Learning English: A Chinese Challenge

As an English teacher, I’ve worked with students from all across the world. From business executives in Tokyo and Hong Kong, to elementary school kids in the Japanese countryside, and fresh of the boat immigrants from Eastern Europe. In my 10 years of teaching I have seen it all. I’ve worked with some wonderful students, and some truly awful ones!

However none left as big an impression on me, or fascinated me as much from a linguistics point of view as my students from China.

There is something unique and indeed quite beautiful about the way Chinese people acquire and use English. Chinese English speakers also throw up a great many challenges to English teachers. Today I thought I would look at some of these as we examine the question of what makes Chinese English unique in today’s cross-cultural society.

Firstly, one immediately notices a difference in tone and volume with speaking with Chinese learners of English.

To the uninitiated, Chinese people can sometimes come across as angry or aggressive, particularly at the early stages of language learning. That is they sound as such until you hear them speaking their local language.

I recall my first trip to Guangzhou many years ago, to visit some friends. At first I genuinely thought my friends were arguing with each other, but then I realized this is just part of the beauty and vibrancy of the Putonghua language. It has a certain “assertiveness” or “aggressiveness” to it, which, after a period of initial reluctance is overcome, can actually become quite endearing.

It’s also important to remember that as much as modern China is a huge country united under one central authority, it’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic origins are also reflected in its linguistic complexity. Whilst Putonghua is the undisputed language of education, commerce and government, China actually has more than 80 different languages and dialects widely spoken within its massive borders.

This linguistic diversity also passes into how they learn English. A native Hakka speaker will sound quite different from a native Shanghainese speaker, who in turn will sound radically different from someone from the northern autonomous regions, whose native dialect has more in common with Mongolian than it does Putonghua.

Understanding these differences is crucial if one wishes to teach English effectively to Chinese students.

Pronunciation is another key area. In some ways similar to Japanese learners, Chinese students of English also have issues with confusing the “L” and “R” pronunciation. During visits to Beijing and Shanghai, I have often been in bars where the friendly staff have kindly offered me a “lum and coke” or a “soda water and rime”. However, rather than mock these basic errors, I find them endearing. However they do pose a unique set of problems for English teachers and their students.

As with any pronunciation issues, repeated drilling and practice, overseen by native English speaking teachers will, in the fullness of time, produce a marked improvement.

As I touched on earlier, appropriate volume and usage is another issue for Chinese learners of English. This particular obstacle is as much cultural as it is linguistic.

Let me use my own experience as an example.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong back in 2010, I didn’t really know any local people. I sought to quickly make local friends and learn as much about the local culture as I can. As a former journalist, I have always taken pride in my ability to communicate with and relate to people, regardless of their culture, background or status in society. My outgoing nature saw me do a lot of socialising in those first few formative months in Hong Kong.

One of my Chinese friends remarked: “Oh you are aggressive, you make friends easily.”

I was initially shocked by this statement. “Aggressive” is not a word by which I would ever wish to be described. It has an overwhelmingly negative context to most English speaking cultures. However, the closest translation for “aggressive” in many Chinese dialects actually constitutes a largely positive meaning. It suggests that someone is assertive, determined and does what is necessary to succeed and impress those around them. Indeed such qualities are greatly admired in a culture as fiercely competitive as China.

However for the English learner, and conversely any native English speaker who wishes to acquire Chinese language ability such wrinkles in translation can throw up a number of complications. Knowing when it is appropriate to use such words and phrases is another key issue to overcome if one wishes to master a foreign language, especially one as complex as English.

Again, practicing conversations, dialogues and studying situational English usage alongside native speakers is the best way to overcome these linguistic obstacles.

In general, Chinese English speakers, from my own observations at least, seem to have a greater level of English in general than the likes of their neighbours Japan and Korea.

Is this due to Chinese languages being more compatible with learning English, or is it due largely to the greater tenacity and desire for learning that drives Chinese learners.

To be honest, I think it’s possibly a bit of both.

One thing is for sure, teaching English to Chinese learners has been a hugely enjoyable and rewarding exercise, and one in which I feel privileged to have partaken.

At AF, all our English courses are taught exclusively by highly trained, native speaking teachers. We have a range of courses from beginner right up to university level. Contact us today and see how we can help you take your English to the next level.

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