• Pronunciation Problems for Chinese Students of English

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    As a global language, English has been popularly taught as the second language in China for quite a few years. Now there are more Chinese people learning English on various purposes, such as applying for a higher paid job, studying and living abroad, or establishing business with western countries.

    According to my experience of learning and teaching English, it is harder to master English pronunciation than English grammar for Chinese students. Chinese grammar may appear quite simple compared to that of many highly-inflected Western languages (e.g. Russian, Latin, etc.), or even the low-scale verb conjugations, for instance, of English (e.g. "swim, swam, swum") because of the lack of inflections.

    Even though there are similarities between English alphabet and Chinese one – Han Yu Pin Yin, which was adopted in 1979 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as the standard romanization for modern Chinese (ISO-7098:1991), it is still difficult for Chinese students to make right sounds of some specific English phonetics. One of the reasons is all consonants in Chinese phonemes are voiced, such as roman letter “t”, some of Chinese students make the sound like /te/ and about the sentence “what is your name?”, some Chinese students will say / wate iz yor namme/. They tend to insert vowels between English consonant clusters, or put a vowel after the final consonant so that it will take them a long time to remember the voiced and unvoiced English consonants. Based on my experience, I have used the same way as I was learning English phonetics at school, which also made it easier for my students to self-correct these consonants. I asked them to put their hand on the neck and feel movements from their vocal chords. Obviously, the vocal chords will not move when the students do unvoiced sounds. The feedback from my students was pleasant.

    The pronunciations of some vowels are confusing to English learners in China. /I/, /e/, and /ae/ do not distinguishably make any difference to the most of Chinese students. Words like “bit”, “bet” and “bat” will be pronounced in the same sound by them. We used to draw mouth diagrams to show the students the different width of the mouth and notice them that the mouth opens as wide as the index finger when they make /e/ sound and the mouth should open enough as long as they could put in their index finger and the middle one for /ae/ sound.

    There are a few solutions to correct Chinese students’ pronunciation, which I have mentioned a couple in the article. However, Chinese students have other troubles of their pronunciation.

    Consonant /r/ and /l/ are just impossible for some students to pronounce, especially students from Eastern China, because there is not any sound like /r/ in their dialect. There is /r/ in mandarin, which means students make mistakes on this sound even when they learn mandarin. In this case, they will say “lat” instead of “rat”. Therefore, without context, “right” and “light” will sound the same. Moreover, the Long and Short Features of English vowels pose a problem for the Chinese learners when pronouncing English vowels because Mandarin does not have this feature. A learner is often confused over words like these: ship - sheep man - men fit - feet pat - pet chip - cheap bad – bed.

    Nevertheless, the diphthongs will not be difficult for Chinese students to learn because they are similar to mandarin ones. The only problem is the students may not open their mouth wide enough to make accurate sound, thus sometimes when they say /aI/, it will sound like /eI/.

    EFL teachers in China have been working on these problems, meanwhile, there are dozens of methodologies have been proposed. For example, the length of voice onset time (VOT) in uttering Chinese aspirated sounds. Hope the new methods will be helpful with Chinese students’ English pronunciation.

    Chinese students have a desire to improve their intercultural communication abilities. Better English skills will be the key to access to their goals.

  • Pronunciation Problems in Hong Kong

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    When English-speaking tourists head to “Asia’s World City” (locals call it “the Big Lychee”) they sometimes assume that because Hong Kong was under British rule from 1842 to 1997, that Hong Kongers should all speak perfect English. As someone who has spent an extensive amount of time in that Great city, I knew long ago that this was not the case. My uncles, aunts, and cousins, when “forced” to speak English, will mumble “umm… ahhh” for a little while before they “switch” into English and get on with the conversation. As any long-suffering Expatriate in Hong Kong will tell you, here are some common errors in the English language as spoken by the Cantonese people of Hong Kong.

    One of the most infamous errors in Hong Kong English is the fact that many Cantonese speakers cannot tell the difference between “l” and “r”. This is not just a Cantonese thing as Japanese speakers often have the same problem, but nonetheless it is present. As a result, terms such as “Fried Rice”, a staple of the Expatriate community in Hong Kong, becomes “flied lice”, which is unfortunate as this became the butt of British jokes about their former Crown Colony for years. Also, Hong Kong speakers tend to drop the last “r” of many English words, so “computer” becomes “coom-puu-tah” and “the Edmonton Oilers” become the “Edmuntun Oylah” and so on. Also, “w”, “v”, and “f” masquerade for each other. (“Wancouwah Cannut”-Vancouver Canucks. “Thick” becomes “Fick” and so on.)

    Hong Kong people have always had an independent streak which means that they can find humour in many things. When the British named the streets of their colony, they gave them the honour of dignified Victorian names such as “Waterloo Road” or “Granville Road.” The Cantonese, who composed 95% of the population of Hong Kong (and still do), and immediately dubbed them “wo-da-lo loe” and “ga-leen-wai-lo loe” respectively. This brings us to another common pronounciation problem in Hong Kong, namely that Cantonese speakers often drop the final hard “t” or “d” in their English. Another example of this would be the word “find”, which comes out like the word “fine.” (ie, “I fine this alleddy.”)

    Two common errors in Hong Kong English are exact opposites, so to speak. The first one is the prevalence of dropping “l” endings from many words. For example, “bell” becomes “bew” and “tell” becomes “tey-O.” (“Tey-o them dat they in big tlabo!”) On other words, however, the opposite happens and the “l” ending is over-stressed, leading to words such as “impossible” being pronounced “imm-pall-see-boll”.

    Yet more confusion sets in when Hong Kongers use “l” and “n” interchangeably. So “No” becomes “lo” (as in “lo and behold.”) and “never” is “levah”. Finally, “Z” is often pronounced “E-zed”, and I really have no idea why.

    In conclusion, it is very clear that Hong Kong English has a lot of pronounciation problems. The Cantonese accent has been much-ballyhooed for some of its faults, and the Hong Kong Government is trying to find ways to improve the people’s English. However, a red flag on this matter went up when the Hong Kong Government administered a test of English for all English teachers in Hong Kong and over 40% failed. If 40% of English TEACHERS in Hong Kong fail an English test, what does this mean for the future of English in Hong Kong? Well, it is what it is, and on the flip side of that statistic 60% did pass the test, meaning the future of English in Hong Kong is not totally hopeless.

    Works Cited

    “Hong Kong English”.
    (Accessed March 22, 2007)

    Hao, Henry. Chinglish
    (Oleander Press, 2003)

    Kingsley, Bolton. Hong Kong English
    (University of British Columbia, 2003)

    Emanuel Leung

  • Pronunciation Problems in Macao

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    Macao lies in the south-eastern coast of the People’s Republic of China and it had been a Portuguese colony for over 400 years. Macao has its sovereignty retuned to China and become a Special Administrative Region only since December 1999. Therefore, Chinese and Portuguese are still the two official languages in Macao. However, the vast majority of the population does not know or speak Portuguese at all. A form of the Chinese dialect - Cantonese - is the mother tongue of most people in this enclave and I am one of them.

    Being a Cantonese speaker and an English teacher to mainly Cantonese students myself, I have come across many students with pronunciation problems and a lot of the problems, I believe, are related to their innate speech mechanism. As I am not a linguist myself, I will not go into each of the problems and offer my explanations. On the contrary, I will share my personal observations on some common ones below.

    To replace an English phoneme with a similar Cantonese sound

    Cantonese speakers cannot discriminate voiced and unvoiced syllables so they pronounce ‘b’ with no voice and ‘v’ will sound like ‘w’ e.g. ‘visor’ will become ‘wisor’. Likewise, there is no sound in Cantonese that requires the rolling of the tongue as the ‘r’ sound and this is, therefore, a major challenge for Cantonese learners. A lot of them pronounce the letter ‘r’ as ‘ah lo’ with a falling intonation. In pronouncing ‘r’ sound in a word, they tend to change the articulation to either ‘l’ or ‘w’ as in ‘sorry - sorly’ ‘ray - way’ and so on. Another problematic area concerning pronunciation is the ‘th’ sound. This is also due to the absence of such phoneme in Cantonese. Another hindrance for the correct pronunciation is embarrassment. Some students find it extremely uncomfortable to have to put their tongue out between their teeth to make such sound, and most of the time ‘th’ sound is replaced by ‘d’ as in ‘the’, ‘t’ as in ‘something’ or ‘f’ as in ‘thirsty’. When they come across /i/ or /i:/ used as the beginning sound, they tend to add an ‘y’ before them and so ‘ear’ and ‘year’ sound the same.

    Hui Vai Ieng


  • Pronunciation Problems in Costa Rica

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    I have been to Costa Rica many times and I have spoken to native Spanish-speakers many times about learning English. I remember one of the first native Costa Ricans who had learned English that I spoke to. I asked him what was for him the hardest part of learning English and he quickly responded that it was the pronunciation. I also have recently been working with my cousin as she tackles learning the English language. Her common complaint is also the pronunciation. I even remember in one my college Spanish classes that my teacher commented that he hated learning English simply because of the pronunciation. For native Spanish-speakers, the pronunciation of English sounds and words is one of the most difficult aspects of production and comprehension. There are many different ways they struggle with this, but luckily this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle for their success in learning the English language.

    There are quite a few common problems that I have noticed Spanish-speakers struggling with. First, the most frequent difficulty and a general complaint is forming the “th” sound because it is not a sound they have in their language. Most of the time when they have to make this sound, it just comes out as either only a “t” sound or sometimes as a “d” sound. Another sound they have trouble making is the combination of three consonants. For example, when they try to say the word “strong,” it often comes out as “es-trong.” They seem to add the “e” sound before because it is not easy to put together consonant clusters . Lastly, another difficult that my cousin has mentioned to me many times, is not knowing when looking at a word whether to pronounce the vowel in long or short form. This is common problem for all English learners and it can only be learned through many years of being around English and of course, trial and error.

    Fortunately for Spanish-speakers learning English, these problems can be overcome. Because English is such a dominant language and it is spoken all around the world, it has become a Lingua Franca, a language spoken far beyond countries where it is the native language. And because English is so often spoken by people from all different countries and cultures who all bring different accents and adjustments to the original English language, a Lingua Franca core has been formed. This core contains only the essential features and sounds of English needed to communicate intelligently and effectively around the world. Luckily for Spanish-speakers, all consonants are important except for the “th” sound.

    This makes sense because I have noticed that no matter how incorrectly Spanish-speakers pronounce the “th” sound, it is still easy to understand what they are trying to say. Therefore, I would continue to encourage students to practice saying words like “this” or “thirty” because over time it will get easier, but I will also make it clear to them that this problem will not interfere greatly with them being able to communicate. As far as their struggles with consonant clusters and long and short vowels, practice and time can surely fix these troubles.

    Leslie Gutierrez

  • Pronunciation Problems in India

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    English has been acknowledged and used as a ‘Lingua franca,’ all over the world for several decades now. Most English-speaking countries can attribute their familiarity with the language, to the British empire and its ambitions to keep extending its dominion. In India as well, natives had to learn the language to comprehend and communicate with the British rulers. This attempt was given a boost by the establishment of “English-medium” schools, and the wheel was set into motion to cast India into an English mould.

    As a result of that start, today, India boasts the largest English-speaking population. Having said that, it must be categorically stated that Indian English varies greatly in its grammatical, colloquial and phonetic usage, from the way it’s employed by “native” speakers. This article will restrict itself to discussing the phonetic aspect, with regards to phonemes that Indians at large, (irrespective of regional influences), find difficult to articulate.

    The distortion of Phonetic sounds can, in general, be attributed to  FLI (First Language Influence) or MTI (Mother Tongue Influence), which results in the substitution of an English phoneme with the closest Indian equivalent.

    Let’s consider some commonly mispronounced Consonant and Vowel sounds:

    Consonants:

    T/D: Native speakers produce the /t/ and the /d/ sounds by raising the front or the tip of the tongue to the alveolar ridge. However, Indians use retroflex plosive sounds to substitute both of those, resulting in a [t] and a [d]. As the name itself suggests, these sounds are created by curling the tongue backwards, touching the tip to the center of the hard palate and then flexing it outward with a rush of air. Both the [t] and the [d] sounds are exclusive to the Indian Sub-continent.

    /r/: The /r/ sound, commonly pronounced as a retroflex by Americans, is trilled by Indians. This is done by placing the tongue flat against the alveolar ridge and vibrating it. This phoneme also exists in languages like Spanish and Italian.

    Unvoiced Plosives - /p/, /k/ and /t/: Having already discussed the /t/, let’s look at the other two. The /p/ and the /k/ sounds exist in Hindi both as aspirated and unaspirated sounds, however, there is a phonemic distinction between the two. Without the benefit of this distinction in English, it’s reduced by Indians to an unaspirated, voiceless plosive.

    Dental Sounds - /θ/ /ð/: All native Indian languages lack dental fricatives. As a result, the /θ/ is produced by pressing the front portion of the tongue to the back of the upper teeth and releasing it with a rush of air (plosive), to create a voiceless, dental plosive /th/. The voiced dental /ð/ is produced in a similar manner but with less force, resulting in the creation of a voiced dental plosive.

    /v/ & /w/ sounds: The labio-dental /v/ is another phoneme that doesn’t exist in most Indian native languages. This results in the overuse of the bilabial /w/. Therefore, ‘Visa’ is commonly pronounced /wi:za:/. There are, however, certain parts of the subcontinent where Urdu is spoken (primarily in Sindh area, both in India and Pakistan). Here people have the habit of changing /w/ to /v/ and vice versa (as in /ven/ for ‘when’ and /waIp?r/ for ‘viper’).

    Vowels:

    Minimal pair swap - /e/, / æ /: In several parts of India, particularly in the north, natives tend to swap the /e/ with the / æ /, thus distorting words considerably (‘set is pronounced /sæt/ and ‘any’ is pronounced /æni:/).

    Shortening of Diphthongs to monophthongs: General Indian English has long monophthongs, /e:/ and /o:/, instead of standard, glided diphthongs /eI/ & /?u/.

    No distinction between / /, / ? / and /3:/: In Indian English, all of three vowel sounds mentioned are realized as / ? /.

    In spite of the existence of these glaring differences, Indians for the most part are happy with, and often proud of, their English-speaking abilities. The dramatic rise in the number of Call-centers though, have created the need to correct pronunciation and neutralize vernacular sounds to ease the communication process between native speakers and Indians.

    Methods of Correction: Three methods that work well in the correction of sounds include:

    1.  Sound drills: Since the mouth/tongue needs to relearn correct ways to articulate different sounds, drilling works well. Either the 10 beat sound drill or  3x3 choral drilling can be used (the teacher gets the entire class to repeat the sound thrice, followed by three students/trainees who say the sound individually).

    2.  Introduction of the Phonetic alphabet/symbols: Familiarity with the Phonetic alphabet makes correction a lot easier. Students can learn to associate a word with each sound to memorize the different symbols and mispronounced words can be written phonetically to exhibit correction pronunciation. Alternately, the word could be spelled phonetically (Ex: fotoe).

    3.  Drawing Mouth Diagrams: This is an effective method to indicate correct placement of the tongue/teeth etc.

  • Pronunciation Problems in Korea

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    The goal of this paper is to look at English pronunciation in Korea. To understand Koreans’ pronunciation of English I believe it is important to understand, to a certain degree, Koreans’ understanding of English. English is often taught through Korean at schools and hagwons. To this end, this paper will attempt to educate the reader of the differences in English and Korean alphabet and basic phonemes.

    First, both English and Korean are alphabets. They both have a set of symbols that represent a sound or phoneme. Both languages can be divided into two groups. Those groups are consonants and vowels. However, some letters in Korean change their sounds depending on if they are the beginning or end of a syllable.

    We will first look at consonants. Many Korean consonants are very similar to those in English. M, N, B, P, T, and D are almost identical to their Korean counterparts of ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, and ?. ?, ? and ? do not change, they make M and N sound when they are at the beginning and end of a syllable. However, ?, ?, and ? change depending on where they are in a syllable. ?, ?, and ? make similar sounds to their English counterparts when they are at the beginning of a syllable. When at the end of a syllable they are often not pronounced. Instead, they are a terminating sound. The mouth makes the shape that corresponds to the letter, but it is not strongly enunciated. ? is often translated as G or K. When at the beginning of a syllable it is aspirated slightly but at the end of a syllable it is not. ? is strongly aspirated like K when at the beginning of a syllable, however it is not aspirated at the end of a syllable. ? is the most problematic in that it is very similar to R and L. It is closer to R at the beginning of a syllable and closer to L at the end of a syllable. Finally, ? is often compared to S in English, but it is closer to SH.

    The reader should have noticed there are a few letters that are not represented in the Korean language. F is often pronounced as B or P. V is pronounced almost identically to F. For example, FLUTE is said as PLUTE and VIOLIN is said as BIOLIN. Finally, Z is often pronounced as a stressed J. For example, PIZZA is said like PI JJA.

    Vowels are less problematic. ?, ?, ?, ?, ?, are the same as long o, long u, long e, short a, and short u. However, ? is very similar to short i, when it is followed by a consonant. ? is similar to the sound made between consonants in English. ? and ? are similar to short a and short e when they are followed by a consonant, but both are closer to long a when not followed by a consonant.

    This has been a very brief overview of Korean phonemes. It is in no way complete of comprehensive. Its intention is to give the reader a basic understanding of what their students already know. From this information the reader should be able to predict possible pronunciation problems that their students may have in English. Among the problems the reader may encounter there are a few that can be minimized. For example the reader should anticipate students not correctly pronouncing ending consonants. To compensate for this, the teacher should over pronunciate ending consonants.

    Also the teacher should be prepared to spend extra class time, if needed, on certain consonants such as v, f, p, and z. The teacher should finally be prepared to spend extra time, again only if needed, on short i. It is often said as long e. Students are taught in Korean elementary school that ? only makes long e sound. However, it is often said as a short i, particularly in the family name of Kim. The teacher should be prepared to use this as an example for the students. Is your name Kim or Keem? The students will almost certainly say Kim.

    Ryan Green


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