Letters That Are HARD To Pronounce By Chinese Learners

by | May 8, 2017 | ESL Teacher, Work at Home

Like any other non-native English speakers, Chinese learners also find some English letters hard to pronounce. The reason for this pronunciation difficulty runs to their roots. You can read here an insight on why is it hard for Chinese learners to pronounce English words.

The Importance of Pronunciation

When a person speaks English, the first thing that you will notice is his pronunciation. As you listen and convinced that this man really can speak English, you will then turn to the grammar and content of his message. More noticeable than grammar, pronunciation is like a dress you wear. Like a dress that you wore everywhere you go, you cannot simply think it is less important, don’t you? In most cases, mispronunciation leads to misunderstanding, which is the worst scenario. Just imagine if the word rule is pronounced as lure, strength as stress, files as fires, eight as eat, they as ley. This is a total mess.

Letters That Are Hard to Pronounce By Chinese

It is not that they cannot produce the sounds. They can, though I cannot assure that it is a hundred percent. Some of them are just confused about the differences. Here is a list of letters that are hard to pronounce by Chinese learners, I tried to be as comprehensive as possible. This list, however, does not distinguish whether it is often committed by a Mandarin speaker, a Cantonese speaker, or any other dialect in China. This is purely based on observation from an actual class.  


For the differences, visit why it is hard for Chinese learners to pronounce English words or click on these links for Cantonese phonemic inventory and Mandarin phonemic inventory.

L and R

Among all letters that are hard to pronounce by Chinese learners, this is the most common one. Though not all of them interchange these letters, I think around 93% of them do. There are actually three scenarios in L and R mispronunciation. L and R at the beginning of the word, in the middle of the world, and as the ending letter. A student who can’t pronounce the letter L in the middle of the word may be able to pronounce L at the end of the word. The sad thing is, most Chinese learners can pronounce these letters individually, like saying R and L, but when it forms part of a word like file, the L sounds like R now, making it fire and vice versa. Also, graphic as glaphic. Sequel as sequer and much more.

L and N

Like /l/and /n/, /r/and /n/confusion is also a common mistake. Unlike /r/and /n/ where most of them can differentiate the sound of the letters individually, I observed that they found it harder to differentiate /l/ and /n/. If you will listen to them attentively, /l/ really sounds like /n/. If you will say L. Most probably, you will hear them say N. I guess, the differences in the tongue position, which is not really big, plays a very important factor for this difficulty. Moreover, there are learners who can perfectly pronounce /l/ and not /n/ and there are those who can pronounce /n/ and not /l/


You say, lean. They say, nean.

You say, boiling. They say, boining.

Th (unvoiced) and Sh/F

Words like thing and breath are pronounced as shing and breaf. If the word starts with /th/, usually, students used /sh/ and if the word end in /th/, a student uses the /f/.

Th (voiced) and L/D

In cases where the word uses a voiced  TH, I often heard the word L or in some cases D, if  TH is in the middle of the word, instead of the voiced TH sound. So when you say they, rather, and these, you can probably hear them saying ley, rader (lader, please see L and R above) and lese. Or in some other cases, the last one is dese. Well TH sound, both voiced and unvoiced does not exist in both Mandarin and Cantonese. I think that is understandable.

V and W

W and V are also a common pronunciation mistake. Here, some students really find it hard to pronounce the letters itself and it is worse when being put into a word. A word vade for instance is pronounced as wade or very to wary. A word various to warious. Most Chinese learners struggle in producing the /v/ sound and substitute /w/ to it. 

P and B

I can still remember how hard it gets me to teach this sounds explaining and doing what it needs to be done. This is not a common mistake, only a few of them find it hard to differentiate. I think their dialects really matters when it comes to English pronunciation. A student of mine says sboon instead of spoon.

S for Z

/S/, most of the time, is being substituted for /z/. Chinese people found /z/ hard to pronounce in whatever position (initial, medial or, even, in the final position) it may be.

S and Sh

More often, Chinese learners pronounce /s/ as /sh/ and they usually have this error if /s/ is in the beginning of the word. Though, not all words start with /s/ is pronounced as /sh/. I think this is just a selective error. As an example, the word suit is often mispronounced as shoot.

N and Ng

Ninety-five percent of my students found this difficult. Words that end in N like son is often pronounced as sang. Another is the arranging, which is often pronounced as arrangin.

N and M

I guess, one of the contributors to this confusion is the gap between these two letters in the alphabet enumeration. Kidding aside, M and N are also being pronounced interchangeably. They even found it hard to produce the sound. Thus mane sounds like mame.

Other letters that are hard to pronounce by Chinese learners

  • NG in the word singer.
  • Extra sounds of /a/ like experiment as experimenta
  • Extra sound of /g/ when a word ends in letter N. Example: Son is read as sang.
  • RL combination – Example: Girl and world are also hard to enunciate.
  • Ch as Q – Example: Bachelor is read as baquelor.

Pronunciation, like intonation and syllable stressing, really involves the active presence and constant practice. You cannot really practice pronunciation by saying the words in your head. That is kind of absurd. This happens when you wanted to let them speak and they answered, “Yes, I know while they are practicing in their head”. This is not about memorization. Pronunciation requires to voice out the sounds. A good start to pronounce a word correctly is opening your mouth as big as the letter requires being pronounced properly. You cannot just replace it with what you can manage to do like the th sound (ð or θ ) or with /s/ for /t/. These are totally different sounds.

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