It’s Not Their English, It’s Their Mandarin

In two back-to-back classes on Friday I encountered the sort of problem that most ESL teachers will ignore, either because they make sweeping assumptions about Chinese pronunciation, because they’ve never bothered to learn Mandarin, or because their training never prepared them for regional variation in the English pronunciation of their students.

In the first class, a girl named Ann from Guangdong was totally unable to pronounce the word “shine” in the brand name Shineway.  Instead, she said shuài (handsome) repeatedly, which made her classmate laugh, since Shineway is a sausage company.  I asked Ann if she could pronounce “shoe” and “shoot.”  No problem, and even “shit” came out okay.  However, “shall” came out “share” and “shy” also came out shuài.  Setting aside the l/r issue, I created a list of s/sh minimal pairs on the board (e.g. “sheep”-”seep”) and used it to drill Ann and her classmate, a girl from Beijing.  Ann had trouble, as you might expect, but the Beijing girl breezed through it despite having lower overall fluency than the girl from Guangdong.  Why?

Well, as anyone who has “listened for” a Chinese person’s hometown in their way of speaking can tell you, Beijingers and people around Beijing, including Tianjiners, Hebei residents, and Hebei/Beijing transplants to Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, generally have an easier time with English pronunciation than people located to the south.  (In this case, the “south” means the bottom 2/3rds of China!)  While “Beijing Mandarin” is still very different from English, its native speakers are generally able to handle more English blends such as sh as well as distinguish between the dreaded l’s and r’s, though they still have trouble with consonant sounds that don’t neatly fit into the pinyin system of initials and finals.  For instance, my wife cannot pronounce “zero” to save her life, since there’s no equivalent to z + e in Mandarin.  Getting back to “southerners” (again, I’ll use this term broadly), the trouble they have with pronunciation tends to manifest in their Mandarin first and then appear later in their English.

Consider the second class, which featured a new student unable to say s sounds clearly.  Every s-word she said, such as “sorry” or “so,”  began with an sh sound.  I asked her if she was from the south and she said no, that her hometown was Shanxi and Shanxi was in the north.  So I pointed out that that’s still in the “south” compared to Tianjin-Beijing.  I asked her if she had trouble with s and z sounds in Mandarin, which she found odd, and she said she wasn’t sure.  So I asked what she called the special food Chinese people eat during Dragon Boat Festival and she said zhòngzi.  (It should be zòngzi in standard Mandarin.)  I asked her to say the word “zoo” and she kept saying zhū (pig) instead.  She said her English pronunciation was bad but I suggested to her that her troubles really began with her Mandarin pronunciation, and that she is not alone.

To understand what’s going on here, we can run a quasi-experiment to show how a student’s Mandarin-speaking environment will influence their English.  Let’s look at Chinese Koreans from Dongbei vs. Chinese Koreans born in Tianjin.  Dongbei Koreans typically grow up in a Korean-speaking environment, and when they speak Mandarin they overuse the second tone, much like Mandarin learners from South Korea.  (Everything sounds like a question!)  Furthermore, when Dongbei Koreans speak English it has a real “Korean flavor,” especially in l’s and r’s, with, for example, “sorry” becoming “solly” and “hungry” becoming “hungly.”  Tianjin-area Koreans, on the other hand, may speak Korean at home but their school and work environment is Mandarin-heavy and they lack telltale Korean accents when speaking Chinese.  When they speak English they face the same issues as most Tianjiners, which is to say that they don’t have a series of fossilized pronunciation errors inherited from Korean language.

A host of issues converge here.  Consider that Mandarin is the first “foreign” language many Chinese learn at school, since their mother tongue is often a local dialect or another language (e.g. Cantonese or Korean), and that their Mandarin learning often suffers from the same problems that plague their English learning:  they can read and write reasonably well, do alright in listening, but are essentially “mute” except for stilted, prememorized recitation exercises.  Failure to fully grasp spoken Mandarin leads, in turn, to difficulty in speaking English, since Chinese English teachers usually stop drilling English pronunciation once a student progresses past the ABC level, and so, later on, many challenging sounds and blends that native Mandarin speakers can approximate become intimidating to these students.  Of course, there are exceptions to my generalizations, and anyone living in China is likely to have southern friends with brilliant English abilities.  Yet most of them will also demonstrate outstanding Mandarin skills!  The two languages go together, at least in China.

The overall point of these anecdotes is that ESL teachers in China need to orient themselves to the fact that a student’s English abilities reflect not only their intelligence and their commitment to learning English but also the way they speak Mandarin.  If you as a teacher haven’t taken it upon yourself to learn a little spoken Mandarin and the basic rules of Mandarin pronunciation, your teaching is actually missing a practical and helpful component.*   If you do learn Chinese, however, you’ll be surprised at how many of your students’ English pronunciation mistakes actually began as mistakes in their Mandarin.

* Setting aside the entire pronunciation issue above, a basic-to-intermediate grasp of Mandarin is useful when the ESL teacher is faced with the task of deprogramming Chinglish mistakes among their students.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Their English, It’s Their Mandarin

  1. hi,

    this is very random and not connected to the blog. But i’ll be moving to china for two years starting next month. and really need big help connecting to facebook and all the sites blocked in china.. any help?

    i havent had good sleep past few days trying to find a good one.

  2. There is just so much to learn when teaching in China. I teach in Beijing and would like to thank you for this article which helps give me further insight into the difficulties faced by my students, many of whom originate from different parts of the country. I am in the second half of my third year of teaching here and, since I have pretty much committed to continuing my life in this country, and thus, my teaching career, I decided to finally bite the bullet and do a TESOL course. I feel overwhelmed at how much there is to learn and think about to be a “real” teacher. This article hasn’t helped change that feeling but has definitely served to make me aware that there is just so much more to teaching and to my students than meets the eyes. Thanks again.

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