There is not one single Chinese language, but many different versions or dialects including Wu, Cantonese and Taiwanese. Northern Chinese, also known as Mandarin, is the mother tongue of about 70% of Chinese speakers and is the accepted written language for all Chinese. Belonging to two different language families, English and Chinese have many significant differences. This makes learning English a serious challenge for Chinese native speakers.
Chinese does not have an alphabet but uses a logographic system for its written language. In logographic systems symbols represent the words themselves - words are not made up of various letters as in alphabetic systems. Because of this fundamental difference, Chinese learners may have great difficulty reading English texts and spelling words correctly.
Most aspects of the English phonological system cause difficulties for Chinese learners. Some English phonemes do not exist in Chinese; stress and intonation patterns are different. Unlike English, Chinese is a tone language. This means that it uses the pitch (highness or lowness) of a phoneme sound to distinguish word meaning. In English, changes in pitch are used to emphasize or express emotion, not to give a different word meaning to the sound.
English has more vowel sounds than Chinese, resulting in the faulty pronunciation of words like ship/sheep, it/eat, full/fool. Dipthongs such as in weigh, now or deer are often shortened to a single sound.
Chinese learners find it difficult to hear the difference between l and r, and so may mispronounce rake and rice as lake and lice. A major problem is with the common final consonant in English. This feature is much less frequent in Chinese and results in learners either failing to produce the consonant or adding an extra vowel at the end of the word. For example, hill may be pronounced as if without the double ll but with a drawn out i, or as rhyming with killer.
The difficulties of pronouncing individual English words, compounded by problems with intonation, result in the heavily accented English of many Chinese learners. In some cases, even learners with perfect grammar may be very hard to understand.
In English much information is carried by the use of auxiliaries and by verb inflections: is/are/were, eat/eats/ate/eaten, etc. Chinese, on the other hand, is an uninflected language and conveys meaning through word order, adverbials or shared understanding of the context. The concept of time in Chinese is not handled through the use of different tenses and verb forms, as it is in English. For all these reasons it is not surprising that Chinese learners have trouble with the complexities of the English verb system.
Here are some typical verb/tense mistakes:
- What do you do? (i.e. What are you doing?) (wrong tense)
- I will call you as soon as I will get there. (wrong tense)
- She has got married last Saturday. (wrong tense)
- She good teacher. (missing copula)
- How much you pay for your car? (missing auxiliary)
- I wish I am rich. (indicative instead of subjunctive)
English commonly expresses shades of meaning with modal verbs. Think for example of the increasing degree of politeness of the following instructions:
- Open the window, please.
- Could you open the window, please?
- Would you mind opening the window, please?
Since Chinese modals do not convey such a wide range of meaning, Chinese learners may fail to use English modals sufficiently. This can result in them seeming peremptory when making requests, suggestions, etc.
Chinese does not have articles, so difficulties with their correct use in English are very common.
There are various differences in word order between Chinese and English. In Chinese, for example, questions are conveyed by intonation; the subject and verb are not inverted as in English. Nouns cannot be post-modified as in English; and adverbials usually precede verbs, unlike in English which has complex rules governing the position of such sentence elements. Interference from Chinese, then, leads to the following typical problems:
- When you are going home?
- English is a very hard to learn language.
- Next week I will return to China. (More usual English: I will return to China next week.)
English has a number of short verbs that very commonly combine with particles (adverbs or prepositions) to form phrasal verbs; for example: take on, give in, make do with, look up to. This kind of lexical feature does not exist in Chinese. Chinese learners, therefore, may experience serious difficulty in comprehending texts containing such verbs and avoid attempting to use them themselves.