David Recine

Common Problems with English Consonants for Native Chinese Speakers

A few weeks ago, I did a post on the English learning needs of native Spanish speakers. In this post, we’ll look at some of the needs of Native speakers of Mandarin Chinese.

The sound of Mandarin Chinese and the sound of English are very different in many ways. Because of this, Chinese speaking learners of English face a number of unique pronunciation challenges. English consonants can be especially challenging for native Mandarin speakers. Let’s look at some of the most common consonant difficulties. Being aware of these common errors is the first step toward correcting them.


Consonant sounds in “gendered” pronouns (pronouns that refer to males or females)

In Mandarin Chinese, the pronouns “he” and “she” are written differently, but have the same spoken pronunciation. Even in English, “he” and “she” are very similar sounding words. Because of this, it’s especially easy for Chinese students to use these pronouns incorrectly. Similar problems happen with the possessive pronouns “his” and “hers.”

Chinese English language learners should practice saying and hearing the “h” and “sh” sounds in “he” and “she” to overcome this challenge. For “his” and “hers,” Mandarin speakers should focus on being able to properly hear and say the “r” sound. “R” doesn’t really exist in Chinese. When it appears near or at the end of a word, native Mandarin speakers do not pronounce “r” at all. This can make “his” and “hers” sound almost exactly the same.

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English consonants at the end of syllables

“R” isn’t the only consonant that Chinese students have trouble pronouncing at the end of English syllables. Like most East Asian languages, Mandarin has few “closed” syllables— syllables ending in a consonant. Words and syllables ending in consonants are of course much more common in English (just look at the words in this sentence).

Sometimes native Chinese speakers will leave out the consonants at the end of a word completely. For example, “I thought” can easily sound more like “I thaw.” At the end of English words, Mandarin speakers tend to leave out the “l” sound and replace it with a vowel sound. It’s not uncommon for “l” to be mispronounced as an “oh” or “ooh” vowel sound at the end of words. Examples of this include “peepoh” instead of “people,” or “simpoo” instead of “simple.” Chinese students should pay extra attention to the way they “close” words that end in consonants.


Voiced consonants

At other times, native speakers of Mandarin Chinese will mispronounce difficult English consonant sounds by replacing them with consonants that are more common in Chinese. When the “g” sound appears at the end of an English word, for instance, a Chinese leaner may instead say the “ng” sound. (EX: “frong” instead of “frog.”)

“G” is a voiced consonant, where the vocal cords and voice must be used for correct pronunciation. Many English voiced consonants can be difficult for Chinese learners, both at the beginning and end of a syllable. The voiced consonant “th” can be particularly hard for native Chinese speakers. The “th” sound involves pushing the tip of the tongue against the front teeth. Chinese speakers of English tend to replace “th” with several different consonants that involve the tongue and front teeth, including “l,” “d,” “s,” and “z.”

Chinese students should make note of which consonants in English are voiced, and take care to say these consonants correctly while using their vocal cords.



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