How to Correct Pronunciation Problems in Chinese Learners

As most of you know, I teach in China and so all my students are Chinese (except for one, who comes from Kazakhstan). My classes deal with a wide number of topics and I most try to boost their writing skills and teach them IELTS material.

Recently, I’ve been determined to tackle some endemic problems in their speaking. By this I am referring to the typical problems Chinese have in speaking English. It’s not easy to break these habits, but I became interested in creating a lesson that would draw their attention to the problems and then give them the tools to help their speech.

In China, students are focused on vocabulary first and foremost, and after that grammar. They want to pass tests and get good jobs. Some of them want to remove their “Chinese accent” and sound “more native.” Is that a realistic goal? Whether you think so or not, it is certainly worthwhile trying to improve their pronunciation and get them saying common words more naturally.

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If you’re looking for some ideas to get your students working on pronunciation at home, give them this video:

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I became interested in this quite recently when talking with my girlfriend, who is Chinese but speaks English fluently. Her pronunciation is not great, but I never really noticed because she speaks so easily that I always get meaning from context. One day I corrected her on something and she couldn’t hear the difference in what I said. I was amazed. Then I realized that’s why almost 100% of my students have certain problems – to them, two sounds may seem identical. It’s the same for me when learning Chinese – can I tell the difference between “jiao” and “zhao”? Maybe if someone was speaking slowly and carefully.

So I identified a few common issues and decided to tackle them in a class. I decided to focus on the big ones that affect nearly 100% of my students and other English-speakers I’ve encountered here:

  1. /ɪ/ and /iː/
  2. /θ/ and /ð/
Anyone familiar with Chinese English (and other speakers, like Spanish) will recognize the above sounds as difficult. Chinese can’t usually hear the difference between, or say, /ɪ/ or /iː/ and they have big trouble with /θ/ and /ð/.
In this Powerpoint, which I use to guide a 90 minute lesson, I attempt to tackle these problems. I start with the picture of a pig because it seems so easy and it’s a word that came up twice in the previous week. (I always like to link parts of lessons to previous work.) I ask, “What’s this?” and everyone shouts “peeeeeeg!” When I say, “no,” they are shocked.” It’s a good start to a lesson.
The videos referenced in the PPT will be embedded below from YouTube. If you don’t like my “peeeeg” idea, and you have upper intermediate students, you might want to open with the Modern Family video and have students discuss what they think happened.

Head Teacher
I'm the founder and editor of Beatdom Literary Journal, author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. I'm also a teacher and operate the popular website, TED-IELTS.

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