Foreign language mistakes can be caused by many things. But many of these mistakes are characteristic of a given nationality, or rather the student’s first language. In this post I write about the most common English mistakes made by Chinese students.
This post is aimed at ESL teachers, to help them teach ESL to Chinese students. But students can use it as well to help them overcome their difficulties learning English.
For each mistake, I’ll give both a reason for the mistake and a possible solution to help students correct the mistake. This isn’t the only solution, but something I’ve found to have worked in the past. I’ll focus on different types of issues, including grammar and pronunciation problems for Chinese speakers of English.
Read on to discover the most common English mistakes that Chinese students make.
Confusing he and she, him and her
Although Mandarin Chinese has a distinction between he and she in writing, both pronouns are spoken in the same way, ‘ta‘. The same goes for him and her, which are also both ‘ta’.
First, make sure that your students understand the difference between he and she. Then I would advise getting hold of two pictures, one with a man and one with a woman, and strips of paper with some verbs written on them in the third person form (e.g. talks to, says, sees, …). Then you can practice sentences like:
“He sees her” vs “She sees him”
“He talks to her” vs “She talks to him”
Have your students practice this for a few lessons. After that, the mistakes might still occur occasionally, but it should be enough just to correct this then. If your students have been confusing pronouns for a long time, it will take them some time to get used to the new forms.
This exercise might also be done by drawing on a board or inserting the verbs into flashcards software such as Anki. The method largely depends on what type of learners your students are, so it’s good to use a mixture of exercises.
Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have a distinction between the singular and plural noun forms, which leads to mistakes like “I have two cat”.
Again, first of all, you’ll need to make sure your students understand the difference. It’s best to explain this as “one” (for singular) vs “two or more” (for plural). Then spend a few minutes every lesson practicing singular and plural forms.
There’s no such thing as countable and uncountable nouns in Mandarin Chinese. So expressions like “how much” and “how many” are translated in the same way.
It’s best to teach uncountable nouns in sentences, like “How much milk?” or “How much water?”. Don’t forget to point out that some nouns can be both countable and uncountable depending on the context (e.g. coffee).
Forgetting to end verbs with -s in third person
Verbs don’t conjugate in Mandarin Chinese, so your students will most likely have problems with third person conjugation. This can lead to mistakes like “He go home” instead of “He goes home”.
For beginner students, it’s best to drill some examples and keep correcting them. I also found it helpful to spend some time every lesson to work on the third person form. It helps to make a competition out of it.
Later, just keep correcting the students every time you notice the mistake.
Not using the past tense
Although there’s a particle in Mandarin Chinese that signifies past tense, it’s not always used, so students often attempt to use present tense to talk about the past.
Your students will probably be aware of the difference between past and present tense, so you may only need to make them aware of their mistake.
I teach my students that if I point my hand back it means “past” and if I point forward it means “future”. When my students use a verb in a wrong tense I just make a gesture, so they can correct themselves. It’s always better to teach students to correct themselves rather than correcting them yourself.
Not using continuous tenses
Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have continuous tenses. However, it has a particle “zai” that introduces a structure very similar to the present continuous.
I usually explain the difference between present simple and continuous by teaching sentences containing “now” and “every day”. For example:
“I’m going to school now” vs “I go to school every day”
I also point out that “zai” plus verb is very similar to present continuous.
Then, I do some games and exercises to drill the concept.
Mandarin Chinese has fewer prepositions than in English, so your students will often use the wrong prepositions or omit them altogether.
Teach your students to learn verbs in sentences. This way they will learn a verb or expression together with the relative preposition.
Omitting or inserting articles
Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have articles, so many students will omit them or just put them in the wrong places. English has two types of articles, indefinite “a/an” and definite “the”.
For beginner students, it’s best to focus on a/an before a singular noun and point out that there’s no indefinite article before plural nouns. Drill the concept using games and competition where possible.
There’s not much point on focusing too much on the difference between indefinite and definite articles at this stage. If the issue arises, just tell your students to learn each article as part of a sentence and tell them they’ll get it eventually.
Generally, students will learn quicker when they learn sentences instead of words, for all grammar points involved. For more advanced students, I truly believe that the best way to master articles is to get exposure.
So, read a lot, listen a lot. After some time the article that is used wrongly will start sounding naturally wrong to your students.
Mixing up first and last names
In many parts of Asia, including China, the last name is written before the first name. This can lead to a lot of confusion when you ask your students for their first name, so you know what to call them, and they tell you their last name.
I usually go around this problem by explaining that the last name is a family name or surname and that the first name is what your family calls you. I also find it helpful to write on the board a Chinese name and a Western name and then explain which part is the first and which is the last name.
Omitting “to be” with adjectives or describing the position
In Mandarin Chinese adjectives can function as verbs. So you won’t say. “She is pretty”, but (in literal translation) “She pretty”. The situation is similar when we describe the position of something. Literally a Chinese person would say: “It on the table”.
This problem needs to be dealt with at the beginner level, so I usually just do so through a lot of games and drilling.
Not pronouncing “th”
The th sound is one pronunciation problem that Chinese speakers of English encounter. Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have a “th” sound. Many students were just never taught how to pronounce it.
If your students are beginners, just teach them that to pronounce this sound you need to put their tongue between their teeth and try to say “f” or “v”. After that make sure you drill the pronunciation with every word you notice use the ‘th’ sound.
If students are more advanced just teach them how to pronounce ‘th’ and then instruct them to practice at home.
Not pronouncing r and v
The sounds “v” and English “r” don’t exist in Mandarin Chinese (Chinese “r” is a different sound).
The sound “v” should be pronounced with your upper teeth on your lower lip. It’s a bit more difficult to teach the pronunciation of “r”, but you can instruct students to raise the tip of their tongue without touching their palate.
Again, it’s best to practice this pronunciation point from time to time during your lessons and tell your students to practice it at home.
Stressing wrong syllables in many words
Mandarin Chinese doesn’t use word stress. All syllables need to be pronounced very clearly. So, students very often pronounce the English words in the same way, without stressing any of the syllables.
I teach my students by saying unstressed syllables very softly and stressed ones loudly when I recite a sentence. I sometimes punch the air every time a stressed syllable occurs. After that, I just tell my students to listen to as much English as possible and this way they will naturally learn how to stress certain words.
Not pronouncing the last letter or producing an extra syllable
Mandarin Chinese has very few final sounds, so students often have problems pronouncing them. Others tend to pronounce them as a separate syllable, e.g. ‘wifeh’ instead of wife.
The best solution is first to make them pronounce each final as a separate syllable and then slowly work with them on joining it into one syllable.
Mandarin Chinese doesn’t use intonation for distinguishing questions, statements and emotions as in English. It has tones, but instead these are used to distinguish meaning.
To teach my students how to use proper intonation for questions, I tell them to use the second tone towards the end of the question. This way they’ll get the rising intonation.
To get falling intonation they need to use the fourth tone at the end of the sentence. It’s good to get your students to repeat after you until they get the intonation right.
Thank you for reading. Those are the most common English mistakes made by Chinese students that I encountered. What problems do your students struggle with? Feel free to leave a comment below and let us know.
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