Most Common English Pronunciation Errors made by Mandarin Speakers

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Most Common English Pronunciation Errors made by Mandarin Speakers

English Pronunciation Challenges for Mandarin Speakers

The phonological rules of Mandarin often influence how Mandarin speakers pronounce English

English can feel like a tough language to pronounce when your native language is pronounced very differently. For Mandarin speakers, it can be daunting to learn how to form brand new sounds like the th that is found in Received Pronunciation or combinations like thr or shr, but it is possible to learn how to articulate these combinations clearly every time.

With a few tips and exercises, native Mandarin speakers can get more comfortable with the at-first unfamiliar sounds and combinations used in the English language. Here are some common errors that may be caused by interference from Chinese.

1. Separating rather than linking words in English

Mandarin Chinese speakers often pronounce words without joining them together in English. By learning word joining and assimilation techniques, Mandarin speakers can sound more nativelike in English.

How are you: /haʊ‿w‿ə juː/

It always is /ɪt‿ɔːlweɪ‿zɪz/

2. Mandarin speakers are often unsure about syllable stress

It can be hard to know where to put the stress on syllables within words and within the English intonation phrase. Mandarin speakers who learn the stress and intonation rules of English will have an easier time being understood by other English speakers, including British people.

crediˈbility, compreˈhension, this ˈreading comprehension is ˈdifficult

3. Perfecting the final /n/ sound in English words for Chinese speakers

Many native Mandarin speakers may struggle to differentiate between the /n/ and /ŋ/ sounds, which can result in /n/ words like window or Monday sounding like wingdow and Mongday.

Instead of lowering the tip of your tongue when you pronounce “n”, try positioning the tip of the tongue on the bump behind your front teeth.

window, Monday
can, neon, mountain, tundra, under

4. Articulating the /l/ and /r/ Sounds in English

While Mandarin does have /r/ and /l/ sounds, they have different restrictions than their English counterparts: they do not occur syllable-finally, while in English we have syllables ending in these phonemes like hill and parallel.

Practice pronouncing /l/ and /r/ by splitting words up into their composite syllables and focusing on each sound separately, before putting them together and then pronouncing full words. When we pronounce /r/ followed by /l/, as in “parallel”, our tongue jumps from a tense position where the palate rises in the mouth for the /r/, then forward to touch the gum behind your upper teeth for the /l/.

meal, hill, parallel

5. Conquering consonant clusters for Chinese speakers of English

English words often contain consonant clusters, which are groups of consonants pronounced one after the other, such as str in strong. Mandarin doesn’t allow for these combinations, so consonant clusters are often challenging when learning to pronounce English, particularly when they feature already challenging sounds like /r/ or /l/.

To cope with challenging consonant clusters, native Mandarin speakers who speak English as a second language will often drop consonant sounds (words becomes wors) or insert vowels (spoon becomes sipoon).

The best way to cope with consonant clusters is to slow down when practising this aspect of pronunciation before gradually speeding up to a natural speed.

It is important to focus on the speech sounds one by one, noticing how the mouth feels during the transition phase, measuring the number of syllables. With the help of animated practice videos, you will become more familiar with how to form these sounds, how to combine them, and how to pronounce them as quickly as a native speaker can.

sport, straight, through, cruise, sprout, square

6. Mastering the TH sounds in English for Chinese speakers of English

The English th sounds can be challenging for native Mandarin speakers to pronounce because these simply aren’t speech sounds that exist in Mandarin’s phonology. When practising English pronunciation, Mandarin speakers may use s or z in place of the interdental sounds /θ/ and /ð/. These are particularly important phonemes to learn to pronounce in Britain as they are found in some of the most frequently used words of the English language, like the, then, these, or they.

The th sounds can be made by gently placing the tip of your tongue on the edge of the upper front teeth and gently puffing air out while you keep your lips relaxed. In connected speech, native speakers may place their tongue behind the upper front teeth and softly blow the air.

Softly puffing air out while placing the tip of the tongue on the bottom edge of the upper teeth will create the voiceless th sound that you’ll find in words like thanks, bath, or Ethiopia. To create the voiced th sound that is found in words like the, father or this, follow the same process but engage your voice by making your vocal folds vibrate.

this, the, they, then

mouth, broth, north, thread

I thought this through.

Although those are theirs, and these are mine…

Then, three moths thwacked into the window.

7. Struggling with word-final consonants

Often, Mandarin speakers who are learning to pronounce English clearly will drop the final consonants of words, such as fa‿away instead of far‿away, or speakers may add a vowel, saying fit-uh instead of fit. Once again, this is because syllables normally end in vowels in the Mandarin language.

Practice pronouncing words that end in consonants, focusing on the endings in particular before saying entire words, and hold back the instinct to add a vowel sound like uh by clapping the syllables — the beats in the word. Remember that word endings are particularly important to clearly pronounce in English, as they often indicate pluralisation (-s) or the tense of verbs (-ed).

risked, trained, found

8. Pronouncing “OWN” incorrectly as a Mandarin Speaker

When the diphthongs /aʊ/ and /əʊ/ appear before /n/, Mandarin speakers often use a single vowel instead of a vowel with two mouth shapes – meaning “moan” might sound like “mang”. These diphthongs should be articulated in the same way as if no /n/ followed and /n/ should be pronounced with the tongue on the alveolar ridge (the gummy bump behind the teeth).

noun, blown

9. Struggling to pronounce the open, back, rounded vowel

The British /ɒ/ is a rounded sound. Many Mandarin speakers open their jaws wide enough for this sound, but do not round their lips. Top tip: round your lips for /ɒ/ in British English!

The spotty dog trotted up to the shop.

10. Struggling with English’s lax phonemes

There are lots of lazy mouth shapes in Received Pronunciation. Chinese speakers often add too much muscle effort to the vowels in these words. Practise shaping the mouth more neutrally and relaxing all the speech muscles for the following words, for example:

put, could, shook

Perfect your pronunciation as a Chinese speaker of English

Sign up for a course with British Accent Academy to reduce native language interference from Mandarin Chinese or to work on any aspect of your pronunciation, intonation, and connected speech using a Modern Received Pronunciation model.