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.

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Adventures in Democracy

Our blog emerges from long dormancy with a tale set long ago in an English classroom far, far away.  (Or Friday here in China for those of you who remain sticklers for facts.)

In recent weeks I’ve been talking about American politics as part of my school’s American culture series of lectures.  Talking about politics in a Chinese classroom requires, in part, a certain academic distance from one’s true political leanings as well as a comparative approach that finds as many similarities as possible between the Chinese and Western polities while explaining the key differences between each system.

We teachers self-censor, to be sure, but anyone who has observed Chinese politics closely is aware of the internal Communist party dynamics that resemble the coalitioning at work within the elite leadership of most American political parties.  Ultimately, the American people are enfranchised and the Chinese people are not, yet the forces at work that produce our available choices as American voters are similar to those forces which propel China’s next generation of leaders to the top of the politburo.

While talking about this to students I also take care to explain the variety of balances at work within American politics — between branches of government, between interest groups, between large states and small states, and between the majority and the minority — and highlight how China is very different from America in this respect, often to the detriment of Chinese citizens.

Of course, this high-minded talk may obscure the fact that I am no longer a university teacher but instead work at an almost-anything-goes English training center.  Our core goal is a fun, productive English learning environment. And so, with a nod towards the goal of promoting fun, I spent a handful of minutes designing a classroom election activity for Friday afternoon.

What follows is a documentary account of how said activity unfolded.

The class began with a review of a few of the political terms I had previously introduced to the students.  Specifically, we discussed:

  • political parties
  • political beliefs (“ideology” was too complex a term for a mixed-level student group)
  • party platforms
  • issues
  • candidates
  • elections

English classes, particularly hour-long classes like this one, shouldn’t overwhelm the students with vocabulary.  And with these few terms in hand we had enough to move on to the next step.

I again highlighted the concept of issues and elicited from the students a list of eight “hot issues” in China at the moment.  The “two meetings” of the NPC and CPPCC, which were held in Beijing at the start of March, pushed most of these issues to the forefront, with the government talking about talking about solving various problems, while possibly but not really implementing solutions.  (You see, China really is like America!)

The list of issues the students produced was as follows:

  • controlling housing prices
  • cleaning up pollution
  • improving health care
  • reforming education
  • whipping inflation*
  • fighting corruption
  • maintaining full employment
  • reducing inequality

* Okay, they didn’t actually say “whipping,” but all the talk about inflation got me to thinking of this:

Moving on, I divided the class into three roughly equal-sized groups and told them that they were all now political parties and that they were about to hold a political convention.  Their first item of business?  To choose an animal that represents their political party.

The first group of students was divided.  Panzer II, the school’s resident Hitlerphile and small government libertarian, suggested that the party call itself the “Virus Party,” because they could infect and kill the other political parties.  Another student wisely suggested the “Eagle Party” as an alternative.  I had their group put it to a vote.  “Eagle” defeated “Virus” by a vote of 8-2 with 5 abstentions.  There’s no telling what animals the abstainees would’ve preferred.

The rest of the students were unanimous in their choice of party names.  The second group called itself the “Wolf Party,” while the last and smallest group of students called itself the “Panda Party,” which immediately provoked a “Why didn’t we think of that?” reaction from the other groups.  Personally, I was thinking of pandas on unicorns:

Next, I gave them the task of devising a party platform that addressed each of the eight issues we brainstormed earlier.  Panzer II immediately suggested that “Ein Volk … ein Führer” as the Eagle Party platform.  God (in this case, me) responded in the negative.  Most of the groups went about their party platform work more seriously, however, and in the middle of the “convention” I asked them to nominate their candidates for president and vice-president.

Time management is essential in activities like this one, so I rushed the process along and had students announce their party platform and candidates and then had the six candidates — three presidents and three-vice presidents, three men and three women — all come to the front of the class.

It was time for a debate.  The Eagle Party’s whole plan of action was built around taxing apartments larger than 90 square meters to pay for everything. (You see, they started out as Nazis and turned into tax-and-spend Democrats.)  The Wolf Party, on the other hand, was pretty ineffectual, building their platform around core ideas in Jiang Zemin’s now-abandoned western China development strategy, and prone to being caught in “gotcha” moments by their opposition when they failed to answer questions posed by Sam Donaldson (also me).

As for the Pandas, well, in the words of their presidential candidate who himself paraphrased Hu Jintao, the panda is a “harmonious” creature and, by learning from the panda, the Panda Party would promote a more “harmonious society.” (This line was delivered in perfect deadpan earnestness and provoked a wave of laughter from the students.)  The debate ended with a closing statement from each party, and it looked for sure like the Eagle Party, which kept focusing like a laser beam on housing prices, was the clear favorite.

With a few minutes left in class we turned to voting. I handed out slips of paper and told the students that they were now voters and could vote for the party that they liked best, and that they didn’t have to vote for their own party. Alas, Palm Beach County (me yet again) failed to devise a sound balloting procedure.  Inspecting the final tally I noticed there were more votes than there were voters, but we were out of time.

The result?  The Pandas harmoniously stole the election.