Why is it Hard for Chinese Learners to Pronounce English Words

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

I found myself today as an ESL (English as a Second Language) Teacher. I am one of those who wears the banner, “English for Chinese Speakers”. I still find it awesome to write, but I was looking for something that gives a juice in my career. I don’t know if I can last long, but, hey, there’s no harm in trying, right?

In my days of teaching, I find my students struggled a lot like I was when I was young. I remember the day when my teacher forced me to speak English in the class every day. I hated her for that. And I’ve been silently wishing that my students do not hate me that way because, in the end, I found it very useful, especially today.

While watching them learning English day by day, I understand a lot of things. It was like I took another step to maturity. It makes me see that teachers really must be very patient and dedicated. They must look into the progress of each student and find ways on how to boost that progress. Every day in my class, I always tell myself, “Hey, you could make a difference”.

I, also, noticed that my students find it more difficult to learn English than when I was still learning. Out of curiosity and to check my theory, I called my daughter, one day, right after my class. She is 4 years old. She has not been exposed to English much. She doesn’t know the language except she watches lots and lots of cartoon episodes on TV every day.

The word is “rule”. My daughter, though, was not able to perfectly pronounce the “u” sound, she was able to pronounce clearly the difference between /l/ and /r/ sounds.

This is the part where I shouted  “EUREKA!”

Aside from the pronunciation problem, which is the focus of this article, I also noticed that the following are Chinese common mistakes: order of words, usage of words, and subject-verb agreement. Well, I guess it is because most of my students are at the beginner levels. There are times that we practice the words more than eight times and they still pronounce the words differently. The worst thing is that most of the time my students don’t know that they commit a mistake or that they think they get it right finally, though not really.

In my aim to teach my Chinese students more efficiently and to understand more the situation I am in, I asked, “Why is it hard for Chinese learners to pronounce English words?”



When I say Chinese pronunciation mistakes, it involves totally mispronounced words and words stressed incorrectly. I am not saying that Chinese pronunciation is bad or impossible to improve. I have lots of students who were able to bridge the gap between Chinese and English. If I may say, the distance between these two countries is also the difference between their languages. That is how far it is and this could be the reason my why Chinese learners of English found hard to study Chinese.

In my experience, the most common reason why they mispronounced English words is that most of Chinese learners cannot tell the differences between the letters that follows:


  • L and N

  • L and R

  • S and Sh

  • N and M

  • “ed or d” to form the past form of a word

  • W and V

  • Th and S

  • Ng

  • Produce an extra sound of “g” when a word ends in letter n

  • Produce an extra syllable of “a”



  • The Phonology Differences

Phonology is the system sound of a language. And, as we all know, phonology comes differently from one language to another. In some, it doesn’t even exist. The same is true between Chinese and English languages. Here are the English phonemes that totally does not exist:

Mandarin: /v/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /ʧ/, /ʤ/, /θ/, /ð/

Cantonese : /b/, /d/, /g/, /v/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /ɹ/, /ʧ/, /ʤ/, /ð/, and /θ/

Intonation also plays a very important role in every pronunciation. Pitches, in Chinese, have been used more extensively than in the English language. Chinese people changed the intonation of a certain word to distinguish the meaning of that word to another, whose pronunciation is the same. A student of mine said, “Chinese words are mostly made up two syllables and to show the difference between the words, rather than changing the stress which is common in English, Chinese change the pitch”.



Pronunciation is hard to learn and it is also hard to teach. I think every English teacher agree to that. It involves more than just saying the words. You have to illustrate everything. Well, it is not easy for them to speak it correctly as well. I guess Chinese learners need time and motivation to really practice pronunciation.

Sources of Phonemic Inventory:


Photo Credit for Featured Image: Storify.com

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