Why is English so challenging for Chinese people?
Jack Ma learned English out of sheer will. He would seek out tourists and converse with them, and he studies like crazy. Now he is one of the world’s richest people, riding on the massive and growing power of his company Alibaba. Ma has a unique combination of Chinese pride and international individualism.
As China’s rapidly grows in economic and social power, and becomes increasingly integrated I the global economy, Chinese often must learn English to be competitive. Learning English can also increase individual opportunities for study and work. Chinese people face unique issues in learning the English language. One major reason is a basic lack of practice and exposure.
However, even when stepping out into a Chinese-speaking world, there are ways to improve listening and speaking skills without going to an English-speaking country. In fact, there are many ways to improve your English listening and speaking skills from the comfort of your own home.
First, though, it is important to understand what the unique issues Chinese English learners face, and then study ways to overcome them. Thus, while Chinese people may face particular types of listening and speaking challenges while learning English, they can overcome these through using a variety of learning methods and technological resources.
Here I take a look at five of the most common problems facing Chinese learners of English, and some great solutions. Jack Ma learned English, and he’s still not fluent, but he’s doing quite well for himself. So you can do it too.
1. Reading without having to know the sounds
It is a common phenomenon for many people in China to grow up speaking one language at home and to learn another in school. Thus, most students are familiar with what it is like to construct meaning from language without knowing the sounds the language makes. A consequence of this orthographic means of learning language is that for many Chinese people, improving reading and writing skills is much easier than listening and speaking skills. Predictably, Chinese English learners tend to carry this problem over to English, as they often do not understand the mental connection between visual and sound symbols, and the meanings that these symbols represent. Perhaps a better way of understanding this is through analogy; imagine watching movie footage with the soundtrack erased. Consequently, this learning habit may prohibit the development of oral second language acquisition, and could cause delays in the development of receptive (listening) and productive (speaking) communication skills.
First, it is vital to learn the sounds of the English language. Traditionally, many Americans learned language using phonics. By learning phonics, you can pronounce almost any word (even though English pronunciation does very, there are no absolutes). Why not study phonics on your own? At this point, The University of Iowa Speech and Phonetics department has a great resource. Check out its Sounds of Speech website. Here, you can find every consonant and vowel sound in the English language. First, listen and observe to the unique sounds of the language. Next, record yourself, and compare your pronunciation with that of native English speakers. One of the best parts of this website is that you are given a very clear and detailed description of how to mimic the sound.
Another practical solution is to utilize Dolch’s Sight Words. It might sound silly as these words are meant for children (because they are the most frequently used words in the English language). Keep in mind though that these words are invaluable; an English speaker simply cannot get by without pronouncing these words correctly. Just as with the phonics idea above, practice your pronunciation with each one of these words so that you are understandable. If you are studying alone, record yourself and compare it to a recording from the internet. Also, make sure that you know what each of Dolch’s Sight Words mean.
2. Low listening comprehension
Chinese English learners tend to have low listening comprehension for several reasons. One reason for this is an overall lack of exposure to English. While there are many English speakers in China, the experience is still quite different than that of a native English-speaking nation. In addition, Chinese English teachers often pass on incorrect pronunciation to their students. Another issue is as already mentioned, many Chinese English learners tend to use only the visual signals and not the audio when trying to understand English. A reason for this is that the typical English instruction in China is focused on reading and writing skills, and not on listening and speaking. Moreover, the vocabulary and grammar rules that students memorize do little to facilitate spontaneous and unprepared conversations with native speakers. Normally, the listening and speaking activities are highly rehearsed and unnatural. Thus, natural communication is often not taught or practiced.
One great way to overcome the issue of low listening comprehension is to use the apps that are available. For example, the HelloTalk app is a great way to communicate with English speakers around the world. This app connects people from all around the world who share an interest in learning languages. The app is nice and simple; just select the languages you already speak and the languages that you wish to learn (there are hundreds of options). Then, you will be paired up with other language learners. For example, if you are fluent in Chinese and want to learn English, you will be matched with English speakers interested in learning Chinese.
I almost forgot to mention, this app is free and the only cost to you is your time! Members can upgrade to a pay account anytime to study more than one language, and gain access to additional language learning features. The beauty of HelloTalk is that you can meet new language learning friends through the app. Communication is done two ways: either through texting or their self-made recordings. The best way to learn anything is to do it! Get started on HelloTalk now and meet the world.
Another notable app and website to check out is FluentU. FluentU is a language learning service which subtitles native language video and audio, and then provides comprehension quizzes. It is a pay service; however, a free 15-day trial is offered at the beginning of the membership so you can see if it is a good fit. One potential issue with FluentU, however, is that it is uses primarily YouTube videos as its sources. As YouTube is banned in China, many students are unable to access the lessons unless they have a virtual private network.
3. Placing too much emphasis on written language and not enough on spoken
Without knowing what a word, phrase, or sentence sound like in context, Chinese English learners must learn English the hard way: they must memorize every word, phrase, or sentence they encounter as a whole chunk, similar to how they did when they learned Chinese characters. Thus, it is much more difficult to learn the language because everything must be memorized.
Phonics and sounds are the building blocks of language. Without understanding these small integral pieces, it is nearly impossible to communicate. It is simply impractical to try and learn every single word as a separate entity. One useful activity for learning language pieces is the study of prefixes and suffixes. The prefixes and suffixes in English tend to have predictable pronunciation and meaning. This makes learning the language much easier. Consider the word “Antidisestablishmentarianism.” Can you break this into smaller pieces? If you study prefixes and suffixes, you will have no problem with this.
Remember to utilize the phonetic skills already introduced. Once you understand the basic phonetic sounds, you will be able to communicate well and effectively. The most important thing is that you aim to make yourself understood, grammar can wait. I teach many students who are so worried about speaking incorrectly that they do not speak at all. This is a major mistake however, as the hardest part is always starting something. The truth is grammar is not the most important part of communication. What is important is that you can make yourself understood. English today is an international language, spoken by native and non-native speakers alike all around the world. Based on probability, it is highly more likely to encounter a non-native English speaker than a native English speaker. Because of this, grammar has taken a backseat to effective communication. The focus then is being able to express your wishes and desires clearly and effectively.
4. Reluctance to make mistakes
When asked about his experience creating the lightbulb, the American inventor Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Language learners must have this same mentality as they study. Often, Chinese students are reluctant to make mistakes and lose face. However, this viewpoint is unwarranted. Making mistakes is an integral part of the learning process, languages included. The only way to avoid making mistakes is to not speak or write altogether, which ultimately is much costlier if you seek to learn. Instead, if you make mistakes, you know that you are using the language and you are learning how to say the right things as fast as possible.
Keep in mind that while making mistakes is important, it is also important to learn from these mistakes. So ask the people you practice your English with to correct you as they see errors. Do not be offended, keep an open mind and be willing to listen to others. If you can learn from your mistakes, then you will be able to grow.
Another ideal way to learn from mistakes is to maintain an error log. First, try recording yourself answering a question, such as “What is your favorite color and why?” Try and speak for about 2-3 minutes. Once you have finished, have someone more experienced in English listen to your recording and have them help you with your mistakes. Complete an error log as you listen. While the link I have provided applies to writing, it is easily transferrable to your speaking as well, as these are both productive language activities.
5. Failing to understand the idiosyncrasies of language acquisition
In China, many students start school with a vocabulary from their local dialect, which is distinct from what they will learn in school: Standard Mandarin. For the majority of Chinese students outside of Beijing and the Northeast, they acquire one language at home and go to school and acquire another. Moreover, the traditional language instruction normally starts with teaching the Chinese characters, then reading, and then to writing. This model of instruction also influences how English is taught and learned. While most English learners first learn the oral language and then move on to written communication, it is typically the opposite for Chinese learners.
Learning is a unique process which is different for every person. However, there is a such thing as “Cultures of Learning,” which affect learning styles and preferences. In China, the culture of learning is quite distinct to that from native English-speaking nations. Consequently, Chinese English learners should seek to learn English as a Chinese person, not as an Englishman or American. This implies learning the language in how it makes sense. If it is simpler to first learn the written language, and then to practice the pronunciation, do it. What is important is that the way you are approaching learning suits you. In addition, focus on the unique language in your life. Do not resort to a textbook one size fits all method for your learning. Instead, be proactive and discover the language which is most interesting to you.
To sum it up…
In summary, while Chinese people may face certain predictable listening and speaking problems as they learn English, these issues can easily be overcome by using a variety of learning methods and digital resources. While it is true that listening and speaking is a major problem for English speakers around the world, do not let it discourage you. Remember, you do not have to visit an English-speaking country to improve your listening and speaking skills. From the comfort of your own home, you can reach the level of English acquisition which you desire. In many ways, language learning is a self-fulfilling prophecy of success versus failure. Those who say they can will always find a way. And excellent editors are always here to help you polish things off.
Xu, K., Cao, L., & Curtis, A. (2017). Perspectives on teaching English to Chinese learners in U.S. colleges. Alexandra, VA: TESOL Press.