation!  This is true whether you compare English to Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other Chinese language.

Here are the top 10 pronunciation difficulties for Chinese speakers who learn English:

1.  Intonation, Stress, and Rhythm

Intonation and rhythm are different in English than in Chinese.  Also, Chinese words usually only have 1 syllable, whereas English words can have up to...well, 19, if you count "Pnuemonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis!"

Of course most words in English aren't that long, but it is common to have 5-6 syllables in an English word.  Many Chinese speakers tend to rush through these long words, trying to say them very fast, which causes them to mispronounce the word.

Practice pronouncing long words slowly, giving yourself time to pronounce all the sounds. Listen to the intonation and rhythm of the English speakers around you, noticing how they use intonation for different meanings.  Try to imitate these patterns as much as you can.  I plan to make a blog post just about intonation soon!

2.  /r/ as in "right."

The consonant /r/ is similar to the Chinese /r/ in some dialects, but still quite different.  To an English speaker, the Chinese /r/ may sound more like the English /l/ sound.  In other words, when you say "right" with a Chinese /r/, English speakers may hear "light."  Depending on your dialect of Chinese, your "right" may sound like "white."

The best thing to do is usually to keep the tip of your tongue low, so that your /r/ won't sound like an /l/.  If your /r/ sounds like a /w/, make sure to keep your lips stretched back and not purse your lips while pronouncing /r/. (I also plan to make an instructional Youtube video about /r/ soon!)

3.  /θ/ as in "think" and /ð/ as in "that"

Chinese does not have these two sounds.  Many of my Chinese students actually know how to produce these sounds, but forget when they are speaking quickly, especially since the /ð/ shows up a lot in small words such as "this," "the," "that," "those," "there," and so on. 

4.  "Consonant clusters," or more than one consonant in a row.

Chinese does not have any "consonant clusters," or more than one consonant in a row.  For example, the words "blue," "truck," and "spring" have consonant clusters.

5.  Consonants at the end of words, especially /b/, /d/, /g/, /p/, /t/, and /k/.

These sounds are called voiced and voiceless stop consonants, and Chinese has no voiced consonants at the end of words.  English speakers usually differentiate between voiced consonants (/b/, /d/, /g/) and voiceless consonants (/p/, /t/, /k/) by producing a longer vowel for voiced consonants and a shorter vowel for voiceless consonants.

For example, the words "mop" and "mob" would be pronounced exactly the same except the vowel in "mop" would be shorter than the vowel in "mob."  (I also plan to make a video about this concept, since it is hard to demonstrate in writing.)

6.  The consonants /v/ as in "van," /ð/ as in "breathe," /z/, /ʒ/ as in "measure," and /dʒ/ as in "judge."

These sounds are called "voiced fricatives and affricates," and Chinese does not have them.  If you put your fingers on your throat, you should be able to feel your voice vibrating during these sounds.  For example, if you say "fffffff," your voice should not be vibrating, and if you say, "vvvvvvv," you should feel your throat vibrate.

7.  Differentiating between /l/ and /n/.

In my experience, Cantonese speakers and Chinese speakers from the south of China often have trouble differentiating between /l/ and /n/.  In other words, if you say "need," an English speaker might hear "lead."  It is important to keep in mind that for /n/, sound should be directed through your nose, and for /l/, sound should be directed around either side of your tongue.

8.  /l/ at the end of words.

To produce a /l/ at the end of a word like "little," make sure the tip of your tongue is curled up, barely touching the tooth ridge, and that your lips are not rounded.

9.  /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/ at the end of words.

Chinese does include these sounds at the end of words, but they tend to be much shorter.  Emphasize the final consonant in words like "arm," "sun," and "sing."

10.  Pronouncing these vowel pairs differently from each other:
/i/ vs /ɪ/
/e/ vs /ɛ/
/u/ vs /ʊ/
/e/ vs /æ/

Chinese speakers tend to pronounce each of these vowel pairs in an identical way.  Therefore, "sheep"/"ship," "mate"/"met," "shoed"/"should," and "mate"/"mat" may sound the same.

If you can master these 10 things, your English will be very clear!  Learning English pronunciation as a Chinese speaker (or Chinese pronunciation as an English speaker, for that matter) is challenging, and will take lots of practice.  With determination and some guidance, I believe you can do it!  That's why I offer personalized courses over Skype for anyone in the world who is ready to master English pronunciation.  Call +1 (205) 701-3192 today for a free consultation.


  1. Fantastic post. You have given me a lot to think about when it comes to pronunciation problems in Chinese speakers. I love the fact you have written it in bullet form it was really easy to read. Thank you.

  2. One word that is often causes problem from Chinese people to pronounce correctly in English is “China” which they say as “Chiner”. They have just learned it incorrectly. I have heard this so many times, I have just given up on correcting it.

  3. Learning a new language effortlessly can be a unique experience for the learners, as it takes lots of patience and hard work to get adopted with an acquired language.

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