Perhaps the only thing that Chinese and English have in common is that each is considered to be among the most difficult languages to learn.
To that end, they can also be very difficult to teach.
Below are some common linguistic pitfalls encountered by those teaching English to Chinese speakers and some ideas on how to remedy them.
One of the most standout things about Chinese Mandarin is its use of tones; flat, rising, rising-falling, and falling.
While English has tones for things like questions or excitement, these tones are not usually essential to the meaning of the words.
Keep in mind when teaching English to Chinese speakers that this is where they’re coming from.
Many Chinese English learners instinctively mimic the tone of their foreign teacher.
Be aware, therefore, of the natural fluctuations in your voice and try not to change your tones erratically.
English has many accents, but few distinct dialects. And what dialects there are, rarely intermingle. Not so in Chinese.
While pretty much anyone who’s been to school in China can speak standard Mandarin, dialects are many and varied.
Thanks to these linguistic anomalies, an English term or concept might be easily understood in Nanjing, but not so much in Chengdu, for example.
While most of your students will likely be from the same place, it’s important to be aware of those that are from elsewhere. On the plus side, in my experience, Chinese speakers enjoying talking about the differences in dialects.
It’s confusing, but also kind of fun.
Another key factor in determining meaning in Chinese is the context in which the words are expressed.
As a foreigner who struggles with tones and pronunciation, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been saved by the context of the conversation.
Even for Chinese speakers, relying on context is second nature as so many words are pronounced exactly the same.
Chinese speakers, therefore, listen to spoken words differently to English speakers and do not necessarily understand how different English words work in different contexts.
It’s important to have students incorporate new vocabulary into spoken and written sentences to be sure they understand the words and are using them properly.
This can be time-consuming, but be patient and always keep the context in mind.
Characters and pinyin
Those teaching English to Chinese speakers must understand that Chinese speakers don’t learn to read in the same way as English speakers.
There is no way to look at a Chinese character and “sound it out” like English readers do in primary school. And contrary to popular belief, very few Chinese characters are pictographs.
Chinese has no alphabet, only smaller stroke elements that are combined to create characters.
Students must, therefore, first learn not only the Roman alphabet but the concept of an alphabet before learning English.
Pinyin, the Anglicized spelling of Chinese characters, can also throw up confusion, as through it students will have learned to read sounds using Roman characters in a completely different way.
You’ll basically have to unteach them all of that.
The most common problems for Chinese speakers learning English are with the “r”, “l” and “th” sounds.
The “th” sound doesn’t appear anywhere in Chinese and is therefore often replaced with an “s” or “z” sound. As for “r” and “l”, these sounds are found in Chinese, but only usually at the beginning of words.
It may, therefore, be much easier for your students to pronounce “live” and “read” compared to “always” and “every.”
It’s important to focus carefully on the placement and movement of the mouth and tongue when teaching “l”, “r” or “th” sounds to your learners. Start there and focus on the correct sounds.
This will likely require a continued attention, but the students who grasp it will have unlocked an important level of English proficiency that will separate them from their peers.
Chinese English learners often have trouble mixing up “he” and “she”.
This may seem basic to a native English speaker and is thus a common source of frustration for teachers.
The reason for this is that in spoken Chinese, the sound “ta” can mean either “he”, “she” or “it”.
It is pronounced exactly the same, so differentiating between gender in spoken language is simply not a concept Chinese speakers are familiar with.
This requires some getting used to, and the only remedy is near-constant vigilance when teaching English to Chinese speakers.
You may be asked to teach a variety of age groups in China, particularly if you’re working in a language center.
And while teaching primary and secondary grades is very different, you’ll likely be asked (read: required) to juggle both, perhaps even alongside kindergarten and adult learners.
Remember that all age groups will have different wants and needs.
With very young learners, the focus is going to be basic vocabulary and pronunciation. With older learners, the focus is often on reading comprehension.
In my opinion, listening skills are under-emphasized in Chinese schools, so this is where you, as the native English teacher, can be of great value.
Personally, I think a student who can comprehend spoken English is better positioned than a student with better reading and grammar skills but poor speaking proficiency.
So talk to your students, even if they don’t fully understand, and even if it’s not directly tied to the lesson.
Keep talking, but be sure to grade the spoken language you’re using to your students’ level.
Just like you wouldn’t talk to kindergarten kids about the stresses of office life, there’s no need to tell older learners that the grass is green.
The final point is more general but offers a way of addressing the above considerations as a whole.
Chinese and Western cultures are dramatically different.
Chinese history is much longer than European or American history, Chinese mythology has a wholly different cast of gods, spirits, legends, etc, and everything from pop music to the political system is unique from our experience.
It’s important for teachers to connect on some level with their students, but this can be an enormous challenge in a cross-cultural classroom, particularly one that contains upwards of fifty students.
Do as much research as you can into Chinese cultural reference points and look for glimpses of commonality that will give you insight into how your learners think and feel.
This will help provide the opportunities for connection so essential to teaching English to Chinese speakers.